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Through thick & thin

Feb 1, 2006 12:00 AM

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Great opportunities are often accompanied by great challenges. Such is the case for commercial printers considering entering the packaging market. Many commercial printers own 40-inch or larger presses capable of running substrates ranging from flimsy Bible paper to thick board. Facing razor-thin profit margins on their traditional turf, "It's natural to look at other areas with potentially better margins and a market with not as many competitors," says Jeff Nella, director of sheetfed operations for MAN Roland (Westmont, IL).

It's a different world
But few commercial veterans have printed on plastics and other difficult stocks that are commonplace for packagers. Many commercial printers also lack the heavy-duty postpress equipment (die cutters, folder gluers and so on) and fulfillment and logistics expertise some packaging customers may require.

"It is a different market," says Doug Schardt, Komori's (Rolling Meadows, IL) sheetfed product manager. "It's not just a commercial offshoot. Although it is still printing, there are different ways of doing things and different thinking. There are a lot of basics in there, but it's a different customer base with different requirements."

Mitch Dudek, business development coordinator for Mitsubishi Lithographic Presses (MLP USA) (Lincolnshire, IL) says commercial printers who want to do more packaging work should start by evaluating potential demand among current clients as well as additional equipment requirements.

"Commercial printers [believe packaging] offers new opportunities for growth, and in many cases it does," says Dudek. "But although some printers want to do it, the real question is, do they know how? What if you want to run foil? What if you want to emboss? You need all that extra equipment, and it comes at a price."

Printers also must choose their level of commitment. As MAN's Nella observes, few printers are in a position to turn down packaging, commercial, label or any kind of work, provided it offers a healthy margin. "The distinction between commercial printers who are trying to get into packaging and a commercial printer who has printed a packaging job is in the way in which they go about finding that work," says Nella. "Commercial guys who are serious about developing their business to include packaging work are also serious about acquiring the internal skills and equipment to compete for the business effectively."

According to I.T. Strategies (Hanover, MA) and other leading industry sources, offset printing currently accounts for about 20 percent of package printing. A PRIMIR study shown in Figure 1 found folding cartons and labels to be the two leading packaging applications produced using the offset process.

Roland Krapp, vice president of sheetfed product management, Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) cautions, however, that commercial printers are unlikely to displace traditional high-volume folding box producers. "There is too much capital and special knowledge involved especially in postpress and material logistics," says Krapp. "Also the difference in buying power, when it comes to purchasing board should not be under estimated. Board is the major cost factor in packaging—it's approximately 45 to 60 percent of the total cost of a job."

Harder to tell one from the other
Several press vendors report it is becoming increasingly difficult to categorize companies as either commercial printers or packagers. KBA (Williston, VT) attributes the blurring of these lines in part to improved press technology and larger formats that let users run a wider range of substrates.

Ralf Sammeck, KBA North America's president and CEO, says, "By having the ability to print on the widest range of substrates, our customers are able to grow their customer base by offering a one-stop service to provide a client's point-of-purchase displays and folding carton boxes as well as their brochures and advertising material."

KBA offers a special business development program to help commercial printers make the transition to packaging.

"We'll go into a customer and meet with their sales force, their management team and their production staff," says Eric Frank, KBA's vice president of marketing. "It's a three-pronged approach to educate them on the transition from commercial into packaging to help overcome the barriers that come with any start-up."

What's next?
Commercial printers aren't alone in their quest to expand their range. Heidelberg recently announced it will join KBA and MAN, the two biggest players in the traditional 51 to 64-inch packaging press format.

Heidelberg is developing a new generation of presses in the 6 (40.2 x 55.9 inch) and 7b (47.2 x 63.8 inch) formats. Set to debut at Drupa 2008, the two presses will be called Speedmaster XL 142 and Speedmaster XL 162 respectively. The vendor has already beefed up its folder gluer and die cutter offerings.

For more equipment highlights, see our online exclusive, "Meet the presses."

Out of the box thinking
There's more than one way to put graphics on a corrugated box. In addition to flexo preprinted liner, flexo post (direct) print and digital, offset options include:

Litho label on combined board. The "label" is printed offset and is then attached on top of the combined corrugated board. This is a sheet that covers all (full label) or a significant part (spot label) of the corrugated board.

Litho laminate to singleface. A heavier piece of stock is laminated to the singleface corrugated. It is attached to the flute itself, rather than being applied to the liner on the combined board.

Litho post print. Used for microflute, where the substrate is thin enough to run through the offset presses suited for folding carton work.

Source: PRIMIR 2005 study, "Package Printing and Converting, An Industry Assessment," by State Street Consultants (Boston). See

Printing vs. packaging
"The most basic disparity between package and conventional offset printers is that offset professionals are oriented to paper and predominately CMYK, while package printers work with a wide range of other materials such as board, polypropylene, and labels and commonly utilize spot and process colors.

"Other differences include trapping, step-and-repeat, and screening methodologies as well as the use of additional technologies more specifically applicable to packaging, including CAD, warping, distortion, bar codes and different finishing techniques.

"Packaging uses much of the same equipment, but a different skill set. DTP applications, growing adoption of PDF and attention to more sophisticated process control extending to every facet of the workflow, including color management, proofing and output are [priorities] for both segments. Not surprisingly, the two also share a quest to reduce costs particularly via standardization and automation."
—Petra Tant, product manager, labels & packaging, Artwork Systems (Gent, Belgium)

Packaging's communication challenges
"When comparing packaging to commercial printing workflows, there are the obvious technical challenges: Trapping for flexo presses, color management to match logo colors, planning for dot gain, step-and-repeat, melding the structural and graphic designs, and creation of accurate barcodes.

"Communications is another facet that's often overlooked. You don't want to get a call telling you some legal copy was incorrect! In addition to accuracy, other considerations include time to market and cost. A good system enables all the players in consumer product companies, retailers, and graphic communication partners to communicate, collaborate, and execute packaging efficiently."
—Mark Vanover, director of marketing, Esko (Vandalia, OH)

Imagine that!

IMAGINE! Print Solutions isn't afraid to change with the times. Formerly called Challenge Printing, the 530-employee, $98 million printer was established in 1988 as Bob's Printing. Founder and current IMAGINE! president Bob Lowthenbach had $2,000 and a borrowed press. Today, IMAGINE! Print Solutions occupies a magnificent 400,000-sq.-ft. facility in Shakopee, MN. Although commercial printing still figures prominently in its product mix, the company has diversified into UV, point-of-purchase (POP), package and flexo markets. From prototyping packages to fulfillment services, the company prides itself on serving customers across these five core sectors.

In 2001, IMAGINE! pushed beyond the 40-inch market with the installation of a 64-inch, seven-color KBA 162 press with coater, shown above. The company saw an opportunity to futher bolster its share of the POP, commercial and packaging market by adding an even larger press: a six-color, UV-equipped, KBA Rapida 205. In 2005, IMAGINE! became the first printer in the United States to install the 81-inch press. See

Meet our sister magazine
Founded in 1927 as The Envelope Industry, Paper, Film & Foil Converter offers a wealth of packaging information. At, you'll find articles covering corrugated boxes, flexible packaging, folding cartons, tapes, labels, tags and more.

Ed Boyle is a regular contributor to PFFC, AMERICAN PRINTER's sister publication for paper, film and foil converters. Contact him at

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