Digital packaging – when and how will it come to India?

Technology relevance and futurology

Packaging samples using the MGI JETVarnish 3D for value additions at the Konica Minolta stand at Hunkeler Innovation Days 2019
Packaging samples using the MGI JETVarnish 3D for value additions at the Konica Minolta stand at Hunkeler Innovation Days 2019

I have just been at the Hunkeler Innovationdays in Lucerne, which consists of a series of machines which are each configurable to automatically process digitally printed webs for producing complete products. Since they are digitally printed and each page or printed item has a unique machine-readable code, the processing steps – folding, cutting, perforating, laser marking, collating, binding and even inserting into addressed and stamped envelopes – are performed on in-line modules. This itself is a tour de force demonstration of automation. See Hunkeler Innovationdays 2019 – The Future of Book Printing on page 14.

The only configurations in the packaging material sector that even begin to approach this level of in-line processing are narrow web label presses with their in-line foiling, embossing and diecutting, and matrix removal. A second series of finishing and converting steps – inspection, slitting and rewinding – is performed on nearline modules. The new trend in label presses is to build hybrid machines with a combination of print technologies – flexo, offset, screen, gravure and digital. There are more than 50 manufacturers of digital label presses in the world, including one in India that has already exported its digital label press to markets including China.

According to IppStar (, which is embarking on a large and comprehensive survey of the Indian label printing industry, there are already 25 to 30 digital label presses running in the country. Many, if not all, of these are also capable of producing digital packaging on carton board and on flexible materials as well.

Digitally printed, variable and short-run cartons are produced by Indian converters for pharma packaging. Especially in the case of exports and for our linguistically diverse country, these cartons (and labels) can contain local compliance information in the appropriate language. In addition, they can quite capably contain machine-readable track and trace and anti-counterfeiting information.

Some variable design experiments for cartons and beverage sleeves have also been tried in the country for limited editions of products but although they have demonstrated capability, one cannot say that they have as yet shown any market traction. In the main, packaging in India tends to have large quantities that are still self-defeating to produce digitally.

More likely, the next step in Indian packaging innovation is to create active and intelligent packaging. Here also, at first go, the need for digital production is minimal – perhaps restricted to short runs to establish an ecosphere where brand owners can develop their ideas for consumer engagement. By tracking printed barcodes at the point of sale and getting consumers to point their cellphone cameras at the augmented reality images and QR codes printed on the package, brands can create prototypes of brand engagement that are subsequently mass produced by automated procQResses and linked to the cloud.

Thus, the use of digital printing for packaging seems to be more useful for proofing, prototyping and test marketing first and then for variable information and post-purchase engagement. Lastly, it may play a role in the use of variable designs for shelf impact or a wow factor that could lead to both impulse buying and brand loyalty.

One should, however, not discount the prospect of small brands, own brands, and short-run packaging. This may be a fragmented market at first but with regulations such as FSSAI for food products kicking in, alongside the emerging capabilities of artisinal products and brands, high quality short runs will thrive. Beyond the simplicity of minimal packaging, they are also likely to look for digital engagement. Made to order and ship to order may also be a factor. Thus, while on the one hand packaging grows exponentially and becomes a larger societal and economic phenomenon, it may also find some new digitally enabled tricks in the smaller runs of artisinal and personalized packaging. You can get more info here on packaging and moving.

However, the bigger lesson for packaging from Hunkeler Innovationdays is not to do with printing but with the possibility of creating flexible production lines both for the packaging material, the products themselves and for filling and sealing and marking. In the future, both the product and the packaging will contain a machine-readable mark so that the right product can be put in the right package, in the right quantity and with the right label or logistic information that will launch it in the direction of the consumer, who will then engage with the pack and even assure that it is placed in the correct and circular waste stream.

First published in Packaging South Asia March 2019 issue.

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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