Nick Kirby, writing for drupa, discusses digital print on corrugated applications, how it has evolved, and how it has challenged analogue methods.

My great grandfather, Thomas Kirby, once said, ‘Wisdom lies not in regretting the inevitable but in adapting oneself to the altered condition of things.’ He printed this statement in his publication, ‘Saddlery and Harness’, in response to the uproar from his readers after the first car was seen in Walsall, UK in 1896. The internal combustion engine was perceived as the beginning of the end for the local allied horse trades and consequently his readers wanted to destroy its threat to protect their equine related businesses.

Kirby was a brave man to challenge his customers’ cynicism by urging them to change. In many ways I relate his statement to the digital world we live in today as it has challenged traditional analogue methods. From smart phones to the internet and Amazon, we have witnessed dramatic change in the last 25 years or so as a result of digitised technologies.

Buying a digital printer is not like buying early cars where the choice in 1896 was very limited. Manufacturers, brave enough to invest the vast sums required for the R&D to develop the latest digital print technologies, have been met with trepidation from potential buyers of their equipment due to a history of failed or unstable installations. This has not been good for the future confidence of digital in the corrugated sector, but the tide is turning.

So, which digital print machine do I buy? Despite the technology’s relative infancy, the choice of digital printers is already so widespread that you have to understand every detail of what you are buying before making a decision. Getting it wrong is likely to be very costly. Consequently, let us start by looking at the platform technologies in brief:


These machines were developed for the large format signage and POS sectors and they have played a big part in the demise of new ultra large format litho machine installations. Typically, the most modern multi-pass machines will happily run at between 500 and 1000sqm/hour using UV inks at very high quality.

Single pass sheetfed

These state-of-the-art high-volume production machines use single pass technology where the sheet passes under the print heads once and is finished. More suited to packaging and long run POS specifications, the print quality is slightly lower than their multi-pass brothers, but with output at between 5,000 to 7,000sqm/hour, it is good enough to challenge mid-quantity, high-quality post print (HQPP) and litho laminated alternatives. Machines are available with UV, water based or hybrid inks.

Web digital

Wide web digital (2.8m) is the Formula 1 for digital print output at over 25,000 sqm/hour, but maybe controversially, I do not see pre-printed web digital reels being aligned with the corrugating process. Using water-based inks, this impressive marvel of innovation meets its nemesis when introduced to a corrugator where the manufacturing principles have ostensibly remained the same for over 100 years.

Steam, heat, pressure and waste are all enemies of digital, so I relate it to putting a Ferrari engine in a Model T Ford – surely, somewhat futile on compatibility grounds. Corrugator technology has to evolve to unlock the pinnacle of opportunity that digital brings.


Sustainability will be the focus for generations to come, but how does this influence which machine you should purchase? UV ink facilitates a more stable control of the equipment during printing but it is carcinogenic and not suitable for direct food contact packaging, although in some cases it is food compliant for secondary packaging. There is also an inherent odour with UV ink. It is glossy and I am not so sure these factors will be tolerated in the market for the long term. UV ink for display products is widely accepted and does not pose the same concerns.

Nevertheless, water-based ink technologies are developing rapidly but the machinery to cater for the deliverance and drying of the ink is more complex and expensive. Despite water-based inks being less expensive than UV inks, the energy required to dry them at high speed can be alarming. So, weighing up the many pros and cons of water-based or UV technology before investing is critical to the market you are most focused to serve in the longer term.

Adding value

Having purchased your new asset, requiring the forethought and vision to upsell digital capabilities are fundamental to success. Make no mistake, digital is not a replacement for your existing HQPP or litho processes, rather a complementary addition to your sales weaponry that will give newfound opportunity.

More often than not, multiple prints for traditional corrugated packaging, e-commerce packs, personalisation needs, print-on-demand and greater consumer interaction are all areas that can be serviced by digital more efficiently than traditional analogue. Nonetheless, creating such a solution to generate greater consumer demand through the print innovation should never be undersold. After all, digital has provided the opportunity that would otherwise have been missed. It is for this reason that commoditised pricing for digital should not be driven by the misguided strategy for it to replace traditional analogue print.

Sales know-how

Knowing your target markets and understanding the foibles of digital are fundamental to the successful development of hitherto untapped opportunities. An analogue mind-set has no place in the digital world, so understanding where each technology prevails is a good place to start, but never discount analogue from being apositive contributor to your digital journey. Mixing analogue and digital technologies can often provide the ultimate solution; for instance, an e-commerce box could have litho lamination on one side and then the personalised, interactive or topical subject matter digitally printed on the inside. Voila! The best of both world’s working in harmony to provide a value-added solution.

Nonetheless, be aware because digital ink costs can disproportionately skew the ability for it to compete with analogue. This can be problematic at enquiry stage where ink coverage on a litho laminated specification doesn’t impact the unit cost whether it is 25% coverage or 100% coverage, but digital ink does.

This then gives a problem right back at enquiry stage where more often than not, ink coverage is not known for a printed box and therefore the commercial offering is wisely based on 100% coverage unless the artwork is existing. Clearly then, estimating all digital specifications at 100% ink coverage is going to prevent it replacing analogue even before the full artwork facts are known!The solution here is to re-educate the individuals and processes that take place pre-press. For instance, packaging sales representatives, brand owners, buyers, artwork creators and marketers need to understand that digital price sensitivity can often be impacted by poor forethought. It is for this reason that all parties must be aligned to maximise the digital advantage.

The Consumer

Notwithstanding the above considerations, do not underestimate the power of the consumer. The need for sustainability, waste reduction, greater product knowledge, interaction, convenience and brand recognition in packaging are all demands that we see being driven by the consumer. Digital print on corrugated satisfies all of these trends and it is here to stay.