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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Archive for the ‘Paperboard Packaging’ Category

Custom Printing: There’s a Growing Market for Package Printing

Friday, November 16th, 2012

As I’ve said many times in past PIE Blog posts, I’m always looking for growth sectors in commercial printing. Not only do I believe they exist, but I’m also seeing proof in the articles I read every day.

One of these growth sectors is packaging, and more specifically short-run, versioned package printing. I just read an article in the November 1, 2012, issue of Print Week entitled “The Packaging Bandwagon That Is Worth Jumping On,” which was written by Jenny Roper.

Developments in Package Printing

According to the article, here are some new developments in packaging:

  1. Packaging is becoming more personalized. Roper notes that “Heineken will now deliver a six-pack of beer personalized with your own message and a cherished photograph on the labels.” Other companies are updating the design of their packaging on a regular basis rather than committing to tens or hundreds of thousands of units per press run. This makes packaging stand out amidst the competition by virtue of its changing images.
  2. Brands are targeting their markets more precisely. Based on market research, brands test their designs more rigorously, avoid over-printing and needing to store packaging materials, and request more frequent, smaller press runs.
  3. Packaging is beginning to incorporate more QR codes, leading clients back to the websites of the manufacturers, and this often results in more personalized, smaller package print runs.
  4. Marketers want to buy packaging responsibly in order to protect the environment via their sustainable print buying.

How This Affects Both Digital and Offset Package Printing

Improvements in digital custom printing have made the technology quite capable of producing labels, folding cartons, and flexible packaging, according to Roper’s article. Of course much longer runs, printing on rigid plastics, and printing on metal will remain the purview of more traditional package printing technology for the time being.

The plethora of substrates acceptable to digital presses such as the Indigo 5600 have also made digital printing more appropriate for package printing. For instance, it is possible to print on synthetic substrates and plastics as well as much thicker stocks than in prior years. Commercial printing vendors can now print on stocks 500 microns in thickness, allowing package production on rigid board.

Although dedicated digital carton printing equipment is not yet available, “The Packaging Bandwagon That Is Worth Jumping On” notes that additional equipment (kits) for digital presses such as the Indigo 5600 and Fuji Acuity will allow digital custom printing suppliers to produce point of sale materials, mailing materials, food packaging, and pharmaceutical packaging of shorter press run lengths.

Offset lithographic printers that choose to buy digital equipment with packaging capabilities can augment their services and pick up additional work from existing customers. Of course the longer press runs will still be the domain of lithographic presses.

These very printers that have extensive experience with direct mail, and particularly the versioned and personalized materials suited to digital presses, may be ideally positioned to expand into this market. These printers understand promotions, marketing, and targeting, and packaging is moving quickly in this direction.

Granted, as Roper notes in her article, package printing is a three-dimensional arena, whereas direct mail is usually two-dimensional in nature. Package printing involves more construction knowledge (tabs, seams, etc.) and in some cases additional equipment as well. Commercial printing vendors may need to augment both their knowledge base and their equipment.

Convergence Between Digital Technology and Offset Lithography for Package Printing

Interestingly enough, as printers consider buying digital printing capabilities to offer new services to their clients as other areas of printing decline, offset lithography is becoming capable of printing shorter and shorter press runs economically. Computerized color-control loops allow for much quicker make-readies with far less waste. This puts offset lithographic equipment on a par with digital presses for quick change-overs between runs.

So it seems that digital and offset are converging in the realm of packaging. Large printers may be buying digital equipment to offer their larger customers who had been buying packaging runs in the tens or hundreds of thousands of copies a shorter, more personalized or versioned option, while small printers expand their services, providing (for example) both books and the personalized boxes for these books.

A Related Note: Digital Die Cutting

Interestingly enough, a prior issue of Print Week (December 2, 2011) references the Highcon digital die cutting machine, called Euclid. Created by two ex-Indigo employees, the Euclid digitally creases and cuts printed packaging board (from a single unit up to 10,000 units) up to a maximum thickness of .6 milimeters. This technology uses lasers and optics to eliminate the cost and time associated with conventional die making and die cutting. Data included with the digital art file can get the die cutting job up and running within fifteen minutes (rather than the day or more needed for conventional die making and die cutting).

