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Connecting The Dots

By Robert Bittner

May 18, 2023

Taking stock of the state of digital printing

Digital printing is no longer the new kid on the block—unproved but brimming with confidence. Customer requests for shorter runs, quicker turnaround speeds, and expanded versioning options are combining with advances in digital inks and single-pass functionality to make digital printing a key player on the shop floor.

“From a qualitative standpoint, there are multiple digital options available today that can address a number of customer needs, depending on the market segment you’re looking at,” says Dusobox Corp. President John Kelley.

Growing Market

“I’ve heard some industry advisors and consultants say the market should have grown faster than it has currently,” acknowledges Matt Condon, business development manager for corrugated at Domino, a digital equipment supplier. He doesn’t necessarily agree. “I think a lot of that had to do with the direct impact of COVID-19 and the timing of the new corrugated machines getting into the market. Overall, I’d say the digital printing market within corrugated is growing incrementally. Now that we’re returning to ‘normal,’ more converters are looking at digital again and investigating the business and economics of digital.”

There is much to investigate in 2023. Digital printing is not what it was even five years ago. For example, Condon says, “in 2017 and 2018, inks were primarily UV-based. Today, we’re seeing a shift toward aqueous inks, which are more environmentally friendly and can be near-food safe. We aren’t seeing a strong push toward aqueous inks here in North America yet, but the impact is huge in Europe right now as governmental legislation on sustainability and green initiatives are making converters rethink usage of UV inks. Typically, what happens in Europe will make its way over to the U.S. within a certain amount of time.” In addition, he says, “we’re also seeing incremental speed improvements.”

Like modern computers, digital printers are packing the latest technology into increasingly smaller spaces. “Our machines probably have the most compact footprint for single pass on the market today,” Condon says, “with the press dimensions of 38′ x 21′ and about 75′ x 21′ with stacking section. That means our machines can fit into more places in a factory compared to other single-pass options.”

Liz Logue, vice president of strategy for inkjet at digital printer supplier EFI, points to single-pass printing as one of the most significant recent developments. “In the past, digital printing, or inkjet printing, was very slow because it relied on a shuttle-based system with a small number of printing heads that moved side to side. That technology can only achieve 100 to 150 boards an hour. With our single-pass inkjet, we use fixed heads in a row and continuously feed sheets. Now, we can get up to 10,000 boards an hour, 75 meters a minute. That’s a huge jump in productivity. At the same time, total cost of ownership has been driven down due to ink-usage reduction and productivity efficiency. Because of developments like these, our customers are seeing that digital printing is not just ideal for short runs; it is very effective for long runs, as well. In fact, many of our customers produce jobs in the 36,000 to 50,000—or 100,000—box range.”

In 2022, EFI conducted a customer survey through an independent consultant to better understand digital adoption. Among the 15 customers surveyed, says Logue, “we discovered that most of them now are replacing all their litho with digital. They’re seeing the same quality—or very close to the same quality—with digital, while improving their costs and turnaround time.”

Despite the technological advances and improved functionality, misconceptions regarding digital printing continue to influence perception and adoption.

Lingering Misconceptions

“Even though many companies have added digital printers—it was particularly accelerated during the [COVID-19] pandemic—I think digital printing is still not completely understood within the industry,” says Kelley. For example, he points out that it will take time to understand how to wring the most from the equipment in terms of the consumer’s own needs. “It’s not as simple as sending a PDF to a printer. At Dusobox, we have very complex workflows and complex profiling and color management that have to be done, structured for the materials you’re printing on, the environment you’re printing in, and the specific environments where the packaging will ultimately end up.”

It also may take time to fully appreciate the economics involved. “When comparing digital to traditional printing, a lot of converters compare a pound of flexo ink to a liter of digital ink and are taken aback at the price difference between both of those two products,” Condon says. “From this comparison, it is then assumed that flexo is always cheaper, and digital is always more expensive. That’s not inherently true.

“When you look at the business of doing digital, most likely you will do better on cost with the shorter runs than you would on flexo because of the economics of operating digital,” he adds. “Converters need to learn to look past the individual products and components that make up digital and to consider the total cost of ownership: the cost of your uptime, your downtime, the labor, the consumables, and so on. Take everything into account, then use the best tool for the job at hand.”

Condon points out that the “best tool” may not be the same printer other colleagues are using. Not every machine is right for every operation. “You need to look at what machine fits your business best. The market offers two options for corrugated: multi-pass solutions and single-pass solutions. Each one provides a benefit based upon cost and productivity. So, if a converter says they want a digital printer for short runs, our first question is, ‘What is a short run to you?’ That leads us to whether multi-pass fits better into your business than single-pass because it’s really a choice of volume versus economics. If a converter is looking to grow quickly, starting with multi-pass may not fit best if the future [goal] is to significantly increase your volumes over time. Choosing the right machine means understanding what the converter and their customers require and where the converter is projecting to be in the next few years.”

