In recent years, digital printing has generated a considerable amount of hype – and with good reason. Since the mid-1990s, when the first digital printing presses came to market, the technology has been touted as a way to save time, reduce waste and facilitate short printing runs.
Unlike regular printing, which uses a separate plate for each print run, presses with digital technology don’t require the machine to be reset; instead, changes to the design can be made on a computer, while the press switches from one impression to the next without interruption.
Although the technology is still relatively immature, it is also one of the fastest-growing markets within the wider printing sector. According to a report by market researcher Smithers Pira, the digital packaging market generated $12.8 billion sales in 2017 (3.25% of all printed packaging). Sales are set to reach $22.4 billion by 2022, showing a compound annual growth rate of 13%, while volumes are set to increase even faster.
As the report explained, while the label sector has been an early adopter, accounting for 93.5% of digital print volumes in 2015, other sectors are growing rapidly, including corrugated, carton, flexibles and direct-to-shape printing. Digital technology continues to improve, meaning it is becoming increasingly cost-competitive against analogue printing presses – even for longer runs.
There are many reasons for this surge in interest. Alongside the growing popularity of short-run production, other drivers include legislative changes concerning labelling, and track and trace. In essence, labels need to convey more information than they used to, requiring pack designs to be updated quickly. They may also need to add a unique identifier at the item level, which can be facilitated via digital print.
Perhaps most important, though, is the potential for personalised packaging and, therefore, improved brand engagement. Coca-Cola’s ‘Share a Coke’ campaign demonstrated that consumers respond well to one-off designs, as evidenced by 150 million personalised bottles being sold across 80 markets. To put it simply, if a consumer drinks a Coke with their name on it, they feel targeted as an individual, rather than as a member of a group.
“The world has been moving away from analogue to digital for a while, so it’s no surprise that this evolution is now taking hold in the packaging industry,” says Danielle Miller, global packaging innovation director at Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev). “All of our consumers interact with the packaging. This makes it an important communication tool.”
Miller’s team forms part of GITEC, AB InBev’s global research and development centre in Leuven, Belgium. Comprising more than 120 scientists and specialists, GITEC has the objective of ‘creating and delivering winning innovation and technologies’. The team collaborates with partners across the world to tap relevant expertise.
For Miller, AB InBev sees several benefits to digital printing. Firstly, by offering customised packaging, the company can make meaningful connections with its customers. Secondly, as the costs of digital printing continue to fall, brand-owners can deliver a premium image without the associated price tag.
“We can offer consumers more specialised products, without the typical constraints like lead time and minimumorder quantities, which opens a lot of possibilities for packaging,” Miller explains. “In a world where consumers are bombarded with mass, one-sizefits- all options, digital printing allows our brands to stand out and engage our consumers in ways that simply haven’t been possible before.”
It’s a radical departure from the ‘massproduced’ feel that characterises the consumer goods sector. Since the Industrial Revolution, customers have been given a choice between affordable, standardised products and bespoke alternatives, which are often pricier. Personalised packaging gives them the best of both worlds.
On top of customer engagement, there are benefits for the environment. By digitally printing its packaging, AB InBev estimates that it can reduce its CO2 emissions by 60%. This is due to the difference in materials and the lower temperature used in digital printing.
There is also significantly less waste created, as the production process can be planned according to the exact number of orders, with little scope for leftover stock.
“There’s reason to believe that digital printing carries environmental benefits compared with traditional decoration methods,” affirms Miller. “However, like everything, it’s all relative to the comparison being made and the scope being considered. With no minimum order quantities and shorter lead times for production, one can argue that, at the very least, digitally printed labels will result in less obsolete and wasted materials.”
She adds that digital object printing – including direct printing onto a bottle or can – may go one step further, providing additional advantages such as lower energy and water use.
AB InBev, together with its partners, has been making strides in this space. Last year, the company developed a new digital process for directly printing texts, logos and images onto cans and glass bottles. This technology has all the benefits one would associate with digital inputs, as well as reducing the amount of material required.
“We’ve been developing digital object printing on glass bottles and aluminum cans with our partners at Dekron, a Krones subsidiary, and Tonejet,” states Miller. “We’re able to print 360° around the container surface and deliver a painted look that we know is perceived as being more premium by our consumers.”
This technology was used during the FIFA 2018 World Cup, when each player in the championship game was given a personalised bottle in the locker room after the match.