It seems to me that this technology, which is just coming to market, would be of major interest to those producing flexible packaging with digital printing equipment.

Why You Should Care

  1. If you are a designer, you should know that package printing is a growing printing arena. It requires the ability to think in three dimensions and demands specialized knowledge of digital and offset printing, manufacturing, and design. Nevertheless, package design may interest those graphic artists who prefer ink on paper to Internet-based design.
  2. If you’re a printer, you need to know that package printing is expanding because this will allow you to offer new services to existing clients as other aspects of commercial printing begin to wane.

Large Format Printing: Movie Standee Lightboxes

Friday, July 13th, 2012

As I have noted in many prior PIE Blogs, I install “standees” and other signage in movie theaters as part of my multi-faceted custom printing life. One such standee promotes The Rise of the Guardians, an upcoming animated film. Although this 14-foot wide and 8-foot high cardboard display portrays six of the movie’s main characters on zig-zagging boxes stacked on a wide base, what makes this particular installation intriguing is its structure. The entire standee comprises a set of six “lightboxes.”

How Lightboxes Work

A lightbox is a device incorporating semi-transparent film or paper placed over a light source. Fluorescent, incandescent, or LED bulbs attached to an electronic light-timing device, and positioned within the structure of the standee, illuminate the transparent graphic panels from behind to give drama to the photographic images of this large format printing display.

This is a little bit like a slide or transparency placed on a lightbox, or even more like the backlit advertisements you can find in subway stations and the airport.

What makes lightboxes dramatic is the level of contrast (the difference between the highlights and shadows) in an image. A slide or transparency, or a lightbox at the airport, or even a lightbox in a standee, has a greater color range due to the back lighting than a similar large format printing graphic panel would if it did not have a source of light behind the image. The light source immediately draws the eye to the graphic panel on the standee. Moreover, by placing the lights strategically behind the graphic panel, the designer can accentuate certain elements in the image and downplay others.

How the Rise of the Guardians Lightbox Works

With the aforementioned in mind, here’s how the huge Rise of the Guardians lightbox was designed. Six graphic panels showcasing six movie characters each consisted of printed semi-transparent plastic film sheets stretched over boxes constructed from unprinted cardboard. Immediately behind each semi-transparent panel was a cardboard sheet with cut-outs for one to three fluorescent bulbs strapped to the cardboard with cable ties. Each lightbox also included multiple strands of LED holiday lights controlled by a timing device. Pushing the button on the controller would change the pattern of the flashing lights.

From a graphic design approach, the lights served a purpose. The fluorescent bulbs illuminated and accentuated the movie characters (usually their faces, since the printed graphic film through which the light shone was more transparent in the lighter colors). LED flashing lights were set behind images such as birds or sparks coming from a magic wand. The flashing lights simulated movement.

Technical Implications of Lightboxes

With the design implications in mind, I also thought about the technical aspects of this large format printing piece. For instance, some of the 100 to 200 miniature lights lay in direct contact with the cardboard standee. In this case I was not concerned. After all, the amount of heat given off by LED lights does not come close to that produced by incandescent bulbs. (My concern was for a potential fire hazard.) Regarding the fluorescent bulbs, I also had no concern. They give off minimal heat, and they were held in a fixed position within recessed cardboard light-holders using plastic cable ties.

Other Lightboxes

I have installed many other lightboxes in movie theaters. None has been as dramatic as this 14-foot construct (which took 14 hours to assemble), but most have been built around a fluorescent light source. However, one lightbox for a Katy Perry film included a semi-transparent mirror. On the back side of the mirror (within the cardboard structure of the standee) four or five incandescent bulbs were alternately turned up to full intensity and then turned off—repeatedly–using an automatic light dimmer. My concern in this case was due to the nature of the lights and their installation. The bulbs were incandescent and therefore gave off more heat than fluorescent bulbs and LED bulbs in other lightboxes. Furthermore, their sockets were just pushed into holes in the cardboard and then lights were screwed into place. So I was concerned that there might be the potential for contact between a hot bulb and the cardboard of the large format printing standee leading to the potential for fire. I have not heard of this actually happening, so perhaps I was just overcautious.


