Disruptive technology is always on the horizon and that is particularly true in the packaging market, where brand owners are always on the look-out for new materials, new package designs, and new technologies to enable both.
One technology that has been tried by thermoforming companies in the past, but never really got traction because of its complexity, is “contour printing”—also known as pre-print or distortion printing. Shepherd Thermoforming & Packaging Inc. (Brampton, ON) showcased its contour-printed package technology in the SPE Thermoforming Division’s annual Parts Competition. Shepherd recently developed a system that brings this innovative contour-printing technology to the next level.
According to Todd Shepherd, president of Shepherd Thermoforming, recent innovations in digital printing opened up opportunities for the technology to be a viable alternative for retail packaging. Shepherd Thermoforming was just one of many thermoformers that tried an earlier version of this technology in 1994, but the technology—including the printing and other equipment—made it costly and time consuming. “We had one person championing the process, and did three jobs, but then it died given all the work involved in the process,” Shepherd told PlasticsToday.
“I learned at that time that if it’s just one person championing a new technology like this it will die.” Two years ago, Shepherd revived the contour-printed package using a digitally pre-printed distorted image on PET sheet. The promotional package Shepherd designed was purely a beta project to develop a workable system that would be easier and more cost effective than the earlier attempts had been. “It was a learning tool really,” said Shepherd of the project. “It was a training opportunity because I knew we would encounter delays. We had to modify equipment for the print registration on the machine and learn tolerances to register the print on the equipment to determine how accurate the distortion was.”
The project took 18 months to complete and cost an estimated $30,000, however Shepherd noted that the result is a system that addresses all the issues surrounding the process. “We feel that this project was well worth the cost and the effort to develop,” Shepherd stated. “It’s for the future of our business and for the thermoforming industry as well, and it will open up some doors for the packaging market.” The distortion-printed contour package technology offers an alternative for retail packaging that typically uses graphic inserts, labels or inmold labeling technology.
“Inmold labeling is just not getting traction for a number of reasons,” Shepherd commented, “including the cost of equipment, label cost, a long supply chain, and the fact that brand owners need to have a product that is suitable for IML in order to justify these costs. The distortion-printed contour package technology using thermoforming fills the void.”
With sustainability a big issue among retailers, Shepherd pointed out that the contour-printed thermoformed package enables a greater print area to include identification of packaging material and how to recycle it.
“In North America it’s not a big driver yet, but it will be important for the future,” noted Shepherd. “This makes the package easy to recycle and encourages recycling. It also reduces the amount and types of materials typically contained in a retail package. With the contour pre-printed distortion package, brand owners can take out the paperboard insert, eliminate a separate label, and have all one type of plastic, which makes it more consumer friendly for opening the package and for recycling.”
While Shepherd Thermoforming hasn’t had an official evaluation of the recyclability of the contour pre-printed distortion package, the company is working with its suppliers, including IPF, which supplies the 100% post-consumer PET, and the printing supplier SGS, to determine that it can be easily be recycled with soda bottles. Ultimately, Shepherd’s plan is to make contour print compatible with APR standards. “Currently, we are working with suppliers creating inks that will break down and not interfere with the recyclability, which is our hope for this package,” said Shepherd.
Commercializing the process is the next step, and so far Shepherd said there are about four clients who are really interested its prospects for a new package. “Our next step is to qualify the flexographic inks,” Shepherd said. “So far, we’ve only been producing the package in the digital format printing. Because of all the distortion required, there’s no plate involved, however, I believe that digital is the future of printing.”
Short term, there’s not a lot of digital printing press capacity available to do the volume that a packaging producer the size of Shepherd Thermoforming & Packaging requires. SGS is currently capable of doing small runs for Shepherd. However, in the digital world there are a lot of ink presses coming out, which Shepherd noted would be a better solution than flexographic printing. In addition to the technical issues of printing on plastic that the contour pre-printed distortion package has to overcome, the thermoforming process adds its own challenges.
“Once we get the pre-printed sheet in, we’re then subjecting it to heat and stretching post-print,” explained Shepherd. “The ink has to hold up to the heat and the stretching, and maintain excellent quality, but so far so good. The digital ink has held up well. I expect in the flexo world it will hold up well, too, which is why we’re taking the step in that direction.” Shepherd added that this technology requires him to go into completely different territories than the company is accustomed to.
“We’re rookies in the printing world. Six months from now we might not be doing flexo printing,” he said. “We have to decide what is most cost effective for our industry, but I like the digital. The issue in the past was that it was slow and not nearly as detailed in the print as you could get with lithographic printing, but the new digital presses that are coming out now are giving the quality expected in the market. All the talk in the printing world is that digital is the future.”