12 June 2016 Digital Printing Technologies

The gold rush to convert corrugated packaging to digital is on

The corrugated packaging sector is ripe for transition to digital printing, something that has sparked a charge from suppliers to develop machines suited to this market.

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 17000, followed by a single sided version of the Page Wide T410 and at the end of last year by the PageWide T 11000S, a monster of a machine built in collaboration with KBA.

HP’s separate approaches typify the market: 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.

The arguments for digital production involve the standard collection of 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 discounters which keep goods inside the outer corrugated case, 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 currently this packaging can become a high impact direct marketing product. 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. The major producer 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 machine designs for printing on this material. That the display graphics market is becoming mature makes the untapped potential of corrugated even more attractive.

Consequently at Drupa it has felt as if there is a feeding frenzy focused on corrugated boards. HP announced the C500, its first sheetfed press to use the PageWide printhead and designed for post print corrugated; EFI introduced Nozomi, a flat bed inkjet machine running at 800q m/hr; Durst introduced a single pass version of its Rho flatbed machine; 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 close to 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 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 our 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.

This 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.

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 are 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 3.0metres wide and the print engine will stretch to cope with this. The target for machine availability is 98%

It is not an overnight task. The project will result in a pilot machine by 2018 and then to beta in the second half of that year. Production begins in earnest in 2020.

The other opportunity in 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 flex 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 printheads and dryers on a continuous conveyor belt. The machine will run at 75m/min and will be half the price of other solutions claims EFO CEO Guy Gecht. This equates to 9,000 boards an hour at a resolution of 360 x720dpi 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 machines that can be used in other applications.

Along with the press technology, there was a flurry of ink announcements. 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.

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Corrugated for Drupa

Corrugated for Drupa

The ability to print on corrugated to produce short runs of high impact packaging for outer cases, consumer take away and shelf ready packaging, will be essential for all levels of the corrugated sector the suppliers of the inkjet presses believe. It also points to a bonanza for ink suppliers thanks to the vast amounts of coverage that corrugated packaging represents.