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Printing a digital future

Packaging Professional magazine
14 May 2010
A reel of self adhesive labels printed on a Nilpeter Caslon digital inkjet press

Peter Addington, Partner at Design Fruition, Rowly, UK, highlights an efficient print packaging solution.

The link between inkjet printed packaging and sustainability may not be obvious, but there are significant gains to be made in waste reduction and energy savings. Although inkjet printing has been an established technology for two decades and is widely used for coding and marking, its use on primary packs is still limited. Launches, such as the digital press from Nilpeter Caslon, Slagelse, Denmark, which is suitable for printing webs of film, laminate, paper or label stock up to 420mm wide (with 559mm available in the future) are rising in popularity. However, digital is not limited to web printing. In the USA, digitally printed beverage cans were unveiled for the first time in 2009. The equipment, developed by INX Digital International, San Leandro, USA, uses four Xaar 1001 print heads and LED cured UV inks.

The print quality is achieved by using greyscale or ‘variable-drop-size’ technology, which give print a quality close to that of traditional printing and are certainly capable of close scrutiny on a supermarket shelf. The reliability is due to the ‘through flow’ technology, allowing the back of the nozzles within the head to be continually washed by the ink. This circulates through the head and the ink supply system.

In with the new

Inkjet printing has many advantages over traditional print methods and these have become more important as the demands on packaging, made by an increasingly brand-aware world, have developed. The industry is seen as dynamic, driven by consumer trends and retailer demands and as such is changing rapidly. Pira International in its publication, Innovations in Package Print and Decoration, outlines the market drivers affecting development in package design as:
• Shorter lifecycle of products.
• Desire for greater product differentiation.
• Frequent design changes.
• Customisation and versioning.
• Wider range of substrates.
• Shorter print runs.
• Cost reduction.
• Supply chain restructuring.

If these demands are addressed using traditional print methods, the one significant issue that arises is an increased level of waste – this is generated at every point in the supply chain and it is in the reduction of waste that inkjet print fits.

Tackling waste

The key problem facing packaging converters is the short run, as it reduces the efficiency of the printer by increasing down-time for print changes and significantly increases the amount of material that goes to waste while the print settles to an acceptable quality, post start-up. This waste material is often several kilometres long for high-speed flexo lines and several hundred metres long for narrow-web label presses. This can be avoided with digital print, as it will use no more than a few metres of material at start-up and this is mainly due to threading up the press. Typically, a ten-fold reduction in substrate waste can be expected.

In addition, there are other significant, environmentally positive savings. The inkjet requires no plates, blankets or cylinders, so disposal of these is unnecessary as are clean-down procedures, which involve the use of large volumes of solvent. With significantly reduced start-up times and substrate waste, shorter runs can be implemented and this can lead to inventory reductions and major savings in storage space and costs. Digital print uses images stored on a computer rather than images formed on a plate or cylinder. Therefore, another major area of storage reduction is that it is no longer necessary to keep these cylinders or plates.

Shorter runs, higher efficiency

Moving along the supply chain to the packaging filler – the ability of a packaging company to efficiently produce short runs at little notice means the fillers can reduce their stock holding of printed packaging. Typically, users order their packaging weeks or even months in advance and store the printed material until required. Storage is expensive and capital tied up in stock can be significant, and long lead times mean slow reaction times to market opportunities and high wastage levels.

It is generally recognised that wastage levels of packaging often runs at levels of up to 10% or more. This is due to a number of factors – failed product launch or promotion, ingredients listing change, up-dated company logo and anything that requires a change of barcode. The use of digital print and its ability to rapidly accommodate print changes to reduce dependence on high stocks can be a highly effective way of reducing waste. If this logic is taken one stage further, there must be a lot of sense in the longer term of considering printing packaging as it is required on-line. There are still some technical barriers to printing the pack during filling, such as ink odour and the scuff resistance of surface print, but these are steadily being overcome by ink reformulation. This ability will bring not only reductions waste, but will also open up new opportunities in the area of rapid response to market opportunities. Orders taken for special promotion packs can be packed the following day with special promotion labels printed online from artwork delivered by e-mail.

It was once said that the future is digital because of inevitability and progress, and the impact on the industry will be to invent things that could not be done before.

Further Information: Design Fruition