By Olivia Cahoon
While flatbed printers are known for producing retail and event signage, advancements in ink composition, media handling, and curing allow for these devices to be used for packaging applications. By leveraging existing flatbed presses, print service providers (PSPs) can offer clients package prototyping services as well as short runs.
However, PSPs looking to enter this space need more than a flatbed press that meets the requirements for packaging applications. Design, finishing, and workflow capabilities are also important considerations that make or break the move to packaging.
Above: An example of packaging printed with a Mimaki press.
A Fit for Packaging
Printing packaging materials for both corrugated and folding carton was historically a challenge due to a variety of difficulties like media handling, ink adhesion, and dry times. Advancements in ink composition, media take-up, and curing now make flatbed printers suitable options.
One of the biggest challenges in printing packaging is the transport of the corrugated material. Corrugated media tends to bow. Controlling warp is a key element to properly transporting the material and protecting printheads as the board passes through the flatbed printer, explains Larry D’Amico, sales director, North America, Durst Image Technology US LLC. “Unless you have significant additional vacuum and some type of ski option that holds the outside edge of the board in place, it will be difficult to successfully run corrugated material.”
“A typical stationary flatbed vacuum system used for graphic arts applications is perfectly suitable for common substrates such as acrylic, foamboard, and PVC, but struggles to hold down porous and/or warped corrugated material without the use of masking tape around the edges. This adds considerable time and expense for print providers,” admits Randy Paar, marketing manager, Canon Solutions America.
In fact, many true flatbed printers once experienced difficulty in holding down the media due to form factor or media condition. Thomas Giglio, business development manager, graphics solution business, HP Inc., says that some manufacturers have added increased vacuum and auxiliary pumps, which help operators load and unload more easily while providing less printhead collisions. Hybrid manufacturers have also invented advancements to help with media transport by using media edge holders, which accomplish the same objectives.
Advancements in ink composition have created opportunities for prototyping and for custom/short-run packaging in two areas. First is the expanded use of metallic inks, which enable PSPs to direct image a surface without the need for added glitter or a foil transfer process, shares Michael Maxwell, senior manager, Mimaki USA, Inc.
The second opportunity is the ability to create embossed effects using gloss and matte finishes. “With properly matched flatbed hardware, RIP software, and inks, users select a gloss tone print with a shiny mirror finish or a matte tone print that delivers a lustrous effect while limiting reflectivity,” explains Maxwell.
In curing technology, the transition from UV arc lamps to LED lamps offers a wider variety of packaging materials that can be utilized. UV LED curing platforms use low temperature and intensity, which Maxwell says causes no distortion, color shifts, or destruction of packaging materials often susceptible to damage from heat and intense light.
This change also allowed for more speed as well as greater compatibility with packaging materials and reduced maintenance, adds Mark A. Rugen, product marketing and education, Mutoh America, Inc. Most UV LED flatbed printers accommodate thicker materials and feature strong vacuum systems to hold the materials down for greater accuracy.
According to Rugen, UV LED inks are also known for a greater gamut, which allows the color to pop. With the addition of white and varnish inks, he believes printing on dark packaging or adding texture to packaging is now easy to do and creates added appeal for the consumer.
Additional advancements on flatbed printers include the ability to produce small text, high print speeds for short-run applications, and ink flexibility to withstand cracking from folding, says Jason Darrah, chief inkjet evangelist, Fluid Color LLC.
Updates to printheads also influence the increased use of flatbeds in package prototyping applications. “High-speed industrial inkjet printheads with easy maintenance are essential these days as demands for production are increasing in the packaging industry. There is a need for stable printheads that can produce high-speed output at good production quality,” explains Sohil Singh, VP, StratoJet USA.
Not all flatbed presses are a fit for packaging applications. To ensure the device is suitable, PSPs look for specific features and specifications, including high-quality output, ink performance, and vacuum power.
