Corrugated packaging converters are staring at an interesting crossroads as they approach decisions surrounding digital corrugated printing. Digital printing at production levels is now a reality for corrugated packaging. But questions remain regarding how to best leverage that technology while marketing and selling the new capabilities.
Jeff Wettersten, president of Karstedt Partners, a digital package printing market research and consulting firm, contends that the impact of recent single-pass digital printing technology advancements at production quality is tremendous when it’s viewed from a throughput standpoint.
“The bottom line is that the major complaint converters had around scanning systems is that it didn’t really reach their definition of production thresholds,” Wettersten says. “Single-pass [digital printing] definitely meets the definition of production quantities.”
Converters considering entering the digital printing arena should think about how much they will use the press, including the number of orders, the total volume, and how many shifts it will be running, Wettersten notes.
“Is it a standalone entity of my business where I can kind of put it in a corner and use it as needed?” Wettersten asks. “Or is it going to be integrated into the operation because it is becoming a significant piece of my production flow? If it is a significant piece of my production flow, I want to look at integrating the digital press into my total operation.”
Wettersten also advises converters to research software offerings including scheduling interfaces for upstream and downstream processes, and logistical issues involving the movement of materials.
Once implemented, converters must decide how to best market and sell digital corrugated printing. He notes that Karstedt Partners recently conducted a study that included finding some of the pain points in growing a digital presence.
“The marketing and sales of the digitally printed product were one of the chief areas of concern because it does have a different value proposition to the end-customer,” he contends. “[Digital printing] has different opportunities for value-capture and the sales reps need to be trained on how to sell it.”
Wettersten adds that corrugated printing sales reps traditionally chased volume, while with digital printing, sales reps should be more aligned as value sellers.
“The catch 22 is how do you take someone aligned with volume and turn them into a value seller?” he asks. “Or do you supplement your sales staff with value sellers who focus on selling digital? The skill sets are different and compensation will be different.”
However, once the marketing and sales questions are answered, Wettersten feels that digital is a good way to drive promotional product campaigns.
“In theory, digital print should be able to accelerate and potentially provide new paths of opportunity,” he says. “But, it is not something that is done overnight because of the risk to the brand and figuring out what the strategy is going to be. Trials and tests under controlled situations are needed until they truly understand the capabilities and potential.”
Rachel Kenyon, VP of the Fibre Box Association in Itasca, Ill., notes that she interacts with many association members that are transitioning into the digital space.
“One of our member companies, for instance, recently installed a digital press,” she says. “What they talked about is being at the level of commercial printers where they are getting G7 certification so that when someone says to ‘print Coca-Cola red,’ you know you are printing Coca-Cola red.”
Kenyon contends that dedication to color is an advantage for corrugated converters that are implementing digital printing. The enhanced expertise that comes along with digital technology can then be marketed to customers. This opens up new opportunities to market products.
“Until recently, digital was something used for small runs, like samples or test-market products,” Kenyon says. “It’s really been over the last year to year-and-a-half that the capabilities and the speed of the equipment have reached production speed that would work for getting into personalization of products or customizing products on a larger scale.”
While digital corrugated printing is a fairly new technology, Kenyon says she senses an overall feeling of excitement surrounding the technology from the Fibre Box Association’s members.
“Some companies have waited to see how the market would turn out, really did their homework, and have chosen solutions that fit not only their production facility but also their customers’ needs,” she explains. “It has allowed our members to create some really incredible printing on corrugated. They can print the most delicious-looking apple that you think you can just grab off the box and eat it.”
Printing corrugated materials digitally may seem like an interesting inroad into the packaging market for commercial printers who already have digital printing expertise. But Kenyon maintains that there are numerous factors including structural design and packaging performance that companies need to consider.
“It is not an easy transition for a commercial printer to just go ahead and start making boxes,” she warns. “In the long run, this work is best left to the corrugators, because they have the background in producing packages.”
One early adopter of digital technology that has found success is Abbott-Action Inc. in Attleboro, Mass. The company began its digital journey in 2010 with the installation of an HP Scitex FB500 to produce digital prototypes and small production runs of 50 pieces or less.
After its introduction to digital with the HP machine, the company decided it was time to move to single pass digital production, and installed the first Barberán JetMaster 1890 in the United States. The Jetmaster is capable of producing 70,000 square feet of packaging per hour.
“Now at the one-year anniversary post-installation, we are running multiple shifts to keep up with customer demand,” says Chuck Slingerland, VP of sales, digital operations. “Assisting the digital workflow, we have another great partnership with Esko, as we are designated their North American Innovative Partner.”
Slingerland notes that Esko products are being utilized throughout the customer engagement cycle — specifically in pre-press and proofing — and ultimately flowing into an automated workflow to communicate with the digital machines.
While Slingerland contends the digital experience has been very positive so far, he admits there is no playbook to follow. He recalls learning on-the-fly with the help of vendors.
“Only through the dedication of our great team has this been possible,” he says. “Every day we work with our trusted partners to improve the process and deliverables. We are having a lot of fun learning through this journey.”
Slingerland says that Abbott-Action has adopted a multi-faceted approach to its digital marketing efforts, including creating targeted content to distribute through selected news channels. A social media campaign has also been launched in conjunction with the company’s email marketing efforts. Additionally, the company is overhauling its website with search engine marketing optimization.
“The sales team is working diligently to cultivate the perfect customer for our capabilities and create an outreach to educate them on industry trends and our mission to assist them in reaching their goals,” Slingerland explains. “The conversion rate from litho work to digital has been dramatic.”
Abbott-Action’s early assumptions of what digital printing technology could provide to both customers and to its own internal operational efficiency has been surpassed, Slingerland adds.
“Additionally, we have engaged a second phase of sales by moving customers from flexo work to digital to reduce setup costs that can be prohibitive,” he points out. “Now, having invested in both technology and people, we have more internal control of our workflow and deliverables. We are very excited at what the future holds with this evolving marketplace.”