18 August 2020 Paper

Corrugated gets into the digital groove

Corrugated packaging is the next sector tipped to adopt digital printing. It is certainly attracting a range of technology suppliers, attracted by the vast areas that can be covered by ink and by the potential opened up by the accelerating adoption of e-commerce.

Corrugated board is big. Very big. And it is a more dynamic market than the typical brown box might suggest. It is also an expanding market, both in terms of the amount of corrugated being produced and by the value that can be added to those boxes.

The growth is coming from the rapid expansion in e-commerce, from the swing towards retail ready or shelf ready packaging and the increasing use of corrugated for display units. The statistics bear this out. The world produces 255 billion square metres of corrugated a year, 73% of which is used in some form of packaging. This is printed in one, two, perhaps four colours on vast machines that use flexo technology to print at the point that the elements backing up the board – top and bottom layers of paper sandwiching the undulating material – are brought together.

The print may be relatively crude. Much of this print is transit information and to identify the product contained, where and when produced. It is intended for protection during transport, for identification in a warehouse and not to be seen by consumers.

In recent years, there has been a move to use the corrugated case as a sales unit in its own right, principally in low cost supermarkets and cash and carry outlets. This has resulted in more colours, perhaps a brand colour along with two or more highlight colours, but rarely four-colour halftone printing. Where this has been required the solution has been to laminate a litho printed sheet to the corrugated.

Shelf ready packaging is where tins of beans or bottles of beer, for example, are presented on a printed corrugated tray that can be slid into position on a supermarket shelf and which continues to promote the brand when the tins or bottles have been sold. The style of packaging makes it easier for supermarkets to keep shelves stocked and minimises handling in an infection fearful era.

By weight, the world produces 135.5 million tonnes of corrugated a year. Of this 70% is printed, and with the market valued at $133 billion, 93% of this is used in packaging.

Flexo dominates: less than 1% of corrugated by area and by weight is inkjet printed. Yet by value, 7.9% is produced on inkjet presses. “Which is why converting companies are interested in inkjet and why technology companies are interested in this market,” says Sean Smyth, consultant for Smithers.

The predictions from consultants are that corrugated packaging will follow the same course as labels, as cartons and flexible packaging. Shorter runs and faster turnarounds put strain on existing supply chains, consumers want customised products that speak directly to them, if not products that have been personalised to them. The technology that can fulfil these requirements is inkjet.

It is working. EFI has developed Nozomi as a single-wpass press to print corrugated packaging, though has had almost as much success with display printing; Durst and Koenig & Bauer have combined to have two digital machines; HP has the C500 press using water based inks, the Scitex flatbeds with UV inks and the PageWide T400S and T1100S for printing at the point that corrugated is made.

There are machines coming from China, being introduced by Xeikon, Bobst and Domino and from a Screen BHS joint venture. Spain’s Barberan with the Jetmaster competes with the HP C500 and EFI’s Nozomi, with multiple installations in the field. Koenig & Bauer Durst has one machine from each of the partners, the CorruJet 170 from Koenig & Bauer targeting larger volumes than the SPC 130, originally developed by Durst. And there are printers using existing machines as flatbed inkjet machines to produce corrugated.

Among these is The Cardboard Box Company which has been using two Inca Spyder V flatbed machines, repurposed from printing display graphics.

Managing director Ken Shackleton says: “We have been using digital on site at The Cardboard Box Company for the past six to seven years and it has certainly been invaluable in respect of print sampling and very small runs. For the customer, digital brings their ideas to life – from concept to printed sample – in no time at all.

“Digital is very influential in the FSDU and display markets and has its place in corrugated. There are a number of single-pass machines operational, albeit on smaller run lengths and multicoloured print runs. The big advantage digital has in this market is no set up costs for printing plates which can be costly on multicoloured jobs.

“To date, digital has mostly been used as a hybrid technology to complement the flexo process in corrugated. Due to the effects of Covid-19 on supply chains, brands and retailers are streamlining their Skus to drive efficiency, which means longer runs, best suited to flexo. This may slow down further implementation of digital technology for a time but as it continues to improve and evolve, and companies continue to invest in R&D, I believe we will see digital take an increasing share of the market. It is the next natural evolution in corrugated; it will grow but the speed at which that happens may have been hindered somewhat by recent events.”

It may also be hindered by economics. The cost of inkjet ink is disproportionate compared to the cost of the flexo ink it will be replacing. This is suggestive of a hybrid approach, using flexo for static content and inkjet for localisation, promotional messaging or perhaps even personalised content. In the US, Zumbiel, with a Kodak Prosper line, has taken this approach.

It allows customers, for carry home beer packs for example, to localise products. So a major brewer had used inkjet printing to add a different tagline to its ‘craft’ beer brand to declare that it is “Brooklyn’s favourite beer” for a short run, changing seamlessly to call the same beverage “Portland’s favourite beer” and so on.

