Have You Been Corrugated Lately?

By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

On any given week one news source or another runs a story about Amazon. The stories go on and on about the company’s outsized influence, its enormous market capitalization, the impact its facilities have on real estate values, local infrastructure, and more. They all miss one thing: Amazon’s indelible impact on corrugated packaging.

Corrugated containers are simply the most practical way to ship a much of Amazon’s products, and cardboard—the generic term for corrugated packaging—is cheap, reliable, readily available, and often precut to meet a variety of needs. The majority of Amazon packages are flung around the U.S. in corrugated boxes wearing the two-color Amazon logo.

Beyond “This End Up”

After offloading a bunch of corrugated containers at the town transfer station I figured there might be a story here if I opened a box and looked inside. So maintaining the focus, I looked more closely at the full color boxes in the local Walmart. Those applications were a lot different than most of the ones coming from Amazon. There was a lot more going on on the outside of the containers. So I cracked open my contacts file and made a couple of calls.

“Corrugated containers are used for anything that needs to protect the product inside,” explained Randy Reynolds, General Manager for AVantage Polymers at Anderson & Vreeland, a manufacturer and distributor of many packaging-related products and equipment. These days this spans TV’s, produce, pizza boxes, home electronics, and even many appliances. I flashed on the toaster I bought last week. There are almost always graphics on the container these days.

It used to be that the information on many boxes and cartons was limited to black text: a brand name, total weight of the contents, and the words ‘This End Up’ or ‘Open this End’. Now though, companies specify colors, expect color-correct logos, certain fonts, full-color photos or illustrations of the product, and a variety of other information. Cartons have become a key part of branding. I think of the beautifully printed carton for my 27-inch iMac. The computer is a few years old but the container still resides in a storage closet adjacent to my office. It takes up too much space but it is a good box when I need to take the 40-pound computer anywhere. And I’ve actually used it that way a couple of long road trips when I needed the big screen to edit video.

Reynolds says the old basic black info was primarily just silkscreened but that liquid photopolymer is today’s technology of choice and is simply the best way to provide what product companies need for a full range of container sizes. And these days, with branding top-of-mind, size is anything but trivial. Corrugated containers can be as small as ones for a hardcover book or as big as one wrapping a refrigerator or dishwasher.

Are you corrugated?

Much of “box printing” today is handled first by trade shops that make the printing plates that put the images, brand names, logos, and product information on top sheets which are then laminated to the flutes that make up corrugated packages—a process called (logically enough) “corrugating.” Some inkjet print engines print the entire corrugated container before it is perked and folded.

So given the number of boxes out there I figured this had to be a huge market. And it is, but not necessarily in terms of the number of print providers. It turn out that corrugated sheets are somewhat of a niche market. I talked with Jeff Skolnik, Digital Business Analyst at Anderson & Vreeland. “There are less than 100 trade shops producing the plates and fewer than 20 print providers that are truly huge operations,” said Skolnik. “The demand to print in full color has been a big leap,” he continues. “It demands higher print quality, which means better images, more sophisticated software, color management, and more.”

But doing all that, I thought, has to make a printer’s job a harder. Given the rich mix of art and product info on boxes containing TVs, computers, power tools and more, there’s a lot going on. Many of the most eye-grabbing containers are often used in point-of-purchase displays. The art and info and branding are all being eye-balled by product managers who take their jobs seriously, so it has to be challenging to put together. As you might expect, software companies are also in the act. There’s color management software from GMG Color and others, plus tools like Patchplanner from Hybrid Software, helping make the process of creating art that’s ready for presses or platemaking systems.

More empty boxes from my home and office will head to the transfer station before long, but after making the calls I had new appreciation for the evolving state of corrugated boxes. They have definitely evolved beyond “This End Up.”
 

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