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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) 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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Large Format Printing: HP and KBA Inkjet Box-Printing

Corrugated board sounds about as sexy as wet tissue, but as I recently read a press release from HP and KBA, I started to develop more of an interest in the subject.

More specifically, any aspect of commercial printing that is growing and incorporating new technology into the process piques my interest.

The New Equipment

According to their March 4, 2015, press release, “HP and KBA … announced plans to develop a high speed, high volume, 110-inch-wide (2.8 meter) simplex inkjet web press for pre-printing of corrugated top liner.”

The equipment noted in the promotional release is a 4-color inkjet press that runs at a speed of 600 feet per minute and can print up to 300,000 square feet per hour. And, as the press release notes, “every box can be different.”

What This Means

In the simplest terms, this is what these technical specifications mean. In contrast to the smaller inkjet printers we have come to depend on for business use, this digital press (incorporating the IT experience of Hewlett Packard and the structural integrity of KBA presses) will digitally print a roll of paper that is more than 9 feet wide in full color with the ability to change anything from box to box. (Printers can even gang-up jobs on this large format press.)

Once printed, this “liner,” as it is called, can be processed through “corrugators,” which combine flat top and bottom sheets with the fluted inside section to create corrugated box material. Preprinting the liners and then converting them into corrugated material is more efficient than printing the corrugated board after it has been converted. Overall, the ability to produce short press runs of packaging material in this manner saves time, money, and shipping costs.

The Alternatives

I went to the Green Bay Packaging, Inc., website to learn more about the alternatives.

  1. One option is to offset print the decoration for a corrugated box onto litho paper that can be laminated to the corrugated board. This is a bit like a decal you would affix to a cardboard box.
  2. Another option is to use rubber relief plates (i.e., flexography) to decorate the corrugated board. Unlike offset printing, which would crush the fluting of the corrugated board with its extreme pressure, a flexographic press can print directly on the corrugated board. However, this process does not have the precision of offset lithography. It is therefore often used to print simple, large areas of flat colors on boxes.
  3. The third option is to screen print the art and text directly onto the corrugated boxes. Like flexography, this will not destroy the fluting within the corrugated board. However, set-up for custom screen printing is labor intensive. It therefore is not cost-effective for shorter press runs.
  4. Another option is to digitally print the decoration directly onto the corrugated board.
  5. But apparently the most cost-effective and efficient approach is to digitally print (or offset print, since both can be processed and turned into corrugated boxes) the liner paper, which is then attached to the paper fluting and converted into corrugated box material. (Of course, offset printing does not offer the variable-data or short-run benefits of digital inkjet.)

The Implications

I find this interesting for the following reasons:

  1. Joint ventures by leaders in both digital and offset printing point to a growing industry niche. HP (Hewlett Packard), a global information technology company and producer of digital printing equipment, has been in business since 1939. And KBA has established itself as an industry leader in sheetfed, newspaper, flexographic, and digital printing (and has been in business for 197 years). When these companies speak, it’s wise to listen.
  2. This development confirms my belief that packaging will be one of the main drivers of the commercial printing industry for years to come.
  3. It also confirms my belief that the ability to produce short press runs efficiently, with variable data capabilities, supports the “just in time” approach to manufacturing, as well as the marketing model of personalizing the sales message for each recipient.
  4. Finally, it supports my belief that inkjet technology is becoming a mainstay of digital custom printing, an effective adjunct to digital laser technology (electrophotography).

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