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Archive for the ‘Packaging’ Category

Custom Printing: What Is Flexible Packaging?

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

When I was a boy, we had milk bottles delivered to our door. Glass bottles. Boy, have things changed. Now, beverages are just as likely to come in boxes or pouches with straws.

These containers fit into a particular segment of the package printing industry called “flexible packaging.” A PowerPoint series I found by Peter Schottland, produced for the American Packaging Corporation, called “An Overview of the Flexible Packaging Industry,” defines flexible packaging as:

“A package or container made of flexible or easily yielding materials that, when filled or closed, can be readily changed in shape. The construction may be of paper, plastic film, foil, or any combination of these. Includes rollstock, bags, pouches, labels/wraps, lidding, shrink sleeves and stretch film.”

What makes this of particular importance to me is that these are fertile areas for custom printing and graphics. The market is growing, and as a printing broker I find this intriguing.

Further on in Schottland’s presentation, he notes that the increase in flexible package printing is due to lower materials costs than for rigid packaging (rigid cartons, for instance), improved technology, reduced materials consumption, and the benefits of the paper, films, and foils used in this process.

How Do They Print Flexible Packages?


According to Peter Schottland’s presentation, the main commercial printing technologies used for producing flexible packaging are rotogravure and flexography.

To provide a brief review of these processes, unlike offset lithography rorogravure does not use plates. Instead, the text and images of a page or package are engraved directly into the rotogravure cylinder using lasers, diamond-tipped tools, or chemicals. The deeper the wells engraved on the cylinder (with images, solids, screens, and type composed of dots), the darker the ink. The ink from the ink fountain fills the wells as the rotary press cylinder turns. Then a doctor blade removes the excess ink. Then the rotating rotogravure cylinder makes contact with the web of paper (a roll, not sheets) and deposits the ink on the substrate. Heat dries the ink before the paper enters the next color unit.

As you can see, the process involves a direct deposit of ink, unlike offset lithography (in which the image is transferred from the plate to the blanket to the printed substrate). Also, this is an intaglio process (as opposed to a relief process), since the ink wells are recessed into the rotogravure cylinder.

Rotogravure is a good choice for flexible packaging because it maintains exceptional quality over exceptionally long press runs (millions of images, for instance). In addition, it will allow for custom printing on webs of foil, film, or paper. According to Wikipedia, rotogravure has the “ability to print on thin films such as polyester, OPP, nylon, and PE, which come in a wide range of thicknesses, commonly 10 to 30 micrometers.”

The down side, other than the need to print hundreds of thousands of images to make the process cost effective, is that the text as well as solids and images are composed of dots.


Wikipedia defines the term flexography as a “modern version of letterpress which can be used for printing on almost any type of substrate, including plastic, metallic films, cellophane, and paper.”

As noted in prior blog articles, flexography (a relief process, as opposed to the intaglio process of rotogravure) employs rubber plates with raised type and images to print on webs of paper, film, plastic, etc. Lasers or chemicals are used to image the raised plates, which are mounted on the press in exact register. The press inks the plates, and a doctor blade removes any excess ink before the rubber plates apply the image to the substrate.

Again, this is ideal for flexible packaging since it allows for custom printing long press runs on rolls of foil, film, and paper.

Other Technologies

Although rotogravure and flexography are the technologies of choice for flexible packaging, some flexible package printing is done via custom screen printing (for long runs) or digital printing (for very short runs).

Why This Is Important

As with other commercial printing technologies experiencing a growth spurt, it is prudent to be aware of what flexible packaging is, what it looks like, and how it is produced. Look around in the grocery store, and you’ll see little pouches of apple sauce where there were once only glass bottles or metal cans. Learn to identify this packaging, and understand how to print it, and your graphic design skills will stay relevant and in demand.

