I have just been at the Hunkeler Innovationdays in Lucerne, which consists of a series of machines which are each configurable to automatically process digitally printed webs for producing complete products. Since they are digitally printed and each page or printed item has a unique machine-readable code, the processing steps – folding, cutting, perforating, laser marking, collating, binding and even inserting into addressed and stamped envelopes – are performed on in-line modules. This itself is a tour de force demonstration of automation.
The only configurations in the packaging material sector that even begin to approach this level of in-line processing are narrow web label presses with their in-line foiling, embossing and diecutting, and matrix removal. A second series of finishing and converting steps – inspection, slitting and rewinding – is performed on nearline modules. The new trend in label presses is to build hybrid machines with a combination of print technologies – flexo, offset, screen, gravure and digital. There are more than 50 manufacturers of digital label presses in the world, including one in India that has already exported its digital label press to markets including China.
According to IppStar (www.ippstar.org), which is embarking on a large and comprehensive survey of the Indian label printing industry, there are already 25 to 30 digital label presses running in the country. Many, if not all, of these are also capable of producing digital packaging on carton board and on flexible materials as well.
Digitally printed, variable and short-run cartons are produced by Indian converters for pharma packaging. Especially in the case of exports and for our linguistically diverse country, these cartons (and labels) can contain local compliance information in the appropriate language. In addition, they can quite capably contain machine-readable track and trace and anti-counterfeiting information.
Some variable design experiments for cartons and beverage sleeves have also been tried in the country for limited editions of products but although they have demonstrated capability, one cannot say that they have as yet shown any market traction. In the main, packaging in India tends to have large quantities that are still self-defeating to produce digitally.
More likely, the next step in Indian packaging innovation is to create active and intelligent packaging. Here also, at first go, the need for digital production is minimal – perhaps restricted to short runs to establish an ecosphere where brand owners can develop their ideas for consumer engagement. By tracking printed barcodes at the point of sale and getting consumers to point their cellphone cameras at the augmented reality images and QR codes printed on the package, brands can create prototypes of brand engagement that are subsequently mass produced by automated processes and linked to the cloud.
Thus, the use of digital printing for packaging seems to be more useful for proofing, prototyping and test marketing first and then for variable information and post-purchase engagement. Lastly, it may play a role in the use of variable designs for shelf impact or a wow factor that could lead to both impulse buying and brand loyalty.
One should, however, not discount the prospect of small brands, own brands, and short-run packaging. This may be a fragmented market at first but with regulations such as FSSAI for food products kicking in, alongside the emerging capabilities of artisinal products and brands, high quality short runs will thrive. Beyond the simplicity of minimal packaging, they are also likely to look for digital engagement. Made to order and ship to order may also be a factor. Thus, while on the one hand packaging grows exponentially and becomes a larger societal and economic phenomenon, it may also find some new digitally enabled tricks in the smaller runs of artisinal and personalized packaging.
However, the bigger lesson for packaging from Hunkeler Innovationdays is not to do with printing but with the possibility of creating flexible production lines both for the packaging material, the products themselves and for filling and sealing and marking. In the future, both the product and the packaging will contain a machine-readable mark so that the right product can be put in the right package, in the right quantity and with the right label or logistic information that will launch it in the direction of the consumer, who will then engage with the pack and even assure that it is placed in the correct and circular waste stream.