My previous article, Inkjet Gets Flexible in Packaging covered at the basics of flexible packaging and inkjet printing. This article takes a closer look at specific inkjet solutions for flexible packaging available today. Broadly speaking there are two tiers of inkjet devices suitable for flexible packaging: low to mid-range solutions and high-volume solutions. Let’s take them in order.
Low to mid-volume solutions
These presses have a relatively small footprint, a price point under half a million Euro and all use Memjet heads. It is interesting to see that the water-based Memjet heads and inks spawned a variety of solutions in this category.
In 2020 Afinia Label launched the Afinia FP-230, a desktop press for flexible packaging with a maximum media width of 230mm, using Memjet’s Versapass DN technology. Resolution is 1600 dpi, with speeds up to 18m per minute (with reduced resolution in web direction at top speed). The aqueous inks are approved for food packaging when combined with inline cold lamination.
Italian manufacturer Rigoli s.r.l. provides a wider web solution for flexible packaging with the MVZ 1000. Rigoli also manufactures a range of wide format printers and ancillary equipment. Accordingly, the MVZ 1000 is based on a 1m / 42” wide format printer, which was adjusted by Rigoli for flexible packaging. The printer uses Memjet technology, giving the press the same max speed of 18 m/min as the Afinia – or 9 m/min at full resolution. As is typical for Memjet printers, the resolution is 1,600 dpi and CMYK print is offered, which includes a double K-channel. The inks are dye-based and safe for indirect food contact.
The MVZ 1000 is targeted for short and medium runs. Substrates need to have a coating/primer and Rigoli can suggest suitable materials. There is no need for long drying times and materials can be converted quickly. The line is modular and can be a simple roll-to-roll solution or include slitting, laminating or filling. The basic version sells at about €300k ($350k) with a full packing line trading under half a million Euro ($600k US). The MVZ 1000 has been available since 2017 and there are several installations in Europe. Rigoli aims to have more launches for packaging markets in 2021 and 2022.
Rigoli MVZ 1000
A more specialised solution is the VS dflex from V-shapes, based in Bologna, Italy. The concept combines a print engine, based on Memjet DuraFlex technology, with a single-portion sachet forming line. Sachet sizes from 40 x 50 mm up to 100 x 100 mm are possible and the filling range is 0.2 to 30 ml. The line sacrifices flexibility for an easy to use complete line for sachet production. The company supplies pre-coated material optimised for Memjet heads and two types of laminates are also needed: semi-rigid bottom material and flexible top material. For the laminate for the bottom, the company holds a patented pre-cut for one handed opening functionality. There is a portfolio of different laminates, which are needed to secure the functionality of V-Shapes packaging machines.
The first three units will be shipped in June, one to the USA, one to Canada and one to Italy, to existing users of the Alpha filling line. The target is to install a dozen VS dflex before the end of the year. The price level is just above €100k ($120k).
V-shapes VS dflex printer and converting line
High volume flexible packaging presses are designed to complement flexo presses for short to mid runs and allow multi-shift production. They should fit into production environments where print and converting takes place today.
Already available is the Sapphire EVO. The press was developed by the Uteco Group in partnership with Kodak and utilizes Kodak’s heads and water-based inks. Uteco is an established manufacturer of flexo presses and with the Sapphire EVO press allows printers to migrate jobs from traditional printing processes to digital. The concept was shown at drupa 2016 and the 650mm wide “M” model become available in 2018. The Sapphire EVO W production inkjet press became fully available in June 2020. The “W” refers to “wide” since this press has a 1260 mm (49 in.) print width and 1350 mm web width. It is the first press to be powered by Kodak ULTRASTREAM continuous inkjet technology Both have a maximum speed of 150 m/min, targeting top productivity users. Both Sapphire EVO presses can print on both plastic and paper substrates. Thanks to Kodak’s proprietary water-based inks and primers, the Sapphire EVO presses are compatible with solventless, water-based and solvent-based lamination for packaging production.
First installations of the Sapphire EVO took place in Europe, US and Japan. Kodak reports that interest in the UTECO Sapphire EVO presses for digital production of flexible packaging has been very strong in 2021. Kodak expects to install two new presses in the US market shortly: One to provide quick turnaround packaging jobs for a wide variety of cheese products, and another to produce >4,000 short run jobs per week.
Uteco / Kodak Sapphire EVO
There are more high-volume inkjet solutions announced, but not in use at customer sites yet in Europe or North America..
Fujifilm presented the MJP20W EUCON UV inkjet press at drupa 2016. Developed for the Japanese market it has not yet been sold in Europe or North America. The press is based on collaboration with Miyakoshi. The name is derived from the technology used: ‘Enhanced Under Coating and Nitrogen purging’. The UV inks jetted are cured under a nitrogen atmosphere, which should reduce UV ink odour and help in curing. After 2016 it went pretty quiet around the press, however Fujifilm is expected to bring out a water-based press targeting flexible packaging in 2022. In fact, they issued a press release as this article was being submitted!
