How far along the road of digital transformation has the printing industry come? Victoria Hattersley takes a look at the current digital printing landscape and gets some insights from Rob Day CEO of Tonejet – a company with a strong focus on digital printing solutions for the craft beverage industry.

We’ve heard it said many times by industry experts that, in order for digital to truly take over from conventional printing and become the norm, there needs to be a ‘tipping point’ in terms of their relative cost-effectiveness. Are we at that stage?

In some respects, it depends upon which segment you are looking at. Let’s take the view from just one growing niche segment as an example – craft beverages.

“We have reached that point in the craft beer industry, undoubtedly,” says Rob Day. “The mass market brands will continue to use high speed offset printing for the foreseeable future, but they will be pulled into greater use of digital printing as mass customization (special packs for sports events, festivals and other targeted marketing) becomes normal.”

‘So much more agile’

The increased uptake of digital print in recent years has, as we’re all aware, given converters and brand owners far more versatility when it comes to design and meeting short-run demands. According to a Smithers Pira report, ‘The Future of Digital vs Offset Printing to 2024’, the total market output of digital print has risen to 17.4% in 2019 compared to 13.5% in 2014. It further predicts that technical innovations and shifts in market demands will push its share to 21.% by 2024.

“Digital offers brand owners the ability to print beverage cans on demand, with lead times measured in days or weeks,” says Rob Day. “Before digital, brands would need to forecast consumption, procure and store their cans several months ahead. Digital is so much more agile – brand owners save inventory, storage space and eliminate scrap (we hear many stories of brands over-ordering and having to scrap unused cans) and are able to keep up when demand exceeds expectations.”

However, there are still practical challenges to be faced, not least of which is throughput. For example, “Offset decorators are integrated into beverage can manufacturing lines running at over 2000 cans per minute. Digital systems currently run at around 100 cpm.”

That being said, we should no longer think of digital printing as only being suited for short-run projects – something which may have been the case in the past. UV inkjet technology can make it suitable for longer run jobs that before would only have been completed using conventional methods.

Indeed, for many of its proponents, today’s inkjet solutions present the ideal technology, offering greater flexibility, faster printing speeds, enhanced image quality and, not least, the capability to print on a much wider variety of substrates.

Going back to the craft beverage sector, for example, “inkjet is the only technology that is capable of printing directly onto the can surface, avoiding plastic labels,” says Rob Day. “The technology is new – it has been in commercial use for around a year – and will replace the use of plastic labels and sleeves which degrade the otherwise 100% recyclable aluminium can.”

Hybrid – ‘The best of both worlds’?

Evolving consumer preferences are of course shaping the ways in which digital print services are developing, and will continue to develop in the future. And what we have been witnessing in recent years has been an increased demand for customization and a growing interest in niche segments. This trend will not go away, as the growth of e-commerce has widened the field and given consumers a taste for greater choice and flexibility. Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this as global lockdown situation have obliged even those consumers who wouldn’t generally shop online to think differently about their purchasing habits.

“Consumers will abandon traditional mass market brands unless those brands stay relevant,” says Rob Day. “They’re no longer selling to huge demographic market segments – today their markets are built from thousands of niches. The product in the pack can be made much more appealing if it comes in a targeted pack design which feels more personal to the consumer. This is why Coca Cola and others run campaigns like ‘Open To Better’. Whether the can bears the consumer’s name, or is a special run for a football match, these packs can only be delivered if the can is decorated digitally.”

Furthermore – and continuing the subject of customization and targeted design – it’s not always even a simple case of choosing between conventional and digital printing. In fact, many companies no longer see digital inkjet printing, despite its many benefits, as the game-changer it once was; and furthermore, that there are still advantages to more traditional methods. Increasingly, therefore, we are hearing about the growing interest in hybrid presses which can combine elements of each approach to bring the ‘best of both worlds’: the scientific precision of digital with the creative capabilities of conventional.

Today’s hybrid presses – which marry flexographic analogue printing with inkjet printing on a single production line – are becoming ever-smaller compared to larger industrial and conventional solutions, and therefore more accessible. As market demands change, companies that might previously for example have used only analogue techniques are now being obliged to adopt digital solutions. The option to use hybrid allows workflows to be managed differently which can help to make production more cost-effective – particularly important for smaller players.

Where next for digital?

Where will the digital transformation of the printing industry take us next? Well, for one thing, the growing number of digital presses on the market has gone hand-in-hand with innovation at the substrate level. This necessitates that substrate suppliers work very closely with machinery manufacturers to ensure materials are optimized for the unique variables of each system, which is by no means a simple process and can take time to perfect. That being said, in future we can expect to see a wider range of possibilities for more complex substrates. Quite apart from the enthusiastic uptake of digital beverage can decoration which, as Rob Day says, “has moved from technology conference topic to commercial reality in just the last 18 months’, there are also high-profile examples in recent years like the much-cited Owens-Illinois solution for digital printing on glass.

Furthermore, up to now we have focused mainly on the aesthetic and efficiency aspects of digital printing, but there is another important consideration: there are many ways in which digital printing can be employed for brand protection in the years to come. This will come to be ever-more important as the growth of e-commerce creates ever-more complex supply chains.

 “For example, pack ID encoded in the graphics (rather than as a barcode) is a promising technology that we can expect to become ubiquitous,” says Rob Day. “It goes without saying that digital printing will be required to deliver this.”

So while it is not quite correct to say that digital is the ‘holy grail’ for all use cases, the speed and efficiency of this technology is developing all the time and the latest machines are far more capable of dealing with a wider range of substrates. We’re not convinced that digital will come to replace conventional methods entirely – or at least not in the near-term – but along with hybrid machines, the range of options open to brand owners is greater than ever before. It’s an exciting time for the industry.