Getting to Know Your Customers is Key for Packaging Converters
Day two at the ninth annual Digital Packaging Summit in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, kicked off with a delicious spread of breakfast options, which attendees enjoyed during a presentation from NAPCO Research Analyst Lisa Cross.
During the session, Cross highlighted findings from NAPCO Research’s 2023 study entitled “Digital Packaging: Opportunities to Thrive.”
Digital is a ‘Solid Part’ of Package Printing
First and foremost, printers are increasingly adopting digital processes for their label and packaging jobs. Although flexographic printing is still the most common process for label and packaging solutions — 39% of respondents using narrow-web and 37% using wide-web — 33% reported they were using digital inkjet machines. Digital printing with liquid EP and dry toner were prevalent as well, with 19% of package and label print providers using each of the processes.
“We see this as an indicator that the equipment portfolio of packaging is changing, and digital is becoming a solid part of that,” Cross said.
Why are we seeing this shift? One of the biggest motivators has been the various benefits printers can provide to their customers. The top five cited in the report were meeting demands for short runs, adhering to quicker turnaround times, personalizing packages and labels, printing multiple versions with just a single print run, and eliminating plate and tooling production and costs.
Specifically, brands are facing several packaging challenges. At the top of the list of concerns, 38% of brand owners reported challenges with designing packaging that influences purchasing decisions. Other concerns high on the list included sustainability goals and managing multiple versions of a product.
“All of those challenges can be addressed somehow by the benefits of a digital printing press,” Cross said.
Brands Know About and Expect Digital
Brand owners aren’t blind to the benefits of digital for their packaging needs. According to the data, 65% recognized the ability to do short runs as the top benefit, while 56% said on-demand ordering capabilities were the top benefit.
Other benefits brands perceived were the ability to make design changes without needing new plates (51%); personalization, customization, and versioning (49%); the cost effectiveness of test marketing packaging (30%); and the ability to make limited edition packaging (29%).
Speaking on versioning specifically, Cross explained that 41% of brands have increased their number of SKUs over the past two years, and they anticipate the next two years to trend in the same direction, with 60% of brands anticipating their SKUs to increase.
“We did ask brand owners why they expected their stock keeping units to increase, and 75% said that it was because of customer demand for more variety,” Cross explained.
With all the benefits digital printing can provide to customers, and the fact that brands are aware of those benefits, it’s no wonder that brands prefer to harness the capabilities of their print partners’ digital machines.
Notably, 35% of brand owners said it is essential for their label and packaging print provider to offer digital printing services, while 44% said it was preferable. That’s 79% of label and packaging customers looking to their partners for digital printing.
“I don’t have too much more to say about that,” Cross emphasized. “I said earlier that brands are familiar [with digital printing benefits] and they want to work with providers that have digital capabilities to produce labels and packaging.”
Meeting Brands Where They Want to Be
All these capabilities lend themselves to more productivity. One key focus is turnaround time.
The greatest proportion (32%) of print providers surveyed said that they had a label and packaging turnaround time of 10 to 20 days, followed by 22% who had a turnaround of six to nine days and 21% who had a turnaround time of two to five days. Accounting for all print providers, the mean number of days for turnaround was 11 days.
However, that’s not quite up to snuff with brand owners’ expectations, who had a mean turnaround time requirement of seven days, with the largest proportions of responses indicating a turnaround time of two to five days (38%) or six to nine days (33%).
Digital printing can play a role in bridging the gap between the delivery of print providers and the requirements of brands, Cross said.
Finally, Cross emphasized that the future of digital printing is bright across all applications. Over the past 12 months, brand owners reported growth or at least stability across corrugated, flexible packaging, labels, and folding cartons.
Tips from the Trenches
Following Cross' informative session, Marco Boer, conference co-chair and vice president of I.T. Strategies, took the stage for a second time with a panel of converters in labels, flexible packaging, folding cartons, and corrugated packaging to explore their experience with digital printing.
Eddie Kopaczynski, senior director graphic services at Atlanta, Georgia-based Graphic Packaging International, shared that although his folding carton company is only a few months into its new digital investment and it hasn’t moved into new applications, it has “opened a lot of eyes.”
