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Counting the Costs

By AICC Staff

November 22, 2019

width=411What does it cost to make a box by use of various print methods? This is the question that Steve Young, AICC’s ambassador-​at-large, asked me to study. As a print method agnostic and an experienced researcher, I was pleased to create a white paper and present it at AICC’s Annual Meeting. The comparative study includes data provided by more than 50 packaging manufacturers and suppliers as it pertains to the cost to produce one exemplary box by various methods. The results contribute to a data-driven discussion based on time and money required to manufacture. Recommendations are included for decision-making based on target markets, order sizes, and sales strategies. The resulting white paper, Costs of Corrugated Packaging Production Across Print Technologies; Comparing Apples to Hand Grenades, is available through AICC’s website.

Digital print technologies developed for packaging have dominated the discussion in the last few years, and the equipment manufacturers of conventional print methods have responded with innovation as well. For a few years, I have heard emerging digital print methods disqualified: “The cost of ink is too high!” My consistent response has been to ask what the current spend is on ink. After some speculative accounting, the answer is usually “I don’t know.” One of the outcomes is the presentation of a template for comparison of real (i.e., all-in) costs.

I will refer the reader to the white paper for the full discussion and will focus on one example here—the failure to calculate the whole cost of ink. Based on the study, it is my opinion that ink cost will not be the deciding factor for anyone making a purchase decision on these technologies when it is offset by savings in tooling costs and response time. The deciding factors will be image quality and the market niche being targeted. However, ink cost has been an anchor bias for endless discussion.

With digital print, the liters of ink are added to the machine, and no additional ink-related labor is required across jobs (print heads notwithstanding). If there is additional adjustment, handling, stoppage, or delay related to ink, then it should be considered as part of the total ink cost. In this study, it was reported that digital ink cost averaged $79/MSF ($1,469 for the example). I was told by some who do have horses in this race that my number may be high by 25%, but this is the collected data. In order to demonstrate the logic for considering the all-in cost, we will use this number. Certainly, the cost of maintaining filtered and/or temperature-controlled air in a digital print environment is one factor that would need to be weighed against its benefits, not the least of which would be avoiding the use of four printing plates ($4,800).

To consider the comparative cost of ink alone in digital and flexographic printing, one would study the entire value stream of procurement, preparation, and delivery to the machine, as well as waste of product. The all-in cost in such a study might include the cost in time, maintaining and staffing an ink kitchen, labor and delays incurred in getting materials to the machine, and adjustments and variability introduced by the crews’ discipline in maintenance of the ink.

The comparison would also consider wasted inks due to all of the above and two additional factors. It is common practice to deliver full kits of ink to the machine regardless of the amount required for the job and the optimal ink characteristics for the given machine. If the kit is new, it is delivered at the manufacturer’s pH and viscosity. If the kit is used, it is likely in the same condition that it was when it left the previous machine. Solutions for cost reduction and increased productivity will include investment in expertise, personnel, and accountability to ensure:

  • That the amount of ink delivered to the machine accounts for the required coverage, a calculated buffer amount, and enough ink to compensate for the loss in a particular print station (as determined by a consumption log).
  • That used inks are checked, adjusted, and relabeled (as required) to instill crew confidence in these otherwise suspect materials.
  • That new and used inks are adjusted for the particular machine prior to delivery.
  • That checking and measured adjustment of inks on press be completed hourly and logged consistently.
  • That if the machine has the capability to set up or clean up a print station during a press run, that capability is used to its full extent.

Using the data gathered for the sample job in the white paper, the cost of flexographic ink may be extrapolated. Two values are not available at the time of this writing, one being an hourly machine cost for the ink kitchen and the other being the amount of time and material wasted through poor ink management practices of the crew. What can be known is the labor involved in delivery of ink to the press ($7), the ink applied to the job ($4.11/MSF per color), the additional time during the setup dedicated to ink cleanup (two minutes) multiplied by the machine time ($226/hour). The result shown in the table on page 32 may appear negligible until it is multiplied by the number of jobs completed over time.

If business decisions are to be made, then use of this method will help manufacturers move beyond the dismissive social media-style conversation to one that is rational and data-based.

Flexographic Printing: Raising the Standard

January 29–30, 2020

Clemson, S.C.

This interactive seminar was created for those eager to become properly equipped to serve customers with a better understanding of flexography.

Learn more: www.aiccbox.org/calendar.


width=150Scott Ellis, Ed.D., provides the brutal facts with a kind and actionable delivery when a leader, a team, or a company needs an objective, data-based assessment of the current state of operations and culture. Training, coaching, and resources develop the ability to eliminate obstacles and sustain more effective and profitable results. Working Well exists to get you unstuck and accelerate effective work. He can be reached at 425-985-8508 or scott@workingwell.bz.