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So. You Want to do Label and Package Printing

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  • So. You Want to do Label and Package Printing

    By Noel Ward

    You’ve been doing a nice mix of commercial printing and have a host of satisfied customers. A digital press or two have been taking up some real estate on your shop floor for a couple of years, helped expand your reach, and now you’re looking for more opportunities. You’re thinking labels and folding cartons seem like a fairly natural transition into packaging. After all, how hard can it be?

    Labels and folding cartons are often seen as the low hanging fruit of package printing. It makes sense, you think. As long as you can print on paper or lightweight paperboard the processes for labels and cartons aren’t all that different than what you do already and you can probably use equipment you already have. Even better, there may be some customers from whom you can hopefully snag a bigger share of wallet by printing some of their packaging to go along with the brochures you’re already printing. But is it really just another print job? And is this a place you really want to go? The answer is a qualified “maybe.”

    First of all, there is definite potential for commercial printers who want to get into labels and folding cartons. There are limitations and a number of caveats but if you work at it, there’s money to be made. Still, unless you plan to invest in some new presses you need to understand what you can and can’t do with the equipment you have, and the types of packaging that can be done on your present machines.

    Fold Here
    Folding cartons, for example, can be printed on many offset presses. You need to be able to handle 16- to 24- point stock, match some critical spot colors and be able to score and die-cut the printed cartons. Run lengths, for the most part, are still long enough for offset to be a cost-effective choice, although digital presses from Canon, HP, Xeikon, and Xerox are seizing share from many offset machines. At the same time, some offset presses from KBA, Komori, Heidelberg and others, are becoming cost competitive for shorter runs, and the flexibility of offset with respect to substrates and inks can make your tried and true offset presses an excellent option.

    Still, digital devices are likely to continue taking share as run lengths decline. Driving this is the proliferation of SKU (Stock Keeping Units) numbers that vary by product and store, along with brand owners’ desire to rein in costs associated with cartons that often lie in inventory until needed or become obsolete when branding changes. As a result, shorter runs are becoming the way folding cartons are produced. Some smaller brands may need only a couple thousand cartons at a time, while larger brands often spread print costs over a year using multiple shorter runs. I know one printer in the mid-west who prints only folding cartons on his digital presses. A long run for him is 5,000 sheets while many of his jobs are half that.

    Labels Can Really Stick
    Then there are labels, but these basic package adornments can be deceptively difficult to take on. Stroll down the aisles of your local supermarket and examine the labels you see and think about how they are printed. Most are produced on narrow-web flexographic presses and use a vast array of substrates, especially synthetics that require UV inks. (Note here that web printing is usually a requirement for labels because of the way labels are affixed to packaging.). Digital options range from inexpensive inkjet and toner table-top devices to mid-range presses from Epson and EFI to high-speed machines from companies like Durst and Screen. On the toner side are presses from HP Indigo and Xeikon. Playing on both sides of the street are hybrid presses like the Mark Andy Digital Series with a set of inkjet heads inline with flexo ink stations.

    To get serious about labels as an extension of your commercial print business requires investing in either a flexographic or inkjet label press. These can accommodate the substrates and inks required, possess the speed needed for label production, have the color management necessary for reliable, repeatable color, and offer inline die-cutting and trimming so ready-to-use labels come off the back end of the press.

    Unless you have flexo printing experience, the safest entry point is probably with a UV inkjet press. The learning curve for press operators is typically much shorter than for flexo presses and the machines are proving to be sufficiently reliable that some owners see the day when they will no longer need the flexo presses. You see, print runs for labels are shrinking, just as they are for folding cartons, and digital presses let business owners operate more efficiently.

    Finishing
    The bigger challenge for folding cartons and labels is not printing but finishing. Both require die-cutting and trimming so they can be need to be delivered to your customer ready to use.

    Flexo-printed labels are commonly trimmed and die-cut in-line and on-press using rotary or semi-rotary dies or offline on a dedicated machine. Labels printed on toner or inkjet presses often wind up on multi-talented devices like those from Delta ModTech or ABG International. For folding cartons, steel-rule dies are the time-honored approach for sheets of folding cartons, although small cartons printed on narrow-web presses can sometimes be trimmed inline. Some newer technology is more attuned to the shorter runs that are becoming commonplace. For example, KAMA, out of Dresden, Germany, makes a line of trimming and folding systems specifically designed to accommodate shorter runs. Other options are laser cutters from companies like Delta ModTech, GM, Highcon, Spartanics, and others. Lasers are still more expensive than mechanical cutting but prices are dropping and there are some innovative offerings on the market that can do cuts that are impossible to do mechanically.

    No matter how you cut it (pun intended), finishing is a critical part of label or folding carton production and it is best to address it while you are deciding what you will produce and how you produce it.

    The market
    Start with people you know. The print buyers or product people who come to you for brochures and other marketing collateral may not be the same people who order packaging, but they can still provide an entry point at a customer for you or your sales people to the folks who buy labels and folding cartons. Remember, the people you normally connect with don’t necessarily know that the same presses you use to print brochures, catalogs, and other mainstream products can also be used for folding cartons. It’s up to you to educate them about what you can do. Ask questions: find out what the company’s packaging needs are and look for ones that fit the equipment in your shop. Take on some smaller orders that you can handle. Learn from every job, and realize that packaging is an entirely new dimension of printing. It is far more demanding and detail-oriented than typical commercial work and efficiency only comes with experience. But there is opportunity there

    Beyond your regular customers, look for local or regional brands, health and beauty products, pharmaceuticals, and nutraceuticals. All are prime territories for commercial shops hoping to expand into packaging, perhaps especially if you already have a digital press. Leverage your contacts and be prepared for some challenges. And once you prove your worth you’ll be able to enjoy a new line of revenue from labels and folding cartons.
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