Advanced technologies in digital printing gives it a distinct advantage for processors looking to make short runs on varied products. If you have a promotional event and need a smaller, customized run, look no further. This quick and efficient alternative to traditional printing also offers beautiful print color quality, real-time changes when needed and more. Digital allows a customer to print only what they need, when they need it.

The market is expected to hit a CAGR of 6. 45% over the forecast period 2020–2025, according to a report by market research firm ReportLinker. The advanced technology digital printing uses mild solvents and less harmful chemicals than more traditional printing methods, such as offset and solid ink. Thus, with the increasing focus on environment-friendly sprinting and cost-effective production, the demand for digital printing solutions is growing in the printed electronics market.

In addition, significant improvements in print manufacturing efficiency, with just-in-time production and increased focus on supply chain management, such as superior demand forecasting, have led to a reduced amount of waste in the overall print market. Technological developments aiding digital printing have ensured minimized waste, keeping the print quality at par, the report adds.

However, with the pros come some cons: The printing cost is expected to take a toll, as digital is still a niche method requiring print of shorter/customized batches. Yet with major consumer-oriented manufacturers gradually shifting to customized packaging to enhance shelf-visibility and in turn attracting customers, the adoption of digital printing is becoming vital. One prime example is Coca-Cola, an early adopter that launched multiple campaigns based on digitally printed, highly-customized labels. Remember the cans and bottles with “Share a Coke” and a person’s name?

To delve into this relatively new print solution for the food and beverage industry, we spoke with two companies who use it at varying degrees. Georgia-Pacific is expanding its Hummingbird® digital print solutions with the purchase of an HP PageWide T1190 Press, the world’s highest-volume digital corrugated packaging solution. The HP T1190 is GP’s third inkjet web press installed since 2015, when it launched digital print services with the HP T400S press and subsequently deployed a T1100 110-inch press. The new T1190 will be installed later this year at a new Hummingbird site opening in Arizona. 

Hummingbird provides a range of digitally printed corrugated packaging solutions for food and beverage brands, consumer-packaged goods and more across North America. The division’s digital offerings include corrugated shelf-ready packaging (SRP), food trays, large-format boxes, e-commerce solutions and volume displays (POP).

Tetra Pak, a Swedish-Swiss multinational food packaging and processing company, will start offering full-color digital printing on beverage cartons. The company says it is the first in the food and beverage carton industry to offer this kind of printing on cartons. Tetra Pak was supposed to start digital printing in 2020, but the pandemic thwarted that. Thus, the company expects to begin digital production by 3rd quarter this year at its Denton, Texas facility. The company does things a little differently. They work more in helping their customers to grow in consumer engagement and/or exploring new channels.

Here, both Robert Seay, vice president, Digital Print Solutions, Georgia-Pacific, and Pedro Gonçalves, VP of Marketing, U.S. and Canada at Tetra Pak, share their experiences with digital solutions and what their companies offer.


FE: Label and package providers are using digital printing solutions to service a range of markets, with food and beverage supposedly having the most potential. What does digital offer?

RS: Digital print enables food and beverage manufacturers to run multiple package versions in the same print job, with almost no added expense or production time. This versioning capability makes it possible to create regionally specific packaging or execute seasonal promotions without large minimum orders. 

Digital print also offers a significantly faster turnaround time than traditional processes, which allows manufacturers to reduce packaging obsolescence and warehousing costs by ordering on a just-in-time basis.

PG: By offering full-color digital printing on our beverage cartons, it will reduce design-to-print time and allow a variety of designs in one order. Digital printing presents a lot of opportunity for CPGs to respond to some market needs that we’re seeing right now. Before, the food industry for many years has been comprised mainly on the same product, same thing—like milk or juice—high penetration with same product. Fast forward to about 2000, especially after 2010, we’ve started to see consumer behavior changes. Health has becomes a central point, new channels with e-commerce, more competitive marketplaces with other companies and new startups. We started to see a more granular market. This adds complexity to the industry; now you have to produce more SKUs, or if a CPG focuses on one product, they need to make sure they can connect with consumers at another level.
So you have to explore the customer journey every chance you have – either through social media, in the package, etc. For example, you produce a product. It can be the same product for different audiences, but with different designs. It can help in channel management, putting price on pack in a more flexible way, to do promotions or move in different places in store and with a price on the package, you don’t have to set up the shelf with UPCs, etc. 

It also can be the gateway to extending the consumer journey. It used to be CPGS would make a good product, put it on the shelf and then convince the consumer to pick the product from the shelf. But today they can go in and leave reviews of your product that others will read and will be talking about. So if you can use the package as a gateway to extend the journey and get the feedback, now it’s purpose-driven: What do you do to give back to the world? Are you sustainable, are you ethical etc. and we see more brands build strategies around it. 


FE: How does digital printing play a role in food and beverage processing?

RS: The speed and efficiency of digital print reduces the risk for brands that want to rethink product concepts and experiment with new offerings, such as variety packs. Digital print’s lower minimum order quantity and ease of design updates make it easier to do low-cost pilot programs and to make adjustments based on customer response.   

