Innovations in packaging printing production

Dr. Anastasios E. Politis, Athens Technological Educational Institute - TEI,



Information on packaging is today made almost exclusively with printing and finishing technologies.Graphics, texts, images, and in general information appeared on a package are nearly all made by traditional or digital printing technologies. In addition, tagging requirements are made up by the well-established barcodes which serve the identification required for machine-readable data and various additional non-impact printing processes (such as ink-jet), create human-readable information on ready packages.

Developments in new technologies in packaging and, in particular, the integration of digital information on the packaging substrate, appears as an emerging issue for the packaging printing production. Recent developments in various fields and industry sectors including electronics, information technology-IT, materials and processes lead to new applications in packaging which are described as “intelligent”, “smart” or “active”.These developments concern in particular new materials (printed organic materials such as organic polymers) and tagging applications (such as RFID applications).

Numerous studies reveal that although packaging will continue to be printed on a substrate (paper, board, polymer, aluminum or on a multilayer substrate), new types of information carriers (as those mentioned above) are to be embedded in and/or on packaging. As a result, packaging – the substrate - which will continue to be printed and processed as usual, is changing, with regard to the types and structure of information to be transferred on the packaging material - substrate. Therefore, the package becomes a physical carrier of both printed and electronic information. Such new forms of packaging, could be defined as “hybrid” packaging.

Based on these assumptions, it is rather obvious that traditional packaging printing is challenged by these new technologies, in terms of the implementation of the digital information onto the physical – material based - package.

The objective of this scientific paper is to explore the existing structure of the traditional processes and workflows of packaging printing in relation with the development of innovative applications regarding the integration of digital information on to the package. Furthermore, another objective of the present study is the attempt to define potential structural changes in traditional packaging printing and investigate the various factors and parameters that affect the production management and workflow of the existing packaging printing production.


Packaging printing production, smart and intelligent packaging, hybrid packaging.

1. Introduction

Packaging is currently the centre of developments as it regards new technologies that integrate digital data on a package. Recent developments in various fields and industry sectors including electronics, information technology  - IT-, materials and processes lead to new applications in packaging which are described as  “intelligent”, “smart” or “active”.  These developments concern in particular new materials (printed organic materials such as organic polymers) and tagging applications (such as RFID applications).

Numerous studies reveal that although packaging will continue to be printed on a substrate (paper, board, polymer, aluminum or on a multilayer substrate), new types of information carriers (as those mentioned above) are to be embedded in and/or on packaging. As a result, packaging is changing, being transformed to a «hybrid» information carrier and becomes a physical carrier of both printed and electronic information (Politis, 2006).

In addition, developments appear not only in the fields of “smart” and “intelligent” packaging but, in traditional packaging printing sector. The combination of these developments, seem to affect the traditional structure of packaging printing production.

Previous study conducted has revealed that packaging printing companies want to be more informed and be in a better position to understand the potential of future smart packaging applications. Data derived from a survey analysis among packaging printing companies (Nomikos and Politis 2005), show quite a strong degree of interest in new technologies and the understanding of the influence that they will have on future packaging production. This exists for all types of packaging printers including those that operate offset, gravure, letterpress and flexography printing plants.  It concerns also packaging design, prepress and finishing processes.

As a result, the main objective of the present study is to examine the various factors and parameters that affect the production management and workflow of the traditional packaging design and production. A prerequisite to implement this objective is to examine the technologies, developments and applications, currently taking place in the field of packaging printing production and the fields of “smart” and “intelligent” packaging.

2. Method

This paper has been based on literature study, focusing on the investigation of technologies and developments that might affect the traditional packaging printing production caused by smart packaging applications. What is finally presented in the paper are findings that have been extracted from the literature survey and the available resources. 

3. Innovations in packaging printing production

3.1 The importance of packaging for the graphic arts industry

Packaging is about 2 % of the GNP in the developed countries. The volume of the packaging industry is about 345 million euros, and about one third of this is in Europe. According to VTT (2002), packages will remain and their proportion will clearly increase in the Information Society. Increasing e-commerce will also serve to augment the number of packages.The packaging itself will carry more and more information, for consumer, for parcel tracking, becoming more and more an important communication media. Meanwhile, 50 % of the packages are food packages, indicating the importance of this industry for packaging (VTT, 2002).

Furthermore, packaging is one of the most significant application fields for the graphic arts industry at present. Recent studies and industry observations indicate that packaging is gaining even more importance for the graphic arts and print media industries since packaging, by its very nature, cannot be replaced by an electronic medium, but is a medium that requires printing (Nomikos and Politis, 2005).