The US market has led with this approach. It will also lead with distribute and print models where the corrugated box can be decorated close to the point of need. Sending trucks hundreds of miles across country filled with lightweight, air filled corrugated, makes no environmental nor economic sense. European markets have already become localised with the best opportunities linked to start up and artisan companies, beer, snacks, or food to home for example, or to locations in lower cost developing economies. This is, perhaps, why Poland has a greater concentration of EFI Nozomis, for example.

The UK has two machines, at Delta Group where it is used for display graphics, and at Durham Box where the company has got to grips with the technology and has been convincing customers of the benefits of digital printing.

One of the first to be persuaded was BAD Co, an artisan brewery which had been using litholam printing before Durham convinced the customer that quality would not suffer. “Our reworked packaging for BAD Co has not only improved the digital quality of the artwork, but also streamlined production processes to reduce waste, improve efficiency and saved the client money,” says Durham Box’s Paul Barker.

“We started by cleaning up the existing artwork to enhance the can imagery on the box and create deeper blacks. We were able to reduce costs by removing any print from unseen areas of the pack. And by moving away from litho to the Nozomi, we were able to improve the production lead time by two weeks. Keeping the entire process in house with our latest kit, allows us to benefit from greater control on the entire process, while also reducing waste.

“We selected a B flute board grade, so were able to incorporate a clay coated outer liner, thereby providing good protection throughout the supply chain. When primed and printed through the Nozomi, this then gives an enhanced finish with a great onshelf presence.”

The time saving is key to the arguments in favour of digital print. By the time a set of flexo plates has been produced and delivered, a digitally printed job will be out the door and with the customer. It allows for late changes to artwork, reduces the amount of stock that is needed in a supply chain and thus the amount of waste that is created when some part of the print needs to change, and opens the way to greater variety in the messaging, perhaps running trials to discover which design is most effective.

But in the same way that litho printers responded to the threat posed by digital printing, box plants are taking on the digital challenge enabling shorter runs. Rapidly growing E-Corrugated, recipient of a partial takeover by Dutch giant De Jong Packaging, quotes a minimum order quantity of 3,000 for boxes produced on its Emba 170 rotary die cutter and 2,000 boxes from its Emba 245. In both instances four-colour flexo printing is supported.

This is for production of so called preprint corrugated, the target also for HP's PageWide T400S and massive T1100S. After an initial spate of orders from large packaging converters around the world, including DS Smith in the UK, sales have been disappointing according to Koenig & Bauer. The company partners with HP, making the frame and paper transport for the 2.8 metre wide inkjet press.

Part of the problem is the price shock. Flexo inks are simple and low cost: inkjet inks are anything but. Even if end customers like the idea of targeting and changing the message on the fly, reducing stock holdings and reducing waste, the hike in the cost of printing is simply too great. A secondary issue is one of shelf impact. While product packaging needs to have fine printing to convey the benefits of that product compared to others, to list the ingredients and other compulsory information, this is not necessary on a corrugated container. Here simple solid colours may be more effective than intricate four-colour halftone images that inkjet can produce.

Few to date have chosen to follow HP into inkjet printing for preprint. Almost all are instead focused on printing on sheets of corrugated. Here there are clear cost benefits and customers are more comfortable with buying smaller quantities and late stage modification of artwork and messages.

Amazon has investigated digital printing on boxes as they are shipped to carry personalised advertising relevant to the consumer and product purchased. It has not happened. Anything that slows the delivery process or introduces errors will be more costly than extra appeal to the box.

This is not a problem for the inside of a box. Indeed a personalised message or attractive image can add to the unboxing appeal of a product. The value comes from enhancing the brand experience. Technology developers are clearly hoping that this will prove to be the case.

Cost remains an issue. When Inca first showed a version of its Onset with robotic loading and unloading of corrugated sheets, it showed it with an ink that Fujifilm had developed specifically for the material by stripping out some of the components needed for a greater variety of work.

HP is now introducing a version of its PageWide printheads to suit the C500. The key feature is that the printheads deliver ink savings and extend the life of the heads. “The rollout of the new printheads will help bring improved economics to digitally printed corrugated packaging,” says Niv Ishay, worldwide marketing manager, HP PageWide industrial corrugated. The heads are being shipped as an upgrade to the existing user base of C500 users.

One issue that developers will face is that success and a presence in commercial printing could mean little in the corrugated sector with a completely different set of suppliers. Xeikon is hoping that being owned by Flint, with a reputation and supply chain for the corrugated sector already in place. When these established companies want to add digital printing to flexo printing, Xeikon should be well positioned to benefit.

It has worked with Chinese company HanGlory, adding Xeikon print, colour and workflow experience to the Glory1604 single-pass four-colour corrugated press. This was introduced in 2016 at the same time as a brace of scanning head inkjet machines for corrugated, followed two years later by the larger Glory 2504. There are inkjet textile printers, label presses and a high speed continuous feed inkjet press aimed at book production from the same manufacturer. Had Drupa taken place this year, HanGlory would have had the largest space in Hall 13.

