Package Printing: Mainstream Crossover

To increase opportunities and profits, more commercial printers are adding packaging to their product lists. In the United States alone, packaging is a $200 billion business—and savvy printing firms are using technology to grab their fair share of dollars.

Economic studies from the Printing Industries of America and Print Industries Market Information and Research Organization (PRIMIR) confirm that increasing numbers of print company owners have and are expanding into ancillary services such as mailing, fulfillment, and database management. Postpress bindery and finishing services are more natural outgrowths, and more commercial printers are diversifying into newspapers and insert production, and vice versa. In a reverse supplier twist, Advanced Vision Technology spent $33 million on pressroom automation system provider Graphic Microsystems Inc. from Dover Diversified. AVT said the cash buyout in late 2007 has allowed it to move from its previously established packaging market base into the commercial printing and newspaper sectors.

But package printing may be the most logical fit of all—especially in light of the technological changes being made in printing presses.

Two Wisconsin printing plants, for example, do more than just dabble in the packaging arena. Outlook Group, the Neenah-based subsidiary of privately held Vista Group Holdings LLC, prints direct marketing, packaging and labels on a range of sheetfed, flexo, screen, and digital presses. With some 500 employees, Outlook is a big player; Vista Group paid $46 million to acquire the company three years ago. But what about smaller printers needing to diversify for financial survival?

The Garvey Group, with multiple plants and $50 million in annual sales, also appeals to a broad customer base with an eclectic product mix. The Niles, Ill. firm, launched in 1919 as an office supply company, has four facilities: a main plant in suburban Chicago and three satellite locations in Wisconsin including Milwaukee, where the printing focuses on a combination of 40-inch general commercial, packaging and plastics applications.

A more recent entrée to packaging is American Printing Co., Birmingham, Ala., which installed a Speedmaster CD 102 eight-color press earlier this year. The new press replaces a pair of aging eight-color SM 102 perfectors and is the second 40-inch Heidelberg that the company has installed within the past six months, having added a new eight-color SM 102 perfector with coater last year. The 110,000-sq-ft plant operates 24/6 and also houses web-offset and digital presses.

“American Printing is a successful general commercial printer looking for new opportunities, like packaging,” said Bo Stanford, who owns the 90-year-old firm. “With the new Speedmaster CD, we’re well equipped to explore those markets.”

In mid-2008, Dual Graphics expanded into package printing with the purchase of a new Speedmaster XL 105 press. Based in Brea, Calif., the general commercial shop was looking for a dual solution, wanting to increase efficiencies through updates to its pressroom while also expanding into the packaging market.

The XL 105, with its ability to run a variety of heavy and unusual substrates, has enabled Dual to expand into the packaging market. “It really sets us apart from our competitors,” Sales Manager Bill Cooper said. “A couple of our sales reps were looking to expand their business in this tough economy. We found some package printing opportunities and figured out how to purchase materials. The efficient makeready along with the fast run speed of the XL 105 are allowing us to compete in the competitive packaging market.” The shop, in operation since 1972, has grown over the past three decades to more than 100 employees.

Another California printer, K&D Graphics, has been in the packaging market for eight years. Last December, CEO Don Chew installed a 16-unit XL 105 perfector to boost his family-owned, Orange, Calif. firm’s overall packaging capabilities. Chew originally specified the unique configuration in 2003, and it took more than five years to realize his “dream press.” K&D’s XL 105 features 12 printing units with multiple coating units, drying units and a perfector. In one pass, the press prints six colors and coats on both sides of the sheet. It features an optional CutStar feeder that can switch from roll-fed to sheetfed mode at the push of a button.

The commercial printing and paperboard packaging production company hopes to have more opportunities for complex jobs including double-coating, perfecting in one pass and producing plastic and other packaging materials. “We designed the press with UV capability as a foray into the high-end packaging market,” Chew noted.

K&D replaced a smaller model six-color press with the XL 105. Earlier this year, “we ran a 700,000-sheet job in five days that would have taken us three weeks on the old press,” he said.

