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Category: Trade Events and Conferences

Digitization of Packaging: a Great Opportunity at drupa and Beyond

By Dr. Sean Smyth – Analyst & Consultant, Smithers

The drivers of sustainability, automation and workflow as the world continues to digitize dominate most print and packaging operations. Recruiting and retaining skilled staff is increasingly difficult for many businesses as baby boomers retire and the younger digital native generations demand a different approach to their working life.

Digital print developments will be center stage at drupa across all graphics, industrial and packaging and there will be further announcements this year. Digital packaging offers many opportunities for commercial printers looking to move into new sectors as many traditional print applications continue to decline. The same dynamic is encouraging more equipment suppliers to offer digital printing systems for labels, corrugated, cartons, flexible packaging, rigid plastics, glass and metal packaging.

The figures below show how the suppliers of digital print equipment for labels and packaging have developed since this technology map was first produced in 2019. There has been a steady stream of new entrants, from established analog print equipment suppliers and new providers offering their digital print expertise. 

Digital printing systems for packaging and labels in 2019

Digital printing systems for packaging and labels in 2023

In addition to these there are digital overprint systems and sophisticated bespoke integrations, some operating as a part of manufacturing and filling lines. While there has been consolidation on the supply side, it is striking there have been few exits from the sector, the high number of players now competing in the wide range of packaging applications, offering new capabilities and functionalities, with steadily increasing productivity and lower costs.

Well, the good news for us print techies is this diagram (above) will get even more crowded this year. Smithers tracks the developments in this sector, publishing reports and running conferences on digitally printed packaging. The European, American, and Asian events bring together hundreds of brands, retailers, packer/fillers, converters, agencies and designers together with equipment, substrate and ink/toner suppliers, with workflow and logistics companies also involved.These are excellent forums and over the years the discussion moved from technology issues into tangible benefits and improved business processes from adopting digital printing, and increasingly digital finishing. Today quality, reliability and productivity are no longer issues for inkjet and electrophotography packaging presses.

At drupa there will be sheetfed inkjet machines offering the equivalent of process color sheetfed litho at speeds of 11,000 B1 sheets per hour and web presses offering speeds in excess of 400 mpm up to 2.8 m wide. These are mainstream alternatives to litho, flexo, and gravure alternatives.

The print head and press manufacturers are developing methods to eliminate inkjet artifacts, compensating for nozzle outs and deviations in real time that extend the life of the heads and machine uptime.

Inkjet will be the real winner, with faster machines being shown, particularly in flexible packaging. Ink technology is improving, with UV and water-based inks being employed for specific applications.

There will be more highly pigmented formulations helping reduce the ink film thickness while lowering the total cost of ownership further boosting the share of digital print.

It is not just printing. Some vendors will show single pass, highly automated systems to print and finish corrugated boxes, cartons and flexibles in a single pass. The enabler is the combination of digital print with digital finishing. These will feature automated control systems that drive the press, measure and check the print then track through finishing which may be coating, laminating, cutting, creasing, folding and gluing, together with a wide variety of embellishments.

The digital front end controllers are becoming increasingly powerful, automating and driving the digital print unit while at the same time measuring and controlling quality and then to set and drive the finishing technology. This approach helps replaces the traditional skills of press minders and finishing journeymen operators – important as skilled labor resources become scarcer.

While new digital presses are the shiny and sexy headline grabbers, even more important is the enabling workflow software. The only way of making money from a digital press is to produce saleable output and powerful workflow is vital to prepare the artwork files and keep the print queue well stocked. output and powerful workflow is vital to prepare the artwork files and keep the print queue well stocked.

This reality can be a barrier for packaging converters entering the sector as many do not have the necessary prepress and data handling skills. This year’s drupa will see many companies providing solutions with integrated management information systems to automate the administration needed to handle many short run jobs.

Workflow will become increasingly collaborative, with new designs produced and approved, then loaded into job queues for automated color management and imposition with no manual involvement at the converter. The MIS is linked, ordering substrates and planning the production on printer and finishing to meet the customer requirements and optimize capacity at the converter.

