By Simon Edwards
Direct-to-shape digital printing for packaging has generated some of the most interesting and thought-provoking discussions over the last 12 months, and it’s certainly one-to-watch as we look ahead to growth markets in 2018.
Unlike digital printing for labels, carton board and film - industries that have all matured significantly in recent years - advances in direct-to-shape have only happened in the last three or four years, making it a very exciting and highly innovative market at this early stage. It serves two key market sectors in my opinion. The first being the mass market where packaging is produced for the average consumer for average reasons, but the need for small job runs is still an issue due to segmentation or proliferation of the variety of images or languages required on the product packaging. Digital printing is used in this case to free up valuable packaging real estate and produce variations of the same package for different markets or regions.
The second market sector for direct-to-shape is speciality applications. This is when brands utilise the capabilities of digital printing to produce packaging for promotional or event-based activities. The objective of these activities is to bolster the brand rather than generate huge amounts of revenue. It’s an opportunity to grow or maintain market share through brand awareness, often strongly supported by resulting social media conversations and, in 2017, we’ve seen more and more brands realise the value in this activity and create their own campaigns. For example, ABInBev worked with us this summer to print 15 different Budweiser can designs for the Tomorrowland dance festival in Belgium. Featuring national flags, the cans encouraged festival-goers to ‘Wave Your Flag’. The total job run was just 10,000 units with a largest print run of 1400 cans and the shortest only 15! With such a short lead time and small print run, this promotion simply wouldn’t have been feasible, from a production or cost perspective, using anything other than digital direct-to-shape printing technology, making customised cans a reality for this global brand and the largest brewer in the world and leveraging the true potential of digital print for packaging.
What’s exciting about the year ahead for direct-to-shape is that campaigns such as the one created for Tomorrowland are just the beginning! The technology being developed in this sector has really come into its own in 2017. Until now, we’ve seen companies talk about direct-to-shape machines for aerosol cans, plastic tubes, glass cylinders and beverage cans with some claiming to be able to do it all. While that may be technically possible, in reality the cost base may not make it financially viable. Therefore, we’re now seeing machine manufacturers focus in on one dedicated application for their technology and, as a result, as the market is starting to settle.
The challenge now will be for these companies to put their hypotheses for these machines’ capabilities into the hands of actual brands and start producing real products. This requires some creativity on the part of the manufacturer to get their first machines to market! For us, this meant stepping outside of our area of expertise, digital printing, and looking at the process in its entirety to identify what infrastructure is required to make our vision a reality. We then started to collaborate with a number of market-leading, third party providers to ensure that our technology and the benefits it brings to packaging suppliers can be maximised when in operation in a real production environment.
Overall, I predict that 2018 will be a time for clarity around direct-to-shape solutions. There will be a real focus on market viability for both the user and the consumer and it will be a time for these platforms to prove themselves. Once this has happened, it will lead to a really exciting time for the sector because the manufacturers can then branch out again, applying their new technology to other applications where it can innovate the supply chain and consumer experience once again.
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