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The Covid period has seen digital printing secure new markets in labels and packaging, and its growth is set to turbo charge to 11 per cent CAGR over the next five years, according to industry research agency Smithers.

With other print segments badly hit by Covid-19, packaging and labels are increasingly the focus for many print OEMs, with the latest digital technology promising to open new segments and print options for print service providers.

Smithers says that overall from 2021-2026 the sector will remain attractive with demand, for digital printed packaging significantly outperforming the broader market.

Led by inkjet, digital’s share of the printed label and packaging market will almost double over the next five years, increasing from 4.4 per cent by value in 2020 (US$18.5bn), to 7.2 per cent (US$35.9bn) in 2026.

Labels still account for the majority of digital output in 2021, worth US$11.79bn, but these will have a relatively low CAGR of 5.6 per cent to 2026. Growth will be fastest in corrugated ($5.78bn in 2021), closely followed by folding cartons ($2.31bn this year). With both segments more than doubling their use of digital over the forecast period, their combined value will exceed digital label printing in 2026.

Smithers’ analysis tracks the technology advances that will underpin this transition across all major press formats and packaging substrates. These are principally for inkjet systems. Over the next five years, improvements will help make the process more cost-competitive, even on medium and long run commissions for folding cartons, corrugated, flexibles, and rigid plastics.

Further advances in printheads will boost both quality and speed. While printheads with a 1,200dpi native resolution and greyscale printing up to 200m per minute are standard today, it is forecast that by 2026, 2,400dpi units will be common and greyscale speeds will rise to 300m per minute. Variation in drop size will also enhance inkjet’s use, down to 1pl for fine quality, or much larger for whites, solid colours, varnishes and embellishment effects.

As the market expands, machines from larger OEMs will increasingly dominate the space, with fewer turnkey solutions and hybrid models being sold. More installations of sheetfed inkjet presses will help open larger format packaging work to digital print.

Simultaneously inks will improve to allow use on a wider range of packaging substrates, there will be an increased use of water-based ink sets; while greater sales volumes will push the price per litre down. Print quality will continue to improve, supported by more paper substrates optimised for inkjet production, although analogue inks and toners will still outperform inkjet when using specialty inks, such as metallics.

For colour toner presses, the main challenge will be competing against newer inkjet machines in labels, cartons and flexibles. The segment will be bolstered by its own new technology developments, such as HP Indigo’s LEPx technology, but the deeper trend will be to push electrophotography use more towards premium labels and niches in high-quality cartons and flexible packs.

The market outlook for digital printing in packaging in the wake of the pandemic and through to 2026 is examined in detail by the comprehensive Smithers study. Smithers says it marries critical insight into the latest packaging industry trends with expert analysis on the market potential of current and future print technologies.

The dynamic and lucrative market is quantified authoritatively, with an exclusive dataset presented in over 250 data tables and figures. It segments market (by value and volume) by print technology, and packaging format/substrate, across 30 leading national and regional markets.

Published today The Future of Digital Print for Packaging to 2026 is available for purchase, priced at €5,250.

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