Two Years of History

Fong Brothers Printing of Brisbane, Calif., has a bit more history when it comes to beefing up its print line with packaging. The $24 million commercial printer added packaging and folding cartons printed on heavier board to its portfolio in mid-2007 with the addition of six-color, 40-inch Mitsubishi Diamond 3000LX sheetfed press.

With a reputation for catering to corporate clients and ad agencies with short-run brochures, flyers and marketing materials, President Tony Fong said the Diamond 3000LX allows the firm to print regular commercial projects while providing greater flexibility for carton printing. “We print a lot of product boxes for the technology industry,” noted Fong. “This press … provides greater flexibility in the types and sturdiness of cartons the company can produce.” The 3000XL handles stock ranging from 0.002 inches to 0.040 inches, including paper, board, and synthetic substrates. (Prior to this installation, Fong Brothers typically produced small to medium-run packaging on substrates up to 24-point.)

Founded in 1971, Fong Brothers today employs some 200 people and operates two production facilities in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as a printing and graphic systems distribution firm in China. The company’s comprehensive sheetfed and web presses cover the spectrum of printing needs from one to eight colors, also offering inline aqueous and off-line UV coating capabilities.

Digitally Printed Packaging

Going digital might be a more economical and easier way for commercial printers to get into the packaging space. Fourteen months ago, Xerox and Stora Enso introduced a solution for the pharmaceutical market that helps print providers and packaging converters deliver personalized cartons and other packages in short runs. For example, the solution can print a box with variable security codes or with personalized instructions based on a patient’s medical needs.

More recently, Traco Manufacturing, Orem, Utah, said it is the first company to focus exclusively on digitally printed shrink sleeves via an HP Indigo press ws4500. Preferential shrink film is converted to custom sleeves for easily recognized tamper-evidence. Also known as custom cut sleeves, tamper-evident sleeves, sleeve tubing, full body sleeves, printed sleeves, clear sleeves and multipack sleeves, shrink sleeves are intended for removal after purchase—unlike labels.

Prior to installing the digital press, Traco offered printed shrink sleeves and film produced overseas using rotogravure technology. The firm decided to install the Indigo based on increased customer demand for faster turn times, customized text and images and shorter run lengths. A new digital workflow has helped Traco reduce expenses by eliminating the high cost of cylinder plates and air freight.

“The HP Indigo press ws4500 has allowed us to better serve existing customers and capture new business opportunities with the ability to present unique shrink sleeve solutions to customers,” said John Palica, president of Traco. “In the past, we were limited to long run lengths and static printing processes. Now, we can meet the demand for shorter run lengths and variable-data printing.”

With the installation of the HP Indigo press, Traco completed a project for Nuriche, a manufacturer and supplier of nutritional products, which included the production of three shrink sleeve designs in quantities of 5,000 and 2,000. With the new press, Traco was able to deliver the job in five days with quality superior to that found in gravure printing.

Large-format Package Printing

East of the Mississippi River, in America’s heartland, Litho Press spotlights a new Roland 900XXL sheetfed that went online last summer. The 73-inch press turns out everything from box wraps, top sheets and maps, to large in-store signage and POP displays, large folding cartons and general commercial print jobs.

The Indianapolis-based firm also sports two six-color manroland presses—a 41-inch Roland 700 and a 56-inch 900 model, both with UV coaters—that handle a range of commercial and package printing applications as well.

“Along with lots of commercial trade printing, we do more and more packaging, POP, displays, corrugated … plastics, too,” said Bernie Lacy, who co-owns the 56-year-old shop with his brother, John. Litho’s presses can print on onion skin flysheet paper all the way up to 48-pt. MicroFlute board, on plastic, styrene, static clings, and Cling-Z’s.

Along with a sheet splitter and UV dryer, the 900 XXL arrived with the manroland Pecom operating, workflow integration and automation system for faster makereadies, automatic plate loading and more—including automatic blanket-impression cylinder adjustment for substrate thickness. “We can print up to 48-pt. board and switch from paper to board in almost no time,” noted John Lacy. “We can coat with aqueous or inline UV. We can more-competitively price, for example, 36x50-inch configurations because we can run them two-up.”

