Flexible packaging is poised to increase 4.1% CAGR to 2016, creating a $71.3 billion marketplace, documents a recent report by Pira International. In the U.S., states the Flexible Packaging Association, flexible packaging generated 2011 sales of $25.4 billion, the second largest segment of the...
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Gravure, explains Radogna, is a necessity when sustainability comes in to play. For brands like Proctor & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson, key factors are the ability to keep the packaging consistent, predictable, and repeatable for a decade or longer. Plus, they need to produce the package in runs of millions.
Flexo offers water-based inks (which are FDA compliant) that are well-suited for applications that are primarily surface printed and varnished. Says Collins. “Wide-web converters (being 20”+) would likely use gravure printing for these applications and apply an overlam for protection,” she explains. “ In theory, digital printing fits well into the short run; many SKUs and speed delivery required in the growing flexpack world of today, but the shortfalls lie in surface printing and the required good barrier for applications that require FDA compliance. The ink technology of digital limits applications for the narrow web converter, but there are solutions to make this technology work.”
Digital printing inroads
Narrow web and label opportunities have increased as digital press capabilities are being realized, and digital has the highest potential for growth in the packaging market, reports Peter Saunders, global sales & marketing manager, Sun Chemical. ” It is anticipated that there will be increased availability of capable equipment and higher adoption rates leading to significant growth in digital printing over the next five years,” says Saunders.
Perhaps not so much in flexible packaging, but certainly in labels and folding cartons.
“Folding cartons are likely the next available market in ‘packaging’ for digital. We recently launched the EtiJet LM UV low migration UV curing ink range for the digital label market which leads in that direction.”
While digital printing provides a great option for the variety of product SKUs going to market, roll-to-roll flexible packaging does require FDA compliant inks and varnishes for a variety of opportunities, and the high heat the ink is exposed to (300F+) are factors in using digital technology today.
Ken Kisner, president of INX Digital International, notes that while “digital is playing only a small part in printing onto flexible packaging, interest remains high. Digital printing is being used for special projects but has not reached the mainstream market. New, fixed array machinery is hitting the market with wider and wider arrays that allow digital technology to play a bigger role in the market. New print head technologies with higher native dpi and faster print capabilities are allowing for better penetration of digital technology.”
The HP Indigo is being used for some short runs that require treated substrates. INX Digital and a few other ink companies are currently testing Low Migration ink sets that they hope to market in 2013. These products will allow short run, mass customization and serialization, as well as test marketing.
“One of the hurdles is that Low Migration UV monomers, which have a high molecular weight, tend to have high viscosity levels,” says Kisner. “Ink jet requires extremely low viscosity in order to eject the small drop of ink out of very small orifices—the diameter is approximately 1-2 times the diameter of an average human hair. INX Digital is working directly with machinery manufacturers and print head suppliers to launch some new and exciting technologies for Low Migration inkjet applications.”
Drawing the lines
Deciding which print technology to use is dependent upon the application—food vs. personal care, variable printing required, how many SKUs, run size and any secondary operations that may be needed.
“In terms of technologies, I see digital gaining ground as speed and web width increases,” says Hill. “Those factors draw the line in the sand for flexible packaging. The cost to produce graphics for flexo or gravure printed jobs are the main drivers for traditional printing. Plates are still less expensive to produce than a gravure cylinder, and short run gravure is cost effective as long as the job involves repeat runs.”