Former partner Miyakoshi launched its own flexible packaging press in the meantime. The MJP30AXF launched in 2020 has a maximum web and print width of 790mm and 750mm respectively and is capable of printing 50 m/min. Running with 1,200dpi Kyocera heads it’s configured for CMYK plus double hit white and runs a waterbased pigment inkset. The inks have been approved for food applications. Unlike other Miyakoshi presses the MJP30AXF is sold directly in all regions of the world.
The Truepress PAC830F is the latest addition to the SCREEN inkjet portfolio and moves the company into flexible packaging. With a printing speed of 75 meters per minute (4,500 m/h) for materials of up to 830 mm width and with a resolution of 1,200 dpi, the Truepress PAC830F is a quite productive flexible packaging printer and like the other presses in this group complements flexo installations for lower run lengths. Accordingly, the press is targeted to use the same substrates as flexo presses and offers the same converting options. The press is using water-based inks for CMYK and white, with a new technology that promises opaque white in one hit. The inks conform to relevant food safety regulations according to SCREEN. A primer is used to allow for a good adhesion for the aqueous inks. The Covid-19 pandemic did put a spanner into the initial launch plans. The Truepress PAC830F is now scheduled for a first install in December 2021 in Japan. Worldwide availability is planned for 2022. Unlike other inkjet presses offered, the PAC830Fwill be sold by SCREEN only.
SCREEN Truepress PAC830F
Comexi announced their digital offerings in April at virtual drupa 2021. The Digiflex inline inkjet bar is designed to give and inkjet imprinting option for already installed flexo presses, laminators and slitters. Besides numbering and coding, large areas should be possible as well, although the Digiflex is likely only complementing flexo print with some variable images. Due to space contraints in existing lines the company is using UV inks, heads and drying, which likely limits the application range. There will be a dedicated flexible packaging inkjet press as well. The Comexi D4 inkjet press uses water-based inks in contrast to the Digiflex. It will be configurable from 4 to 8 colors with CMYK plus OGV and white. This press will print at a high- and low-resolution speed of 75 m/min (246 fpm) and 150 m/min (492 fpm), respectively. In both systems development partners are Sun Chemical for inks, Fujifilm for inkjet heads and Meteor Inkjet for integration. While the Digiflex was announced to go beta this summer and become fully available in October, the D4 is still more than a year out.
Landa is planning its entry into the flexible packaging market as well with the W10. Simply looking at the specs the W10 is in a similar vein as the other devices, with 1,200 dpi, aqueous inks, a web width of 1,050 mm and a web speed of 100 m/min (at least initially, doubling the speed is planned in the future). The big difference is in the drying process and ink transfer. Unlike the other models the Landa technology uses an intermediary (transfer blanket) on which the inks are jetted. The ink is (almost) dried on the blanket and transferred as a tacky film onto the substrate. This avoids having to dry the ink directly on the substrate, which can overcome wetting problems or heat issues when jetting on and drying the substrate directly. The downside is that an extra process step is added and some alignment or stitching of the frames/images from the blanket to the substrate will be necessary as the blanket has a fixed repeat length.
Landa presented the W10 concept already at drupa 2016 and there have been some releases about first customers in the past. However, as is often the case with a truly new technology, the time-line has been slipping. Landa stated that there will be a pre-beta customer roughly by the end of 2021 or early 2022.
Given the raft of announcements of new presses and inkjet technology being suitable for all kind of custom solutions, I might even have missed some flexible packaging printers. Considering the dynamic speed of introductions there will surely be more to add by the end of the year.
How is inkjet going to develop?
Judging by the number of presses installed, inkjet is barely scratching the surface in flexible packaging. The main reason is that flexible packaging inkjet presses are just about to become available. Technical challenges are a big hurdle. As a substrate, flexible packaging films are more demanding than paper, board and even label material, where inkjet has made considerable inroads. The end use in food packaging and healthcare also limits the use of UV inks. The other challenge will be the chicken and egg problem in demand patterns. Printers are not able to print short runs efficiently and brand users adapted their buying and usage patterns to that. As in other areas, it will take some market development to convince brand owners that the benefits of on demand, short run print outweigh the somewhat higher costs per printed piece.
The example of ePac is showing how newcomers, thinking outside of the box, can benefit from pent-up demand with short run digital print. ePac, founded in 2016, is banking on a regional on demand print model for flexible packaging. The company is consecutively expanding their network of sites. As of June 2021 the company has more than 20 production sites globally and is running over 40 HP Indigo 20000 presses. The product focus is on flexible packaging in short runs, showing the potential of a dedicated business model.
Compared to electrophotography, inkjet can reach wider widths, higher speeds and lower running costs. Likewise low-end inkjet solutions with a small footprint and invest can cater for the low volume market. Accordingly, many more business approaches will become possible. The technical hurdles for inkjet are high, however with so many vendors aiming at the market I am confident that inkjet will already play an important role in flexible packaging print in two or three years.