The last ten years have heralded a sea change in the number of products available to consumers, on supermarket shelves and online. While brands have sought to achieve differentiation and market share through personalised, seasonal and event-based products, and dietary variations, the increase in the number of stock-keeping units (SKUs) has imposed significant demands on the industry – specifically label and packaging converters.
Lee Metters explains, digital printing technology offers a range of benefits, which – compared with traditional analogue printing methods – can support converters in meeting the increasingly exacting needs of their brand clients while driving efficiency, waste reduction, and cost savings…
SKU proliferation and the rise in digital printing
According to the Smithers Pira report ‘The Future of Digital Printing to 2032’, by 2032, digital print will account for almost a quarter of the global value of all print and printed packaging, worth $230.5 billion. This is a significant increase from an estimated $136.7 billion in 2022, and the result of a CAGR of 5.7% to 2027 and then 5% from 2027 to 2032. Packaging will be the fastest growing of all market segments, more than quadrupling over the next ten years, with digital print gaining traction in corrugated, cartons, and flexible packaging.
To what can the industry attribute this growth?
A quick glance at supermarket shelves points to the answer: brands today are producing a vast number of products resulting in mass-scale SKU expansion. This trend, while slightly hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, has been on the rise for the last ten years, with rapid product innovation and category expansion acting as catalysts for growth within retail strategies.
With multiple SKUs, brand owners can provide increased customer choice, targeted marketing, segmentation, and higher revenue potential as they respond to increased consumer demand for products, including budget brands; white label goods; dietary variations (e.g. vegan, gluten-free); and organic and sustainably produced items. Indeed, according to Euromonitor research, the number of SKUs attributed to diet alone had increased by 14% in March 2022 compared with the previous year. In addition, brands are seeking to maximise opportunities around seasonal and sporting events, increasing the need for short runs and time-limited packaging, while many are also looking to increase customer engagement through on-pack marketing campaigns, for example. Finally, the increase in ecommerce orders has heralded another change in the packaging industry, with customised packaging printing and variable data printing for delivery, returns, traceability and security.
Traditional printing challenges
While product diversification offers multiple benefits for brands, for converters, this short-run packaging poses a series of challenges when reliant on traditional (analogue) printing methods, including:
- The time to get the press ready between print runs;
- The cost of a set of plates for each print job;
- The time taken to manufacture or procure the plates;
- The raw material used when there is a job changeover or an error to be corrected;
- The significant manual labour requirement for each print job.
This scenario becomes even more complicated when facing supply chain issues such as paper and ink shortages and shipping delays, which add to the time and cost of getting the job printed.
Digital printing offers the flexibility to adjust to market changes, plus a range of additional benefits.
Opportunity 1: Reduced Time. Digital presses are particularly well positioned to provide reduced changeover time compared with analogue printing, which is critical when managing multiple short-run and time-critical printing jobs.
Opportunity 2: Reduced Waste. Using digital over analogue requires less material to prepare a job. Printing using traditional methods involves greater waste for short runs as plates have to be set up and cleaned for every change needed or error that requires modification. In contrast, when printing multiple-SKU jobs on a digital press, only one make-ready is required for all versions.
Opportunity 3: Reduced Cost. Compared with conventional analogue printing, a digital press facilitates cost reduction because it does not require costly printing plates and typically uses less paper/packaging and ink than traditional methods. Cost savings can also be achieved through reduced energy consumption, especially where traditional printing methods require arc drying lamps.
Opportunity 4: Increased Capacity. Using a digital press for short-run work frees up a lot of capacity to execute long-run work on conventional presses, so the overall capacity gain is much more than the capacity of the digital press alone.
Opportunity 5: Labour Reallocation. Traditional printing methods require highly skilled workers with specific training, who are increasingly difficult to recruit as older generation workers retire. Digital presses, by comparison, are typically easier to run and can be operated by multi-skilled staff. This reduces reliance on a shrinking labour pool and allows converters to redeploy labour to other value-added services, as the machines can work with limited manual intervention.
Opportunity 6: Agility. The ability to produce short-run packaging quickly and cost-effectively offers converters the agility required to better respond to market trends and position themselves to meet their brand customers’ requirements. Digital presses allow the incorporation of flexo stations: flood primer, spot varnish, and embellishment functions, among others, can be included for a new print job, and a single operator can still run the press.
A key initial step for a converter is to analyse the print jobs that are the most common in the business. If production lines are utilised for long runs with few changes or versions of the same print job, then flexo will remain the way to go. However, suppose business needs are increasingly short-run printing and/or a high volume of different jobs and customisation. In that case, incorporating a digital press in a production line increases efficiency, and cuts waste, time, and cost. It offers an excellent opportunity to harness the predicted growth within the digital printing market.