In addition, data from the last DRUPA exhibition reveal that the vast majority of graphic arts manufacturers of prepress systems, printing and finishing equipment as well as producers of printing substrates and inks (DRUPA, 2004). Packaging printing constitutes probably the most important interest for the printing industry.All the main printing methods are being continuously developed for serving the specific characteristics of packaging printing. Tables 1 and 2 show the increasing rates of packaging production and the share among the principal packaging methods:

Table 1 Basic packaging categories: Percentage of annual increase 2001-2005 in the USA.Source: Graphic arts marketing information service, USA 2004.

Basic Packaging Categories

Percentage of Annual Increase 2001-2005

Flexible Packaging




Corrugated-paperboard Packaging


Paper– Board Boxes


Table 2: Percentage of total printing market and basic segments of basic printing methods. Source: ERA (European Rotogravure Association e.V.),, April 2004.




Lithography Offset






Other Printing Technologies


Furthemore according to Hueber, the percentage of each package type show the formation as it is illustrated in Table 3:

Table 3: Packaging type segmentation in 2002 (worldwide packaging production).

Source: HUEBER/ Flexo und Tiefdruck Journal/ 3-2004

Package type

Percentage  (%)

Corrugated board


Flexible packaging


Folding carton/board boxes


Paper bags






Other forms and types of packaging


In addition, based on a Kodak survey, packaging materials show a rather stable progress up to 2008. As it can be shown in Table 4, flexible packaging materials show an increasing use in comparison with the other materials:

Table 4: Packaging market segmentation 2003-2008

Source: Kodak –Graphic Communications Group presentation, by Olivier Michaud

Types of packages

Year 2003

Year 2008







Folding carton



Labels and tags






3.2. Packaging as information carrier

Traditionally, packaging is a printed matter used for specific purposes, namely:

to protect contents of the package, especially during transport packing and handling to identify the contents of the package

 to help sell the product, both by

               providing information about the contents and their use, 

               and making use of aesthetics in form, shape and colour

These three purposes may use different types of packaging, an outer cardboard or plastic wrap binding, with printed information/data, and inner box with identification marks, and the individual product packaging that is aimed at the end user of the contents.

In its traditional form the information on the package relies upon a certain production workflow and certain types of information that need to be communicated between the producer, the retailer and the consumer. All the information required is produced and transferred to the packaging by means of traditional printing technologies. Information on packaging today is almost exclusively from printing. Graphics, texts, images, instructions as well as advertising carried on packaging are nearly all made by traditional or digital printing technologies. Barcodes (EAN-code) serve the identification required for machine-readable data and various additional non-impact printing processes (such as ink-jet), create human-readable information on ready packages (e.g. the expiry date of a dairy product).

3.3 Prepress, printing and finishing for packaging

Various developments are taking place in the traditional fields of packaging printing production leading to changes in the specific sub-sectors. In design and prepress, CAD systems and digitization is dominating. More specifically, in prepress there are considerable developments, including the application of specific software – beyond the traditional digital prepress – and the output via CTP – computer to Plate/Cylinder systems for all major packaging printing methods (Politis 2007).

Regarding printing, new machines are further developing, incorporating additional elements such as varnishing and laminating systems and “hybrid” printing machines, where two or more printing methods together with finishing processes are integrated in one machine (Politis 2007).

3.4 Smart, intelligent and active packaging

According to IDTechEx (2005), recent developments and applications on packaging can be defined mean that not only human readable printed information, but also machine readable data needs to be incorporated in the packaging. Such data can be in the form of sounds, or smells, or other perceptions (for instance weight- some products such as fruit become lighter as they get older, and the juices inside them evaporate) (IDTechEx, 2005). These various perceptions and transformations or changes of conditions can be traced by sensors that compare the “printed” descriptions with the actual data from handling/scanning the package.A convergence of emerging technologies that rely on new materials (such as printed polymers) and tagging applications (such as RFID and EAS systems) are leading to new concepts of“intelligent”, “smart” or “active” packaging (Nomikos and Politis 2005).

Regarding future developments in packaging, on one hand, general packaging production trends, such as shorter delivery times, larger selections and smaller product quantities, are setting higher and higher demands on package production and packaging logistics. On the other hand, developing communication and printing technologies are providing new tools for solving problems, boosting production and giving value addition to packages. An increasingly important task for packaging is to improve brand protection, because forgers usually try to falsify the package rather than the product itself (VTT, 2002).

