Plain Brown Box No More: Corrugated is Brimming With Opportunity
When Attleboro, Mass.-based corrugated converter Abbott-Action, Inc., was introduced to a local brewery, it found the company was in need of a packaging refresh. Previously relegated to two-color flexo work, the brewery worked alongside Abbott-Action — one of the first companies in North America to install a single-pass, direct to board, digital corrugated printer — to give its packaging a needed facelift to stay competitive in the crowded craft beer market.
“By learning about us, the brewery was able to return to the original complex graphic design,” says Chuck Slingerland, Abbott-Action’s director of digital printing. “The single pass digital printer’s UV inks brought a vibrant life to the packaging that the original GCMI colors and flexo printing could not achieve. You can see how emotionally attached the brewer was to their product. Now the graphics and the packaging reflect the quality of the product they have.”
The corrugated segment of the packaging industry has recently generated a buzz far above the level of attention it usually garners. The emergence of single-pass digital corrugated presses that run at production speeds, the rise of e-commerce and ability to produce high-quality graphics have established corrugated as a segment with tremendous opportunity for converters and brands willing to invest in the latest technology and think creatively.
Drupa Goes Digital
Although it is tradition for the global printing community to converge on Düsseldorf, Germany every four years for drupa, before the trade show’s gates even open, the speculation surrounding what new technology is in store typically reaches a fever pitch.
2016 was no different, as much of the conversation prior to drupa speculated on what new digital printing technology would be unveiled. However, there was little talk of the event serving as a launching pad for single-pass, direct to board, digital printing technology. Prior to the show, much of the digital technology in corrugated took the form of flatbed, scanning head style presses, or digital web presses for preprinted corrugated liner.
According to Jeff Wettersten, president of industry analysis firm Karstedt Partners, the advent of production level digital printing for corrugated has been a catalyst in taking digital corrugated printing beyond just a niche technology.
“The development of single-pass printing leads to higher throughput, enabling digital printing to have a broader level of participation in the converter’s business,” Wettersten says. “It’s evolved from barely scratching the surface to where it can now participate in daily production requirements.”
Since drupa, Barberán has emerged as the first supplier to install this technology in North America, with its Jetmaster 1680 model up and running at Bennett in Kansas City, Mo., and the Jetmaster 1890 at Abbott-Action. Additional single-pass, digital products that have been announced include the EFI Nozomi C18000, the Durst Rho 130 SPC, the HP PageWide C500 and the Sun Automation CorrStream Series. Xanté has also launched the Excelagraphix 4800, which provides single-pass technology in a smaller, 48˝-wide format.
Rachel Kenyon, VP of the Fibre Box Association (FBA), a North American association of corrugated manufacturers, explains that prior to drupa, digital corrugated printing was mostly used to produce samples or other applications that required very small runs. Since the event has launched the technology closer to the mainstream, she says more FBA members are exploring how digital can benefit their businesses.
“The technology advancements in digital printing on corrugated that were showcased at drupa and a couple other events, demonstrated that we had reached that tipping point where the printing technology is more readily available and can be used more broadly across the industry,” Kenyon says. “Many of our member companies are making investments in digital printing or improving and upgrading the printing capabilities that they have.”
When Abbott-Action came to the determination that it needed to upgrade its printing capabilities, Slingerland explains the company was faced with two options — either invest in a high-speed flexographic solution with rotary diecutting or make the digital leap.
After a period of extensive research and exploration, Slingerland says Abbott-Action opted to go digital, as it would provide the company with a clear competitive advantage.
“Digital is the direction that corrugated print and conversion are going to move,” Slingerland says. “We believe that if we invested in high-speed flexo, it wouldn’t put us ahead of the market, it would just make us a ‘me too.’ By bringing in a large-format, single-pass digital printer and digital cutting solution, it positioned us to be a market leader.”
Since the press began production in February, Slingerland says new opportunities immediately emerged. Not only does it produce high-quality graphics, he says the printer has dramatically increased the company’s speed to market capabilities. Compared to a traditional workflow, which could involve sending art files to a litho house, waiting two days for a proof, then a couple more days for the customer to approve the proof, and a week to receive the litho labels, the digital workflow eliminates those prohibitive bottlenecks.
“We are able to bring in an art file, proof within 24 hours and deliver product in less than seven days,” Slingerland says.
In terms of applications, Wettersten says single-pass printing will expand the use of digital printing for point of purchase (POP) or other in-store displays. He states that scanning head systems were often used by converters to create samples and prototypes, but converters would opt to use other printing methods for the production run due to throughput limitations with scanning head technology.
“The increase in digital production speeds now exposes POP applications to the full range of digital value,” he says. “POP campaigns generally involve limited runs across most of the required parts. Digital printing will impact speed to market, potentially reduce production costs, and opens the door to opportunities for versioning, and/or customization of the displays.”
As more consumers latch onto the convenience of shopping from the comfort of their homes rather than traditional brick and mortar stores, brands have had to confront a reality in which their shelf presence is not a deciding factor in the purchasing process. Instead, consumers are often making purchases based on online reviews of products, which are then delivered in non-descript brown boxes, often at the expense of the brand-consumer connection.
Kenyon explains that as corrugated printing technology continues to evolve, the e-commerce packaging experience will become more dynamic.
“Today you’re used to getting the brown box on your front doorstep, but I think there’s an opportunity there for brands to bring their story to the doorstep, much like they do in other ways of advertising,” she says. “It’s just a matter of time before boxes start having brand advertising on them or more specific information about the product that’s inside, or more personalized information about the person that’s getting the box.”
In addition to personalization opportunities, Wettersten explains that single-pass digital can also allow brands to access part of a package that has often gone ignored — the interior.
While adding branding elements to the exterior of a box certainly adds to the consumer experience, it’s not always a great idea to highlight what sort of valuable item could be stored inside a package, especially if it’s sitting on someone’s front steps for several hours. By printing on the inside of a box, the brand can still extend the user experience via packaging, while maintaining a level of security.
“Rather than print the outside of the container, they’re looking at messaging and using the inside as the billboard for communication,” Wettersten says. “Really any application area where you want to increase communication and content messaging to the consumer, digital is an ideal vehicle for that because of the compression of time in printing in a ‘just-in-time’ manner.”
Getting Brands on Board
Bringing a brand new technology to market is no easy task, and despite the opportunities it can provide, new technology is often met with skepticism. At Abbott-Action, Slingerland says digital technology has received a positive response from its customer base, but it’s largely because of the company’s determination to fully understand all of the nuances of the press before it attempted to secure orders.
“We were going to do it right,” Slingerland says. “We’re going to be precise and we’re going to provide the market with a premium printed sheet.”
Kenyon explains that the corrugated industry is hard at work to educate brand owners about the potential of digital printing. She says that corrugated has always provided a strong packaging solution, but now with decorative opportunities never seen before, the potential for brand owners to extend their message has greatly improved.
“The wonderful thing about corrugated has always been the flexibility of the product,” she says. “The strength to weight ratio of a corrugated box is unmatched and when you’re able to print directly on that package and have it say whatever you want it to and customize it however you want, it is really a great capability. To see what that printing capability looks like versus several years ago when you were limited in your capabilities — maybe it was just brown with one color ink on it — today there are so many more possibilities. I think it’s really exciting.”