Old versus new

11 February 2020

Conventional print or digital – do we have to choose a side or do different techniques have different benefits? Abi Millar talks to Thayer Long, president of the Association for PRINT Technologies, to learn more about how digital and conventional print stack up, and what we can expect from the industry in 2020.

In the years since it first launched, Coca-Cola’s ‘Share a Coke’ campaign has reached near-legendary status. The campaign, which debuted in Australia in 2011, soon expanded to 80 countries across the world. Sales rose by 2% in the US, reversing 11 years of decline in Coke consumption.


The basic idea is simple. On one side of the bottle, the company logo is replaced with ‘Share a Coke with’ and then a person’s name. Now a summer rite of passage, the campaign has returned each year with new iterations. In the UK in 2017, bottles featured the names of holiday destinations. And in the US in 2018, the names were printed on removable stickers.


The campaign is often cited as one of the first examples of personalised packaging by a major brand. It was also groundbreaking from a technical perspective. Using a mix of conventional and digital printing techniques, this was the first project to bring digitally printed labels into the mainstream.


First, the labels are printed in conventional gravure or flexo, with a gap where the name will be. The names are digitally printed into this gap, before the labels are returned to the conventional printers for varnishing and inspection.


“This project highlights new possibilities for promotional campaigns for using customised packaging and labels to engage with consumers, and we expect to see many other companies exploring this opportunity,” said Graham Backhouse of Amberley, Coca-Cola’s UK printing partner.


True enough, many other brands have followed suit. In 2015, Oreo launched its ‘Oreo Colourfilled’ campaign, which encouraged fans to select a packaging design online and ‘colour in’ the image with a digital paintbrush. The customer received a digitally printed, personalised pack of biscuits. 


In 2018, Frito-Lay introduced ‘Snackable Notes’, billed as a modern twist on the classic lunch note. Available on special variety packs, it enabled US parents to print notes for their children on a crisp packet. Kellogg’s did something similar with ‘Love Notes’ – personalised Braille packaging for blind children on their Rice Krispies Treats. Examples of this kind are becoming more prevalent. However, by and large they are still used for one-off campaigns, and may have an air of novelty or even gimmickry.


As Thayer Long, president of the Association for PRINT Technologies, explains, conventional printing techniques (offset, gravure and flexo) are still by far and away the dominant force in packaging.


“Digital is just beginning to be a force in packaging,” he says. “It’s still early for digital in packaging but it’s making big inroads.”



Report card
According to a recent report by Smithers, the total global market for digitally printed packaging was worth $18.9 billion in 2019. This figure has more than doubled over the past five years, and will continue to grow at a CAGR of 13.1% to reach $31.6bn in 2024. However, that impressive growth rate should be viewed in context – the total printed packaging market stands at $420bn, and even by 2024 digital print will only make up 6.4% of the total.


“Conventional print techniques still dominate for longer print runs as digital remains somewhat cost-prohibitive,” says Long. “It is up to the brand-owner to do their homework and understand the differences between the capabilities of each of the two types of production and what is the best solution for their business.”


He adds that digital has the edge for short runs, and can dramatically boost speed to market. This is ideal for customised packaging, which typically has a limited run-length or will only be on the market for a short period of time.


“Timing can be a huge factor, as the desire to go to market immediately with a product is usually one of the driving factors for the solution that is chosen,” he says. “Going with digital provides brand-owners the opportunity to not print over-runs, change out packing design quickly, potentially do second print runs if the item is well received in-market and there is high demand. All of this can save the brand-owner quite a bit of time and money, which in the end benefits their bottom line.” 


It’s a topic Long knows well. The Association for PRINT Technologies has served the print industry for almost 90 years, providing research, educational events and (more latterly) webinars and podcasts to its members.


“In 2018, we opened our doors to include the print service providers into our membership organisation,” he says. “Many commercial printers provide packaging solutions for their clients whether through labels, folding carton or corrugated solutions. Our goal is to help the entire value chain – manufacturers, printers and brand-owners – understand the print processes and the benefits of print in our increasingly digital world.”



Answer this
One big question for brand-owners is how they can get the balance right between digital and conventional print technologies. In many instances, the choice will be obvious and there’s little rationale to mix it up. In other cases there may be scope to maximise the benefits of both technologies, striking a balance between volume and customisation.


Long thinks brand-owners should be engaging with this question directly, rather than leaving it all to the printing company.