Similar to any new application or even the purchase of a new press, the more prepared PSPs are the easier the execution. “Acceptable quality would be a key factor in serving the market or determining which parts of the packaging market a print provider can serve, so it’s very important to evaluate that,” recommends Becky McConnell, segment marketing manager—wide format, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division.
Another important feature is the performance of the PSP’s current ink set, especially as it relates to creasing, cutting, and folding, as well as lamination and other post-print processes, says McConnell. The ink needs to hold up to these processes without breakage or chipping.
Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers, Roland DGA Corporation, also looks to ink sets and suggests PSPs ensure the printer offers not only CMYK, but specialty inks for incorporating dimensional and textural effects. “When it comes to packaging, the ability to print gloss and white is crucial.” Image quality, low operating costs, reliability, and world-class service and support are also important.
Another benefit is the ability to print varnish. Mike Kyritsi, president, swissQprint America, says prints can either be covered fully with varnish or used as a varnish effect that covers certain areas. A full flood varnish provides protection against abrasion while special effect varnish offers PSPs a high-quality look.
“Image quality is always of concern. Brands can be very demanding about accurate color reproduction of their logos. Skin tones need to look good and fine details such as those found in small type on nutritional labels or barcodes need to be sharp across the entire print area,” advises Paar.
Considering image or print quality, Kyritsi suggests operators move the printheads as close as possible over the material without colliding. “Therefore, on the hardware side of a flatbed machine a powerful vacuum is essential when printing packaging materials.” It ensures corrugated board is held down properly and a smooth production process is guaranteed.
In addition to having enough vacuum to prevent printhead collisions, Giglio thinks media transport systems should also provide operational efficiency to load and unload quickly and deal with damaged media such as dog-eared corners.
Leveraging Package Services
PSPs leverage existing flatbed printers and offer clients package prototyping services as well as short runs of product. Doing so offers several advantages such as increasing profit, attracting new clients, and low investments.
“Digitally printed packaging is a growing market that offers additional revenue streams to the print provider,” shares Ed Bokuniewicz, product marketing manager, industrial print group, Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A., Inc. Packaging applications are growing in folding cartons and corrugated boxes as packaging run lengths shorten—offering a print on demand market. Additionally, prototype packaging is economical and on demand.
According to Maxwell, for corrugate packaging alone, Acute Market Research estimates the segment to expand to U.S. $307.9 billion by 2025, a compound annual growth rate of 4.6 percent from 2017 to 2025. “Digital technology enables PSPs to work with design agencies and brand owners to provide rapid response to their clients,” he adds. By using tools that designers are already familiar with, they can work with PSPs to implement a complete prototype solution that offers flexibility from design to final mockup.
Entering package prototyping with a current flatbed can also help drive revenue from existing customers and even attract new clients. “If you can find the right clients for the level of output you’re capable of producing, it’s a great way to drive additional sales,” suggests McConnell. Even if there is a learning curve, PSPs can capitalize on an application without investing in new equipment, which is an easy method to increase sales. “This is especially true when the entire organization sees the benefit and value in the opportunity.”
Digital printing also fills the niche of prototyping and short runs as production cost is considerably lower than with conventional printing processes. While the latter is still more economic for large runs, Kyritsi says customization is trending in the packaging industry, which leads to shorter print runs—bringing in more work for digital flatbed equipment. “Adding prototyping services to your offerings can load a flatbed machine to full capacity.”
While the package prototyping business can be lucrative, it also requires a good understanding of design and preparing files for using white inks or varnish for textures, admits Rugen. PSPs may also have to invest in a flatbed cutter if they want to provide prototyping of card stock for use in boxes.
If the existing flatbed does not have a good media transport system, some of the printer’s components can be at risk. To determine just how beneficial it is to leverage existing flatbeds, Giglio suggests PSPs look at the overall opportunity against these two factors and then set an expectation with their customers on whether the image quality is sufficient enough to meet their expectations.