More Than Brown Boxes

In the Pacific Northwest, Trojan Lithograph has grown from a small print shop 59 years ago to a premier sheetfed house that added folding carton production in the 1980s. Now G7-certified, the versatile firm claims that no printer west of the Rockies offers more services under one roof. The Renton, Wash. company boasts a full range of packaging, commercial printing, and converting capabilities—producing everything from brown boxes to high-end commercial print and work on oversize presses such as the 56-inch, eight-color KBA Rapida 142 added to its 200,000-sq-ft facility in mid-2005.

“Instead of running 100,000 sheets for a box design through our 40-inch presses one-up, we can put through 50,000 sheets two-up,” explained Wayne Millage, president of Trojan Litho. The press also is equipped with a slitter on the delivery end, which “allows us to utilize a 56-inch sheet, put two different jobs on the same sheet but only burn one set of plates and cut the sheet in half into two 28×40-inch sheets,” Millage noted. “We’re using all of the efficiencies of a large-format press but being able to produce short-run jobs.”

Trojan said it chose the KBA press because it can produce high-quality work for both its packaging and commercial work. “For example, we’re able to produce oversize graphics with UV coatings and varnish and unique graphic effects,” noted Millage. “We can offer our ad agency clients banners and oversize prints. And we can print on different substrates, such as plastic.”

Trojan’s Rapida 142 also is equipped with UV coating and UV interdeck lamps at each station. “This is another feature that differentiates us from our competition,” he added. “By having an eight-color press with coating and UV, we’re able to design unique jobs for our customers with aqueous coating and hybrid UV inks. Our customers can design jobs that are anti-counterfeit. We found that KBA’s extensive experience in producing presses for the security-conscious banknote industry helps us and our customers.”

The Future of Packaging and Print

It is obvious that sheetfed press OEMs are placing renewed emphasis on packaging. At drupa a year ago, Komori debuted the latest addition to its Lithrone platform: the LSX40 press. Targeted for high-volume commercial printers, the increased maximum sheet size—29.5x41 inches—and fast running speeds (up to 18,000 sph) has added attraction for packaging and label printers. The press series features short makeready performance.

At a “Packaging Days” event in Germany three months ago, more than 100 visitors from 25 countries, including a contingent of U.S. customers, spent a day at the Heidelberg Print Media Center within the Wiesloch-Walldorf manufacturing site.

“It was nothing less than an awakening,” observed Ward McLaughlin, CEO of paperboard packaging printer Boutwell, Owens & Co., located in Fitchburg, Mass. “Heidelberg definitely has made a serious commitment to the packaging market.”

The printing equipment maker is centralizing and consolidating its packaging R&D in Hall 11 at the facility, including production and assembly of all Dymatrix die cutters. The company also has established a Packaging Competence Center for presentations, training and customer application testing.

Also this past March, X-Rite partnered with Clemson University’s new Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design and Graphics to provide the school’s students, faculty, research staff and corporate partners with the technology and knowledge resources to pursue rigorous education and spearhead research in packaging science and technology. The institute establishes the nation’s first formal collaboration between the disciplines of packaging science and graphic communications. As the new think tank for the packaging industry, it will provide a focus on innovation for the next generation of packaging professionals.

X-Rite is supplying complete solutions to assist the Sonoco Institute with every facet of color reproduction, from concept and design through output, for projects that represent real-world packaging workflows.

The Sonoco Institute, in cooperation with X-Rite color experts, is hosting a variety of seminars, workshops, and symposia. During these events, held at Clemson University,, several times a year, the institute is offering hands-on sessions in color measurement and analysis. Here, students and industry partners can also learn how color control systems contribute to increase the operational efficiencies of a packaging production workflow.

Based near Chicago, contributing editor Mark Vruno is a business writer who has reported on the commercial print industry for more than 20 years. Most recently, he was executive editor of Graphic Arts Monthly magazine. E-mail him at