As told by Michael Musgrave, COO, Bay Cities
You’ve made it! This is the last of a 4-part blog about the world of digital printing on corrugated! You either love packaging or you are trying to get to sleep – let’s hope for the former!
In the previous 3 blogs (you can access them here), I discussed my beginnings in digital printing on corrugated – a journey that started almost 15 years and two companies ago. I explained the learning curve of many flexo printers when it comes to digital prepress, and then the challenges of scaling in converting. But now it’s time to bring it all together – what is the current state of digital and where is it headed now?
Let’s talk about today’s equipment. We are seeing the emergence of second-generation industrial output single-pass digital printers from OEM titans like HP, Barberan, EFI, and Durst. There are many other players in the market that offer competitive equipment and software that contributes to the overall industry ecosystem. They focus on providing innovative solutions for our industry. They call on nearly every corrugated sheet plant. They are marketing digital print and its supporting infrastructure to us consistently. We see separate categories at tradeshows, publications, and print competitions for digital. It seems like everyone agrees that “digital is the future.”
Before I get too deep into sheet-fed printers, I need to point out that roll-to-roll (continuous web) printers drive innovation and interest in digital in many ways that will ripple throughout the industry. The complexity of managing a digital web printer’s front end in such a way that it prints 100" units at very high speed and at litho quality while still providing the converting operations, the markings, and consistency they need to be efficient, is mind-bogglingly complex. And since you are reading part four of a packaging blog, you’re officially someone who would enjoy talking to roll printing operators about their prepress journey. Let’s also not forget that magazine publishers, for example, have used digital web printing (2-sided, even) for a very long time. We just have to connect corrugated with the publishing support ecosystem to welcome in a lot more existing solutions and widen the door to innovation.
So, now that I have tipped my hat to the web press side of digital, I’ll return to the current single-pass digital presses for corrugated. I have personally worked with three of the four big players’ presses and have what I would characterize as a very complete perspective on those three from the aspects of print quality, reliability, support, and partnership - all the things you might expect to learn over the course of operating a business that owns these devices. On the fourth – a machine I have not worked with – I have done extensive investigation, of course, and will enjoy their growth in the segment. I can’t wait to work with their press one day soon.
Just think about the options and variety these top 4 printers offer. To list a few: UV ink, aqueous ink, or a slight blend of the two. CMYK or CMYK++, drastically different maximum sizes and speeds, different approaches to leaving glue areas for subsequent conversion, different material handling approaches, and different productivity sweet spots, so to speak. Very different technology from very good companies - all supporting our industry. Our customers are seeing many of us better serve their needs for reduced order size and speed to market through digital print, as well, which fosters our customers’ innovation. As a former boss of mine used to say – “It is much better to be on the revenue side of our customers’ business than the cost side.” Digital puts us in the position to achieve this more often than not for short to medium-run opportunities due to these competing single-pass printers.
But how would you answer this question (to yourself) – what is the best current single-pass digital printer? I didn’t ask if it was for your business. I didn’t ask if it was for displays, primary packaging, e-comm digital box orders, food-safe applications, high sun exposure, or humid environments. I didn’t ask what automation you have or if this is your first printer, how many orders/day, or how much total volume you expect to support. I certainly didn’t ask what your budget was.
The point? There is no “right” answer these days. There is just the right machine, for this point in time, given the business strategy. Just like flexo, just like litho. The fact that we can have a debate about which machine is best means we no longer need to lament the lack of interest in digital print in the corrugated industry. And that is my entire point.
Digital is not “the future.” You read that right. It’s not.
That’s got to be the most overused phrase in our industry. Digital is now, and it has significant value in the right business for the right markets. Just like flexo, just like litho. As more people adopt it, the demand to support it is driving exactly the kind of interest we would expect from our supporting industries like software (all types), inks and coatings, material handling automation, color management, and process consultants, to name a few.
The early days of hunting for support are gone. The days of adopting non-corrugated presses and fumbling through color management are gone. The machines are there for us in the industry, the support is there for us. The future will involve advancements in technology and productivity, no doubt, but to say it’s the future is to imply that it is not a significantly beneficial option for most of us in the industry right now.
This is the future we were all talking about when digital was the future 15 years ago.
Will its market share increase? I sure hope so. The digital market share has been insignificant for a very long time, but with web presses and single-pass machines driving volume, that is beginning to change. What still needs to change is the antiquated thought that digital just isn’t “there” yet. It’s here, now.