Many flexible packaging companies are building growth strategies around digital print technologies, integrating digital presses into their current operations. Many of these converters are not looking to replace current flexo and rotogravure equipment, but integrate with more traditional means of production.
There are many benefits to doing so: no plates, minimal setup time, fast turnaround, the ability to easily incorporate variable data and the advantages of advanced color matching. In addition, digital technology offers a new cost model, allowing printers and converters to print only what is needed, resulting in the elimination of large amounts of waste and expensive storage. In short, digital printing offers both a flexible and cost-effective platform.
A variety of factors besides shorter run lengths favor future growth in the digital platform for flexible packaging. In addition to the growth of government-mandated information on packages and track-and-trace information, the rise of social media is enabling targeted versions and personalized campaigns. And brand managers are leading the charge.
Flexible packaging converters are generally driven by brands. In general, brands demand the following:
Global solutions: International marketing campaigns require an international network of converters that provide consistent quality and color matching at any quantity.
Reduced costs: Economic pressure has resulted in efforts to reduce costs across the supply chain. Shorter runs, just-in-time delivery, minimal inventory and geographical proximity to production sites are all key factors.
SKU proliferation: There are more versions than ever for each product. Multiply that by different languages and regional requirements and it becomes quite challenging. Packaging converters deal with more and more short runs, and they need to use their existing high-speed solutions for long jobs only.
Mass customization and versioning: Event-driven marketing has resulted in many customized runs that demand fast turnaround times. Additionally, the retail channel often requires versioning to ensure differentiation from chain to chain.
Flexible packaging converters who recognize these trends will equip themselves with the tools necessary to serve brands. These tools include not only digital presses, but automated workflows, new finishing capabilities and inline systems necessary to provide just-in-time deliveries and customized flexible packaging.
One of the key technologies enabling digital printing is low energy electron beam (EB) curing of over print varnishes (OPV) protecting surface-printed digital inks. The EB curing can be done either in line with the digital press or offline.
The reason EB is so attractive is that its benefits align with what CPG companies’ research and development and brands are asking their suppliers for. In addition, it actually unlocks the potential of digital printing on the surface of films, allowing it to be relevant for more “ready-to-go” applications. Consider the following:
CPGs are asking for more sophisticated multi-layer, monoweb films to replace laminations and save money. By digitally surface printing these more sophisticated structures, and then protecting them with EB varnishes, printers are able to provide the next best thing to buried print at a significant reduction in cost to traditional duplex or triplex laminations.
CPGs want materials, structures and films which result in source reduction. This means thinner structures and less constituents. In many cases, this can be best accomplished by reshaping a portion of the flexibles portfolio to non-laminated materials - and then digitally surface-printing and EB varnishing them inline.
CPGs and their printers want a total solution. With an end-to-end solution, not just a printing process, printers gain more credibility.
So EB’s role in digital printing is critical to driving acceptance. What makes the EB OPV’s or top coatings so attractive? And the EB process so attractive for inline processing with digital presses?
The EB coatings are highly cross-linked. This allows for many of the excellent lamination-like properties they provide. For example, heat resistance, scuff and abrasion resistance, consistent coefficient of friction and a wide range of gloss and matte finishes. Essentially, the EB coatings provide protection of the digital inks. They act like a lamination. And at a fraction of the costs of a lamination.
The EB coatings are also FDA-compliant. They’re safe for food. EB is used to cure EB inks, coatings and laminations for food packaging applications around the world because it provides a highly cross-linked finished product with ultra-low odor and extractables for many of the most demanding food-grade applications.
EB OPVs are safe for the environment. The EB varnishes are 100 percent solids chemistry. With 0 percent VOCs. No solvents. The EB varnishes require no after treatment technology to destruct or collect solvents.
In addition to the benefits of the EB varnishes, the EB process has many advantages too.
For starters it is easy to integrate in line with a digital printing press. Today’s low-voltage EB units are compact and lightweight and easy to install, and mechanically and electrically integrate with a downstream coating head and printing press.
Additionally, EB units are extremely cost effective to run and maintain and with incredibly low operating costs when compared to some thermal dryers or UV curing systems. Finally, the EB process has little or no effect on the plastic films or packaging structures, unlike thermal dryers which add heat to films and have to be taken away.
Understanding the advantages of digital adoption for package converters today, along with the evolving demands of brand customers, it seems clear that digital printing combined with EB OPVs represents a growth opportunity for flexible packaging converters.
Energy Sciences, Inc.