Dynamic Growth Opportunities in Digital Print Are Yours for the Taking

After working in both the office equipment space and now industrial print and production for the last few decades, I can confidently say that the future looks very bright for our industry, along with brand owners of all sizes  – and their customers – based on how digital print has evolved and continues to change our industry.

In other words, digital print needs to be part of your business, if it isn’t already. And if you’re already on a digital path, there are new and exciting options to offer your customers that also deliver enhanced profit margins for you.

By now we all recognize that the pandemic, with its resulting increase in e-commerce and technology developments, were key drivers for digital print in every business segment, all along the value chain. From material shortages and supply chain hiccups to increased business and consumer demands for speed, safety, security and cost savings, digital print production has transformed the ways in which businesses today market, package and ship products. The pandemic also highlighted the growing emphasis on environmental awareness and sustainability. 

Faster, more efficient production with high-quality output on recyclable substrates, new consumer engagement models using creativity and connected packaging, and inline embellishment and finishing options are now available through digital technologies that in many cases have replaced offset printing.

Here are three of the top addressable areas of today’s digital print business. Keep these in mind as you look to the future of your business to meet the needs of your customers and a changing marketplace. 

1: Digital production print and inkjet technology lead the way forward

There’s no question that volumes are shifting to digital from analog, and we’re seeing a trend toward a preference for digital technology. In addition, there’s more interest than ever in moving to the production inkjet space, whether black and white or full color. 

There are lots of reasons for this trend and greater industry demand. First, the industry has accepted what digital print has promised to deliver: high quality, reliable performance and excellent image stability. And today, there’s a wide range of digital press solutions, whether for commercial, in-plant or in the office. Even wide-format printing has evolved to include a variety of substrates for an extensive range of applications. These include textile print, which has been slower to convert to digital, but is gaining ground.

In addition, as print providers become more focused on environmental effects and commit to greater sustainability practices, digital print has taken a definitive lead in delivering environmental advantages to support a more sustainable future. Take, for example, AM Solutions in Edgerton, WI, a national leader in branded print marketing and data-driven direct mail. They recently added an inkjet press to their lineup and conducted a rigorous analysis of the new press. It revealed a groundbreaking milestone in environmental sustainability, reducing power consumption, minimizing emissions during the printing process, and supporting the use of eco-friendly inks and substrates, including recycled paper.

2: Digital embellishments allow for uber-creative applications in less time and at less cost

The speed at which digital print has changed (and continues to evolve) to meet consumer demands is rather mind-boggling. First there was black and white, then color, then variable data print to personalize materials, and now digital embellishments, through the innovation of combining data, software and digital devices. Again, COVID stimulated this rapid evolution with the huge increases in online purchases and e-commerce.

Today’s creatives and marketers are looking for ways to set their ideas apart in order to engage interest and purchases among highly targeted audiences. Digital production makes embellishment easier and more cost-effective than ever, especially for short and medium print runs, and there is still some production embellishment moving to digital from the offset world.

Embellishment offers nonstop ways to create visually stunning, tactile, high-value pieces – from brochures and signage to direct mail and packaging. Combining embossing, debossing, varnishing, foils and other techniques with variable data printing to personalize materials creates even greater impact, impressions and ROI, for print shops and their customers. At drupa 2024, this area was on full display, proving that this space is taking hold and getting client recognition. In addition, through the production and delivery of boxes and folding cartons with color, embellishments and personal messaging, the industry has helped brands deliver a novel unboxing experience for customers.

It’s important to realize just how big a trend personalization has become in printing, and its growth is based on the masses of customer data that brands have accumulated in recent years. A Salesforce study reported that 73% of shoppers expect brands to understand their unique needs and expectations – and that study, “Fifth Edition State of the Connected Customer,” was conducted two years ago. The data, and the expectations of consumers, will only continue to grow, as will leveraging that data to meet the market.

3: Label products and packaging are taking personalization and connectivity to new levels

Labels coupled with embellishment have created major marketing opportunities across the board. We’re beginning to see these trends take off from the manufacturer level, and especially from ecommerce players such as Walmart and Target – which you can witness by the amazing proliferation of SKUs on store shelves. Now even tiny, local brands can use short-run digital technology to their advantage, and traditional converters are going after shorter runs because they can deliver better profit margins per job.

