Inkjet took many printing markets by storm. The success has not always been immediately, but with increasing capabilities inkjet did expand into many production printing markets so far. The drivers, although in varying importance, are the same in all printing markets:
- Shorter runs
- Just-in-time production
- More designs, more changes, more testing
- Personalisation, customisation
One of the last glaring voids seems to be folding carton printing. This is not to say that the mega trends do not apply to folding carton markets. Rather it seems that inkjet technology is still struggling to fulfil the requirements of the market, of which the most important are print quality, substrate support, sheet size and productivity. Today most folding carton is served by sheetfed offset presses and the latest steps in automation have raised the bar for inkjet to compete. Still the same is true for all markets in which inkjet is competing against offset and which show rapidly increasing inkjet adoption, driven by a good range of inkjet presses available.
Digital press vendors have eyed the folding carton market for quite some time. At drupa 2016 there was a flurry of announcements of folding carton inkjet presses, but few made it to the market yet. Some vendors even decided to withdraw, while others kept working on their press designs are slowly moving to implementation.
Inkjet presses available for folding carton
There are some solutions available. B2 inkjet presses can be used for folding carton applications, like the Fujifilm JetPress, the Konica Minolta KM-1 or the Komori Impremia IS-29. Those presses are mostly used by commercial printers moving into folding carton or for specialty applications. For mainstream appeal the presses would need to support heavier substrates and they have a relatively low productivity. Most crucially the B2 format is too small for full scale folding carton production and most finishing equipment is set up for the B1 format.
The first vendor to launch a B1 inkjet press for folding carton was Landa Digital Printing with the S10. Landa made a big splash at drupa 2012 and again in 2016 and started shipping the first beta press in 2017. The press is based on a Komori sheet-fed transport and uses Landa’s proprietary imaging technology. Since then, many improvements have been implemented and the press is fully available now. There are more than a dozen installations of the S10 now, however judging by the announcements, the number of new installations of the S10 in folding carton slowed recently. Currently the Landa S10 is the only available B1 inkjet press for folding carton applications. The Komori Impremia NS40 is based on the S10 and is offered by development partner Komori, however this model is still in beta testing.
B1 presses coming up
In October 2021 Koenig & Bauer presented the much anticipated VariJET106, the results of a joint development between Durst and Koenig & Bauer. The VariJET 106 is about to make the next leap now. The first press successfully passed performance testing in the lab with differing substrates and formats. According to Koenig & Bauer potential customer visiting the lab appreciated the print quality and consistency across the run length.
As a next step some software updates und learnings from the performance test will be integrated. Moving the first press into the demo centre in Radebeul is targeted to happen in September, including some upgrades like a new conditioning unit. The first customer press will ship middle of May to a still unnamed beta customer.
There is more to come on the B1 inkjet market, however. Inca previewed the Speedset 1060 late last year and although developments are at an early stage, there are some interesting features the device offers. First, with a proposed speed of 11,000 sheets/hour the Speedset is considerably faster than the S10 (6,500 sheets/hour) or the VariJET106 (5,500 sheets/hour). The press is able to print on substrates up to 2 mm thickness, including micro-flute corrugated. According to Inca this is enabled by a patent pending steel-backed vacuum conveyor to transport the sheets through the press. Finally, primer and overcoat are jetted and are not applied as flood coat as in the other presses. This would allow for spot coating and selective priming, although the coating might not get to the high gloss levels a conventional flexo coating unit might achieve.
The Speedset is an internal development from Inca. The press design draws know-how from the joint development between Inca and BHS on an inkjet printing unit integrated in a corrugator, which is in beta testing at the moment. The Speedset will be sold by Screen, at least initially. Screen acquired Inca in 2005. The Speedset 1060 is intended to be the first product of a larger family of presses, serving other packaging markets as well. Currently the alpha machine is being built at Inca’s main site in Cambridge and is scheduled to be ready to print by summer. The company is already having conversations with early adopters and first live demos are planned for late autumn or early winter 2022. The beta phase is planned for 2023 with three presses, one destined to the UK, one for continental Europe and one for North America. Full availability is planned for 2024.
Web-fed folding carton print
Folding carton printing with inkjet is not a pure sheetfed affair, however. Continuous feed solutions can provide a high productivity although they are somewhat hampered by the maximum weight that can be fed and a more complicated change-over process when changing substrates. Still Kodak has successful installations of the Prosper 6000S press for folding carton at Zumbiel. The 6000S is a purpose-built single sided press for folding carton that can be operated as a stand-alone press or integrated into a narrow-web conventional press line. With a web speed of 200 m/min (656 ft/min) the press is quite productive. Even more productive is the Rotajet 225 from Koenig & Bauer ordered by Tetra Pak in 2019. There are ongoing trials and not much has been published yet – and this sub-segment of carton boxes is quite specialised.
There is even more looming on the horizon. An interesting remark by Canon on its recent acquisition of flexo press manufacturer edale is the potential they see in folding carton markets. Edale is already active in conventional folding carton web-fed presses and Canon clearly stated a high interest in bringing inkjet print into folding carton markets.
Finding the right solution
There is certainly a big market opportunity in short run folding carton printing, which is arley being addressed so far. It is a demanding market however and only presses capable of fulfilling the high expectations customers have in terms of productivity, substrates and quality find acceptance.
These challenges are behind the long delayed attempts in providing inkjet presses to this market rather than a lack of interest from printers or press manufacturers. There is almost no “low-end” of the folding carton market, which offered easy entry for inkjet in many other markets. Still a wider range of devices becoming available to market is good news for users and a wider adoption of inkjet in folding carton.