Xeikon has not confirmed its ­relationship with the Chinese company, despite the striking visual similarity of its Idera press. It has admitted accelerating its speed to market by working with an existing materials handling platform, adding its own feeder, stacker, workflow, colour management and particularly its own aqueous ink.

The press will be in the Xeikon headquarters from next month ready for customer presentations, either real or virtual, in October. Specifications are currently sketchy: format of 1.6x2.8 metre boards at 150m/min. This suggests a maximum possible resolution of 600x600dpi. It is not for finely detailed print, but to replace flexo in corrugated plants.

“We set out to design an economical, viable solution,” says market segment manager Sebastien Stabel. “We are working closely with Flint Group, our partners, and most importantly our customers, to customise the software, hardware and ink sets and address more closely the needs of the corrugated market in Europe and North America. At the same time, we add our digital expertise to what is already a solid base product.”

Bobst is discussing the introduction of its second inkjet press for corrugated printing. The company got as far as beta sites for a machine using Kodak Stream inkjet heads before pulling the plug on development. It has since poured its inkjet developments into Mouvent a company which has so far developed textile and label presses around a modular inkjet unit that includes heads, electronics and ink supply and can, in theory, be bolted easily together to create a new machine. This may be the way that Bobst is thinking.

The opportunity has also attracted Domino, which had planned to launch the X630i at Drupa. This uses the same Kyocera piezo printheads and Gen6 technology, iTech ActiFlow to proven nozzle blocking, StitchLink for alignment of multiple heads and CleanCap to automate the cleaning cycle. Throughput at 600x600dpi is 75m/min. Like Xeikon, Domino has worked with an existing press platform, this time from Sun Automation, to reduce costs and development times.

There is a water based ink (complying with food safe regulations) devised to give a litholam like finish to the digitally printed sheet. It will print 4,500 900x1500mm sheets an hour, feeding from the base of a stack, cleaning and moved by vacuum belt beneath four print heads currently, with space for more in future. A NIR dryer ensures that sheet is dry as it arrives in the stack. There is no timetable for general availability, expected next year, though Independent II, a box plant in Kentucky, will be the beta site.

There will be other machines, the logical consequence of companies looking to leverage their inkjet developments from display printing or label printing into a different sector that the consultants say is rich in opportunity.

The question is how big this opportunity will prove to be. Can inkjet printing meet an existing need for short run print or can it establish a new model for corrugated packaging built around customised or personalised messaging and artwork?

There are challenges, not least the cost of the ink. This is not an issue for label printers where the surface to be decorated is tiny in comparison, nor for display print where digital meets a need that screen printing could not satisfy.

Corrugated may prove a tougher nut to crack, especially where brands are reluctant to increase costs. This is a market for the long haul and the machines to date have not delivered the right mix of cost, performance and agility.

Ken Shackleton sums up the challenge: “We have two Inca Spyder V machines - display graphics machines, quite old now but we bought them to get an introduction into the digital world.
“The revelation for us at The Cardboard Box Company has been how much they have improved our graphics process - we could not operate to the service levels we now give, without the digital machines.

As I said, the reason for buying them originally was to get an understanding of the digital process before we made a major single pass investment. Seven years later and we’re still looking.”

Independent thinking leads to Domino

The first Domino X630i will be installed at Independent II, a company described by president Finn MacDonald as “a full service sheet plant in Louisville, Kentucky”.

It runs single-, two- and three-colour flexo folder gluers. Its focus on the needs of customers, both local and larger brands, has resulted in a family company that is highly responsive, making multiple deliveries a day.

“We say yes to anything,” he adds. “Food and beverage, white goods, electronics shipped direct to customers, from emerging start ups to national brands.”

It produces brown boxes, e-commerce boxes, retail ready shelf packaging and FSDUs with line work to the fore.

Going digital had a couple of key requirements: quality could not suffer, the flexibility to handle lots of work could not suffer, it could not take longer and it should be able to produce four-colour and simple single-colour work.

“We have been seeing an increase in demand for variable print, seasonal work which we have to handle in a very traditional way with plates, ink set up and wash up,” MacDonald says. “There are some beautiful inkjet presses, both sheetfed and webfed out there. We wanted a machine that would cope with the work we currently have, not the aspirational work. The Domino will do that.”

Domino’s experience in entering and growing in the label sector to be among the leading providers of inkjet presses, was also a factor in providing the confidence that the supplier would be able to support the company in this venture.

The benefit will come from taking short run work away from the flexo presses, allowing these to focus on longer runs with less disruption through make readies. It will continue to use existing finishing equipment, either the folder gluers running without print units engaged or its pair of Kongsberg tables.

“We will be able to grow without needing to add more flexo die cutting gluers or adding an extra shift,” he says.

The move into digital will also enable the business to print on demand rather than print for the warehouse. “Doing things in a different way,” says MacDonald, “not just about an ability to deliver high quality. This is about everyday digital solution that will be transformative for our business.”

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Corrugated packaging is bought by weight and in vast quantities where price is dominant, which might limit the opportunities for digital printing, or will at least slow its development. There is however, a big opportunity with ecommerce to add promotional messaging tied into the customer.

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