I find the use of fluorescent, LED, and incandescent lights within such a structure to be most interesting.

I also find it intriguing to see how marketers can custom print images on semi-transparent plastic films, and then light them from behind with various kinds of bulbs timed in precise patterns, to accentuate elements of the backlit graphic panel and create movement within a dramatic large format printing job.

Such a project forces the designer to balance aesthetic needs with such diverse sciences as physics and electronics to create a compelling yet functional custom printing piece.

Commercial Printing: High-End Packaging Reflects Artistry and Luxury

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

I’d like to describe the packaging of a straightening iron my fiancee just bought. Perhaps “gush about it” is a better phrase, since this box really impressed me in its design and custom printing work.

This box exemplifies the value manufacturers place on product packaging to sell a luxury item. Depending on the length of the press run, my guess is that the box may have cost several dollars or more to produce each unit. Since it contained a $30.00 professional hair care tool (marked down from over $130.00), the money that went into the packaging was not an inconsiderable portion of the total cost.

The Physical Dimensions of the Box

The box is about 3” high, 12” long, and 6” deep. The hinged box top comes forward, and a flap extending beyond the front of the box snaps shut on the cardboard. Upon close examination, I saw two magnets under the printed paper.

The bottom, back, top, and front are all of one piece, extending slightly beyond an inner box. The cover looks like a case-side produced by a hardcover book printer. Built over thick binder’s board, the cover comprises an outer press sheet with turned edges extending into the inside of the box cover. In much the same way as an endsheet of a case-bound book covers the turned edge paper covering the print book, an additional press sheet covers the inside of the flat iron box cover, extending almost to the turned edges of the exterior paper.

Inside the box is a molded plastic tray for the ceramic flat iron, hair straightening tool. The visible side of the tray is coated in something like a soft-touch UV coating. It ‘s soft and fuzzy, like the skin of a peach.

Finally, there are three, tri-fold brochures in the box, printed on heavy, film-laminated text stock (one in English, one in Spanish, and one in French).

The Custom Printing (Inside the Box)

The interior press sheet, laminated to the cover paper where it folds over the turned edges and extends into the box is printed in a metallic ink in faux zebra stripes. The metallic silver ink stands out against the matte black background. Both inks are very thick.

Initially, I thought this was a sample of custom screen printing. However, using my loupe I saw halftone dots under the black ink. At this point (without knowing for sure), I assumed that the pressman had printed a screen of black and then a second hit of solid black to increase the density of the black ink. Furthermore, I thought he might have done the same with the silver (perhaps a double hit of the ink).

The interior of the innermost box seemed to be a slightly mottled, matte black. I thought it might be flexographic printing.

I also saw where the dull exterior press sheet (maybe 80# text) had been turned over the edge of the box, extending an inch or so into the interior before being glued flat against the binder boards that comprise the box.

The Custom Printing (Outside of the Box)

The outside of the box is matte black (perhaps a double hit of black plus a dull UV coating or varnish). Black metallic foil cut with a die and applied with heat and pressure comprises a text-only design of words related to beauty. The evenness and sheen of the black, hot-stamped words suggest that they are made of foil rather than ink. A similar effect could have been produced with gloss UV coating over a matte black ink, but the intensity of the contrast makes me think this is hot stamping foil.

White, silver, and yellow type and graphics adorn the exterior of the box. The silver is clearly hot stamping foil due to its reflective metallic sheen, but I’m not sure about the yellow. It’s so rich. Maybe it includes some fluorescent ink or some opaque white mixed into the PMS yellow (there are no halftone dots, so it’s not a color build). Or maybe it’s a double hit of yellow. The dull silver zebra stripes are more subdued than the silver type, so I would assume the stripes have been created with ink rather than hot stamping foil.

