Practical Paths to Package Printing

Package printing represents an increasingly exciting and profitable business opportunity for print providers. Package prototyping, proofing, short runs, and labels are all profit centers that beckon to printers. But many want a roadmap of sorts to begin their pursuit of this marketplace. They want to know what equipment they will need, how to recognize opportunities, and how to get started. We turned to a group of leading experts to deliver those answers.

Until recently, producing realistic prototypes was a very costly proposition that required use of specialized proofing equipment or the stoppage of the press to run samples. New wide-format inkjet printing technologies are changing the landscape, making package prototyping easy and profitable for many types of print providers, says Steven Tu, product manager for Roland DGA Corp.

“For those just getting into the market, we recommend focusing on flexible package prototypes and folding cartons, [which are] profitable applications that are easy to produce using new wide-format printing technologies,” Tu says.

Today’s wide-format UV inkjet printers are a great option and can be acquired for an initial investment of about $60,000. “In addition to being relatively affordable upfront, they continue to deliver cost and time savings over their lifespan when compared to traditional printing technologies,” Tu says, adding that among their greatest benefits is the seamless workflow they allow, taking a design through printing and finishing without requiring any platemaking.

Other advantages include quick changeover of production, variable data printing, and on-demand production. “We recommend an integrated print/cut solution for the greatest levels of efficiency,” he says.

Tu also points out that Roland’s UV-LED technology enables printing on virtually any press stock, including shrink films and other heat-sensitive media. Specialized ink sets, including white inks and clear coat, can produce effects and patterns ranging from embossing and varnishing to faux leather, crocodile skin, and even Braille.

In the package prototyping space, a number of flatbed options also exist, many of which print and emboss on thicker stocks, such as corrugated board, commonly used for rigid packaging, Tu says.

Regardless of the platform chosen, printers should ensure their equipment offers extensive color management capabilities, including Pantone spot color libraries and integration with leading color management software from CGS, GMG, and EFI.

Reed Hecht, professional imaging product manager for Epson, reports there are two applications for packaging. They are the proofing component to serve brand managers of major consumer goods providers, and production for marketing applications or unique niche products.

Print providers should look for opportunities in areas where they have the greatest strength, according to Hecht. “The shops I see doing a good job are those with color profiling capabilities and knowledge of color,” he reports.

“The one challenge in producing color-accurate proofs has to do with knowledge of spot proof. Someone with a color expert on staff is probably going to be more successful in this area. They will be able to speak the language of the ad agency and match the brand colors—the Barbie pinks and the colors expected on the proofs. I see most shops doing this as an ancillary business in addition to their point of purchase, banner, or signage work.”


The Converting Aspect

Any type of packaging for boxes has to be die-cut to create the correct shape. The problem for many print providers entering packaging is that the equipment has been very sophisticated, high speed, and geared to volume.

Larry Corwin, president of Rollem International says there never has existed a solution for the 50-sheet or 500-sheet jobs done by small commercial printers. “As a result, the packaging market has been off limits to the quick printers because of that equipment leap,” he adds. “There’s been no sheetfed, short-run strategy in place until the introduction of our Delta Die Cutter.”

That’s Delta as in the scientific symbol that means change, he adds. “It changes business opportunities for the quick printer. It offers changeover in less than five minutes, now enabling even a 100-sheet run to be profitable.”

Moreover, this equipment can convert the printed sheet into any shape necessary to serve the packaging market, Corwin says. Those shapes include boxes, labels, rounded corners, and scalloped edges. That opens markets that include packaging, labels, mailings, greeting cards, and rounded corner business cards.

“A printed sheet is not complete today without it being converted into a finished product,” Corwin says. “Who out there is not looking for new opportunities?”


Speaking of Labels

As the market trends toward shorter runs and more variable on-demand printing, digital technology allows the small-to-medium-sized printer to garner more business, says Stephen Emery, vice president of the Jetrion and ink business for EFI. “Even among medium- to high-volume printers, with our system, the digital printing model provides inline finishing,” he says. “That allows a label printer or narrow-format printer to become more of a lean manufacturer of labels. There may be several steps with a narrow or flexo web press, but with digital you eliminate a lot of those steps. And instead of having multiple operators, all you need is one operator.”

Inline modules let providers start with the print station, add a laser die-cutter, then a lamination or varnish module, and finally a slitter or turret rewind. “At the end of the print run you have the exact number of labels needed, ready to ship,” Emery says.


Getting Started

Experts seem to agree that package printing should be seen not as a market unto itself, but rather as part of a larger picture. As Tu says, “Package prototyping is becoming increasingly important to the marketing mix and should be viewed in that context. Packaging buyers want to see actual samples before production. Product launch teams need pre-production packages for photo shoots, focus groups, and presentations. The ability to create highly realistic packaging samples gives brands a distinct competitive advantage.”

As for getting started, Hecht says it’s best to lean on relationships, hardware, expertise, knowledge, and attention to detail and quality. “That’s what’s going to get you into the market and allow you to do well,” he says.