Packaging is one of the question marks at the center of today's printing industry. Other print products have found their usefulness undercut by digital offerings, with marketing and internal communications both moving online, but physical packages remain useful and visible. While goods sold online may not be able to use their labels as advertising as easily as during the golden age of brick-and-mortar retail, this merely represents a change of packaging's use case, rather than its obsolescence.

The next question must then be: What is the connection between product packages and the rest of the printing business? Is there a relationship between print service providers that provide packages for goods and companies that have mostly worked on other products, and can the latter become the former? That's the question recently addressed by industry site Printing Impressions.

A change of tactics
The news provider's Julie Greenbaum recently spoke with industry sources to determine what it takes to go from standard commercial printing to packaging production. Print service providers will have to weigh these factors carefully, as the jump into accepting packaging jobs can represent a change in both technical requirements and overall outlook.

Karstedt Partners CEO Kevin Karstedt told Printing Impressions that the equipment on hand will likely determine what kind of entrance a commercial printer makes into the packaging space. For instance, four-color printing may not be sufficient to get the job done. While die-cutting, folding and gluing finished cardboard packages are specialized processes that print shops may not be equipped for, Karstedt noted that this part of the process can be outsourced. A potential inability to complete packages single-handedly is something shops may have to prepare for.

As for the motives that make moving into the packaging market useful and potentially profitable, Karstedt stated that not only can this new capability represent a renewed revenue stream, it's also a way to forge connections with existing customers. For example, a print shop creating marketing collateral for a small brand that gets its packaging from an outside company could convince the client to become a packaging customer as well. Considering the important role long-term client relations play in today's printing industry, this is a potentially valuable connection.

The OTC Group, a print shop that has branched out into packaging production, told Printing Impressions that there are a few challenges to look out for when dealing with this new style of job. For instance, finishing processes differ between paper and cardboard production. The increased overall cost of physically making cardboard items also means there is more of an emphasis on catching mistakes early in the process – re-doing a print run is expensive for printers working with packages.

Technology evolving
Potential moves into packaging production will likely be highly dependent on the kind of technology available to and used by printing companies. According to WhatTheyThink contributor Sean Smyth, digital presses have stepped into a more prominent role in the packaging market as these assets have improved. Today's hardware has evolved, and Smyth pointed to the Drupa 2016 industry conference as a turning point for the industry in terms of digital's capabilities.

The speed, flexibility and economical nature of digital printers, which have made a difference in the commercial print sector, are having an effect behind the scenes of packaging as well. Smyth pointed out that the possible uses of these new assets have only begun to be felt and experimented with, and brands will find new ways of pleasing their customers in the coming years. With more responsive ways to make printed products, supply chains could become faster and more efficient – without sacrificing the visual appeal of the printed packages.

The development of digital printing, with early adopters figuring out new ways to make the tech work for them, has been ongoing for years. Smyth pointed to 2010 as the beginnings of the sub-sector, with questions becoming more complex and strategic over the intervening seven years. Providers are now figuring out value cases for this tech.

Becoming a packaging provider is a new experience for a print service provider more used to paper deliverables. There are opportunities to be seized here, however, whether that means reaching a different clientele or increasing usefulness to current customers. Whether these outcomes are worth the investment needed to reach them is a choice for each printer to make on its own.