17 years ago, Virtual Packaging started out producing mockups for packaging, limited test marketing and photo shoots. A lot of hand work was involved and print was an especially limiting factor. The productivity of the wide format printers used to print on sheets large enough for packaging samples allowed for only a few copies. Yet customers kept asking for small to midsize production runs.
That was when Virtual packaging realised, they needed a different solution. Virtual Packaging is a 100% digital company and had no interest in investing in an offset press. It became a straightforward decision to look for a B1 digital press as the large format would be needed in packaging and to be competitive for bigger runs. At drupa 2016, Virtual Packaging encountered Landa with their range of productive nanographic inkjet presses and also Highcon for folding carton finishing without conventional forms. It proved to be the perfect match for what Virtual Packaging needed.
Investing in Inkjet
With a seven colour Landa S10 installed in 2019, Virtual Packaging became one of the first users of a Landa press. Jordan Patterson, Vice President of Virtual Packaging, says: “we love technology, we love working with companies developing technologies and growing alongside them.” And so they did.
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic starting soon after, the company enjoyed steady growth. After installing the Landa press the range of customers changed. The company is still running the mock-up packaging business, but now print runs can be extended beyond mock-ups, samples and focus group runs. Brands and goods producers are now ordering short to medium production runs at Virtual Packaging. The average run length is now 2,000 to 3,000 sheets, however, runs can range anywhere from 20 to 250,000 sheets.
Being efficient in runs of a few thousand sheets tapped into a market that did not exist before. Some customers require only few thousand sheets, as those can result in a much higher number of packages, if the size of the folding carton is relatively small. Others might have ordered large quantities before, but are shifting to smaller, more frequent orders now. Jordan feels that “Just-in-time printing is still a new concept in packaging”, although customers are starting to see the benefits of having to store less, ordering matching quantities, avoiding obsolescence and reacting quickly on trends.
A very valuable side-effect of a shorter run production is allowing for mistakes (by the customer.) There is always the chance of a wrong code, spelling, colour on a packaging. However, with short runs you only have a month’s supply to discard and next time you order you can correct the image
Additionally, Virtual Packaging became a trade printer. Offset printing companies ask for quotes on jobs with 5,000 or 6,000 sheets as they do not want to interrupt their production for that kind of short run. This proves how efficient inkjet already is at these run lengths. Quality and substrates are no hindrance as they reach the levels expected in offset. Having a seven colour press helped a lot in hitting spot colours ensuring high quality levels.
Efficient Finishing is a Necessity
Finishing had to go hand-in-hand with the capabilities of the production press. Jordan believes the Highcon Beam is the ideal complement to the Landa press. With a speed of up to 5,000 sheets/hr, the digital cutting and creasing solution allows full scale production of folding cartons and other applications needing die-cutting. It replaces the expensive and slow conventional die-making and setup process with a digital technology suitable for short runs and fast turnaround. Virtual packaging also bought a second folder-gluer, to cut make-ready times and keep up productivity.
The only finishing step done out of house today is foiling in larger quantities. In-house equipment is only available for smaller formats. The company is looking into options for bringing this in-house as well.
The consequent focus on digital technologies allows Virtual Packaging to offer rush jobs. With the digital set-up essentially next-day delivery is possible. It does not only make for happy customers, it can be quite profitable as well.
There are some sustainability advantages in addition in running a digital operation. Make-ready on the Landa press is very low, mainly on substrate calliper changes some sheets are needed. This is no comparison to offset packaging printing, considering all waste when switching plates and especially substrates. Moreover, no plates are required in printing and cutting & creasing and in general, there is very little waste in the processes. Virtual Packaging is actively promoting their environmentally friendly production. Some customers are already sold on the environmental advantages, for others it is more of an added benefit so far, however it is likely a lot more customers will have a much stronger environmental focus in the future. Already there is a move away from flexible packaging to folding cartons due to environmental reasons.
Variable data printing is still is infancy. Virtual Packaging completed their first job in variable data overprinting of an offset printed job, for which the Landa press proved to be very suitable. A feature of a digital press that is used instead, is running samples with some colour variations for test marketing or colour correction. As design is so much reliant on screens, which are not necessarily calibrated, it can help customers agreeing on the right colour via print samples – and avoiding surprises otherwise when the production run arrives.
More Than Just Packaging
Virtual packaging has always been in packaging and that market developed quite nicely for the company. However, moving forward, the company sees many opportunities in other markets as well. An example is a recently completed job of several thousand posters in more than 100 different designs. A lot of other applications are produced already, like yard signs, labels, business cards and marketing materials. Short run booklets proved to be a good opportunity, as the digital press allows for electronic collating. A lot of the new applications come via other printers. Community contacts and connections to other companies are important as well to identify the new opportunities.
The regional approach ties in well with the strengths of digital print. Being able to serve local companies cuts down turnaround time and allows for quick replenishment models. Additionally, shipments are a lot more economical.
Virtual Packaging has never been afraid to be an early user of technology. That strategy paid off for the company. Part by strategic development of business opportunities, part by grabbing opportunities found through deploying the latest technology Virtual Packaging is extending its volumes and customer base.