Digital workflow can be daunting for packaging converters accustomed to handling only a few large jobs but it is the way of the world. At drupa this year companies can explore solutions at drupa to simplify supply chains key to
future success supplying packaging and labels.

The market leaders offer a broad variety of creative software. They will show new methods to automate the repetitive processes involved with packaging design, approvals and prepress taking time and cost out of the process. Other players will offer specific solutions for integration and to optimize color management, imposition and providing variable data capability.

All these packaging developments are ultimately driven by end-customer expectations, or rather, demands. In the increasingly connected world these demands and expectations are changing, with more engagement and interaction to improve the consumer experience of the brand. Digital printing allows brands to make content decisions later in the supply chain. These additional functions move packaging beyond the traditional containment and protection functions, with information and promotion. A unique digital print product can be connected to the cyber world, opening new opportunities of logistical efficiency and greater consumer engagement.

This year’s drupa is an important print show because the exhibitors (and all the important ones will be there) will be showcasing what they have, while using the event to showcase what they are working on to gain feedback. And, digital packaging print (plus finishing) will very much be on the agenda.

There will be more machines for labels; corrugated – post and preprint, replacements for litholam; for folding cartons; for flexible packaging; for metal and there will be direct-to-shape machines doing interesting things on cans, aerosols, plastic and glass. Established players will show improvements to quality, speed and formats, with new inks and toners broadening the types of packaging they can produce.

In addition, I am really looking forward to seeing the newcomers who have already announced developments they will be showing off. I know of several potential developments sadly under NDA I am not allowed to mention until the show which is the bane of a technology correspondent. That will change when drupa opens. So, roll on May 2024!

Harvey Levenson on the His Road to drupa

I’ve been following with interest the various Internet postings regarding drupa 2024. The postings, called “The Road to drupa,” have been responses to articles appearing in various printing industry publications as well as in threads between individuals commenting on drupa 2024 and whether or not they will be attending.

Many of the postings are among tremendously respected colleagues and industry leaders that I’ve known for decades. A theme among quite a few is: “I won’t be attending drupa,” and some have expressed regrets and wishing they were attending. Unfortunately, I am one of them. Let me explain.

Anecdotal and Personal

First, I’ll be anecdotal and personal. For those who would like to, but will not be attending drupa, there is an alternative approach I experienced. The year was 2012 and I was prepared to attend drupa. Shortly before the event, my 94-year-old mother became ill (she passed away two years later at 96), and I had to remain close to home to assist with the situation. Hence, I canceled my trip.

However, I was determined to learn as much as possible about what was taking place at drupa. Luckily, the Internet was sufficiently matured at that time and coverage was provided from vendors and attendees, as well as in daily online publications about what was taking place. This information was important to me because I was still heading the Graphic Communication Department at Cal Poly, and it was imperative I be kept abreast of the latest developments in the field.

I disciplined myself to take an hour or two each day to just study what was being transmitted from Düsseldorf. At the end of the event, I asked myself: “What don’t I know now that I would have known had I attended drupa?” My answer to myself was, “nothing.”

Certainly, I missed the camaraderie, the socializing with my friends and colleagues who attended. But, as far as knowing the new technologies, applications, trends, and new industry thinking, I didn’t feel like I missed anything. I might have, but it sure didn’t feel that way. The point is I disciplined myself to spend some time each day on the Internet following what was occurring. I share this approach with those of you who will not attend the 2024 event but would have liked to.

Aging and Mobility

In reading the personal threads that have been written, I sense many are not attending, including myself, because our bodies are talking to us; telling us what we should and shouldn’t do as we age. I’m certainly experiencing that.

Occasionally, people ask me how old I am. My standard answer is, “From the knees down I am 81. However, from forehead up, I feel 18.” Hence, intellectually I feel no different than I ever did, and can absorb new information, new thoughts, and new approaches. However, my mobility and tolerance for long distance travel has changed.