Methods such as visible or invisible printed bar codes and electronic RFID tags can be effectively used for brand protection and theft prevention. This can be implemented with the development of “smart ‘ or “intelligent” systems. According to VTT, a “smart” system adapts to expected situations in a predictable manner. An “intelligent” system is able to adapt to unexpected situations, such as reasoning and learning (VTT, 2002).

In addition, data derived from a joint Pira International and IDTechEx conference (2005) show that «packaging is changing; ten years from now packaging won't just be able to do a lot more, it will be expected to». According to statements from the conference intelligent and smart packaging comes at this crucial time when key players are working together to make intelligent packaging a commercially viable, cost-effective catalyst for change» (PIRA and IDTechEx, 2005).

Furthermore, as it can be derived from OEA (Organics Electronics Association), intelligent packaging is an integration of display, logic, keys, sensors, memory, power supply and speakers. As a result, organic electronics are defined as electronics based on organic materials and polymers. Various studies estimate that their global market until 2015 will reach a market volume of 30 Billion USD. As they are thin, flexible and lightweight, they can be printed with the traditional printing methods of flexible substrates (offset, gravure, flexography, ink-jet and laser printing processes (Hecker, 2006).

4. Innovations in packaging printing production

 According to VTT, the supply chain requirements are mainly the shorter delivery times, larger selections and smaller product quantities in packaging. The developments in technologies as they have previously shortly stated, printing technologies provide new tools for solving problems, boosting production and giving value addition to packages (VTT, 2002).

The new systems, equipment and digital workflows in packaging printing production can be combined with the new «smart» elements, leading to the creation of the new «Hybrid» packaging, where printed and electronic information coexist. This can be done, for example, by the combination of traditional printing with CMYK colours, circuits printed with additional colors and integration of additional elements such as supplemental electronics (Baumann, 2006).

A hybrid packaging can be produced with the application of the roll to roll (reel to reel) manufacturing technology applied for printed electronics and smart packaging applications, or via the application of UV-lithography, flexography and screen printing, coating, laminating and die-bonding processes for producing various forms of electronics such as polymer transistors (Bock, 2006).

Consequently, the integration of printing workflow of a hybrid packaging (for example a smart packaging printing application of RFID tags and antennas) can have the following structure (Baumann and Weiss, 2005):

Design and print antennas (with semiconductor ink)

Print (texts, images, graphics, colour printing)

Put a chip (at the necessary point)

Folding / transformation / transfer / distribution

5. Considerations for packaging printing production

As it can be derived from the literature study the parallel developments of packaging printing systems and the innovations with the smart and intelligent elements to be embedded/integrated on the package are expected to create considerable implications  for the traditional packaging printing production workflows and management. To give an example, currently, smart packaging production (mainly RFID’s) is based on labels (Precisia, 2004). However, other technologies such as the organic/printed polymers evolve further.

Furthermore, a significant evolution is the noticeable struggle on the issues of the technology that will be established in the market as the dominating application.  RFID seem to take the lead, however, its application are to be currently found in secondary packaging, transport and identification in storages and pallets. Printing of RFIDs, are mainly labels, which are attached as normal labels on to the packages (Precisia, 2004).

The RFID technology is competing with the printed electronics field of development, namely the organic polymers, where the active carrier is the substrate itself. Such a development can be applied at consumer packages offering the possibility for extending smart packaging applications to everyday life within the supply chain of products and goods.

6. Discussion

As a result fro the literature study, the majority of smart packaging elements (tags, antennas, printed polymers) are thin, flexible and printable with all major printing processes. However, an issue of importance is whether smart packaging applications will be based on the direct printing of these elements on the substrate or will be taking place following various inlay processes (such as laminating or embossing of preprinted tags for example on the printed substrate).

For the time being, hybrid packaging (in the form of a smart packaging application) is realized by the three major processes mentioned below:

As labels to be embedded on the package substrate

Through direct printing, mainly on new substrates with “smart” characteristics

Via an inlay process (e.g. mainly laminating or embossing)

Consequently, the production of smart applications for packaging is based on labels. However, other technologies, particularly, specific fields of the IT industry and electronics, nanotechnology, material science and its developments (such as printed polymers and new substrates) as well as automation (with the new field of Automatic Identification) evolve further.

Concluding this, it seems that it is not possible to make an accurate prediction on which technology will be the most applicable in the near future. However, it is expected not only labels but also all other forms of packaging will have the potential to become “hybrid” packages, printed with all major printing processes.

