Digital printing – Enabling the “connected factory” of the future

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The world of packaging is facing many changes. The drivers of these changes include new market access routes such as e-commerce, new supply chain models such as multi-channel sourcing, but also new regulatory and sustainability requirements and new customer demands for more personalized and personalized products. New technologies and materials are needed – and even allow – for these changes to occur. Digital printing is one of those breakthroughs in the packaging world that Nestlé has invested in in recent years, observing developments and leading them towards the specific food packaging needs for their businesses.

What a privilege to see how the secular “analog” printing press is reinventing itself “digitally” in such a short time: it took only twenty years for digital printing to penetrate all sectors of the printing industry. as is. This is quickly becoming real, even in the difficult field of food packaging, where volumes as well as aspects of compliance were once considered inappropriate for “digital”.

At Nestlé, we believe that digital printing is a long-term trend that has continued, and not just a fad that will fade, so the digitization of printing is itself a major step in the future. overhaul of the entire processing industry.

As the latest drupa exhibitions have shown, today everything revolves around digitization. The major print media providers are well advanced on their digital roadmaps and new players are entering the scene on the same road. That said, while the digital printing industry is very dynamic, it is still quite fragmented and therefore we expect a phase of business and market consolidation in the coming years, driven by the need to adapt. new technological needs or uses. We are also seeing a surge in production printing, with history seemingly repeating itself as ‘printing’ reverts to ‘production’. It all has to do with late stage personalization: personalization that is itself done at a late stage in the process (I’ll get to that later).

As our journey progresses, technologies mature and prices drop, we will always find new opportunities to reap the benefits of digital printing, from small to bold as well as small to large. But we will also be faced with new demands and barriers to overcome. Currently, we anticipate two specific aspects that are becoming increasingly critical for the effective adoption of digital printing:

Durability
The first aspect is to support the need for more environmentally friendly production – and that includes print production. In our case, we have made a commitment to only use recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025. To help us meet our commitment, we have created the Nestlé Institute of Packaging Sciences, which, together with suppliers and others external partners, is exploring alternative packaging materials. It can already be anticipated that these materials, such as paper-based laminates, have lighter barrier properties compared to materials used today. This presents a challenge to the associated printing processes and will limit their use. It is true, of course, that digital printing inks have made huge strides in food compliance and continue to improve significantly. However, on new packaging materials with lighter barrier properties, some printing systems (the combination of a printing process, an ink and its finishing process) will need to be adapted to meet our requirements. strict food packaging requirements. Additional requirements will also affect targeting, for example reuse, recyclability or compostability. Are today’s ink formulations, developments and finishing processes ready for this transition? There are only a few years left to decipher all of this; sustainability is becoming a key decision-making criterion and the printing industry must prepare for it.

Data management
The second aspect underlying the promise of digital printing is the variability of printing (output) as well as flexibility of printing (process). Increasingly, print jobs are linked to data management, as each output is potentially unique with its own variable data that is flexibly managed as part of an agile printing process. And so, I come back to the topic of late stage personalization, which pops up in so many presentations, press articles, and digital printing literature. What does this mean exactly? Well, that means having the ability to customize output at the last stage, which in itself means moving printed packaging from a conventional rigid supply chain to a networked supply chain where different actors can print different static layers. and variables of a work of art into one. or multiple locations. This means moving away from a monolithic approach, where all printing and converting processes are fully outsourced, in favor of a variety of supply chain options to cover the wide variety of products. , business models and channels to market (ranging from outsourced sourcing to fully internalized printing and converting, with mixed-in-between approaches). This is our definition of variability and flexibility, derived from data-driven print production and late stage personalization.

To achieve all of this, the dots must be connected, meaning that the print job data as well as the print and convert process must seamlessly connect into an integrated supply chain workflow of end to end. This integration and connectivity occurs in two dimensions, namely horizontally and vertically. Horizontal integration involves the gradual digitization of all machines and conversion processes, streamlining reproduction while ensuring color matching and consistency. This digitization has already taken place for the model and the prepress, is in progress for the printing stage, and will gradually include the stages of decoration, cutting and folding-gluing as well as any more specific transformation stage. Vertical integration concerns print and conversion data. It ensures that the right output is obtained from the right data in a make-to-order or print-to-order model. Static and variable illustration data must be dynamically aggregated with production-specific data from a production order, which ultimately makes each pack literally unique if necessary.

At first glance, this degree of integration and connectivity to achieve a single batch may seem futuristic and it is certainly ambitious, but the reality is that all the necessary technological bricks already exist today. Digital front-ends extract dynamic illustrations for the printer. Manufacturing fulfillment systems send information about production orders to various assets on a production line. Dedicated servers provide additional functionality, such as serialization or aggregation. For each type of data, a dedicated and well-optimized channel exists. Additionally, connectivity standards mature and are adopted to provide both horizontal and vertical communication between all modules of a production environment. All these channels, which today are mainly independent, can begin to be interconnected to combine, on demand as needed, the relative data, extract them accordingly, and finally print them to produce each unique packaging.

Data is the fuel of today’s economies, as the famous “GAFA” companies demonstrate so quickly and efficiently. The ability to create, collect, manage, combine, extract, analyze, process and transmit data is what will drive the most efficient businesses. Printing is no longer about precise color matching and process efficiency. Rather, it’s about conveying digital information to buyers and consumers that has been physically applied to the packaging. Some call it mixed reality, but it is nonetheless a paradigm shift made possible by combining digital printing with connectivity. Such a shift is a prerequisite for realizing personalization and personalization, the ‘holy grail’ of digital transformation in consumer goods (CPG) and it envisions the connected production floors and factories of the future. Look forward to seeing this at Drupa 2021.

About the Author: With a background in mechanical engineering, Alvise Cavallari spent almost 20 years in the machine industry, where he discovered and fell in love with the fascinating world of packaging printing. He then moved from B2B to B2C, joining Nestlé R&D where he now leads Nestlé’s corporate digital printing program and other related activities.


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