It was also used at the last year’s Tomorrowland dance festival in Belgium, where the company delivered 10,000 personalised Budweiser cans that were printed with 20 different flag designs. This campaign generated a huge amount of social media buzz, as people took photos of themselves with their cans and posted them on Facebook and Instagram.
“There are many different types of customisation and personalisation that can be done with digital printing,” says Miller. “We have been thinking a lot about the ways digital printing can be leveraged across our brand portfolio to connect with consumers.”
More recently, the company completed a digital printing campaign in Mexico, allowing customers to personalise a Stella Artois chalice for Father’s Day through the brand’s online store. This followed a promotion for the same holiday last year, in which 2,500 personalised beer glasses were printed for the French retailer Saveur Bière. In both cases, it was necessary to overcome some technical challenges. Printing on glass is far from straightforward, as the ink on the bottles has to withstand high temperatures during pasteurisation and the surface can be uneven; that said, Stella’s campaign was a notable success.
“We sold 1,150% [more] chalices versus a typical month, and sales of Stella Artois increased by 30%,” says Miller when asked about the beer’s programme. “There’s no question that a link exists between these consumer-centric campaigns and sales, and we look forward to continuing to learn how to connect our consumers to our brands in a stronger way through packaging.”
The real question, perhaps, is not necessarily just about why one should choose digital, but how big it could get. After all, while personalised campaigns are clearly ideal for marketing purposes, brands will need to strike a balance between volume and customisation.
Not for everyone
Miller points out that digital printing will not be the right technical solution for every campaign. She emphasises that, “Just like any initiative, project leaders will have to assess their objectives and the technology options to deliver them. When evaluating different options, we always consider the desirability for the consumer, the viability of the cost or investment required and the feasibility of making it happen. It’s the sweet spot where all three criteria are met that we have something that can not only be meaningful for our consumers, but for the business as well.”
AB InBev does not yet apply digital printing on an industrial scale; however, it plans to keep investing in its digital printing processes, with a view to rolling them out on a larger scale in the future. Miller says that, while she believes in the value that digital printing can bring to AB InBev’s customers and brands, she thinks the company has a lot to learn about how best to leverage the benefits.
“For decades, we’ve launched campaigns under the constraints of traditional decoration methods. Retraining our creative teams on the new possibilities digital print can unlock is something that will take time,” she adds. “We’ll likely do some things suboptimally at first and have a few missteps along the way – and that’s okay. As a company, we’re committed to learning and improving; it’s part of our ‘never satisfied’ mentality that’s embedded in the culture at AB InBev and is one we’re applying to our developments here.”
So, will the future be fully digital? It’s a tempting – and perhaps too convenient – conclusion. With the technology still in its infancy, and the digital printing market a fraction of the overall print market, the industry will be seeing a mix of analogue and digital technologies for some time.
“Whether digital fully replaces conventional print over time, I’m not sure,” admits Miller. “However, with the progression of consumer accessibility to all things digital, ecommerce platforms and the desire for more cultivated experiences, I’m convinced that digital printing will continue to grow in the packaging world – and I’m proud that AB InBev has been leading the way.”
Print facts and figures
- According to Smithers Pira’s report, ‘The Future of Digital vs Offset Printing to 2022’, digital print accounted for just 3.9% of global printed packaging volumes in 2017. However, it accounted for 16.4% of the value. By 2022, digital will seize 19.1% of the market’s value and 4.3% of its volume.
- Despite the growth of digital technology, offset remains the dominant technology – putting conventional printers’ minds at ease. Of the companies listed in the 2017 Printing Impressions 400 list – which comprises the top printers in the US and Canada – 12 focused solely on digital and 34 were conventional only; the remainder offered a combination of the two, showing that hybridprinting environments are becoming the new normal.
- Flexography has grown quickly over the past few years, particularly in the Asia-Pacific and Latin America. According to a report by Coherent Market Insights, the global flexographic printing inks market was valued at $6.23 billion in 2016 and was spurred on by the packaging sector. However, there are concerns about the environmental impacts of solventbased ink, which may hinder growth in the years to come.
- According to Smithers Pira, the global market for inkjet printing is growing at a rate of 9.4% each year and will surpass $100 billion by 2023. (It currently stands at just under $70 billion.) This makes inkjet the fastest-growing printing process by far.