Kopaczynski explained that the company had a sheetfed perfecting press go down and it was no longer functional. This forced the new investment, but it has so far been a success.
“It's running at the line speeds we need, it's actually keeping production moving, and not impacting anything,” he said. “It's working very well; there are already thoughts about innovating even more.”
Pramit Sen, vice president and general manager of CCL Healthcare, based in Etobicoke, Ontario, echoed some of Kopaczynski’s thoughts on digital, but shared that CCL’s digital investment has created new work and replaced flexo/offset work for the pharmaceutical label market.
“Aesthetically, the labels are better at times,” he said.
He continued by saying that the company sees growth in more hybrid presses but stressed that in time, “everything will turn into digital.”
Being the primary source for clients’ flexible packaging needs was the driving force behind digital adoption for Cincinnati, Ohio-based ProAmpac, said Sal Pellingra, vice president of package design, applications, and business development at the company. He reasoned that if a company has to tell a customer that they can’t do something and they instead send them to a partner company, they will end up working with that partner somewhere down the line.
“We'd rather have a total solution for a customer,” he said.
And that meant investing in digital technology. He explained that it has become added value for customers because it has enabled short runs, higher quality, and quicker turnaround times.
Moving over to the corrugated market, George Perreira, vice president of Hamilton, Ontario-based Whitebird/Moyy, said that it was the demand for personalization and added color that drove the company to invest in digital. Specifically, it was single-pass digital printing that impressed him and seemed to be the “right fit at the right time.”
“We jumped in about four years ago … and we're glad that we did because our business has been growing since,” he said.
In fact, since adding the technology, the company has become a resource for many local corrugated companies that haven’t yet made the transition.
“When you're the first kid in the sandbox with a new shiny toy, everybody wants to play with you,” he said. “So when we brought this new equipment to the market, all our competitors started calling us, ‘Hey, we're in a jam. Can you run this on your press?’ Or ‘Hey, we don't have the capabilities.’”
Whitebird/Moyy has since evolved into a trade shop. One key piece of advice he gave the attendees was to focus on workflow.
“If you don't have a solid workflow, I think you're going to struggle a little bit,” he said.
Views from a Retailer
Following his user panel, Marco Boer hosted a 1:1 conversation with Ron Sasine, principal at Hudson Windsor, to discuss the impact of digital printing on retailers. Sasine commanded the stage, relating stories from his time as the senior director of private brands packaging at Walmart.
“I may have the distinction of being the only Walmart employee to ever be kicked out of a Walmart,” Sasine joked. “I was walking around taking pictures of everything, I was standing right in front of shelves, taking pictures of samples, turning things upside down, and taking pictures of the printer's marks.”
This is something that he suggested all attendees do.
“Find time in your schedules to go to the grocery store,” he advised.
He suggested doing this with almost an “art museum eye” while considering what works, what doesn’t work, and what you would do differently.
One of the biggest takeaways during the discussion is that there is a general misconception about who is the most important person to connect with at a retailer. Sasine emphatically stated that it’s the category buyer.
“If you talk to the marketing department, you are wasting your time,” he said. “The person who really matters is the person who buys breakfast cereal. The person who buys potatoes. The person who buys peanut butter. Because they're making the decision about what's going to go on the shelf. And I'm confident that most of your selling teams are not equipped or connected to those folks.”
He says that although it’s a skill set, it’s a muscle that can be developed and digital printing can help. The first step though, is getting through the web of retailers to the category buyer.
As a final message to attendees, Sasine said there are three things he typically asks people to remember when it comes to packaging.
“Packaging is there to convey, it's there to communicate, and it's there to convince,” he said.
Betting on Digital Packaging
One of the most cherished elements of the Summit format is the 1:1 meetings between attendees and sponsors. It's a time for attendees to "speed date" with vendors who may turn out to be great partners.
As is customary for the Digital Packaging Summit, attendees were treated to an evening of food, fun, and festivities with the annual Casino Night. Attendees took their chances on blackjack, poker, and roulette, while shooting for prizes and making connections with their peers.