Package Printing: Indigo, Scodix, and Highcon, Oh My

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

In the movie The Graduate, Mr. McGuire tells Benjamin, Dustin Hoffman’s character, that he has one word for him regarding his future success: “Plastics.” To update this 1967 movie quote and apply it to the present state of printing, I’d say the word is “packaging,” and Highcon, Scodix, and HP will reap the benefits.

Why do I believe this? Because I just read an article in Packaging Europe News (9/25/13, “Highcon and Scodix Demonstrate the Value of Digital for Folding Carton at LabelExpo”) referencing LabelExpo in Brussels, Belgium, in which Scodix and Highcon presented “new digital technologies that will enable folding carton packaging converters to differentiate themselves…” and “further stress the importance they place on the move towards digital packaging production.”

Packaging Is Physical

Unlike a book or newspaper, product packaging has to be printed in some way. Picture a big box store like Target with row upon row of products with no packaging, or with blank packaging. You can’t do it. In fact, I’ve seen increasingly intricate packaging in recent months—and more of it. From printed shrink sleeves adorning bottles to flexible packaging, I’m seeing an explosion in packaging design and production. LabelExpo just confirms it.

The HP Indigo 30000 (Digital Custom Printing Excellence)

I don’t think any digital press exists today that matches the quality level of the HP Indigo. It produces toner-based digital custom printing (electrophotography, or xerography) that rivals offset for all but the most discriminating eyes. Moreover, it overcomes any perceived liability with its ability to print a different image every time it delivers a press sheet.

Mass customization is key. As the Packaging Europe News article notes, “Value can be created by meeting the demand for better shelf appearance, shorter runs, versioning, private label, reduced inventory, and sustainability.”

Applying this to the HP Indigo, the new 30000 press accepts a 20” x 29” press sheet. That’s comparable to a 20” x 26” cover sheet size for an offset lithographic press. In simpler terms, digital presses can now compete head to head with offset presses.

Given the exceptional custom printing quality provided by the HP Indigo line, its ability to economically produce a print run of one copy or 10,000 copies, and its ability to produce infinitely variable products within a single press run, it seems that the new HP Indigo 30000 is right on the mark for a packaging industry that demands shorter, more varied press runs.

The Highcon Euclid (Digital Diecutting)

Highcon has produced equipment that will use digital data stored within a package-design art file to do intricate cutouts as well as the standard cutting and creasing required for package conversion (i.e., for turning a flat custom printing sheet into a completed box).

After all, if you disassemble a simple carton for a tube of toothpaste, pulling apart all folded and glued flaps, you’ll see how intricate the flat diecut shape must be before it can be folded back up into a usable box. Now, instead of needing to pay extra—and wait extra time—for the creation of a metal die with which to stamp out the blanks for the carton, the Highcon Euclid can directly process the digital information in the art file, and cut or crease the commercial printing sheets with a laser.

What this means is that you can diecut one or 1,000 boxes economically, since you don’t have all the set up charges. And you can start diecutting and creasing the box forms immediately, since you don’t have to wait for the die-maker to strike the die.

Scodix Packaging Adornment (Digital Metallics and Embossing)

Think about packages you see in the drug store. They include pharmaceutical supplies and cosmetics, among other products. Drug manufacturers and cosmetics manufacturers often include elaborate metallic inks, foil stamping effects, or embossing in their product packaging. In past years, these have required metal dies. For instance, you would make (and wait for, and pay for) one die for a gold metallic for a single cosmetics folding carton.

But why stop with one color? The Scodix digital enhancement process can simulate multiple colors of foil stamping on the same box, and it can do all of these at the same time without any dies, because it is a digital process.

To go even further, Scodix can add up to .7 millimeters of “build.” This effectively eliminates the need for metal dies if you want to add embossing to a product package.

And in a move reflecting their commitment to packaging design and production, Scodix now offers the Scodix Ultra digital enhancement press that accepts a B2+ sheet (21.5” x 31”), perfect for use in concert with the HP Indigo 30000 and Highcon Euclid.

