21 September 2016 Digital Printing Technologies

Inkjet writes a bright future for packaging’s dullest boxes

The signs are pointing to corrugated becoming the next sector to fall to digital printing, with a host of machines to choose from.

Corrugated packaging producers can expect a lot of attention in the next months and years from inkjet technology companies claiming to have the digital press to answer their prayers.

Early contenders have been HP Scitex with the range of flatbed machines that now includes the C500, followed by a single sided version of the PageWide T410 and at the end of last year by the PageWide T11000S, a monster of a machine built in collaboration with KBA, designed for printing the top layer of a corrugated sheet.

HP’s separate approaches straddle the market opportunities: boxes need either to be printed as close to the point of use as possible – the post print sector – or as close to the point of manufacture - the preprint sector. In both cases inkjet is out to replace flexo, or sometimes litho which is laminated to the board after it is created.

The flatbed approach extends the printing of corrugated materials for display units, or perhaps more quirky applications like furniture, into packaging. There has been some success, HP Scitex has a number of machines with local box suppliers across the country and Inca has supplied an Onset machine to a DS Smith plant, where it sits alongside a PageWide T410S while elsewhere the group is installing the first of T11000S presses less than a year after its launch.

At Drupa, HP was able to announce that Smurfit Kappa would be the first to use the C500 flatbed press, which employs the PageWide aqueous inkjet head for post print corrugated applications. The press will be installed next year. This is right on the crest of the wave for what is considered a fast developing market.

The arguments for digital production involve the elimination of waste by printing precise numbers; the opportunity for segmentation of the market and use of marketing promotions. In addition the rise of shelf ready packaging and discount led retailers which keep goods inside the outer corrugated case in stores, opens the way to printing quality graphics rather than just product and shipping codes on the outer box.

To this can be added the rise of home shopping and the growth of corrugated by the likes of Amazon to protect goods on the way from warehouse to a customer’s home. This is not realised to any extent, but advertising agencies abhor a blank space and in future this packaging can become a high impact direct marketing product. As a consequence while other print sectors are tipped to shrink, corrugated is widely expected to grow.

HP, for example, puts the market at $60 billion with capital expenditure of $5 billion a year. EFI puts it at $8 billion a year. Whether this is based on current uses for corrugated materials, or whether it depends on growth of printing on corrugated boxes used for e-commerce. If someone can devise a way to print colour advertising on Amazon boxes, delivery switches from a cost to a possible revenue generator.

There are 6,000 machines producing corrugated board around the world, with 4,000 of these in China. BHS, the major producer of corrugating machines, will sell 25 a year, suggesting a market in the west of only 40 lines a year. The potential for post-print digital printing is significantly greater, hence this is the target for most suppliers.

It is also simpler to adapt current flatbed inkjet machine designs to handle and print on this material. That the display graphics market is becoming mature makes the untapped potential of corrugated even more attractive.

Consequently at Drupa it felt as if there is a feeding frenzy focused on corrugated boards. As well as HP’s announcement; EFI introduced Nozomi, a flatbed inkjet machine running at 800m2/hr – equivalent of 9,000 sheets an hour; Durst introduced a single-pass version of its Rho flatbed machine running at 2m/second; Bobst announced it had sold two of its still unnamed inkjet presses to join the two at beta sites; Spanish company Barberan added extra colours to its Jetmaster to achieve more than 90% of PMS colours and Screen, through its Inca subsidiary, scooped the biggest deal of all in a partnership with BHS.

Like the HP PageWide 1100S and 410S, this is intended for printing preprint liners at the point of creating the corrugated board.

The size of the still unnamed Bobst sheetfed corrugated printing press meant there was no space for it on the vast Bobst stand at the show. It uses Kodak Prosper inkjet heads and aims to achieve 90% up time. “The supply chain management technique needed for digital to thrive is happening,” says CEO Jean-Pascal Bobst.

The Durst corrugated line was at the show, running frequent demonstrations of 1.3m and 2m/second printing of standard boards. It is a substantial machine thanks to the length of the IR dryers. Durst will offer four and six colours. Currently it is being put through its paces at two beta sites.

In this market size is important. Most corrugators are 2.8 metres or more across. BHS has the lion’s share of this market. Printing as an integral part of making the corrugated board is the most complex and challenging way of producing board, but it also holds most promise and is the most cost effective method.

The opportunity comes from bringing a sharp reduction in time to market. Currently the best the industry can offer is a five-day turnaround. With the need for an intermediate step wiped away, the potential exists to cut this workflow to two days, those involved reckon.

The development will mean a first single-pass printhead for Inca, and a host of developments to cope with blocked nozzles and ensure correct line up of the printheads. There is also a need to make sure that the cost of the digitally printed boards is not out of kilter with flexo print. It is aiming at a specification capable of 300m/min at 600dpi using two print bars per colour.

This will allow the print unit to keep pace with the fastest corrugators. The industry average is 150m/min; 220m/min is reckoned good, while BHS machines can run at 300m/min. They can also stretch to 3.0 metres wide and the print engine will grow to cope with this. The target for machine up time is 98%. It is a challenging target.

Nor is it an overnight task. The project will result in a pilot machine by 2018 and then to beta versions in the second half of that year. Production begins in earnest in 2020 with the print unit available to retrofit to existing BHS machines in use.

Because of this lamination as the KBA-built HP T1100S proposes, will remain popular. One vast print engine may be able to feed a number of laminating units.

The other opportunity comes from decorating the corrugated board after it has been printed and close to the packing line. The arguments are the same as elsewhere in digital printing, reduced time to market and elimination of waste and unwanted stock.

“The C500 will be extremely disruptive,” says HP’s Xavier Garcia. Quality he says will be indistinguishable from other ways of printing corrugated, either flexo or litho lamination. The initial customer machines will be shipped next year with commercial installations a year later.

The EFI Nozomi is a greenfield design, but drawing on the experience of its Vutek, Cretaprint and Jetrion operations. Board is fed from a stack, passing beneath piezo printheads and dryers on a continuous conveyor belt. The machine will run at 75m/min and will be half the price of comparable solutions, claims EFI CEO Guy Gecht. This equates to 9,000 boards an hour at a resolution of 360x720dpi with four levels of grayscale using Seiko printheads.

The first units will ship next year, he adds. It will use the high power Fiery front end initially developed for the Landa project. The Nozomi will also become the first of a line of high speed EFI machines that can be used in other applications.

Along with the press technology, there was a flurry of ink announcements at Drupa. Corrugated is often a poor quality undulating surface to print on and can absorb huge amounts of ink. Because containers can be used to transport food, food safe inks are required.

Durst has its water based UV inks and EFI is stepping up with AquaEndure, also a water based ink which is UV curable. This is due to ship early next year.

HP says that the inks for the C500, and no doubt for the PageWide 410S and 1100S, being water based, comply with food safe regulations. The inks must also stand up to the scuffing of transportation and remain visible, or in the case of barcodes, scannable.

This has become such a problem that Walmart is proposing to ban the use of inkjet printing for barcodes because it has found many are unreadable, so increase its costs.

The most compelling reasons for change, however, lie in the simple observation that most corrugated packaging is boring, marked by solid blocks, heavy text and barcodes all printing in black only.

Few print products today are mono only, colour has spread from magazines to cartons, from direct mail and now to corrugated boxes. It is time that the brown protective material was dragged into the marketing age.

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Print goes inkjet

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