Design, Finishing, & Workflow
If a PSP’s flatbed press is well equipped for packaging applications, there’s more to think about before offering this service to clients. Flatbed specifications are only half of the equation as PSPs still need to consider design, finishing, and workflow capabilities. However, if a PSP ensures they have all the necessary components, adding packaging applications is a lucrative opportunity.
If a PSP has the capabilities to truly embrace offering a new application, McConnell thinks it’s better to chase the revenue opportunity than to leave it. “They may have to invest in education and training, but the opportunity can help diversify the business if a PSP isn’t currently selling that work.”
This includes developing a packaging strategy that requires dedication to understanding the entire workflow. For example, D’Amico says cutting and finishing requirements are different from conventional wide format. Entering the packaging market also typically involves an additional investment in software workflow products as well as experienced employees that can discuss packaging applications.
“In the packaging industry, for both production and prototyping, it is very important to have the right software program, to make sure the files and colors are accurate according to the substrate and package base. There should be ease in the RIP program to alter the package design, ability to multi-print, step and repeat, and add spot colors,” shares Singh.
Materials are also a concern. According to Paar, sourcing good quality corrugated board in smaller quantities could be a challenge. “Many converters focus on supplying semi-trailer loads of corrugated board to large packaging plants and seldom want to deal with small orders from a small print provider.” An alternative is to speak with the packaging customer and have them provide the board for their prototype production.
To decide if offering packaging applications is the right choice, Kyritsi suggests PSPs ask themselves if the business is setup for the task. “The question does not come down to having the right equipment but building up expertise in the whole process and finding the right customers.”
In most scenarios, existing flatbeds may be able to print successfully but at the cost of production efficiency, image quality, or environmental challenges. To start a tangible packaging innovative, Giglio says PSPs need a printer that can handle media effectively, a printer with a gamut close to or better than offset, prepress design software, and a digital die cutter.
If a PSP is already in the packaging space, then producing package prototypes or small runs can be a natural service extension for their clients, shares Deborah Hutcheson, director marketing, Agfa. According to her, doing so provides both the PSP and the brand with a color accurate, three-dimensional sample packages that can illustrate the structural integrity of their design concepts. “It’s a completely finished product, just scaled to size.”
New Challenges Arise
Looking at more than just the flatbed printer, print providers should be prepared to deal with a host of new challenges when offering package prototyping and creation services.
The learning curve and knowledge needed to service a new segment of clients is important and the more prepared, the shorter that curve. By investing in knowledge from marketing to sales and operations, McConnell says PSPs should be ready to take on the challenge. Considerations include design and software, as well as education to support structural design. Finishing capabilities should also be reviewed.
“Information is available online, as well as many other print providers that have either made a transition or produce the work day to day. If they’re willing to share their experiences, it’s great to hear firsthand what the everyday operations are like to help you be in a better position to succeed,” offers McConnell.
PSPs should also keep in mind that package prototyping is similar to creating a small micro-factory. “All the tools must be in place as it would be in the actual production of the packaging,” comments Rugen. This means there should be a designer that is not only experienced in creation, but also understands the limits of packaging itself and the flatbed options as well as design options needed for cutting or folding the prototype with other tools.
For example, most prototyping involves finding a die line template or creating a custom die line with the cuts and folds needed to create the package. “Search for places to get those or make sure the software can create them properly and easily,” suggests Rugen.
Understanding the finished application can be one of the biggest challenges that a PSP needs to deal with as they enter the packaging space. “They will need to understand and learn to speak brand language, which varies depending on the packaging sub-segment,” explains Hutcheson. For example, CPGs and point of purchase retail have different requirements surrounding package design concepts.
Prepare for Packaging
PSPs interested in utilizing their current flatbed devices for packaging and prototypes should first determine if their flatbed has the necessary specifications and features. This includes enhanced media hold down, the ability to use specialty inks, and UV LED curing technology.
Once the flatbed is ready for use, PSPs should also ensure their design, finishing, and workflow capabilities are robust enough to handle packaging.
Apr2020, Digital Output