By Cassandra Balentine
Wide format print providers leverage existing flatbeds to produce packaging applications with flatbed printers. As demands for shorter runs, faster turnaround times, and trends like subscription-based packaging and customization continue to materialize, more opportunities for digitally printed packaging emerge. With the right technology and workflow, these products are produced efficiently and effectively, adding a new and profitable offering.
“With the exponential increase in online ordering, product packaging, along with shipment packaging, has become the new point of purchase display. Packaging today not only serves a functional purpose, but an experiential purpose, which provokes emotion in the consumer. Companies have the opportunity through packaging to excite their clientele and secure further business and positive feedback,” comments Jim Peterson, VP of sales, Vanguard Digital Printing Systems, A Durst Group Company.
Mike Kyritsi, president, swissQprint America, believes demand for value-added effects drives digitally printed packaging. “Using technology like UV LED allows for printing directly onto metallic substrates and even enables custom embellishments with varnish. This can all be accomplished by a single machine so even short-run work is much quicker and cheaper to produce,” he offers.
Above: swissQprint’s generation 4 Nyala utilizes the KX2 ink set, which is flexible and has the largest color gamut of any of the company’s ink sets, ideal for package prototyping.
Prototypes and Personalized Packaging
Brand owners look for high-end prototypes and short runs of packaging, and flatbed technologies support this demand. They handle the latest packaging needs, from variable work to high-end prototypes, ultra-short runs, and corrugated solutions.
“The need for high-end prototypes and short runs is placing more flatbeds in the packaging workspace,” states Ken Parsley, product manager, Mutoh America, Inc. He says lower end flatbeds are primarily utilized for prototyping and very short runs, while higher end flatbeds are available that are well suited for actual package production at almost any level possible. Hybrid printers also allow users to create prototypes quickly and easily.
Additionally, the versatility they bring is undeniable. “Prototyping and short run was where most of this started but the latest machines are also much faster and so even medium to large runs are now possible. This includes the ability to run each copy with variable data and embellishments. This can really put a print service provider over the top with their customers,” states Kyritsi.
Jason Hamilton, director digital print strategies and sales operations, North America, Agfa, points out that improvements in color gamut and ink formulations that work to prevent cracking when folding make way for hybrid and flatbed systems to play in all forms of the packaging process.
When it comes to pre-mass production and prototyping, flatbeds are useful, according to Glenn Shull, senior technology portfolio manager, Ricoh USA, Inc. “Utilizing a flatbed can provide an accurate sense of what setting is needed on a bigger press, if necessary, eliminating some of the on-press work that otherwise is done on a mass-production printer. In terms of run length, users can produce one package or 100, and the only change to cost is labor. With variable data printing, personalization is easier than ever with a flatbed; users can print all of the images on the package—including unique data—in a single pass.”
“Digital print technology also can incorporate profitable applications with variable data production, smaller quantity runs all at a cost-effective price for the print provider and the client,” shares Larry D’Amico, sales director, Durst North America.
Feature Sets for Packaging
When producing packaging applications, several features should be considered, including ink sets, printhead and printhead positioning, and media handling—both inline and offline configurations.
Kyritsi zeros in on ink sets, noting that this is the most important factor to get into the packaging game. “The key factors here would be the flexibility of the ink to avoid cracking during cutting, scoring, and folding,” he asserts. Then would be the color gamut of the inks to consistently produce high-end graphics and match a range of spot and Pantone colors.
Parsley adds that light inks provide smoother, more professional looking output. “The addition of a varnish or clear that will produce a glossy effect and white ink as an underbase is very desirable in high-end prototyping.”
Ink durability is also essential. “Packaging endures a great deal in the course of movement from warehouses and loading/unloading, so ink durability and scratch and scuff resistance are critical to helping ensure messaging endures through transit,” says Shull.
Media handling is another essential feature for packaging. “When using flatbeds, you need to consider things like ease of package placement on the bed, location of placement on the bed, the use of pop-up pins to square the packaging with the equipment quickly, and ease of loading pre-cut boxes,” explains Shull.
“Changing from media to media and size to size can be super fast with flatbeds,” continues Kyritsi. “This is where they have an advantage over other technologies. Makeready can be a huge time and profit killer. With flatbeds specifically that changeover can mean huge savings on short-run work.”
Parsley adds that a vacuum table with a blowback feature allows for easy loading and unloading of media.
“Given the nature of packaging materials being porous, a robust vacuum hold down system is often times a requirement. With options like high flow vacuum tables, print providers can print to these othewise hard to hold down substrates,” says Peterson.
“Maximizing the stack is very important. It’s also important to make the most of the machine’s uptime and having a system that requires minimal downtime for maintenance,” adds Hamilton.
Printhead and printhead placement also plays an important role in packaging in terms of both speed and quality.
“Today’s printheads are precise, and the waveforms created for the printheads are exceptional for achieving hyper-fast binary and grayscale printing,” notes Shull. “Printheads are not unique to packaging, per se; rather, they are unique to all things digital and are continually evolving.”
According to Peterson, packaging like many market segments is designed large in part for upclose viewing. “That said, quality of output is key. Printheads today are capable of producing grayscale output with drop sizes as low as 3.5 picoliters.”
“It is important the printheads utilize variable dot technology to provide the necessary quality. Having more than one dot size family can be useful depending on how porous the media is,” shares Parsley.
The latest in UV devices are equipped to enable advanced ink placement. Jay Roberts, UV printer product manager, Roland DGA Corporation, says this allows for the instant capture of UV ink, which enables printing onto virtually any surface without the spread of ink.
“Without this spread or dot gain, quality is increased. This also applies when printing to more porous media, such as corrugated. Perhaps the greatest benefit UV printers provide is that they enable users to print directly and effectively to just about any substrate, including porous surfaces like corrugated cardboard,” he says.
Kyritsi admits while there is always going to be some dot gain when printing, it is just a function of how ink sits on a substrate. “However, some technologies are more prone to this type of defect than others. UV inks for example are a bit more viscous than say aqueous printing. This is one reason that it is easier to control dot gain, especially since most UV printers use a larger droplet size than many aqueous printers. Another way UV can help with dot gain on porous materials is the short delay from drop placement to UV exposure,” he explains.
He adds that curing the ink while printing helps to reduce the effects of dot gain substantially.
“The best way to control dot gain is to put a clear/varnish coat down first to seal the material. Using smaller dots to begin with can help maintain quality and manage the effects of dot gain,” points out Parsley.
Linearization essentially refers to dot gain control, which Shull says is a very important part of the process for printing on porous products. “In digital printing, we print on anything ranging from an artists’ canvas or PVC to acrylics—accurately profiling and adjusting the linearization when printing on porous products is what’s going to control your print and achieve quality output,” he shares.
While package printing may be intimidating, the latest technologies offered in today’s wide format flatbed printers are well suited to handle demands for high-end, short-run packaging and packaging prototypes.
Apr2022, Digital Output