Smithers Pira Reports Challenges & Opportunities Digital Presents for Flexo in Package Printing

Digital print for packaging is growing strongly, according to the latest exclusive market research from Smithers Pira, The Future of Digital Print for Packaging to 2024.

The report tracks how the global value of inkjet and toner printing in this industry will rise from $18.9 billion in 2019 to $31.6 billion in 2024—equivalent to an annual growth rate of 10.9 percent year-on-year for the five-year forecast period.

Despite this rapid growth, digital print remains a small proportion of the overall packaging market—just 1.68 percent of the volume of all printed labels and packaging in 2019. By value, digital represents 6.38 percent of the printed packaging market. This is why it is of great interest to brands, retailers, pack and label converters, and equipment and consumable providers. Digital is concentrated on certain high-value segments, including short-turnaround and short-run work.

Labels still represent the majority of this work, but the introduction of dedicated high-throughput machines for corrugated will see this segment accelerate fast through 2024. North America is the largest regional market for digitally printed labels and packaging in 2019, accounting for roughly one-third of the world market. It is slightly ahead of Asia and Western Europe, although demand in Asia will grow more rapidly across 2019-2024.

Digital Package & Label Printing Market by Application: 2014-2024

Figures in constant 2018 dollars.
Chart courtesy of Smithers Pira

Technical Innovation

Across the next five years, further developments in workflows and logistics will smooth the adoption of digital technology into analog packaging supply chains.

A greater range of specialist toners will be developed for electrophotography presses. The main shift in output will be from inkjet with improvements to quality and speed on standard substrates, giving equivalent production levels to flexo, as well as gravure and offset litho. While poor print was seen as a reason for not utilizing digital printing a few years ago, the situation has changed in 2019 as players take the view that while perhaps not all packaging volume is addressable by digital, the great majority certainly is.

Impact on Flexo

For the flexo segment specifically, the evolution of digital printing in packaging presents both challenges and opportunities. Improvements in inkjet presses will see these machines take work from flexo lines, especially at shorter production runs. Certain advances in automation and workflow streamlining can be adapted to flexo, boosting its competitiveness. Of particular interest is the potential of flexo-inkjet hybrid presses to combine the benefits of both systems.

Hybrid Labels

There is a long history of using inkjet to overprint codes and numbering on flexo narrow web press lines, and this remains an important sector of the label market. As reliability and quality have improved, the technology has been adopted, with manufacturers steadily improving press performance and introducing hybrid, single-pass systems that combine flexo printing and finishing to boost productivity. Hybrid solutions allow priming, base printing, digital printing, postprinting/coating and finishing to be handled inline, in a single pass.

Overall, inkjet label work is growing and displacing toner presses. Higher resolution and speed improvements have increased output, and sales of new inkjet presses in Europe and North America overtook electrophotography machines in 2017.

Narrow web integrated hybrid solutions are offered by several leading flexo press providers, including Gallus’ Labelfire; Mark Andy’s Digital Series; Nilpeter’s PANORAMA; Edale’s Graphium, and the XFlex from OMET and Durst.

These were joined in May by SCREEN, with its modular Truepress Jet L350UV+ series. This combines flexo stations with finishing from Rotocontrol’s DT-340 finishing line for digital or flexo print, UV-LED curing and label embellishments

Other Hybrid Markets

Beyond narrow web label work—where digital and hybrid platforms are well established—other packaging substrates are now attracting interest. Paperboard and flexible substrates are key applications.

HP’s T1100 series of machines for corrugated work has flexo priming and varnishing capabilities, while Georgia-Pacific has taken this further with the Conprinta flexo capability.

Kodak is placing its Prosper inkjet units into flexo lines, for cartons and flexible packaging. The Uteco Sapphire EVO features unwind, a flexo priming station, 4-color Kodak Stream 24.49-in.-wide continuous inkjet units, hot-air drying that supports the web, and a final flexo unit to print base white for reverse printing or a coating, then into a rewind station. It uses water-based inks for food-safe printing at speeds up to approximately 1,000 fpm.

This approach can threaten some traditional print markets. For example, Philip Morris has invested in a Gallus hybrid inkjet machine for tobacco packaging—bringing production in-house and printing at manufacturing sites. This gives the cigarette manufacturer more flexibility when introducing new products to a market.

“Across the next five years, further developments in workflows and logistics will smooth the adoption of digital technology into analog packaging supply chains.”

Pressroom Efficiency

For print service providers, investing in a digital press can boost the performance of their analog equipment. As run lengths fall, the actual printing time on large litho offset and flexo machines also falls, with more time spent in changeovers and makereadies, reducing the salable capacity of the installed base of equipment.

Adding a digital press takes many of the short runs off the analog equipment, making more production time available to handle long runs without interruption, while improving the speed of response for short runs with no need to interrupt longer runs.

Furthermore, eliminating plates delivers major cost savings and reduces environmental impact. The simplicity of operating an inkjet press can also save on labor costs—with, for example, a single operator as compared to a four- or five-person team for a flexo unit. This may become a further priority for the future, as many experienced pressroom staff reach retirement age and print service providers have difficulty finding and retaining suitably skilled staff—Compared with flexo, inkjet printing is much simpler to teach and operate.

Integrated Production

Workflow systems are developing to reduce the load on administration and prepress that need to handle many more jobs coming in to plants, while the load on finishing and logistics is growing in parallel. Some converters are working to integrate their systems with customers to reduce their workload.

This involves changing the sales, ordering and administration processes to fit in with customer requirements. The converter can re-engineer its processes to take advantage via web-to-label and web-to-pack ordering systems for digital that generate press-ready artwork automatically loaded into the job file queue.

Web-to-print is a broad term that covers the e-procurement mechanism of print buying. Its penetration into labels and packaging commission is very low, with examples limited currently to personalized labels and premium boxes and packs for gifting.

The Future of Digital Print for Packaging to 2024 gives authoritative forecast by value and volume for future growth in the fast developing market. Data is presented in more than 200 data tables and figures segmented by print process, packaging substrate, regional geographic and main national markets.