There is a plethora of choices in printing processes out there today, and unless one is an expert in the different technologies, choosing what’s best for a job could be challenging.
Often, brand owners have limited knowledge of printing, and the assumption is that as long as the quality is acceptable and the price point is fair, they don’t have strong opinions on what technology is used. However, more and more brands are wanting to understand the differences, which is why it’s important that printing companies explain the choices available to their clients.
Josh Dearwater, graphics manager for American Packaging Corporation, which specializes in flexible packaging and offers flexographic, rotogravure, and digital capabilities, says the first step is to fully understand what the client is trying to achieve with their package.
“That means asking questions like ‘What are the elements of the packaging that need to be present to drive customer engagement?’ and understanding the package design, functionality, design elements, coatings and embellishments and cost,” he says. “All of these factors should be clearly understood before determining print process.”
Since APC offers flexographic, rotogravure, and digital printing, Dearwater goes over each one and explains their pros and cons. He notes that fully understanding how new concept designs or changes to existing packaging can change what print process is best suited to that brand. For instance, moving a package into an extended color gamut environment or expanded use of metallic inks can influence what print method is needed to produce the most consistent results.
“Rotogravure continues to have the highest standard that all packaging is still measured against,” he says. “It provides a premium package appearance showcasing metallics, opaque whites, and excellent tonal reproduction at higher line screens. Gravure is an ideal choice for brands that need to carry a significant amount of ink on a large surface like a club store pouch, or brands that really want their graphics to have maximum impact.”
Flexo provides what he deems an “excellent value with lower print tool cost,” and “wider printable webs for greater yields” when compared directly with rotogravure. Digital printing, meanwhile, enables opportunities to try more ideas faster and to personalize the packaging with similar reproduction capabilities to conventional print.
“Sales samples, test markets and design variability are now empowered with minimal investment in print tools,” Dearwater says. “While digital has unparalleled flexibility and a very low cost of entry, production yields limit the use at significant scale.”
Brent Anderson, business development manager for Nosco, which produces labels, folding cartons and flexible packaging, and does a lot with digital printing, says having significant capabilities across both digital and conventional print platforms, helps the company guide customers to the optimal print method for success.
He cites factors that are considered when determining the print technology used include order and annual volumes; brand color and decorative enhancements; lead times; number of SKUs; brand protection capabilities like serialization and invisible ink (digital only); and personalized packaging and variable print (digital only).
“Digital and conventional print both have advantages in each of these areas,” Anderson says. “However, these factors can vary between brands and products, and for that reason, many Nosco customers order both digital and conventional packaging.”
Nosco also specializes in pharmaceutical packaging, with more than 114 years of experience in the category.
“The intimate, practical knowledge of pharmaceutical packaging challenges and opportunities enables Nosco to support its customers in effectively launching new products and managing the quality of existing products in the supply chain,” Anderson says. “Unique solutions offered to the pharmaceutical industry include brand protection and anti-counterfeiting technologies with serialization and RFID; extended content labels and cartons; and combination packaging, such as Lit-a-Sure, which combines a folding carton and patient insert into a single SKU to improve line efficiencies.”
Digital printing technology is rapidly growing in the packaging industry, with significant investment in innovation of capabilities, as well as speed and capacity. This is important to explain to clients who may not be aware of the innovations.
“Today’s digital packaging presses can produce high-resolution photo and line graphics with increased automation and in-process quality management resulting in improvements in run-to-run consistency and control,” Anderson says. “Color reproduction is a major focus for brands using digital and flexo printing. To address these areas, proactive color management strategies for process and spot colors can make for a seamless transition across all technologies.”
He adds that digitally printed flexible packaging provides a great opportunity for brand owners to improve their current supply chain overall.
“Traditional conventional flexible packaging has long caused pain for brands and contract manufacturers due to high setup tooling costs, high minimum order quantities, and long lead times from six to 12 weeks,” Anderson says. “Digital print addresses these challenges with the elimination of printing plates to reduce setup costs, rapid setup, MOQs as low as 1,000, and a reduction in lead time to two to three weeks.”
Additionally, as a plateless technology, digital expands a brand’s capabilities to engage consumers with variable and personalized print, as well as improve sales channel tracking through item-level serialization barcodes.
Thomas Dahbura, president of Hub Labels in Hagerstown. Md., which offers traditional flexographic printing for labels, as well as a hybrid flexo/inkjet Gallus Labelfire 340, says each company he works with will have its own unique goals for its packaging and itis important to understand those goals to ensure the company is delivering a label that meets their standards.
Things to consider when making a choice include “Will a label be exposed to extreme temperatures?” “Does it need to withstand exposure to water?” “Is the container where the label is to be placed rigid or squeezable?” “Are there requirements for package recyclability that need to be met?”
“Asking these questions and learning about a label’s expected lifecycle is how we create a truly custom label,” Dahbura says. “Once we understand the application and have a label design, we have a variety of presses that are ideally suited for different runs.”
For instance, its digital-hybrid press provides incredible resolution, and allows for in-line embellishments that are expected in many industries such as the health and beauty sector, craft beer, and short-run jobs. For jobs that demand high production speeds, its traditional flexo presses, such as the MPS EF 430 press, prove to be fast and efficient.
“How we print a job is not usually a concern for most of our clients unless they specifically want to print digital,” Dahbura says. “We are a G7 and GMI print facility, meaning we can take any job and make adjustments to the press curves if needed and be able to match color no matter which press we choose to run the job on. We know our presses and what will work best on the various pieces of equipment, but are also flexible enough to be able to move jobs around as needed.”
Beyond print however, it is incumbent upon package printers and converters to discuss the various substrates and embellishments available to a brand so they are fully aware of the options available.
“We have a large array of embellishments that can really make a label pop on the store shelves,” Dahbura says. “We find the best route is to not show a customer every single option that is available to them, but instead work with their label designer or the person making decisions about the label and collaborate on solutions that will fulfill their vision.”
Perception and past experiences are major influences on a client’s understanding of each print method.
Dearwater notes gravure is known for delivering the best reproduction qualities and results, and is particularly effective for longer runs with a premium fixed cost for print tools. Flexo provides great quality and consistency with a lower entry point of print tool investment.
When it comes to digital, brand owners still have a limited understanding of how to maximize digital print opportunities, and that is where most companies try to fill the knowledge gaps for them.
“Brand owners do understand many of the basic benefits of digital print, and see digital as an opportunity to explore and test different print capabilities at lower volumes,” Dearwater says. “Brands — as well as the converting industry — are also looking forward to digital solutions with higher yields to begin providing supply chain solutions for larger scale production.”
Anderson notes that brand knowledge on print technology is highly variable amongst customers, and within organizations.
“For those interested in gaining additional knowledge on how packaging can be utilized to improve their business, Nosco offers educational opportunities including MasterMinds Packaging Innovation Retreats, Virtual Lunch and Learn Sessions, and Customer-Centric Innovation Day Presentations,” he says.
But, as Dahbura says, seeing is believing.
“We don’t like to just tell our customers about the advantages of all the technology we have invested here at Hub — we like to show them,” he says. “Pre-COVID, we routinely had press inspections while a customer’s label was on press. That is also an excellent opportunity to show those customers each step in the label converting process. From graphics and prepress, to label production, to converting and shipping; we take great care every step of the process to ensure we are delivering the quality labels our customers expect.”