Digital print technologies have yet to take packaging converting by storm, but eroding differentials in ink costs, larger, more specialised presses and an ability to compete for mid-length runs could be about to change that.
"Our inks use a toner-type chemistry, but at the same time, they are a lot closer to flexo inks than toner inks in terms of formulation," said Simon Edwards, vice president sales and marketing at digital print systems supplier Tonejet. In practice, he said, this meant the firm's inks were no more than 30% higher in price than standard flexo inks.
This compares with proprietary inks for some digital inkjet systems, which can be up to 10 times the price of offset litho inks, according to print consultant at Smithers Pira Sean Smyth. "But because of the lack of make-ready costs, the overall cost of production can, in fact, be lower," he said. "At the same time, conventional inks are likely to get more expensive, while the costs of inkjet inks will fall as volumes rise."
The market divides roughly between electrophotographic (EP) systems, which typically use different types of toner, and inkjet technologies. The latter is where much investment and research and development is directed, but EP spearheaded the move into industrial digital print, and retains a major part of the market.
Tonejet's technology, as the name suggests, takes elements of both, with an electrostatic charge used to 'jet' ink particles on to the substrate. Successful installations include two presses at Ball Packaging in Germany, capable of diverting two-piece cans directly from the main print line for short-run digital decoration.
The company said it was now moving into flexible film printing, but Smyth suggested that the technology needed more installations to demonstrate viability. At the same time, he agreed: "Having ink at a much lower cost than inkjet is a positive."
Edwards at Tonejet said he thought that, as presses were designed with more specific applications in mind, the penetration of digital print would increase.
At Smithers Pira, Smyth said the proliferation of retail product variants was focusing attention on to packaging. "Press manufacturers are developing a lot of products that are aimed squarely at packaging markets. This has never really happened before."
Many converters have been put off by the sales model for digital, described by some as being "like Tetra Pak, but worse", where a given press requires specific inks. But according to Smyth, there is widespread misunderstanding of the cost model, which can make digital print pay.
Tonejet believes it has found its own chink in conventional print's armour. While Ball Packaging might print runs of 500,000 cans and more on standard presses, and most digital technologies would be viable up to, say, 50,000 cans, Tonejet said that run lengths of 200,000 or 300,000 were "quite possible" on its own presses.
Smyth was less convinced by the 'mid-range' market opportunity. "Most digital is aimed at the shortest runs," he said. "Suppliers such as Landa and Océ are aiming at the longer-run market but, for now, ink costs are too high for long runs of static content."
Some see the big prize for digital as being smaller, local brands that are able to benefit from high-quality graphics, as in the case of German brewers supplied by Ball. Others, such as Smyth, still emphasise the fast-turnaround promotional market.