How Digital Printing Works with Flexible Packaging, Food Products

Flexo printing has long led the field when it comes to flexible print. However, in recent years, digital printing platforms have made increasing incursions into the market. As the cost of digital printing decreases, it becomes more attractive when producing short-run, customized packaging; however, flexo will still have an important role to play.

Photos courtesy of HP

Flexible packaging is attractive to suppliers because more than 70 percent of the market is accounted for by food. With rapid population growth, particularly in emerging markets, there will always be high demand for food packaging. And, for most of those products, conventional flexo printing will do the job cost-effectively for medium-to-long-run volumes, with three-to-four-weeks average turnaround times.

On the flipside, in mature markets, long runs of identical packaging are falling out of fashion as consumers look increasingly to variation of products that appeal to individual taste. The rise of e-commerce and social media has led the modern shopper to expect a wide range of consumer packaged goods and instant delivery. As a result, product lifecycles have shortened dramatically, and there is huge pressure to handle an increasing number of short runs, SKUs and a quick turnaround. Flexible packaging must therefore adapt to meet these evolving needs.

This is where digital printing comes into play, because it allows companies to handle a batch of short-run work cost-effectively. The deployment of a digital printing press to the production floor can also free up flexo machine time to focus on producing medium- to large-run jobs.

Going Digital

As digital continues to evolve, we will continue to see new features and technologies. For starters, the packaging process goes far beyond simply printing—lamination and coating can potentially add days to the production cycle, thus negating any speeds gained during the digital printrun. While HP Indigo has proven compatible with conventional postprinting technologies, such as adhesive dry bond lamination, it has also developed a number of solutions for digital print packaging.

For example, conversion to a ready-to-pack product requires finishing processes that can take up to 10 days. To address this production lead time challenge, companies are developing and patenting solutions designed to maximize the value of digital printing for labels and packaging through an ecosystem with optimized and qualified material and hardware solutions.

In the case of HP, its Indigo Pack Ready applies a thermal lamination process in which the heat-activated resin entangles with the ink polymer chains at the molecular level. By adding pressure and a cooling process, strong mechanical forces are instantly formed between the digitally printed film and laminated resin, resulting in a combined laminated film that requires no cure time, and is ready to be slit and heat-sealed for pouches immediately.

In addition, the coating technology is applied to printed film, where it penetrates that film’s ink layer and crosslinks polymer chains of printed film, primer and ink to create a new molecular architecture of polymers. That might sound complex; put simply, it makes it possible to digitally print on high-performance flexible packaging applications, such as retort pouches. The retort pouch, used to package heat-treated food, is the fastest growing application in the flexible packaging industry.

Developments such as these are pushing the envelope in terms of the substrates that digital print can be applied on, which helps converters open new markets. Retort pouches of cat food with an image of your own pet on it? It might sound like a novelty, but marketing campaigns such as these will become increasingly popular.

Food Packaging Regulations

One issue to bear in mind with relation to digital packaging is that, because you are primarily dealing with food production, there are myriad regulations to consider. Because of this, companies have developed ink technology to ensure all relevant legislation is met.

Converters who print food packaging operate their businesses within a complex and strict set of regulations and guidelines, set forth by both government agencies and industry associations, to help ensure packaging does not negatively impact the products it contains. And suppliers are developing printing solutions and inks that enable converters to produce food packaging that can comply with these standards.

In HP’s case, its Indigo ElectroInk is safe and suitable for printing flexible packaging and folding cartons on the non-food contact side of the packaging, under certain conditions of use and compliance with Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). The ink contains electrically charged particles dispersed in liquid. Precisely controlled electrical fields move the charged color particles, enabling accurate placement on the printing material, which results in gravure-matching quality.

Reducing Environmental Impact with Digital Printing

A final thought on one other area where digital can add value: its lower environmental impact. Many digital presses are designed from the earliest stages with the environment in mind, considering the full product lifecycle, supply chain and end of life.

This only improves as new machines replace older models: In each successive generation of presses, digital press manufacturers work to drive down the levels of energy and supplies required for each print. Additionally, recycling, recovery and reuse programs—both for supplies and hardware—continue to be developed and expanded. HP Indigo also strives to reduce the environmental impact of its manufacturing and supply waste.

Moreover, digital on-demand printing reduces the environmental impact of packaging itself, while allowing you to print exactly what you need, when and where you need it. In contrast, analog printing can encourage wasteful overproduction of marketing collateral, books and labels later discarded.

Because of all these innovations and advantages, the digital share of the overall print market is set to multiply, creating new opportunities in the next few years. Now is the time to get on board if you have not already done so. As we have seen, the potential for personalized, high-quality, on-demand prints is enormous.

About the Author: Mach Machikawa has more than 17 years of experience in digital printing business development and product marketing. Since he stepped into the digital printing world, he found flexible packaging to be one of the most fascinating industries. Mach moved from Japan to Israel six years ago, and today he is leading the business and strategy management of the flexible packaging segment in the Indigo division of HP Inc.

Exhibiting technical capabilities discussed in this article is HP’s Indigo 20000 Digital Press. It is a 30-in. wide, mid web press with an image format, speed and imposition capability that make it cost-effective for digital labels and flexible packaging. Combined with HP SmartStream Designer, it can be used to personalize any print job’s images, text and colors—creating virtually unlimited variations. Furthermore, HP SmartStream Mosaic software, which automatically generates hundreds, thousands and even millions of unique graphics, from a fixed number of base patterns, using scaling, transposition and rotation; is enabling CPCs to produce highly targeted and successful personalized packaging campaigns.