Insights regarding digital prints and similar technologies in the packaging industry

7 September 2017



While digital print is continuing to grow in scope and appeal for packaging companies, there is still room for other technologies to thrive in the market. Packaging & Converting Intelligence presents insights from experts across the printing market.


In June 2017, Smithers Pira hosted its Digital Print for Packaging US event, at which Todd Fayne, principal engineer for PepsiCo, shared his perspective on digital print, such as its potential market, current limitations and PepsiCo’s experiences. He started by explaining the appeal to brands of digital print in packaging.

“The key benefits we see are customisation, where every panel can be different; improved time to market; decentralised production; personalisation; and colour control,” he said. “This potential is offset by the reality that there are limitations, such as the digital business model or click charge; ink costs that are very high; speed, which is comparatively much slower over higher volumes; infrastructure, or lack of availability; and a lack of end-user business models.”

Adoption of digital

Fayne was upbeat when it came to the adoption of digital print. “There’s no limit once digital can compete cost-effectively with traditional print,” he said. “The current applications that are in digital are there because of this fact already; small products, niche products that can’t afford the set-up time, or minimum quantities of large printing presses. In the short term, this will spread to some mid-volume production in premium areas − as costs go down, speeds will go up. The tipping point for digital will be when there is enough installed capacity spread out through the US or Europe. For example, that could supply a broad launch of product that is enabled by, and takes advantage of, digital’s capability. Additionally, there needs to be more competition on the ink supply. Digital inks are expensive today but don’t have to be. Competition, increased volumes and inks designed for flexible packaging at reasonable costs will drive market growth. Inevitably, digital will replace traditional mechanical printing. It’s up to the industry to decide if that’s 15 years from now, or 50.”

He was able to share some direct examples from PepsiCo. “We have had some success with the ‘Lay’s Summer Days’ campaign in the past couple of years,” he said. “There is marketing interest in expanding this effect, but everything we do is large, even the small stuff. The current supply chain to make these products is not optimised, and that constrains how big digital can be for a company of our size.”

Fayne concluded with his hopes for digital print’s future place in the packaging value chain. “We need flexibility in materials, formats and designs. We need new capabilities, such as special effects, textures and eye candy to differentiate ourselves at point of purchase, and, perhaps most importantly, we need scale and the right equipment in the right places, so that we can manufacture in the quantities we need, to at the quality we demand.”

This requirement to be able to develop a finished print that not only delights a customer, but also separates a product from the sea of choice on shelf without impacting the efficiency of the existing packaging lines, is a key theme for brand-owners investigating or using digital print.

Digital printing techniques are gradually redeveloping the printing landscape, providing a way for manufacturers to create crisp, colour-true packaging, yet allowing them to rapidly change the design on a run, for a seamless, cost-effective printing process. Traditional printing technologies still have a strong position, but the uptake of digital printing is opening up opportunities for creativity, producing packaging with powerful impact.

Packaging with character

Another design-award winner for combination printing is Scotland’s Pickering’s Gin, based in Edinburgh.

Leah Shaw Hawkins, Pickering’s Gin brand manager, says the 1947 Original Recipe Gin was released in July 2015. “As the third product in our core range, it was important that our packaging reflected our other products,” she says. “We produce small-batch products with a premium edge and, as such, we require premium finishes, like copper foiling and tactile varnish, over and above a standard digital print, which is common among our smaller competitors. We also needed our label to nod to the provenance of our brand, notably the Bombay recipe from which this gin is distilled.

“In contrast with our other core products − Pickering’s Gin and Pickering’s Navy Strength − our 1947 recipe is distilled exactly to the recipe written down in Mount Mary, Bombay, in 1947. The flavour profile is more fragrant and spiced than most on the market, and so the label reflects the uniqueness of the product. The paisley print that covers the background is an elegant nod to the Indian recipe, while the colour management ensures that we retain strong brand recognition alongside our core range products.”

Pickering’s Gin uses combined label printing techniques to place its story front and centre, capturing the essence of its history, yet maintaining a core contemporary, luxury feel.