A growing number of converters are discovering that the answer need not be either/or regarding digital versus analog solutions.

Blended Solution

“One of the big questions that always comes up is whether digital is replacing analog,” Kelley says. “In my opinion, that’s not going to happen. Digital complements analog and has a definite place, depending on the application. I think the biggest inhibitor to digital is the speed at which we can produce, relative to the analog options. But from an overall cost standpoint, there also is a point of diminishing returns with digital. So, we need to find a balance. You’re not going to be entirely digital, and you’re not going to be entirely flexo. To me, the solution is to have a blend of both.”

Condon suggests that a reluctance to switch over entirely to digital may be holding back some market segments—when there is no practical reason for such a switch. “I think people have a misconception that digital is going to come in, take over everything, and you’re never going to see ‘heavy iron’ again,” he says. “I don’t believe that. We’re never going to get rid of the heavy iron; there’s always going to be a need for it. Instead, I believe digital is complementary to traditional methods.

“Let’s say I’m doing short runs of 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 pieces that may better fit a digital press, and my longer runs will go on the conventional machines,” he adds. “That’s enabling your factory to be more efficient overall. It’s a matter of using the proper tool for the job; it’s not trying to use a butter knife as a screwdriver. That’s how traditional and digital machines can work in harmony.”

This is the approach Kelley has adopted at Dusobox. “We prefer to be agnostic as far as what the print execution is, depending on the customer’s requirements,” he says. “We can provide a digital solution, an offset-printed solution, or a flexo-printed solution.” The company can even incorporate all three solutions on the same project. “We can do this based on our G7 Master Certification for Color Space. With proper color management, we blend all three print disciplines into a single display. It all goes back to what is the most cost-effective solution for what the customer needs.”

Shape of Print to Come

When it comes to digital printing, it’s easy to get caught up in the latest technologies, especially when, as Kelley notes, “digital press manufacturers are constantly evolving and improving their technology.”

While he recognizes how that evolution benefits the industry, Kelley encourages converters to focus first on the machines that meet their needs rather than assume they must install the latest and greatest. “For me, the assets that I have at my disposal deliver the performance we need. Currently, we’re running an HP multi-pass digital printer, and we are the primary customer on an affiliated, off-site HP C-500, as well. The technology is 6 years old and 2 years old, respectively, and not much has changed since their installation. There’s nothing compelling us to have the newest thing.”

That isn’t to say there aren’t some advancements that would get his attention, however. “The biggest improvement I’d like to see is regarding the operational speed of digital printers. Currently, that’s limited by the processing technology. But I also think—and I’ve felt strongly about this for many years—that the ideal solution for the corrugated industry is a hybrid digital-flexo machine and not a stand-alone digital machine.

“Look at corrugated packaging for retail,” he adds. “We often are attracting customers using large spots of solid- color coverage. Printing large areas of solid color is not cost-effective when done 100% with digital. A flexo solution is far more efficient. Then, if there are other elements of the graphic that require more detail, halftones, fine fonts, etc., they can easily be done digitally. That way, you’re not putting down as much digital ink, which, depending on who you’re buying from, could be more expensive than an analog flexo ink by a factor of three to 10.”

“We are continuing to see quality improvements with digital printers,” says Logue. “Of course, quality is always in the eye of the beholder, but it’s something we are constantly developing—in coordination with cost efficiency and improved productivity and reliability. So, we balance high-quality print with cost and productivity. Some of our competitors are moving to higher resolutions that depend on very fine droplets. But as you do that with our single-pass technology, costs rise. We’re working to maintain reasonable running costs and better overall equipment effectiveness for the sake of our customers.

“In the next few years, we will see further improvements in quality, speed, and capabilities of digital presses,” she continues. “Overall equipment effectiveness and tighter integration into finishing capabilities will continue to improve, creating a more capable and cost-effective press. We also see a wider variety of substrates being utilized, with thinner flutes and expansion into paperboard.”

Last Frontier

While no longer “new,” digital is only just beginning to reveal its industry potential.

“I think we’re experiencing the Wild West of printing right now,” Kelley says. “Digital represents the last frontier when it comes to adoption within our industry. So, it remains to be seen how it evolves in the coming months and years. It’s fully entrenched in our industry, and it will continue to grow.”

Condon agrees, adding, “Converters are going to look at what their customers are demanding, what their colleagues and competitors are doing, and [they] will need to compete. With digital and traditional presses on the floor, they’ll be equipped to manage more of their customers’ jobs, running low volume and high volume at the same time. Because you can react better to customer needs, you become more important to them.”

Robert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a frequent BoxScore contributor.

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