CHICAGO — Sustainability is more than just a buzzword. It has become a significant factor in almost all elements of production, including the way manufacturers print onto packaging materials. As consumers demand greater variety on retail shelves, especially when it comes to sustainable, premium and convenience choices, food manufacturers are forced to examine their own processes to keep pace with demand and extract every last second of productivity.

To achieve this, investment in ever-more efficient capital equipment is increasing. The world market for packaging machinery is projected to grow from an estimated value in 2016 of $36.8 billion to $42.2 billion in 2021, according to the “2018 Global Trends Impacting the Market for Packaging Machinery Report” by PMMI. Labeling, decorating and coding machinery, vertical form/fill/seal systems and horizontal form/fill/seal equipment markets are forecast to have the highest growth rates from 2016 to 2021, with compound annual growth rates of 3.0%, 3.1% and 3.2%, respectively.

Package printing technology lands at the top of this list, most likely because of the range of benefits it offers manufacturers who seek new methods for cutting costs while becoming more environmentally friendly. New at the PMMI’s Pack Expo International, to be held Oct. 14-17 at McCormick Place in Chicago, the inaugural PACKage Printing Pavilion (located in the South Building at McCormick Place) will display innovations in sustainable printing technologies and their myriad applications across various markets.

Shifting substrates

Packaging substrates can come with their own set of challenges for printing operations pushing sustainability initiatives. For example, when coding with laser marking systems, certain recycled materials may not react in the same way as standard format materials.

Wood fiber or paper pulp packaging formats can generate their own set of challenges for both inkjet and laser marking machines. Ink, for example, has the potential to bleed into the fibers of the substrate, resulting in a sub-standard outcome, while laser coders could easily burn through the fiber. To avoid potential issues that can arise when working with these materials, manufacturers must consult expert suppliers and conduct extensive testing.

In addition, the market for flexible packaging is growing quickly and at the expense of rigid packaging such as cartons and bottles. Due to the lower cost of flexible packaging, growth is stronger in developing countries where disposable income is lower compared with more developed regions. Flexible packaging’s ability to be transported at lower costs than more traditional formats also bolsters its sustainability credentials.

Digital printing

Central to the shift toward greater sustainability is the development of digital printing, which lends itself to diverse runs and can impact operations on a significant level. Printing digitally on both primary and secondary packaging allows for greater customization without the need for holding huge amounts of packaging stock for a large variety of products or s.k.u.s (stock-keeping units).

Related ReadingBecause of digital advancements, brands now can use artwork to tailor messaging to a particular market, demographic, theme or event like an anniversary, milestone or achievement. Digital printing is designed to handle these unpredictable package needs quickly and efficiently. One day after an award presentation, custom printing could be put in place to flood the marketplace with promotional messaging. New digital technology allows brands to produce a customized box with printed promotions without the investment of 300,000 units, growing a brand’s presence without risking much waste.

Digital printing also provides the flexibility to customize packaging for different times of the year or holidays. Again, the ability to print digitally means that no separate s.k.u.s of packaging need to be stocked for specific runs. This cuts down storage costs and drives efficiencies with more straightforward changeovers possible because the packaging remains the same.

Laser technology

Laser die-cutting has also presented itself as a viable option for customizable packaging. This method creates unique cutouts that can be changed and adapted without the need to replace physical dies — cutting down changeover times and optimizing efficiency. The opportunity to change die patterns quickly without needing to complete large runs offers great value. Brands can produce highly customized packaging at the exact volumes they require.

Laser marking technology also allows manufacturers to create packaging that is customized — down to names, if required. While this is possible with inkjet technology, laser marking achieves the same goal at greater production speeds.

Inks and fluids

Where inks and fluids are concerned, there have been rapid developments in the movement to remove chemicals from formulas, particularly within water-based inks. The ability to promote inks and fluids as contributors to sustainability efforts bolsters the overall green credentials of a product. Yet, simply choosing an eco-friendly ink is not the whole solution. It is crucial to ensure that the inks used are 100% compatible with the selected packaging substrate and can withstand elements encountered along the supply chain. Removing critical ingredient or allergen information, for example, could risk consumer health and result in a recall, damaging a brand’s reputation.

By pairing eco-friendly substrates and inks and by implementing more efficient technologies, equipment manufacturers can assist brands in offering products that reflect greener production. As the demand for environmentally conscious products grows, brands rely on advances in package printing to showcase a commitment to reducing their carbon footprint.

Food producers can find the latest innovations in sustainable package printing technologies at Pack Expo International. At the show, 50,000 attendees will gain insight on the newest packaging and processing designs and technologies from 2,500 exhibitors. In addition to the PACKage Printing Pavilion, the show will feature the Containers and Materials Pavilion in the Upper North Building and the Reusable Packaging Pavilion in the Upper Lakeside Center, which will display advancements in flexible, resealable and sustainable packaging.