Opportunities and limitations

Moving from the premium to the prominent, Alvise Cavallari is head of the corporate digital printing initiative at Nestlé. This is a massive undertaking, given the sheer breadth and scope of products in a company that requires enormous volume and high quality in everything it does. Cavallari explains what he feels are the main barriers to digital’s adoption.

“For me, the first big barrier is food safety. The next concern is that today’s digital printing comes with too many constraints that draw down from the promise of flexibility,” he says. “But we are interested in digital print, as we consider it as one of the most innovative technologies in the packaging world. The implications go far beyond packaging, which is why we are concerned with finding a way to use the technology in support of our operations, as a value-adding process.”

The innovation is out there in the market, Cavallari says. “We see a number of innovative activities, such as integration towards a digital end-to-end process and within printing, converting, and decorating,” he adds. “We are following all the latest developments with great interest in the hopes that we will find a solution we can adopt or adapt.”

Another major brand-owner with a broad range of products and a keen interest in digital adoption is Unilever. Matt Daniels is the global packaging capability leader for printing and decoration in the Port Sunlight office. He has a vast experience of print, decoration and artwork, and has many insights to offer as a packaging print expert.

He believes there are opportunities and limitations for digital print packaging and gives his thoughts on the brand limitation and motivation, as well as on future trends for packaging.

“Over the past 25 years, I have occupied various packaging roles, with a focus on print; from graphic designer and artwork, through artwork and print manager, which gives me a very broad and deep appreciation of the various printing technologies, software and hardware, and how they work with packaging,” he says. “I also have expertise in the decorative effects available to and used by Unilever. Beyond this, I have the privilege to work with outstanding colleagues and partners that help bring ideas to reality. While my speciality in print is within flexo, with the changes and improvements in digital that are developing, the current focus is on emerging print and decoration technologies, and how we can best use them.”

Daniels explains that speed is the biggest change he has seen in print in his career. “I am probably most amazed by the speed at which packaging is designed, processed for print and printed today,” he says. “I remember using bromide paper and clear film for an artwork proof 25 years ago. The influence of a digitised way of working and tools has aided this change. Some might say this shift in ways of working has been phenomenal to drive the print industry forward.”

For Daniels, price is still one of the biggest hurdles to uptake with digital. “More work is needed to understand the total cost model; it’s not just about comparing hard-line facts and figures,” he says. “There are many other influences that impact the true cost. Beyond this, it’s also vital to ensure that FDA food safety standards are met.”

Food for flexo

With its increasing presence on the smartest high streets in the UK, popular Japanese fast food chain itsu is also expanding its grocery offering.

Co-founded by Pret A Manger founder Julian Metcalfe, itsu already serves over nine million customers a year, with a range of sushi, sashimi and noodles. To build on its consecutive yearly sales increases of 30%, itsu has boosted its grocery business with gyoza, a menu item that is now available in supermarket freezer sections.

Flexographic printing was chosen for the packaging of the itsu gyoza range – available in vegetable fusion, king prawn and sesame tuna varieties – with flexible pouches that can be easily resealed in a ziplock style. Metcalfe says, “I am thrilled to be bringing gyoza to the frozen aisle. Supermarket shoppers are already able to ‘eat beautiful’ at home with our range of miso soups, noodle pots and seaweed thins, so our gyoza range gives customers yet another great way to enjoy top-quality products at home.”

Holly Hunt, itsu’s PR representative, says, “The UK dumpling market jumped by 43% from 2009 to 2015 as the blossoming gyoza food trend continues to flourish. With the new resealable packs from itsu, preparing authentic gyoza at home or work has never been easier, as they can be boiled, pan-cooked or microwaved in just three to six minutes, and can be added to broths, stir fries, noodles or rice.

“Flexographic printing was chosen for its high-quality results and, as a standard form of printing, the fact that it is reliable and proven for image quality on long runs.”

Pickering’s Gin label has a luxury feel.
Nestlé is interested in digital print but food safety is among the concerns.
PepsiCo has successfully used digital print for a summer campaign.


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