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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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Custom Printing: Inkjet Printing on Corrugated Board

A print consulting client of mine recently asked why there was so much excitement about inkjet printing on corrugated board, so I did some quick research and gave him the following presentation. Personally I think digital printing on corrugated board will be a game changer. Here’s why.

The Expensive Analog Printing Options

First of all, the interior “S”-shaped ridges in corrugated board (called “fluting”) are what make it both strong and lightweight. It’s perfect for boxes because it can support the weight of the contents, but it doesn’t add much overall weight to the packaged product. In fact, the finer the corrugation (E-fluting for instance), the smaller the hills and valleys of the fluting, and the stronger the box.

Within corrugated board, the fluting is essentially the center of a paper sandwich. On both the top and bottom of the “S”-shaped, sinuous fluting is a flat piece of paper glued to the corrugation. Making this paper sandwich is an involved process requiring expensive machinery. Therefore, you need a lot of start-up cash to enter this kind of work, and you need to do long production runs to make it cost effective.

Keep in mind that this is even before you do any custom printing on the cardboard. Even though the fluting is strong, it is easily crushed, so offset printing is not a viable option for adding type and photos to a corrugated box. The offset press rollers would just flatten the corrugated board during printing.

Therefore, this leaves such direct-printing options as flexography (printing on the corrugated board with rubber relief plates), gravure, and custom screen printing.

Or, you can offset print a “liner” (the front flat paper panel of the corrugated board) and then glue this “preprint” to the fluting. Again, this requires very long press runs to be economical, because you are both creating the corrugated board and printing and affixing the front preprinted liner in one comprehensive manufacturing effort.

Another option is to purchase ready-made fluted board and then print and affix 4-color lithographic labels (smaller than, or the same size as, the sides of the converted box).

These are your analog options for high-quality, high-detail custom printing on corrugated board. Of the options I mentioned earlier, flexography is not as precise as offset lithography. Even though this relief printing option will not crush the fluted board, it is best only for line work or flat solid colors. It doesn’t hold the detail or color fidelity (or consistency) of offset lithography. And both gravure and custom screen printing (the other options I mentioned) are only economical for long or extremely long runs (perhaps thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies). This is due to the cost of the extensive make-ready, which must be amortized over a long run to make sense economically.

The Digital Option for Corrugated Board

But the trend these days is toward shorter press runs and quick turn-arounds, and with the advent of digital technology, you now have options. The benefit of inkjet printing on corrugated board is that there is essentially no make-ready, so you can start printing right away from a digital file, and you can infinitely vary each cardboard box blank.

(Keep in mind that you are either digitally printing on flat cardboard that will need to be die cut, scored, folded, and glued to be converted into a usable box, or you are printing on the side of a flat box that has already been scored, folded, and glued but just not yet opened.)

Recent flatbed inkjet printers provide a number of benefits:

  1. The inks are usually UV-LED in composition. This means they are cured instantly with UV light. So corrugated box blanks can be processed immediately after being printed. The inks can also be laid down successfully on non-porous as well as porous substrates, because they don’t need to seep into the paper substrate to dry. In addition, once the inks are cured with the UV light, they are rub resistant and low migration. (That is, they won’t come off onto the contents of the box–such as food–and they won’t scuff off the box and look ugly.)
  2. The inkjet color sets usually incorporate more than the traditional cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks. Some include an orange, green, and/or violet. Other inkjet equipment may include light magenta and light cyan. What this means is that the color space is larger than that of traditional offset printing (or flexography, gravure, or custom screen printing). You can match more corporate colors (i.e., PMS colors), and you can achieve deep, rich hues in the greens and purples (as well as the other colors), while maintaining crisp, detailed imagery and type rivaling that of offset commercial printing. Having an on-board, seven-color inkset also means you don’t have to mix and store an inventory of extra colors (as you would in offset lithography if you needed to include PMS match colors).
  3. The consumables in such inkjet equipment are more environmentally friendly than solvent-based petroleum inks often used in offset commercial printing. There are fewer or no VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and the inks and toners (for laser printing) are more easily recycled. In addition, there’s a lot less waste, and since you can print only what you need, there’s no need to store unused printed copies that may eventually be thrown away once they are out of date.

Marketing Benefits of Digital Printing

As a marketing executive, if you inkjet print directly onto corrugated boxes, you can produce short runs that will be immediately appropriate for the season (summer, for instance). Later in the year you can change the creative and print new boxes for fall or winter. Or you can personalize each box for each recipient. Because there’s minimal make-ready, your unit cost will be the same (or very close) whether you print one box or several hundred.

(Granted, at a certain point the cost efficiencies of the traditional analog printing processes will make digital printing less attractive. Digitally printing ten thousand boxes will take a lot longer than custom printing them via flexography, screen printing, or gravure.)

But for short runs it’s ideal. Even if you just want to produce one box as a prototype, you can do this cost-effectively. (This would be out of the question for any of the analog processes.) If your client saw the prototype and wanted to make late-stage editorial changes, this wouldn’t be a problem. You could even make a handful of prototype boxes, put them in stores, and see which one sold the product the best. And all of this would eliminate the need to store printed corrugated board inventory. Moreover, you could even use digital laser cutting and creasing equipment to cut the corrugated board into the final boxes.

Why I Think This Is Exciting

To me this is exciting technology because it addresses a sector of commercial printing that is growing dramatically. Over the years some books and periodicals have migrated to digital-only format, but you really can’t do this with packaging. To date, there’s no way to eliminate the custom printing of folding cartons, flexible packaging, and corrugated board. Packaging is a necessity.

Because of this, companies are pouring money into developing digital package printing technology. Many of the big names in printing are involved (HP, Durst, EFI), and they are building this equipment into sturdy frames (like the structures of traditional offset presses) that will be workhorses for years to come.

Moreover, they are building their color-management expertise into the equipment, and they are incorporating technology that will coordinate all metadata (everything from the trim size to the color information) to ensure accuracy and repeatability of all printing and finishing processes. Plus, the digital finishing (cutting and binding) capabilities are starting to be put into place.

The original equipment manufacturers know that there’s a market for this technology, and they’re stepping up to the challenge.

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