Enough said. The future is just one word: “packaging.”

Custom Packaging Printing: Blister Packs and Clamshell Packaging

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

I learned a new phrase yesterday: “clamshell packaging.” So I did some research, and I checked out the online photos. I saw a vast expanse of commercial printing opportunities within the arena of packaging, including medical supplies like gauze pads in blister packs with printed peel-off lids, and pharmaceutical samples in fold-over blister packs that allow you to push a pill out of the packaging through the printed foil cover. I saw hardware supplies (screws, for instance) in plastic clamshell packages with fold-over lids. I even saw hamburgers in printed cardboard or cellulose clamshell packages.

And everything had some sort of custom printing on it.

Some Key Words, Phrases, and Concepts You Should Know

Blister Pack

A “blister pack,” also known as a “push-through pack,” has a perforated foil base attached to a matrix of plastic domes (thermoformed or injection molded polystyrene, polyester, or PVC). These usually encase pills or capsules and protect them from moisture and tampering. This is what you get when your doctor gives you prescription samples. On the bottom of the aluminum foil you will usually see custom printing related to the enclosed pharmaceutical. Of course, the carton also needs to be printed.

Blister packs come in a variety of options. Among these are the “fold-over blister,” which has a number of panels and folds up like a little wallet to protect the pills in the plastic bubbles. “Face-seal blister packs” include the cards you find at the grocery store containing razors, cosmetics, or small toys under plastic bubbles that have been heat welded to the cardboard cards. Again, the cards need to be printed. “Trapped blister packaging” refers to plastic bubbles that extend out beyond both the front and back of the cardboard card. The enclosed “product” seems to float.

Clamshell Containers

These can be one-piece plastic containers (thermoformed or injection molded polystyrene, polyester, or PVC), or they can be containers made of paper board. Either way, each is a single piece of material containing a base well, a hinge, and a cover.

Clamshell containers are not only used for food (styrofoam containers at hot-food bars in grocery stores, and cardboard clamshell boxes for McDonalds’ Chicken Classic sandwiches). More and more often, they are being used for small electronic devices. The inaccessibility of the packaging deters theft. In fact, the design works so well that 6,000 Americans visit the emergency room each year with self-inflicted injuries received while trying to open clamshell packaging. They have even coined a term for the ensuing anger: “wrap rage.”

Thermoforming vs. Injection Molding

The plastic part of the blister packs and clamshell packs has to be made into a bubble to cover the enclosed products. Either the transparent plastic can be heated until it is pliable and then formed into a specific shape over a mold, or molten plastic can be injected into a mold cavity, where it will cool and harden into the final shape.

Custom Printing Blister Packs and Clamshell Packs

Look closely at the blister packs and clamshell containers in the stores you frequent. You may have missed them before. After all, you’ve probably been focusing on the product rather than the packaging. You’ll notice the printed cards in the blister packs and the printed foils covering the pharmaceuticals.

According to the commercial printing vendors I have researched, these printed packages are produced via gravure printing or flexography in 4-color process inks and/or spot colors, often with a varnish.

On some of the clamshell packs you might even see crack-n-peel labels that have been printed via offset, gravure, or flexography. These can be wrapped around the clamshell packs to identify the product while holding the packaging together.

If you look closely, you might also see printing on the foils included in the blister packs of drug samples. This foil is printed in web reels, and then slit down into the final size and labeled with batch numbers.

Issues Regarding Custom Printing Inks and Food

According to the Food and Drug Administration, any inks or coatings that may come into contact with food must be separated by a “functional barrier” that keeps the printed surface away from the food product. One option would be an overprint varnish made from FDA-compliant materials and applied (with FDA-approved operations) as a uniform coating with no pinholes.

Why You Should Care

As long as blister packs and clamshell packaging encase everything from microcassette recorders to food to drugs, no print designer need fear obsolescence.


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