Ed Zumbiel wants to tap into what he calls “the Kardashian effect”, the obsession that the public on both sides of the Atlantic has with self image and the selfie image. According to the president of one of the largest independent packaging printers in the US (and he says a company that ranks among the 50 oldest businesses in the USA) this means being able to apply all kinds of personal images and customised messages to the cartons that Zumbiel Packaging supplies to pharmaceutical companies, to food companies and to beverage companies, especially to beverage companies.
He has been thinking about customisation of this nature for a while. “We started exploring this five years ago,” he says. It has meant speaking to companies that use digital means to print labels and cartons. Unfortunately these tended to be small batches of small format boxes, not the sort of cartons that Zumbiel produces to hold up to 24 aluminium cans of beer, sugar-loaded or sugar-free fizzy drinks. “They simply could not do large boxes. Then I decided I had to find out about suitable digital solutions,” he says.
He was cut loose from day to day responsibilities at the factory near Cincinnati to go on the digital odyssey. There were visits to manufacturers in Israel, Asia, Switzerland “where I stumbled across Kodak on the Bobst corrugated press. I thought this was pretty good stuff. It was not just about short runs.”
The search explored all the available digital presses and technologies, Landa included. “I never met a digital press I didn’t like,” he says. “But we kept coming up with a lot of limitations.
“Kodak's technology had the throughput we needed because the runs we do tend to be long. We have a CI flexo press than can produce 100,000 12-can packs a day. That is not something you replace with a press running 2,000 sheets an hour.”
Its drinks customers are the giants of the brewing and carbonated drinks world, so are not overly concerned about the cost of a set of flexo plates. They would not immediately baulk at the cost of digital proved the cost could be justified.
However, for Zumbiel any solution had to fit into the company’s workflow without further heavy investment. His idea was to combine low cost flexo printing with digital printing where ink costs are higher to deliver the social media impact that he says that brands crave.
“We recognise that digital is more expensive – electrophotographic is crazy expensive – but thought that if we could incorporate into a streamlined production workflow, this would mitigate the extra cost of the inks,” he says.
“We approached Kodak with this suggestion and it was as if we had suggested combining a dolphin and a pig. We went back to our factory in Kentucky rather dejected,” says Zumbiel. “A little later I got a call from Randy Vandagriff, president of the enterprise inkjet division, and his team for further meetings after they had had a rethink. Then at Drupa last year we said ‘we’ll take a couple of these’.”
The first has now been delivered and comprises two flexo units ahead of four inkjet units, the core of a Kodak Prosper 6000 press, followed by a further five flexo units and either sheeting or semi rotary die cutting. GSS, the company that builds the Prosper machines for Kodak and previously Didde forms presses, designed the transport system for the new style press which can run at 200m/min the equivalent to 12,000 B1 sheets an hour.
There have been delays, most recently because the state authorities have wanted to understand the environmental impact. There is a large exhaust system on the machine, this being enough to arouse their suspicions and to put an injunction on its use until the environmental question could be addressed. The answer is minimal. The exhaust system is to duct water-laden air away from press.
With that hurdle removed, Zumbiel is now running the press for very interested customers having tested their acceptance of the quality before revealing how the package was produced.
“With a resolution of 600x900dpi, we call image quality MBTF – Much Better Than Flexo,” he says. “We are not trying to print art posters, but this will raise quality. Most flexo is 120lpi and Coca-Cola at 150lpi is as high as it gets for packaging.”
With increasing interest in printing consumer supplied images uploaded to a promotional website to personalise packaging or perhaps adding a half tone image of a sports team for sales at the stadium for example, brands will be looking for better quality than line work alone can provide.
“This is tapping into the psychosis [sic] of our society, letting purchasers upload images from Twitter into a template for example. Take Red Bull: its customers are used to taking photos of people doing insanely stupid things in front of a camera. We can transfer these images to a printed case of drinks.
“And the technology is good too for rapid segmentation where a big brewer can pretend to be a craft brand using localised messages and images to try to take on an upstart smaller craft rival by pretending to be small. You simply can’t do this in analogue,” he adds.
There will be a learning process across the board. The printer needs to understand the full capabilities of the technology, the brands to understand the opportunity and the designers how to create a file that combines flexo elements with the emphasis on spreads and chokes and ink laydown and inkjet elements which has none of these, but its own idiosyncrasies.
“There are still many limitations to digital printing, many things that it can’t do which analogue can,” Zumbiel says. “Ink sequences are different for example.” Digital printing is not the magic solution and its litho, flexo and gravure presses are safe.
Zumbiel has no doubts that the demand exists. He points to work with both beer and soft drink brands using HP’s Mosaic software to create uniquely patterned designs on labels or cans. These campaigns achieve the social media impact to justify the use of multiple Indigo machines to achieve the volume needed.
However, on-shelf impact from the unique designs can be lost when packed in identical 12-can cases thus hiding the digital print from consumers. Using Zumbiel’s approach rather than printing flexo only, brands will be able to specify unique patterns on the outer case to go along with those on the bottle or can itself. The shelf impact from unique imagery will also be that much greater.
“Today,” he says, “print is part of a 360º digital environment. This packaging can bridge the gap between social media and financial reliability. Our customers’ customers live on social media. We can help the brands become talked about on social media by using images that are created for social media.”
As a concept, one of the company’s designers mocked up a Batman image created from the differently printed box ends, stacked to create a vast image in a shop window. And Dr Pepper, he says, is “in promotion” for nine months of the year. Only the length supply chains for packaging mean that this is not always apparent on the boxes, nor on the websites of retailers selling the concoction. Digital printing in the volumes that these mass market products need can tackle the problem.
And it is a volume business. Zumbiel reckons that the Prosper hybrid press is good for 30 million cases a year, far more than most European markets might sustain. Set against the 700 million that are printed conventionally by the company, digital will remain small beer.
It is not just for major brands. Zumbiel has developed a web to box online design and ordering technology over the last three years that includes consumers creating their own artwork via a templated design and allowing them to rotate the virtual box to view it from all angles. It will be able to deliver the job of one thanks to a library of templates that a consumer can edit and print out to his satisfaction. It will schedule different formats of a job to different days of the week to ensure that the same cutting tools used for the same format of box for that days production.
Zumbiel will no doubt adapt and adjust as this gets underway. It will learn too what elements are called for and what should be included in a second press from Kodak. “We negotiated a price for two lines from the start,” he says. “But we need to include learnings from the first machine in the specifications for the second.”
Ed Zumbiel has specified a Kodak Prosper incorporating flexo units before and after the inkjet print heads to produce short and custom runs of packaging both for brands and for individuals through a new web to box website.
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