Across the Board
Venerable corrugated-packaging manufacturer setting a high bar for digital-printing excellence with new cutting-edge press technology
With digital printing-press technology improving in leaps and bounds at a relentless pace, making a massive capital investment in current state-of-the-art digital printing technology is always fraught with the risk that it can become obsolete long before its anticipated best-before date—making a meaningful ROI (return-on-investment) a highly elusive target.
And as more and more paper packaging producers and converters are swayed to invest in digital printing by customers’ demands for more customized, personalized and higher-quality packaging graphics and more sustainable products, it is a challenge faced by a growing number of packaging suppliers, with corrugated boxboard producers no exception.
Happily for the Toronto-based Atlantic Packaging Products Ltd., astute capital investment and keen understanding of the customers’ needs and market trends are very much near the top of the many core competencies that the privately-owned corrugated packaging producer has skillfully mastered over the last 78 years to become a major player in the North American market for corrugated boxes, trays, retail-ready packaging, merchandising displays and many other paper packaging solutions demanded by a growing base of brands and CPG (consumer packaged goods) producers looking to improve their sustainability profiles and credentials.
Nowadays operating 22 manufacturing and converting facilities in Canada and the U.S., the company has recently reaffirmed its long-standing credentials as the corrugated industry’s technology leader with the arrival of a gigantic six-colour Delta SPC 130 digital printing press manufactured in Austria by Koenig & Bauer Durst GmbH—a joint-venture company formed in 2019 by Koenig & Bauer, the world’s second-largest printing press manufacturer, and Durst Group, a leading global supplier of digital printing technologies.
Skillfully combining the advanced, best-of-breed technological capabilities and attributes of both joint-venture partners, the new Delta SPC 130 digital press has been quickly fulfilling its promise as the proverbial industry “game-changer” since being commissioned at the company’s Tiffield Road retail packaging facility in Toronto’s east end in June of this year.
Measuring about 50 metres in length, the new Delta SPC 130 is the first six-colour digital corrugated printing press installed anywhere in Canada, according to Adam Pauwels, vice-president of sales at Atlantic’s Ontario Corrugated Division, and only one of four such presses currently operating in North America.
“We expect this new press to become a real workhorse for us going forward,” Pauwels told Canadian Packaging on a recent visit to the Tiffield Road plant.
“We did this for our customers so that they had a cost-effective way to get new products to market without costly printing plates and the need to commit to labels or pre-print rolls which leads to obsolescence,” Pauwels states.
“Our customers needed a quicker way to market, and digital was the solution.”
As Pauwels reveals, “Right now we are still focused on educating many of our customers to understand the full benefits of this press.
“Being a truly disruptive technology, it will take time for the market to fully embrace it,” he acknowledges, “but based on the jobs we have run on it so far, we know our customers will be open to moving more and more of their jobs onto this press once they realize all the possibilities it opens up that were not available before with the traditional printing processes.”
As Pauwels remarks, “Digital printing has become more and more commonplace in Europe, where they tend to be early adopters of digital technologies of all kinds, but we are convinced that once the Canadian market fully understands it, it will grow in a big way in Canada as well.”
While earlier generations of digital press technologies have provided an adequate alternative for creating packaging prototypes and handling small-run production by offering unprecedented levels of graphic design flexibility—notably in label and folding-carton production—the new Delta SPC 130 press represents a profound technological leap by combining superior print quality of up to 800-dpi (dots per inch) resolution with commercial-scale running speeds of up to 120 metres per minute, making it a perfect fit for the vast multitude of medium-volume production runs (up to 20,000 sheets) accounting for a large part of the company’s orders.
Considering the significant capital investment involved in acquiring and installing such a sophisticated piece of machinery, Atlantic Packaging spent about four years carefully evaluating the available technologies in the marketplace before settling on the Durst six-colour press, according to the company’s digital print manager Anthony Memme.
“We really put the suppliers through the wringer with all the graphics trials, production trials and visits to their customers,” Memme recalls, “but we found that most of the existing technologies at the time were better-suited for making displays rather than retail or food packaging.
“The print quality wasn’t quite up there, the speeds were too slow, and getting the thicker corrugated boards from one end of the press to the other in one smooth pass seemed to be a real challenge.
“So we waited a little for the technology to catch up,” Memme says, “and luckily for us there have been some significant gains made in both quality and speed in the last couple of years to justify our large investment in digital corrugated printing.
“The mechanics have improved greatly, along with big advancements in software, the feeding section, inspection, defect rejection and so on,’ he says, “but the big thing for us is the modular design of this Durst press.
“It’s not just one long, hulking piece of metal,” Memme states. “Being modular allows us to upgrade the press in step with whatever future technological advancements come down the line by replacing the print section, for example, or updating the primer section, or enhancing the feed section.”
For Atlantic Packaging, which prides itself on its sustainability track record, being able to user water-based inks on the SPC 130 press was also a major factor and selling point in its final equipment selection.
“Water-based inks is one of the biggest things to happen in the market for digital printing,” says Memme, “because the absorption and the drying of water-based inks on corrugated boards is a fairly complex process at high speeds.”
Adds Pauwels: “Using water-based inks enables us to live up to our environmental goals and standards, as well as to ensure safe food contact and no odour.
“Moreover, the digital printing press does not use any printing plates, so there is no need for any cleaning chemicals or wastewater from cleaning the plates, which is all bad for the environment.”
