The Digital Edge
Pioneering wide-web digital printing technology provides a powerful growth platform for enterprising flexible packaging supplier shaking up the industry’s outdated status quo
From cheers to sneers, flexible packaging is a topic that tends to provoke a wide gamut of reactions among Canadian consumers, who seem to enjoy all the convenience benefits offered by plastic film-based bags and pouches while at the same time bemoaning the allegedly oversized excessive environmental footprint of the landfill-bound waste they leave behind.
But as odd as this divergence of views may seem, there is no doubt that flexible packaging is not only not going anywhere, but is in fact reasserting its role as a safe, convenient and economical option for countless entrepreneurs and business start-ups across North America to bring their new products to consumers in a timely manner—be it through online delivery or on the traditional store-shelf.
And thanks to companies like ePac Flexible Packaging, they can do so at a fraction of a cost of what the more established CPG (consumer packaged goods) brands spend on their packaging materials and graphics.
Founded in 2015, Austin, Tex.-headquartered ePac is a thriving and digitally savvy enterprise specializing in providing small and medium-sized brands with customized, short-run quantities of many different types and sizes of pre-cut and rollstock bags and pouches printed exclusively on the pioneering digital printing press technology developed by the HP Indigo division of global technologies giant HP, Inc.
According to the company’s co-founders Jack Knott, Carl Joachim and Virag Patel, the idea for an all-digital-based flexible packaging supplier was driven by the notion that smaller businesses and fledgling start-ups were effectively being barred from using flexible packaging for market entry due to the converting industry’s indifference to their needs for short lead times and low minimum order quantities.
Eager to fill that glaring void in the market, the three co-founders launched their first ePac production facility in Madison, Wis., in 2016, quickly following up on its rapid growth and success with a series of new plant openings across North America, including a location in Vancouver and, more recently, just outside of Toronto in Mississauga, Ont.
Also operating global branches in Europe and Asia Pacific, the company has clearly tapped into a rich vein of pent-up demand for high-quality, just-in-time, fully-customized and cost-effective flexible packaging for the new generation of CPG producers eager to take advantage of the explosive growth in e-commerce and online shopping.
By optimizing all the technological and performance benefits of the highly flexible HP Indigo 20000 wide-web digital printing technology across its 19 operations worldwide, ePac has developed a highly innovative and disruptive business network model that is having a profound impact on the flexible packaging industry’s status quo underpinned by traditional reliance on long-run production orders from big global CPG brands.
By expertly leveraging the HP Indigo 20000 manufacturing platform to provide superior customer service and networking capabilities, ePac is able to offer its clients true high-definition custom printing—in quantities they need, at price-points they can afford, and exactly when they need it.
This in turn enables ePac customers to essentially print to demand, thereby avoiding inventory and obsolescence costs and being able go to market faster, making any required changes or alterations to the graphics or text on the go in perfectly seamless digital fashion that is becoming the norm across many packaging sectors.
This novel way of doing business has already proved to be an unqualified success at ePac’s first Canadian location in Vancouver, opened up in 2019, where the company produces nearly five million bags per month, according to George Boustani, general manager of the busy Vancouver plant that employs about 45 people over a two-shift production schedule.
“We like to think about ePac as a high-tech digital factory operating close to where the customers are,” says Boustani, clearly upbeat about ongoing renovations at the company’s new 50,000-square-foot plant in Mississauga that is already home to one state-of-the-art HP Indigo 20000 printing press, with the pending arrival of a second brand new HP Indigo 20000 printing press later this summer pointing to a glorious new future for the former Amcor container plant.
Since opening up last April, the spacious and well-lit facility has already assembled an impressive arsenal of high-quality bag making, slitting, laminating and other key production machinery to produce an exceptionally broad range of finished and rollstock flat-lay and stand-up pouches in bags in a multitude of sizes, material options, finishes and value-added accessories such as resealable zippers and child-resistant closures, among many others.
“Our company has consciously decided to cater mostly to small to medium business because this was the segment that no one really was looking after at the time,” Boustani told Canadian Packaging on a recent visit to the 15-employee Mississauga plant gearing itself up for full-on production later this year under the watchful eye of general manager Hila Frish.
As Boustani explains, “Those smaller customer simply could not get the attention of conventional flexible packaging converters with their small-run quantities, and even if they did, they would have to wait eight to 10 weeks for it, or three months if it came from overseas.
“Many of these converters would not even think about running their machines to produce anything less than 100,000 to 200,000 bags at the very least.
“Conversely, we can provide these clients with beautiful, professional-looking brand packaging in 10 days for finished bags and five days for rollstock,” Boustani says, citing exceptionally low minimal quantity orders of $2,500.
“That would be about 5,000 fully-printed bags of packets, depending on the structure,” says Boustani, lauding the many unique cost-saving features offered by the highly flexible HP Indigo 20000 technology, including:
- No plate or set-up costs. By not requiring printing plates, the process enables brands to make changes without having to purchase new plates, which require large upfront investments and ongoing inventory costs.
- Processing multiple SKUs in one run. Unlike traditional printing methods, with digital printing brands can combine unlimited SKUs, each of which only requires a digital file. By combining SKUs into one run, and leveraging ePac’s virtual network of HP Indigo 20000 presses, the company is also able to handle long runs, dispelling the myth that digital is only for short runs.
- Low minimum orders. Digital printing gives brands the ability to order-to-demand, thereby reducing costs, excess inventory and obsolete packaging.