In league with personalization is connected packaging. A Connected Experience Report conducted by SharpEnd in collaboration with Fedrigoni and featured in Labels & Labeling found that 96% of the brands surveyed view connected packaging as critical to their marketing strategies, and 94% emphasized how essential the data they collect through digital technologies is to their ongoing strategies. Consumer demand for QR codes and near field communication (NFC) is especially strong, and brands are willing to pay more to integrate NFC into their products. Over the next 12 months, 85% said they’ll increase their investments in connected products. So far, alcoholic beverages, consumer packaged goods and healthcare brands have demonstrated the highest willingness to experiment with connected packaging.

Just as important, 93% of the 1,000 global brands surveyed said that they’ll use connected packaging to support their sustainability goals over the next two years. And 85% of these brands indicated that connected packaging will help them reach their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals.

Another growth area to watch is flexible packaging. According to global research by Smithers, flexible packaging will grow at the fastest rate – 4.4% CAGR for 2023-2028. Smithers indicates that the industrial/transit/other category has the greatest market share, with 43% in 2023, followed by food (28%) and drinks (14%).

An entire subset of technologies has developed around packaging for food and drinks. Flexible, printable substrates must meet strict FDA guidelines to make sure that nothing is transferred to the contents contained, such as chemicals or odors, that would make the food unsafe to eat. Of course, flexible packaging has a wide variety of uses for other products. It also reduces shipping costs for brands and, ideally, is recyclable, as we’ve seen by shippers like Amazon.

Note that sustainability will continue to have a profound effect on the printing industry 

Companies the world over are intent on improving their sustainability practices. Most printing machinery manufacturers today must meet a range of corporate regulations and continue their efforts to make every part of the production process safer for the environment. 

Here again, digital print production is right on trend, because it eliminates plates and reduces paper waste, chemical usage, energy and emissions and incorporates applications that use recycled and eco-friendly materials. Packaging megatrends identified by Smithers underscore the impact of digital print. In addition to sustainability benefits, it allows for more rapid replenishment of part orders, which helps to maintain supplies while reducing inventory costs for manufacturers and brands. And as Keypoint Intelligence highlighted in its 2024 Labels and Packaging Predictions, the second half of 2021 through the end of 2022 was a near-record volume period for most packaging converters, because buyers rebuilt inventory as regional economies reopened.

Because it’s seen as a growth industry as commercial and publication print decline, packaging requires meeting a wide range of regulations that will affect recycling and single-use plastics. 

In 2018 the Global Commitment, a joint initiative between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme, was launched and supported by more than 1,000 companies. The goal: to ensure all plastic packaging becomes recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. As the deadline fast approaches and there’s work still to be done, pressure will increase to meet this goal.

The U.S. has also introduced Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws that are applied at the state level and impose liability on producers for the lifecycles of their products, including single-use plastics and paper. As such, in the context of packaging, these laws also apply to brand owners, importers and distributors. 

Digital technology will increasingly step in to fill the gap in ongoing labor shortages

Since well before the pandemic, there’s been a shortage of skilled operators in the offset world.  Traditional offset press skills have gone away and it’s difficult to find those individuals, which is why more shops are heading into digital production.

As Keypoint Intelligence points out in its 2024 Labels and Packaging Predictions, these labor shortages are leading converters to increasingly rely on new technologies and automation along with re-engineering their workflows to alleviate the impacts of significant labor challenges. 

Continued innovation in digital technologies that combine AI, automation and big data will have immense impacts on print production. I think we’re just getting started in that realm, but we’ve already witnessed the effects AI is having on our industry. With new digital presses and their advancements in automated setup, color stability, image quality and inline finishing capabilities, the ability to produce what once took extensive time and craftsmanship has put much of the work on autopilot. This enables new operators to produce predictable, high-quality output with the push of a few buttons.

These developments all require converters to evaluate a potential digital investment not as just an option for side-by-side production with analog equipment, but as how to deploy digital devices after reviewing and assessing the internal and external needs of the business and the customers it serves. Each digital device acquisition needs to be integrated into the operational and business flow to deliver the highest levels of efficiency, productivity and profitability.

The question I leave for everyone considering their path forward in the digital space is: What is the high-value output you can produce with the equipment and people you have on board – and how could additional digital print technology take your operation to new levels of growth? 

Frank Mallozzi is President, IPP, Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A. He leads Konica Minolta’s industrial print channel, which includes the company’s industry leading high-speed inkjet, labeling and embellishment businesses. Prior he held leadership roles at EFI (Electronics For Imaging), Ricoh Corporation and Canon USA.