August 10, 2021 

Digital Printing on Flexible Packaging: Choosing the Best Variable Data Printer

Digital printing on flexible packaging.

Flexible packaging is one of the fastest-growing segments in the global packaging industry. In the US alone, the flexible packaging market is valued at $230.49 billion, according to a 2020 study. This same report also anticipates that the market will continue to grow in upcoming years by a CAGR of 3.89%. By 2026, experts predict that the overall market value will reach $289.89 billion. 

The increasing popularity of flexible packaging comes from the material’s versatility, sustainability, and protective properties. Studies show that consumers are willing to spend more on products that are housed in high-quality packaging, with benefits such as:

  • Extended product life.
  • Easy resealability.
  • Simple storage.

Flexible packaging forms such as resealable bags, stand-up pouches, and blister packs offer these kinds of advantages, and as such, have been adopted by a variety of industries, including:

In each of these fields, flexible packaging provides a way to prolong product shelf-life while also directly appealing to consumers’ evolving mindsets. Of course, regardless of whether flexible packaging is used to house snacks or prescription drugs, it must display industry-standard codes and government-mandated markings to ensure traceability and educate consumers. While some of these markings can be included as part of the stock packaging design (e.g. barcodes, data matrices, product weight, etc.), others vary based on product batch (e.g. expiration dates, lot codes, serial numbers, timestamp, etc.).

Fortunately, digital printing can make variable data marking a simple, intuitive task. Technologies like continuous inkjet (CIJ) printers, thermal inkjet (TIJ) printers, and thermal transfer overprinters (TTO) allow users to create a variety of labels and place them on products in a quick, reliable fashion. However, how do you know which technology is right for you?

For those new to digital printing on flexible packaging, here's what to consider when choosing hardware.

Key Considerations When Digital Printing on Flexible Packaging

Manufacturers large and small turn to digital printing for both its ease of use and its ability to create a wide variety of markings. Depending on hardware specifics, companies can use digital printing to create everything from simple text to machine-scannable barcodes to company logos and other images. Of course, not all printing equipment share the same capabilities. Digital printers all have their strengths and weaknesses regarding flexible packaging applications, and consequently, users need to understand their own marking needs before purchasing hardware. Important considerations include:

  • The information to be marked (lot number, date code, barcode, other).
  • Code placement and orientation on the package.
  • Required line speed.
  • Post-coding endurance such as:
    • Temperature, moisture, and sterilization.
    • Code permanence.
  • DPI requirements.
  • Line setup, which impacts mobility.

With these elements in mind, one can narrow their printer search and discover the best machine for their operation. 

CIJ, TIJ, and TTO: Which Option is Right for You?

In the digital printing industry, CIJ, TIJ, and TTO are the most popular printer technologies available to the market today.  Below we describe where each printer excels. 

Continuous Inkjet Printers

Continuous inkjet printers are well-suited for creating lower-resolution markings at uninterrupted industrial speeds. Generally speaking, most CIJ printers are capable of printing at speeds up to ~330 meters per minute and DPI resolutions ranging from 60-180 DPI. These specs make CIJ printers ideal for creating text markings like expiration dates, lot codes, and serial numbers. Although some operators use CIJ printers to create barcodes, the relatively low resolution of CIJ printed markings may cause barcode readability issues. 

A CIJ printer will be the right choice if you:

  • Require a machine that can print uninterrupted 24/7.
  • Utilize high-speed production lines.
  • Don’t need to create high-resolution images or logos.

Thermal Inkjet Printers

Thermal inkjet printers are designed to create a variety of texts and images at moderate speeds. While some newer TIJ models like the Anser X1 are capable of CIJ-level printing speeds, the vast majority of TIJ printers print at speeds around 100-150 meters per minute. However, they are also capable of making higher-resolution codes than CIJ printers, as many TIJ printers can reach resolutions as high as 600 x 300 DPI. Accordingly, TIJ printers are versatile enough to handle everything from simple text and lot codes to data matrices and business logos.

A TIJ printer will be the right choice if you:

  • Need a highly mobile printer (most TIJ printers weigh around five pounds and are easily relocated).
  • Are printing at moderate  speeds.
  • Require a machine that can create text codes, scannable barcodes, and high-resolution small-scale images.

Thermal Transfer Overprinters

Thermal transfer overprinters are well-suited for creating large, high-resolution images at slower speeds. Unlike CIJ and TIJ printers, TTO machines don’t use liquid ink to mark substrates. Instead, they apply heat to wax, resin, or wax/resin thermal ink ribbons to create sharp, high-resolution images. Although these images can be created at far higher resolutions than CIJ and TIJ printers are capable of, TTO machines are limited in speed, reaching levels around 60-80 meters per minute.

A TTO printer will be the right choice if you:

  • Are intending to print sharp, high-DPI images on your products.
  • Need a printhead that can create large images (i.e. multiple inches).
  • Do not require high printing speeds.

Digital Printing Simplifies Variable Data Marking 

Whether you need to place codes on resealable snack bags, pharmaceutical blister packs, or stand-up juice pouches, digital printing can help streamline the process. With the ability to mark a variety of substrates with long-lasting codes, technologies like CIJ, TIJ, and TTO can improve any flexible packaging production line—one just needs to know their marking needs to ensure they find the right machine to use.

Want more info related to digital printing on flexible packaging? Stay connected with C&M Digest by subscribing to our newsletter. With information on hardware, formulas, and other important marking topics, our newsletter will keep you updated on the latest industry developments. To get in touch with us about possible collaborations or ideas for coverage, contact us today.

C&M Digest Team

The C&M Digest Team is composed of experts from across the coding and marking world. Comprised of ink developers, hardware veterans, and engineers, our News Team delivers informed coverage that is always free from brand bias.

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