- With low minimum orders, brands can create limited edition packaging, run more promotions, and rapidly test new products in the market—enabling them to make a big impact without the cost and risk of committing to high minimum order quantities.
- Fast throughput. The highly efficient and digitized production process enables brands to submit their art file online, make last-minute adjustments as needed, approve their final artwork, and begin production in a matter of days, rather than weeks or months.
- Digitize every package. Through ePacConnect, a revolutionary connected packaging solution, all pouches produced by ePac can carry their own unique digital identity, enabling all customers to connect directly with consumers, protect their brand, and track their products’ journey.
The state-of-the-art wide-web digital HP Indigo 20000 presses deployed throughout the ePac network can manufacture most pouch sizes, printing on frames of 29.125-inch-wide with a 43.125-inch repeat.
“All these inherent advantages of digital printing have really resonated well with the type of customers we were trying to attract,” says Boustani, citing the company’s highly diverse client base ranging from candy, snack-food and frozen food producers and co-packers to nutritional supplements, processed meats, coffee and tea and, increasingly, cannabis edibles and flower.
“The legalization of cannabis in Canada has been absolutely huge for our business,” Boustani notes, “opening up all kinds of new business opportunities to work with some really entrepreneurial companies with all kinds of innovative ideas on what modern packaging should look like in the digital age.”
According to Boustani, the skyrocketing international freight costs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped away any cost advantages that offshore packaging suppliers in low-cost countries may have offered in the past, making ePac well-positioned to seize the moment by offering upscale photographic-quality packaging with unmatched turnaround time measured in mere days.
“That is our biggest selling point—high quality with the shortest turnaround in the industry by far,” Boustani asserts, while also noting the significant changes that the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many far-reaching changes to how many everyday foodstuffs are now packaged.
“Just as you no longer see bulk bins at the supermarkets for shoppers to scoop out their nuts, flour, rice etc. by hand,” Boustani explains, “flexible packaging allows for those foods to be retailed in a safe, consumer-friendly format that works as well on the shelf as it does in online retailing.
“This was already happening before COVID,” Boustani notes, “but the pandemic has really accelerated this development in many ways.”
Relative cost considerations aside, the biggest operational benefit offered by HP Indigo’s digital printing process over the traditional rotogravure and flexographic printing is the “priceless” short-run flexibility that allows for on-demand changes to the printed images, text, logos and other variable information virtually in real time, according to Boustani.
“Let’s say that you have made some key ingredients changes to your product that requires for your packaging to be updated to reflect those changes,” Boustani explains.
“If you have 20,000 of those bags lying around, you either have a lot of wasted packaging on your hands, or you will have to invest in some additional 20,000 labels or product stickers to update your packaging properly, compared to simply making a few digital changes to your design files for your next print run on the HP Indigo,” Boustani continues.
“Whether a customer wants to change to a darker or lighter color, or to print three ‘special new flavors’ in every 10 bags of a core SKU being printed up in the next run, it is all done digitally on the fly,” he states.
As for the widespread public criticisms often lofted at the flexible packaging industry for being a major contributor to the global plastic pollution crisis, Boustani is quick to point out that not all flexible packaging is created equally.
Unlike the conventional printing processes requiring a lot of energy to make plates, mix inks and operate the presses, the carbon-neutral HP printers employed at ePac operations actually help companies cut a lot of waste out of the process and away from landfills—thanks to the technology’s print-to-demand operation.
In addition, ePac’s digital printers use polymer-based inks that do not contain any hazardous air pollutants, consume less energy, and emit fewer greenhouse gases than solvent-based or UV-curable inks used in traditional flexible packaging, according to ePac.
Having formally identified and embraced environmental sustainability as a key company priority, ePac has also invested significant capital into collaborative R&D activities with its own film suppliers and other partners to provide customers with more sustainable material options, including the use of more recyclable and compostable films and adhesives and higher PCR (post-consumer recycled) content.
As Boustani points out, “It will take much more than anything ePac can do on its own to improve the flexible packaging’s public image, but by the same token it is unfair to ignore its inherent ability reduce food waste, extend product shelf life, and significantly reduce the amount of carbon emissions during transportation.
“If all those products packaged in flexible packaging were to be put inside bottles and jars taking up a lot of truck space, it would take an awful lot of fuel to deliver those products to market,” Boustani states.
“Everyone in the industry is working very hard to come up with the right end-of-life solution in a relatively brief time frame,” Boustani points out, “and ePac is fully committed to be part of that progress towards the Circular Economy for plastics.”
As such, Boustani says ePac is likely to keep expanding its operations even further be even closer to its customers, with the opening of the new Mississauga location credibly validating the company’s commitment to the Canadian markets.
“Our Vancouver facility is already running flat-out,” Boustani confides, “and we are eager to replicate that success here in the Toronto region.”
With both of ePac’s Canadian facilities currently in the process of obtaining their HACCP (Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Points) accreditations before the end of the year, Boustani says the sky is really the limit to what the company can achieve in the Canadian markets in coming years.
“Our rapid growth at the Vancouver plant in just three years replicates what we’ve seen in other ePac markets across the globe,” he points out.
“Wherever we go everyone in our company lives by the mantra of ‘Helping small brands grow’ and being accretive to the communities we serve,” Boustani concludes.
“And with this new Mississauga facility coming online, there is a lot of excitement throughout the organization about what the future holds.”