Editor’s note: This is the third and final piece in a three-part series exploring how digital inkjet printing is transforming the packaging industry.

The evolution of digital inkjet printing's impact on the packaging industry is only beginning, OEMs, converters and analysts suggest. They predict that the technology's future involves gaining significant market share, but also adding capabilities such as for artificial intelligence, scannable codes and other possible features.

Data from consultancy Keypoint Intelligence indicates digital inkjet printing is only used to print 2% of packaging by volume, but it's expected to accelerate soon and in some cases replace analog printing such as offset lithography and flexography.

“You're seeing more competition in this space, and I can very well see in the next decade or two transitioning to more digital technologies for printing — replacing flexo and gravure presses that we've been running for decades,” said William Barlow, market development manager at Printpack, which uses digital printing for flexible plastic packaging.

Rob Daniels, digital business manager at packaging company Fortis Solutions Group, agreed.

“I think in the next few years you're going to see ... digital to almost double from where it is currently,” in part because of the value of superior project quality, including for “gradation, pictures, four-color process,” he said. “I really think digital is going to continue to take away a lot of our medium-run flexo work.”

Customization and enhanced security features are areas where equipment and solutions supplier EFI anticipates advances for digital inkjet printing equipment, such as this Nozomi 14000.

Fresh features

Converters continue to identify new applications and market opportunities, such as for artificial intelligence, personalization and sustainability.

“A lot of brands are moving away from single-use plastic packaging ... A lot of those transparent bags are being replaced with paper-based, and because you cannot look through it you need to print on it to say what is inside,” said Philippe Lesage, vice president and general manager of HP’s specialty printing and technology solutions business. “So there's new demand for digital printing.”

Besides the technology simply experiencing market growth, functions also are expected to expand. At the base level, the technology likely will become faster, more efficient and cheaper.

“Digital will do more things in the future,” said Robert Seay, vice president of digital print strategy and growth at Georgia-Pacific. “It's still evolving, it's still growing, and it likely will continue to evolve and grow for some time.”

For example, Seay said digital printing will “integrate with corrugation, it'll integrate with converting, it'll integrate with other downstream capabilities. ... which will improve capabilities for the brands and for the converters that serve them.”

Further corrugation integration could involve, for instance, linking digital inkjet printing with laser die-cutting machinery and replacing conventional corrugated die-cutting equipment such as rotary. That eliminates analog processes for both printing and cutting, resulting in a fully digital system that is more precise at all points along the line, sources said.

OEMs also will advance artificial intelligence in new ways to further optimize processes and reduce operating costs, said Ryan Fox, corrugated packaging market analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. Machine learning and AI can be used for predictive maintenance, allowing a device to monitor its own maintenance needs. 

AI could aid quality control for print job-specific features, such as by detecting print defects and automatically calibrating or adjusting the process. It could also boost the precision with which the equipment drops ink onto the substrate and could provide automatic color correction or enhancement.

Four single-serving bottles of Coca-Cola with red labels that are identical except for the names Tom, Michelle, Latoya and Julia.
Coca-Cola's "Share a Coke" campaign, which shows different names on otherwise identical labels, is an example of variable data printing. Digital inkjet printing holds promise for elevating brands' variable data projects by unlocking additional personalization features.

Stepping up customization

Converters report booming demand for packaging customization and personalization from brands and retailers craving better connections with consumers. Digital inkjet printing meets those needs, and converters express confidence it will also meet growing and evolving customization needs in the future.

Both on-box and in-box printing already are known use cases for the technology's customization capabilities, and further evolution will open up deeper opportunities in those spaces, said Ken Hanulec, vice president of worldwide marketing at equipment and service supplier EFI. For example, in-box printing is being examined as a way to enhance e-commerce security and prevent theft.

Hanulec predicts that at the 2024 Drupa printing exhibition in Germany at least one large e-commerce player will make an announcement that takes on-box and in-box printing to the next level, and “security would be one component of that.”

Converters also herald digital inkjet printing's power for versioning, such as when different individual packages of the same product are printed with different images or messages — for instance, the same beverage can featuring a different sports team in various regions. 

Artificial intelligence will help this space as well, Bloomberg's Fox said, describing a level of optimization in which a system could do six separate print jobs at once. “From a production standpoint, if you're no longer running one job at a time — talk about efficiency,” he said, adding that “the next step is not just versioning, it is truly custom variable data printing" on packaging.

Variable data printing involves loading a dataset into the printing system and mining it for customizable information. Simpler systems can print ads for the same sale with different consumers’ names on it. More advanced versions can flesh out data about individual consumers’ hobbies based on purchasing habits and include that in the messaging. 

“We do a lot of variable data,” said Fortis’ Daniels, referencing work with Coca-Cola on the “Share a Coke” campaign that put consumer names on different bottle labels — a personalization initiative widely viewed as successful for connecting with consumers and boosting sales

Thus far, variable data printing mostly has been for labels, fliers or other loose marketing materials, but not directly to packaging. In the future, sources predict digital inkjet technology will push this type of marketing to the mainstream and will grow even more sophisticated.

One client asked printing and marketing solutions company Quad to put a variable QR code on every item in a 500-piece order. That would allow each randomly printed code to do something slightly different or record different data when a consumer scans it. Unfortunately, that's not yet a digital inkjet printing capability the company possesses, said Smith Lankford, general manager of Quad's packaging division.

“The front end — the engine that runs the press — isn't intuitive,” he said. “But I am optimistic that with advances that are happening in the world of AI and [machine] learning that maybe they can get there ... That's where I think digital can really change the consumer experience.”

A box with coding printed on it is on an industrial conveyor belt next to inkjet printheads.
HP says its digital inkjet printing solutions deliver the high quality and visual clarity needed for scannable coding and marking on packaging, which will become more important in the future as standards evolve and more multidirectional information is shared via on-package codes.
Permission granted by HP

Cracking the code

Digital systems provide higher-quality, crisper images to ensure codes and other product markings can be scanned. Converters already are using digital inkjet printing for marking and coding, but this use case is predicted to become even more prevalent and advanced. 

Plus, HP's Lesage pointed out that high-quality printing for coding will become more important with the advent of Sunrise 2027, international standards organization GS1's move to replace the 50-year-old one-dimensional barcode with two-dimensional barcodes. While 1D codes typically only offer basic price lookup functionality, 2D codes — which can be scanned with a smartphone — allow for much more granular, multidirectional information transfer.

The next-generation codes will provide data to users across the supply chain, including brands, logistics companies and even consumers. QR codes, for example, are experiencing a resurgence as a way to provide customers with extra data about products and packaging.

"There's a lot of infrastructure in data and marking that the brands have to implement, but that's where the world is moving to ... in the next four years," Lesage said. And further AI integration should boost security and protect customer or consumer data, sources suggest.

As converters uncover new efficiencies with digital inkjet printer upgrades and additional AI, it becomes not just about the technology itself but adopting a different mindset for printing on packaging — and being open to discovering untapped potential, according to Fox.

"It's thinking in completely different ways about how you're producing something — no longer just stuck to a rigid framework," he said.

Visuals Editor Shaun Lucas contributed photo support to this story.