The survey has indicated that there is a huge potential market for the so-called “smart” applications. This field is of high interest for many industrial and commercial activities and for a quite diverse range of sectors. Packaging is one of the sectors where the “smart” applications are of significant interest, among the totality of the retail production chain. Smart packaging printing seem to be interesting in this context, only as it concerns the capability of the existing printing methods and processes to print the new substrates or to integrate the smart elements on to the package.

A first result from these findings is that packaging printing production will have to adapt to the new demands of the retail market and industry, whatever this means for the traditional printing companies as it regards changes in production, equipment workflow and management.


The study conducted within the present paper resulted in that certain outcomes can be illustrated. Firstly, printing processes will need to be adapted into new production environments. To give an example, investments might be required for the application of quality control of antennas, the activation of tags or the verification of smart elements on to the package.

Although, at the moment, labels seem to take the lead as it regards smart applications on packaging, it is predicted that all major printing processes will be used in smart packaging applications. Packaging design, prepress and plate/cylinder making does not seem to be affected at present, although the gradual integration of smart and intelligent packaging applications is expected to lead to changes in these production fields.

Furthermore, the integration of new technologies in packaging printing with the smart and/or intelligent elements will obviously require changes in production workflow and its management, calling for alterations in the production workflow, new investments in machinery and equipment, and new attitudes in management. 

As a result, it can be predicted that the application of the new technologies on packaging will affect not only printing but the whole design and production process. Those to be affected include designers, subcontractors, prepress, and printing departments of packaging producers. Packaging printers will need to cope with new materials and substrates and new/additional production processes and quality controls.

8. Further study

A final outcome from the present survey is that packaging printing production will change. An issue for further consideration remains how soon and in which extend such changes will occur. Such an issue requires additional research to be carried out. And it is also a challenge in entering new fields in research, extending the borders of traditional scientific research of graphic arts into new fields.

Additional survey is required for the smooth and effective integration of new processes of smart applications in the traditional packaging printing production as well as specific implications on management, workflows and requirements for new competence characteristics.

9. References

(Baumann, 2006)

Baumann R: “Printing electronics… from the perspective of a commercial press maker”, MAN Roland Druckmaschinen AG, Presentation at IPEX, Birmingham, UK 2006.

(Baumann and Weiss, 2005)

Baumann, R. and Weiss, R.: “Industrial Printing - Opportunities for Polymer

    Electronics”, MAN Roland Druckmaschinen AG, in the Printed Electronics Europe conference., Cambridge, UK, 2005.

(Bock, 2006)

Bock, K.: “Reel to reel manufacturing of printed electronics and systems” Polytronic Systems Department, Fraunhofer Institute IZM, Stuttgart, Germany, 2006.

(DRUPA, 2004)

DRUPA 2004: The World’s most significant graphic arts and media exhibition, ,

(Hecker, 2006)

Hecker, K.: “Organic Electronics Association”,, VDMA, Frankfurt, Germany 2006.

IDTechEx, (2005)

Ranghou Das, “Printed Electronics White Paper - Technology Overview and Applications” IDTechEx Ltd., UK, 2005.

(Nomikos and Politis, 2005)

Nomikos, S., Politis, A., Darzentas, J., Spyrou, Th., Darzentas, John: “Exploring cross-media concepts for future packaging – Challenges for the printing industry” Proceedings, 32nd IARIGAI international conference, 4-7 September 2005, Porvoo, Finland, p.p.317-319.

(PIRA and IDTechEx, 2005)

Pira International and IDTechEx: ‘Intelligent and Smart Packaging”, Pira International and IDTechEx conference, 25 and 26 January 2005, The Wyndham Resort, Orlando, USA, published in “”.

(Politis 2006)

Politis, A.:  “Smart packaging printing – What printers need to know?” 33rd IARIGAI International Research Conference, Proceedings, Leipzig, Germany 10-13 September 2006.

(Politis 2007)

Politis, A.:  “Specific characteristics of packaging printing – Six and seven colour printing”.  Allpack Journal, Vol. 19, March – April 2007, pp 49-51, Athens Greece.

(Precisia, 2004)

Lawrence, D.: “R)Evolution of RFID into the supply chain”, Precisia Presentation, Las Vegas, January 2004.

 (VTT, 2002)

Heilmann, J., Juhola, H. and Linna, H.:  “Communication and brand protection of consumer packages”, VTT Information Technology, Finland, 2002.