What Can We Learn from This?

Product packaging is going strong. Even in the midst of a sea change in magazine printing, book printing, and newspaper printing, the sale of product packaging is actually growing.

The flat iron straightening tool was a $130.00 piece of hair stylist’s equipment until it was put in a discount store. The box designer (and the marketing people backing her or him) assumed that a $5.00 (just a stab at the price) box would sell a $130.00 straightening iron. That’s a fair commitment of money as well as design and production time.

My personal belief is that until a material can be invented that will encase products in a screen onto which digitally projected images can be projected, we will have both high-end and low-end product packaging. Tiffany & Co. and other luxury stores will provide shopping bags that are works of art. Even the boxes in the grocery stores containing microwavable dinners will be around for the foreseeable future.

Commercial Printing: Advances in Product Packaging

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

In a world where offset and digital custom printing are struggling for a place among digital-only communications media—such as e-books, Yelp, and Facebook–product packaging work is actually growing.

Advances in Digital Packaging Presses

Until recently, the main focus of digital custom printing within the packaging arena had been custom labels. For flexible packaging beyond custom label printing, the options included offset printing and flexography. However, this has started to change.

The drupa commercial printing trade show highlighted the HP Indigo 10000 (a B2 press, accepting sheet sizes up to 29.5” x 20.9”) that will be ideal for the folding carton and flexible packaging market.

Why is this such good news:

  1. The ability of the press to accept a 29.5″ x 20.9” press sheet allows operators to either produce larger printed products or impose more units on a press sheet. Prior iterations of the Indigo had accepted press sheets closer to 12” x 18”. Accommodating larger press sheets will allow HP Indigo to potentially compete head to head against sheetfed offset presses.
  2. Sustainability of both product and packaging is a deciding factor for many people when purchasing consumer goods. The ability to produce more environmentally sound packaging via digital custom printing is a major selling point, particularly in terms of the waste reduction and productivity enhancing qualities of digital printing.
  3. Mass customization of data and images has become essential as well. The new, larger-format digital presses allow for combining packaging with variable data coupons, tickets, and surveys, thus integrating dialogue marketing with product packaging work.
  4. The variable data capabilities of digital presses such as the HP Indigo 10000 allow commercial printing vendors to add individual barcodes or QR codes to packaging. This helps in tracking individual products, coding and controlling inventory, and identifying counterfeit products.


Advances in Offset Lithography

KBA, Rapida,Heidelberg—these are the heavy hitters in offset custom printing, and these companies have been expanding their offset printing options for product packaging, as evidenced at drupa and elsewhere.

For instance, one particular press, the Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105-8+LLYLX3 offers eight printing units and coating units, as well as UV-ink printing capabilities. It allows for in-line printed dull and gloss varnish effects, and the use of opaque white, metallic inks, and substrates such as aluminum coated cardboard.

Why is this such good news:

  1. As with other commercial printing arenas, packaging faces cost, quality, and turn-around pressures. Being able to print multiple design effects in-line speeds up the manufacturing process and controls costs. Increasingly, such eye-catching effects as printing on metallic foils can be produced efficiently, allowing packaging to really stand out on store shelves.
  2. Press automation improves make-ready times, reduces waste, and improves overall efficiency. For instance, the Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105-8+LLYLX3 includes automated pile changing at the feeder and delivery ends of the press. It is increasingly possible to provide eye-catching packaging faster and more economically.
  3. Many of these packaging presses are hybrid, including both offset and inkjet capabilities. This means that variable data can be added during the press run rather than in a separate pass. Printers can use such capabilities for adding QR codes, barcodes, and other variable data, or for error detection.
  4. Closed loop, electric eye devices constantly monitor the color density on press, making adjustments as needed to match preset color data. This leads to faster throughput and less waste, as well as improved color fidelity.
  5. Presses such as the KBA Rapida include automated process synchronization. For instance, 41” Rapida presses can change plates automatically while the press automatically washes blankets, cylinders, and rollers. Again, speed translates into cost-savings and improved turn-around times.
  6. The production of flexible packaging consumes vast amounts of power due to long press runs and high heat requirements (the ovens for drying ink on web presses, for instance). With energy-reduction in mind, KBA has developed VariDryBLUE, which captures heat from the initial drying units and reuses it for subsequent drying processes, reducing heat, saving energy, and lowering carbon emissions.