I equate most business trips to being in a long tunnel, always indoor: vehicle to airport, airline (usually with several connections), airport, vehicle to hotel, hotel to site being visited (back and forth as many days needed), vehicle back to airport, airline, returning airport, vehicle back home. Short travel is fine, but long trips have become unsustainable with all of their air travel cancellations and delay uncertainties, and reduced services.

The Printing Industry Has Been Good to Me

Nevertheless, I appreciate and enjoy being able to keep up with the field that has been so important to me. I’m reminded of Sammy Sosa, that great baseball player from the Dominican Republic who said towards the end of his career, in his accent, “Baseball has been very good to me.” I like to say, in my Brooklyn accent, “Printing has been very good to me.”

I just can’t give it up and want to keep giving back. I flunked retirement. I’ve been in the field since 1961, including my education, and thought I was retiring in 2013. However, I was asked to stay on at Cal Poly for another year-and-a-half to help complete a special project. Additionally, my phone kept ringing, and I was led to understand I still had something to contribute to the industry: writing, research, speaking, serving is an expert witness, consulting, and so on.

Hence, I never really retired. Perhaps some of you are in the same situation. But, thanks to the power of the Internet many of us don’t have to retire because travel, which has become so tedious, is not as necessary as it used to be. Today, sitting home in the comfort of our own homes, dressed casually, and in control of our own time, we can do almost anything we used to enjoy doing when going to the office and when business travel was a more pleasant experience.

Thank You

So, I will again be attending drupa virtually, and I hope many of you will as well who would like to attend but cannot. I’ve already started my regimen of keeping up on the drupa 2024 news being posted daily on the Internet. I thank the industry press, the OEMs, and all others who made being on “The Road to drupa” possible.

Harvey R. Levenson, Ph. D.

Professor Emeritus, Cal Poly

New: the drupa 2024 next age Forum

Recently we spoke with Frank Tueckmantel, one of the people involved in designing and running the new drupa next age (dna) trend forum and program for drupa 2024. We talked about the initiative, what it offers, and how people can get involved.

Frank, who is working with Deborah Corn on this initiative, says dna came about because Messe Düsseldorf GmbH wanted to develop and offer a turn-key solution for potential drupa 2024 exhibitors who cannot afford the larger booths as well as a related presentation program. To help keep costs low for exhibitors, the drupa dna booths will be simple 10 x 10 square meter spaces and will be clustered in groups of four (see image below). Frank says the goal is to have (at most) 50 or so exhibitors for the dna section, and the company has already sold about half of these spaces.

In addition, Frank and Deborah are working on a slate of presentations, panel discussions, and interviews to take place on the dna Stage, which will be in the same exhibition area in Hall 7.0 as the dna exhibit area. The idea behind this forum, he explains, is to provide dna exhibitors and others a 20 minute span of time (per presentation) on stage to talk about their products, services, solutions, and so forth.

Frank adds there will be a strong emphasis on face-to-face interaction between exhibit area visitors, speakers, and exhibitors. “Face-to-face marketing is all about visibility and trust. Moreover, in-person interaction fosters engagement. For this reason I am honored and excited to work together with drupa on the 2024 drupa dna program, hopefully engaging with many of the attendees that will participate in the largest get together our industry has to offer.”

The themes for drupa dna exhibits and presentations include Additive Manufacturing, Artificial Intelligence, Business Intelligence, New Materials, Platform Economy, and Predictive Maintenance. Other dna themes include Printed Electronics, Remote Services, New Business Models and Process Design. Overall, the emphasis will be on showcasing what is new, upcoming, and transformative.

There is still time for interested companies to register for participation at the dna forum – and there are several ways to get involved as an exhibitor, sponsor or speaker. Company representatives interested in learning how their companies can take part in drupa dna as sponsors or exhibitors should contact Benedikt Salmen from the drupa team ( Anyone interested in speaking should contact Deborah Corn ( or Frank Tueckmantel ( as soon as possible.

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