“There are software solutions on the market that help with determining the crossover points as to what is the most effective and efficient method of printing packaging,” he says. “Usually the printer or label converter will make the decision on how to print based on the specifications provided by the brand-owners. In reality, the brand-owner should be educated on what their options are, how that impacts their bottom line, and what types of packaging can be created through traditional versus digital packaging.”


In terms of trends he’s noticed within this sphere, one is the rise of digital printing directly onto rigid containers. Technically impossible until recently, this has become a promising new growth area, with a proliferation of novel technologies for printing onto plastic or even glass.


“Many companies are going direct to bottle because of the small craft breweries and distilleries boom that has taken hold, further driving digital’s success,” says Long.


One example is the glass manufacturer Owens-Illinois, which in 2018 announced a new technique for digitally printing onto bottles. This might be used to produce, say, a customised craft beer or a special edition bottle of vodka.


Speaking to The Manufacturer, the company’s senior vice-president Arnaud Aujouannet said, “we see the life cycle of products now speeding up. Less breadth of product, but many more smaller innovations that are very often driven by packaging. Packaging drives a critical role in differentiation.”



Stand up and be counted
Another growth area is stand-up pouches. Despite their growing popularity, these are not always straightforward to manufacture, with multiple layers requiring multiple steps in production. Digital printing can expedite what is often a time-consuming process.


“Pouches are a key growth area for packaging generally due to retail shelf space and the pressure from retailers and millennials for sustainable packaging options,” Long continues.


More generally, he is seeing the discussion around digital printing begin to change. Whereas in the past, digital printing was typified as being for short runs only, there are signs that digital could one day rival offset at an industrial scale.


“One topic we are hearing debated is, for the past several drupa [trade fair] events, many of the digital vendors have launched products that are faster, have wider sheet or web capabilities that can produce higher quantities to compete with traditional.”


With the drupa 2020 event coming up in June, he thinks this could be one of the major questions in contention. Beyond that, Long also cites a number of topics that might spur debate.


“Will the manufacturers deliver products that have a wider or larger format and what will the result of productivity increases be for the printer? Will that help to bring costs down for the brand-owner? Will it shift the needle enough to make digital a more economical production process? Or is it now up to the producers of print to be able to develop new and unique products for their customers, to drive interest in print for today and beyond?”


One thing is for sure – we are moving away from an era of identikit mass production and towards a time of greater choice. Tomorrow’s brand-owners will have many more options when it comes to packaging, and many creative branding ideas will be made possible through digital technologies. That said, wholesale change will likely be slow in coming.


“I don’t believe that digital will be the sole production solution for packaging in the near future,” concludes Long. “The cost-effectiveness of traditional over digital in many cases will continue to be the driver for this. I see that digital will continue to expand, as many of the manufacturers develop new technologies and machines that can print faster with more unique capabilities.”




[Box out]

6th drupa Global Trends report

The 6th drupa Global Trends Report shows that the global print industry as a whole is in a stable condition. Although some regions and markets are doing better, and overall there is positive growth, political and economic concerns for the future do cloud an otherwise positive outlook.

Globally, 40% of printers stated their company economic condition was ‘good’ in 2018 versus 13% who described their condition as ‘poor’; the rest were ‘satisfactory’. This gives a positive net balance of 27%. For suppliers the positive net balance was 19%. Both groups remain optimistic with c.50% expecting things to be better in 2019.

Conditions vary between regions and between markets. North America continued to enjoy strong growth in 2018, Europe and Australia enjoyed steady growth, whilst Asia, the Middle East and South and Central America were cautious; Africa was in decline. The 2018 results reflect the established pattern in most regions, although the decline in the Middle East and South and Central America appears to be worsening.

The packaging market thrives as does functional, but there are clear signs of increasing caution in the commercial market and publishing remains subdued, with the encouraging exception of the books market.

In terms of capital expenditure, 41% of printers spent more in 2018 than 2017, while just 15% spent less and expenditure grew in all regions except Africa. Those in packaging and functional markets were very bullish while those in commercial and publishing markets were more cautious. It was broadly the same pattern amongst suppliers.


For printers, finishing equipment was the most common target in 2019, followed by print technology and then pre-press/Workflow/MIS. As for Print technology, Digital toner sheetfed colour was the most common target for investment in 2019 for all markets, except for Packaging where Sheetfed Offset took first place. Yet the Packaging market saw a 5% growth in the proportion of SKU’s specifying digital print across all applications, except for Labels where the figure is already 40%.


Source: drupa


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