In addition to widening the traditional CMYK colour gamut with the addition of orange and violet, the SPC 130 press also includes an additional inline primer section to create ultra-vibrant colours directly onto uncoated corrugated in smooth single-pass process.
According to Durst, the SPC 130 press combines a well-engineered mechanical design with easily accessible sub-assemblies and selected components to guarantee durable quality, high performance and reliability, along with Durst’s drop-on-demand print-head technology, a non-hazardous ink system, and an efficient IR/UV drying process designed for high productivity.
Configurable with up to six colours, the press can print any length of corrugated cardboard up to 110-inches (2,794 mm) wide or paper media of up to 12 mm in thickness, while offering optimal versatility, low maintenance requirements and 24/7 dependability.
The Delta SPC 130 is equipped with recirculating Durst Quadro Array print heads and water-based, odour-free WT inks for production of high-quality, indelible, glossy and non-fading end products in a single-pass process.
The production process on SPC 130 begins at the feeder section, which is a fully-automatic, non-stop feeder with integrated cleaning station, built-in detection of damaged sheets, and automatic sheet ejection.
Once inside, the sheets move through the priming section for optional digital pre-treatment of coated or uncoated material and on to the hybrid dryer, which combines thermal drying with IR (infrared) and hot air to ensure durable high adhesion on coated fiber-based materials without pre- treatment, whereby the thin coating layer and high adhesive friction of the ink surface prevent the stack from shifting.
After passing through the single-pass printer section, where thousands of tiny inkjet dispensing nozzles deposit tiny droplets of water-based inks onto the surface, the boards move on through the quality inspection station to inspect any errors in the printing process, and on to the cooling station, before arriving at the fully automatic stacker at the end of the line, featuring integrated ejection of waste sheets from the final stack.
The entire process is centrally controlled and monitored from an elevated, ergonomically-designed Delta Control Station platform equipped with all the state-of-the-art features and accessories required for simple, clear, comfortable and central operation of the digital Durst single-pass printing line, including:
- Worktable for a 280X130 centimetres sheet size for quality assessment, profiling and colour checking;
- Camera server for clear monitoring of the printing line;
- Two 55-inch monitors for quality control, workflow monitoring, camera view, and ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system networking;
- One 32-inch touchscreen control terminal;
- Matrix screen control for customer-specific, freely selectable assignment of the monitors;
- Pull-out leather seat arm for machine operators;
- Additional interface for colour-measuring devices for profiling and colour checking;
- Six lockable compartments for machine operators, including the cellphone charging option;
- A signal lamp to display the printer status.
All in all, the SPC 130 press offers all the main advantages of the digital print press process in terms of design flexibility and variability, exceptionally fast changeovers, colour stability, on-the-fly adjustments and design changes, and a virtually zero-waste, zero-scrap process that is totally in line with Atlantic Packaging’s sustainability mindset, according to Memme.
“Our customers not only love the print quality we get with this machine,” he states, “but also the consistency of it, whereby we can digitally trap that colour consistency from sheet to sheet.
“The big advantage for our customers with digital is that if they want to do a run of seasonal or promotional packaging, we can just add a pop of colour of some different graphics on the selected sheets and insert it the middle for a regular production run, without interrupting the process.
“It allows for the level of customization and individualization that was just too cost-prohibitive before,” Memme says. “Hence it opens up a whole host of opportunities that were not available with earlier digital print technologies.
“For someone who has been living in print for most of my working life, I never thought that digital printing for corrugated would arrive as quickly as it has,” Memme acknowledges.
“So the fact that the quality that we can get off this press, at the speed that we can get it off this press on a corrugated sheet, is really mind-blowing, really unbelievable,” he remarks.
“For me, the biggest ‘Wow factor’ about digital printing is how quickly the technology has caught up with our requirements in the relatively short time since we started out on our digital journey,” Memme remarks.
To maximize its digital investment, Atlantic Packaging has invested significant time and money to train its operators and maintenance staff on the machine, with Durst supplying much of that training right on-site at the facility.
“The technology itself is fairly user-friendly,” says Memme, “with a pretty intuitive workflow and user-interface.
“Of course, it is different from regular printing with a flexo press, let’s say, where you need to set up the tooling and the pressure levels, while constantly monitoring and adjusting all your ink levels with mechanical knobs.
“Everything on this press is done through a computer interface,” he points out, “so it requires a somewhat different mentality for our operators.
“They need to be really computer-efficient to run and troubleshoot this press properly.”
For Andrew Tucker, vice-president of the company’s Specialty Group business, the successful commissioning of the SPC 130 digital press is a very gratifying outcome of a lengthy equipment evaluation process in which he played an instrumental part during the earlier stages.
“When digital became the big new buzzword several years ago, everyone wanted to get in on it right away, with customers demanding the flexibility, the quick response time, the quick turnaround time, and all the other cool features promised by digital printing,” he recalls.
However, the technology available at the time was not suited for cost-effective continuous processing of corrugated board, according to Tucker, and thus it was mostly limited to the production of merchandising displays.
“But some time about two years ago we started seeing new offerings from the like of Durst, and other press manufacturers, that had really closed the quality gap to provide superb print quality with high productivity,” Tucker says.
“So we expect this press to become a real workhorse for us, ultimately capable of processing up to 100 million square feet a year over a three-shift schedule.
As Tucker concludes, “It really hits the sweet spot by combining high productivity and really good graphic while using water-based inks—enabling us to provide our customers with truly sustainable corrugated packaging solutions.”