For years, the prospect of digitally printed folding cartons has kept the print and packaging industries abuzz. Digital printing in the carton space has surely begun to transition from a lofty ideal into a more grounded reality. But how far, really, are we until digital printing becomes a mainstay in carton converting?
PPC has been following digital technology in the industry for some time. Back in fall 2014, we held an extended seminar on digital printing and short runs, and simultaneously published a 60-page white paper entitled Short-Run Solutions for Paperboard Packaging. During the workshop we engaged our members about their thoughts and investments, and we also heard from Kevin Karstedt, a well-respected authority on digital. In 2016, we held a follow-up workshop where we took another look at digital, asking what has changed since 2014 and how carton converters could get and stay ahead.
Below are a few of the ideas and insights that came up during our latest investigation into digital.
In the Marketplace
According to a survey of PPC members included in our whitepaper, short runs represented approximately 15% of volume or 25% of jobs. For these small orders, digital printing is generally advantageous: it eliminates pre-press work that can make many low-volume orders cost prohibitive for converters. By our estimates, the demand for short-run orders has not decreased since 2014. Special editions, personalized packaging, and other brand and consumer trends that require short runs are still in place. SKUs are still proliferating. What’s more, small brands currently produce about 10 million SKUs. This means there is some opportunity in the marketplace for short runs of folding cartons, and therefore potential work for digital presses—if converters decide to make the jump and go digital.
In the Carton Plant
Today, most folding carton converters still organize their operations around traditional high-volume work. These large orders are generally low in cost per piece and do not require many specialty effects like foil stamping or embossing. Thus, they run just fine on traditional analog presses. However, this doesn’t mean that converters aren’t investing in digital technologies. Many converters are introducing digital presses into their operations in order to relieve operational bottlenecks, reduce costs where possible, and optimize workflow. Digital presses can also be used to support relationships with existing customers who may on occasion request small, specialty jobs. For other converters, such specialty jobs are the bread and butter of their operations. These digital-adopters are actively seeking out the low-volume, high-value jobs that other converters may not accept. By organizing their business models around short runs and harnessing their digital presses, they are carving out a unique market advantage for themselves.
Traditional folding carton converters are not the only players in the short run game, especially as brands demand more and more low-volume work. Commercial printers are hoping that folding cartons can supplement their slowing catalog and magazine businesses. Contract packagers—who may currently be purchasing from traditional carton converters—are also getting into the converting business themselves. Although it will be difficult for these organizations to master the craft of carton converting, it is possible to do so. This new competition in the carton space should ultimately drive innovation within the industry as a whole.
Digital: Displacing or Complimentary?
So, what’s the final verdict? Is digital technology complimenting traditional analog printing methods or is it displacing them and quickly changing how we print? In most cases, we see it as the former. Today, digital printing is helping carton converters to optimize their operations and experiment with new ways of doing things. A great wave of change has not yet occurred, but the future may certainly hold one. Considering how far digital printing technology has come over the last decade, the possibilities are great. The horizon is wide and open.