PG: Today, the process to do a carton package is that you come up with a design, proof design and print at our facility, and then send package in reels to the customer’s factory and the product is filled and then it is formed. So today, if you have to make changes on the fly to adapt it, you really have to hurry. And sometimes you might run the risk of leaving things behind that you should be doing. And that makes it even more complicated if you’re in diff geographies and the size of your product line.

Customers are always improving their formulations, especially to clean the formulation to make it simple, more natural. So they change those designs over the lifetime of the product. So the digital printer makes this process easier because you go from a digital design straight to the printer, which can help a lot. Also you can also adjust—like if you get one or two days into the packaging production or before the packaging and you need to change one word or something, it’s a lot easier to make it happen. Having a system that is bigger than CMYK makes it much easier. Because as long as the package is the same dimensions, you can run any packages on the line.


FE: What does digital printing offer in terms of flexibility, adaptability, speed of response, etc.?

RS: Our brand and trade converting partners can now reduce their printed packaging inventory levels, shorten turnaround time, make frequent design changes and offer more graphic versions.

Updates to digitally printed packaging are as quick and easy as making a text change in a design file and sending it back to press, with no new print plates required. Also, regulation changes that are applicable to a single state or region don’t have to mean modifications to an entire packaging line if you are printing digitally. Simply update the design files and run versions of the packaging side-by-side.

PG: Customers can be smarter now with their production. On processing a batch size, especially working with co-packers and co-manufacturers, like for co-branding for an event, for specific geography, etc., this is where digital printing can help. It gives more opportunity to comply fast in regulations, changes in formulation. 

Talking with many customers, one of the main points sometimes to delay projects is the complexity to change designs. You have to have it approved legally, go through a number of proofs, and work on the logistics of that, when will you have it in the marketplace... So digitalizing and more flexibility would certainly speed the process. I don’t believe the industry has the full picture of how much it can optimize the process but certainly it creates a new platform to make these improvements.


FE: Let’s talk ink: What does the role of ink play in food safety and manufacturing?

RS: Inks are an important component of secondary food packaging. GP operates HP digital presses, which use water-based inks. According to HP, these inks do not contain hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) and are also odorless. Because Georgia-Pacific serves a number of food and beverage customers, all our box plants are British Retail Consortium (BRC) certified. 

PG: All inks used in the food and beverage industry are subject to strict legal regulation and we’ve developed our food safe inks to be as sustainable as possible. Further, Tetra Pak cartons incorporate several layers of packaging to play a key role in securing food safety and extending shelf life. Each layer serves a specific purpose towards protecting the product to ensure there is no contact between the ink printed on the paperboard and the product inside. We also use foil barrier and an average of six layers, so we can be sure no ink migrates to the final product.

FE: How does digital printing aid processors with labeling requirements and regulations that need to be changed quickly? 

RS: Digital labeling allows for just-in-time, relevant information to be placed on specific packages real-time on the production fill lines. One key advantage of digital preprint for corrugated is that it eliminates the need for labels. Packaging updates can be made quickly and new information can be printed directly on the box. Multiple designs can be printed together, which eliminates the need for separate runs that meet minimum order quantities. Overall, digital preprint improves supply chain efficiency with faster turnaround time, reduced inventory costs and reduced obsolescence.

PG: The flexibility to change designs very quickly can help to deal with requirements and regulations, especially for brands in the US, which have to be prepared to deal with three markets: the US market itself, which can be very challenging from region to region; then you have Canada and Mexico. In the US you have about 50 different regulations and then Canada and Mexico.  To deal with these fast-moving requirements, you must count on technology to save time. 


FE: Are manufacturers moving to digital currently or still using more traditional printing processes like offset or flexography? 

PG: We use flexo for our packages today because we can get a quality print and a very competitive cost. When you have large volumes and one specific design, a process like flexo still works. But when you have smaller runs or promotions on packaging, exploring events or co-branding, digital printing is the way to go. Also, the industry is using digital printing in different parts of the process. In the main product, the packaged food, it’s not so present because then you’re talking volumes and cost of that, and you have to have the correct printing systems—flexo or something like it.

The industry is using digital sometimes when they have to ship via ecommerce or when they have to do a promotion. So it’s not using the digital printer for the package, but maybe in the different stages of the process. 

FE: Is there anything else you would like to add about the role in digital printing for food/beverage manufacturing?

RS: The speed of digital offers real supply chain benefits. By warehousing less packaging, manufacturers can reduce inventory costs and losses due to obsolescence. They can also expand their market share by taking proactive approaches to product experimentation and offering targeted on-package messages that increase customer engagement.

PG: Printing technology with more quality and flexibility will open different opportunities for CPGs to comply with various work, more demands from consumers and more segmentation in the market, will touch consumers at a diff level, participation with consumers in their lives, and with possibilities of creating new eco-systems. When you go from the basics, like food safety, and start to go into personal experiences, then you start to add a lot of value.

My advice for any CPG looking to using digital printer –  is to invest time to understand it and come up with possibilities to generate new experiences for consumers or a  new eco-system that you can build the business around. With high connection, loyalty and a good experience, you have value.