Product packaging seems to be immune from the encroachment of digital-only media. That said, digital technology has been instrumental in improving the speed, quality, cost, and environmental impact of this custom printing work.

Custom Printing: Digital Diecutting Transforms Product Packaging Workflow

Monday, December 12th, 2011

For decades, diecutting has been a labor-intensive, materials-intensive, time-intensive, post-press finishing process. Commercial printers have had to wait for outside vendors to create the cutting dies and then set up and operate a letterpress or diecutting press to accomplish the cutting work. Even the die-makers have had to store raw materials–wood, metal, and rubber–in warehouses along with the finished dies themselves, which are kept for future work. So the die-makers must absorb the extra storage expense, insurance expense, and other costs of holding inventory.

But this is changing. A new company founded by two former HP Indigo employees has brought the diecutting process into the digital age.

First of All, What Is Die-Cutting?

Unlike a beautiful custom printing job, a good die-cutting job is meant to be invisible, or to at least not draw attention to itself. If you see the results, something went wrong.

But you actually do see the results every day. A pocket folder has to be diecut after the commercial printer has printed the press sheet. And every product package in the grocery store, department store, and drug store also has to be diecut after the custom printing work is complete.

Diecutting is the finishing process (i.e, a process following the custom printing run) in which unused portions of a press sheet are chopped away and discarded. It is part of what is called “conversion,” turning a flat press sheet into a box.

For instance, a carton containing four sticks of butter was once a flat press sheet comprising numerous flat carton images printed side by side by a commercial printer. On a letterpress, metal diecutting rules inset into sheets of wood chop the press sheets into flat but unassembled boxes in much the same way as a cookie cutter chops dough into cookies. These flat boxes can then be folded, glued, and assembled into finished product packaging (i.e., converted).

The Packaging Market Is Huge But Segmented.

Product packaging is a huge market. Almost everything you see in all the stores you frequent requires product packaging of some sort, usually including some sort of diecut paper or board. The custom printing on this packaging involves branding and other marketing design work that will hopefully turn shoppers into buyers. So in the simplest sense, packaging influences buying, and packaging is therefore a large and lucrative market.

But the market is also segmented. More and more, marketers focus their product design on smaller segments of the buying populace. That means more custom printing runs (and diecut finishing runs) but also smaller press runs and diecut runs. This is problematic, because making the dies in the traditional way involves time, preparing the letterpresses to actually do the diecutting involves time, and doing the diecutting itself involves time. It’s a labor-intensive, time-intensive, and materials-intensive process.

But What If You Could Cut the Paper with a Laser?

“Direct-to-Pack” is a term coined to describe laser-based cutting. Lasers score and cut the press sheets that are then converted into product packaging, pocket folders, or any other formerly diecut product.

Two former HP Indigo employees have founded a company called Highcon and created a digital scoring and cutting machine that takes digital data from a design workstation to draw a digital dieline (pattern of cuts to be made on the press sheet) on a rotating drum. The image on the drum drives a laser that cuts away the unused portions of the press sheet to prepare the blanks that can then be glued and assembled into cartons—all without dies.

Digital diecutting is a potentially huge development, since it does not require the inventory of wood, metal, and rubber of which dies traditionally have been made. It also emits less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and uses no tree wood (important considerations in light of increased governmental regulation). The process requires fewer operators, minimal makeready (minutes rather than hours), and no storage of dies. Therefore, short runs are possible (even one prototype).

And this makes good business sense, since product packaging can be be ready for market faster, and since printing companies can produce more varieties of packaging for less money to target more markets in a more focused manner.

The new machine is called The Euclid. It can economically score and/or cut anywhere from one item to 10,000 items.


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