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Mpix unboxing event packaging for photobooks, printed on the Barberán JetMaster press by Bennett Packaging in the US
There is a major opportunity for digital to grab a significant share of the corrugated market. The action is in inkjet, where a raft of high performance, single-pass machines has been launched to join the early specialist machines. By Sean Smyth.
Multi-pass large format flatbed and wide format inkjet printers are widely used in display and point-of-sale printing, while some are used to print boxes, trays and various secondary and tertiary packaging. They are the high end of wide format printers with a large print bed, usually 1.6 x 3.2m.
UV inks dominate but there are also some latex formulations in use. High specification machines can cost a million pounds, with automation aids to load and unload the beds quickly to reduce non-printing time, and links into cutting tables and finishing systems. The high-end machines boast productivity levels in excess of 1000 square metres per hour, but this is approaching the top limits of the format. Some high-volume users can print up to 3 million square metres annually, but the new generation single pass machines can deliver tens of millions, moving inkjet corrugated into new mainstream applications.
There is effectively no toner printing in the corrugated space, although Xeikon does have an application laminating rolls onto microflute, showing gin bottles in corrugated packs at the Xeikon Café event in earlier this year.
Methods and types
There are two printing methods, pre-print (printing the top liner before it is corrugated) and post-print (printing the corrugated sheet, sometimes as part of the cutting/creasing/folding/gluing or stitching process). Flexo dominates, in liner printing and in folder/gluers to print as part of the box making process, while sheetfed litho is used for litho-lam high quality, and some microflute direct printing.
There are many types of corrugated packs: transit and transport, consumer, retail and shelf-ready, online and e-retail, industrial, bag-in-box, trays and wraparound. All of these are benefitting from the adoption of inkjet print technology.
Last year saw several breakthroughs for corrugated inkjet presses. This makes the digital presses for packaging a dynamic and extremely competitive sector.
HP is leading the implementation of digital packaging with Indigo in labels, flexibles and cartons, and with inkjet for corrugated. There the flatbed HP Scitex range has been joined by very high performance PageWide single-pass web presses for liner printing and a sheetfed version, the C500 that will run at a linear speed of 75m/min with a print width of 1.3m. The web presses are the PageWide T400S and T1100S, at 1040mm and 2800mm wide respectively. The larger machine is built by KBA at its facility in Würzburg, and is capable of printing at 183m/min (with speed upgrades on the horizon), making it the most productive digital press currently available.
Dedicated Melinda apple trays printed at Ghelfi with messages supporting the Italian earthquake victims
The first four T1100S machines are now in use. Ghelfi Ondulati in Italy has an interesting application, producing apple boxes for Melinda Apples for the "Dedicamela" (Pledge an apple) campaign that supports the victims of the 2016 Italian earthquake. Donors logged on to a website to upload their message of support, which were then digitally printed onto cases of apples, with one donated per message by Melinda to the farmers afflicted. This, together with the unboxing event photobook boxes (see below), are examples of how converters are finding new applications for digital corrugated printing as they understand the real capabilities of the machines they have bought.
Inca Digital is a leader in flatbed inkjet with the Onset series of machines. It is owned by Screen, which has set up a joint venture with corrugator BHS Corrugated Maschinen und Anlagenbau GmbH to develop a 2.8m wide inkjet machine that is designed to be retrofittable onto corrugators to deliver finished sheets. Featuring Fujifilm Samba printheads with water-based inks, the project is progressing with a 1.6m wide line under testing and the 2.8m version due to come to market in 2018.
Barcelona-headquartered supplier Barberán has the JetMaster range of inkjet printing machines for corrugated in widths up to 1890mm, using UV inks with Seiko heads. It was an early entrant into the corrugated sector using modified machines from the printed décor sector with several installations in corrugated in Europe and North America.
Bennett Packaging, in Missouri, was the first user in 2015 with a 1.68m wide model, subsequently taking over the distribution and selling machines into the American market. The company found a range of new applications, including premium packs for Mpix, a provider of photobooks and products. It uses the JetMaster to print bespoke designs on the inside of the pack, with flexo solid red on the outside where the postal label is affixed. Mpix has generated a lot of interest in creating a box opening event, changing the messaging, imagery and special offers, on each order. After this box change, it saw an increase in sales over the prior two months, with repeat business increasing year-on-year. There has been much social media chatter with people sharing "unboxing videos" and future plans include running a photo contest with images of winners being showcased.
The first Durst single-pass corrugated Delta SPC 130 (single pass corrugated, 1.3m wide) machine has been undergoing beta testing at Schumacher in Germany, where it replaced a Bobst machine. The SPC 130 is designed to connect with existing sheet loading systems at the customer site and to deliver into the facility's sheet handling systems. The feeder passes boards through a cleaner, then positions them on a checking table, with a height detector system that will reject raised front edges that could cause a head crash. There is a top-side belt to keep the edges down as the sheets travel through the print station at 60, 85 or 120m/min. The machine is designed for six colours, but initially will be supplied in four-colour mode. The sheets then pass through a large infrared dryer to drive off the water, and then under a final UV curing station to through cure the ink so that any finishing can be started immediately. Print quality is very good, certainly up there with four-colour litho-lam, with none of the high build usually associated with UV inkjet.
EFI is a major player in inkjet with experience in a range of sectors which today make up the largest division in the company for narrow web, wide format, ceramics, textiles and now corrugated with its Nozomi C18000 machine. This is a single-pass inkjet press using UV LED curing inks for corrugated post-print with a maximum eight heads allowing white+CMYK and orange, violet and green. It is a modular design with print width up to 1.8m and maximum length of 3.0m with dual lane printing enabled. Top linear speed is 75m/min and the press features an infeed cleaner and optional coater. Early samples look clean and bright. The first beta customers were announced early in 2017 at Hinojosa in Spain (which was an early adopter of Barberán inkjet corrugated JetMaster) and McGowans in Dublin.
At SinoCorrugated in May 2017, several Chinese vendors demonstrated their solutions. Shenzen-based Handway is part of the Hanglory Group, and in 2016, it launched the Handway HC1600 single-pass corrugated printer. This uses Kyocera heads and water-based inks with a top speed of 150m/min at maximum print width of 1.56m. It reports selling two machines in China to Fushan Paper and WenSong Printing, and at the end of 2016, one HC1600 was delivered into a European client. In Europe, it is branded Erajet and sold by Era Automation, a joint venture between Handway and French company Toutin Service.
Konica Minolta showed a concept machine, the B1 format KM-C that has corrugated and cartons as potential applications at drupa in June. Sun Automation was an early entrant into inkjet sheetfed corrugated post-print, installing a CorrStream 66 press into Bradford-based HSG, which is covered in depth elsewhere in the magazine. Italian company Engico is offering a bespoke inkjet system for corrugated post-print, the Aqua 250, a modular water-based series of printers with a maximum print width of 2.5m. This uses Kyocera KJ4B 600dpi heads offering a maximum throughput of 400 sqm/hr. This is a traversing head design, so a lot slower than the new single pass systems.
So, a lot of activity and optimism. Converting the corrugated sector to inkjet will not be plain sailing, despite a range of powerful drivers. The decision by Bobst to discontinue its development with Kodak inkjet technology for a high-speed single-pass corrugated press demonstrates the potential difficulties in bringing a press to market successfully. Others look to have succeeded, and the costs of inkjet are falling, making it ever more competitive against litho and flexo, while innovation is opening new market opportunities.