Print4All works alongside Keypoint Intelligence (infotrends) to offer companies and operators an in-depth insight into sector-related trends. Today, we are talking about digital colour printing for flexible packaging: a market that is predominately linked to food, an industry that turned over approximately 86 billion dollars in 2017.
Suppliers of printing services in Europe are well aware that the packaging industry represents an oasis, i.e. a market segment in which printing continues to grow and will never be replaced by electronic means. If on the one hand, the digital printing of labels and foldable cartons is common practice, then digital printing on flexible packaging is much less so, even if it represents a niche market that is growing at a fast pace.
Today, the flexible packaging market, primarily relating to the food and drink industry as well as other products, is considerably large. In 2017, the sector turned over approximately 86 billion dollars worldwide, with 99% of printing being produced with the help of analogical machines.
What is intended by flexible packaging?
Flexible packaging constitutes any packaging made from plastic film or other flexible materials that, after being packed and sealed, is significantly influenced by the product that it contains, which is capable of distorting its shape.
In the majority of cases, we are referring to bags of various types and sizes, which for example, contain sweets or other food products, as well as drinks and the packaging of cleaning fluids, pet food, lubricants, agricultural products and consumer electronics, amongst others. In terms of materials, flexible packaging usually constitutes film or laminated film, but can also include paper and thin metal sheets. That being said, to digitally print on flexible packaging, the printer must be able to print thin films, such as polyethylene (PE) for example, since these thin films are the most commonly used materials for flexible packaging and the inks must be suitable for contact with food.
The flexible packaging market is growing. In Europe, the overall value of flexible packaging printed and sold in 2016 amounted to approximately 22 billion euros and is expected to grow at an annual rate of 2%. In addition to its standard applications, such as savoury snacks, flexible packaging may assume various shapes and sizes from bags that can be boiled alongside their edible contents to packaging with small plastic nozzle dispensers.
Flexible packaging is extremely popular with numerous brands, which sometimes choose it as an alternative to other types of packaging, such as bottles or cans, to launch new products or provide pre-existing products with a more modern look. There is a growing demand for flexible packaging printing in short runs, yet with a greater frequency and with more variation in terms of images. These requirements can be suitably met by converters thanks to the use of digital printing.
Prospects for digital printing for the flexible packaging industry
Digital colour printing will gradually become complementary to flexo and rotogravure machines for flexographic printing. As is the case for the labelling sector, it will be used for short print runs, which are being increasingly requested by brands, meaning that analogical machines will be able to be used exclusively for long runs, where they excel. HP Indigo will continue to be a key player in the digital sector for a number of years, considering that it is the company with the most experience in this field and is continuing to develop new solutions, including a thermal solvent-free lamination system that substantially speeds up the post-printing workflow. One or more inkjet manufacturers such as Xeikon, Epson, Fujifilm, ThinkLab, Uteco Converting and others could potentially become leading suppliers.