Exclusive interview with Sean Smyth of Smithers Pira on the future of digital print

Q: Please outline your current role as Print Consultant for Smithers Pira and your experience in the print sector.

I have been involved in printing technology in many sectors of print and printed packaging. My primary role at Smithers Pira is in developing our database and providing market intelligence from this resource, in consultancy we provide tools to help customers make money.  I describe myself as a “Print Techie”, my biography shows a range of practical, consultative and journalism roles. I like finding out how things work and how they can be useful.

Q: In your 25 years in the industry, what do you feel has been the most monumental change to drive the print industry forward?

Digitisation is the word, in production and administration and we have not arrived, yet. Across the supply chain there are more efficiencies and choice – and it is not just print any more. Many market changes, refinements and improvements in production methods, but the biggest shift has been the move from analogue to digital workflows. The digital workflow allowed jobs to be sent to any print provider, leading to the rise in print management and globalisation of the industry.  With my observer hat on it is the unintended consequences that make the interesting stories and throw up new opportunities. I don’t know what these will be in packaging, yet!

Q: We’re entering in to an exciting time for digital printing. Where do you see the technology heading in the next 5 years with regard to packaging?

By 2020 there will be high speed, high productivity packaging systems in cartons, corrugated, flexibles and metal as well as labels. These will account for a significant proportion of the value, albeit still a small amount of the volume.  There will be some direct replacement of analogue by more economic and efficient digital production, but there will also be new forms of packaging that appeal to users in new ways.

Q: With more and more brands looking to go digital, what do you feel the main limitations are for brands and how can these be addressed by the rest of the industry?

There are market benefits for all players across the supply chain, so digital print in packaging will grow. For end users there are risks, as there always are when something changes. Managing the technical risks is important (pack performance, no migration, sustainability) and achievable. Measuring the economics can be done, but it identifying and exploiting the opportunities which is difficult. Brands (and retailers) are complex organisations with many stakeholders who need to be satisfied to change the packaging, and they can hold up progress. As smaller companies exploit the possibilities the message will get through and more changes will follow. Having the power to go for an opportunity can be difficult in a large company, hence the “Fail fast” suggestion of trying things out on a small scale, seeing what works and then adopting the lessons. It’s how Coke brought their Share a Coke campaign to the market, the method will be successful for many more.

Q: Your talk will cover the “failing fast” model which has been adopted by brands such as Graze- What do you hope attendees will take away from your presentation?

It is a new sector, crying out for change. Existing methods are under pressure and I think that companies will make mistakes, and this should not put them off.

The transition from analogue to digital printing in packaging is just starting and there will be huge rewards for the players – the brand or retailer, the converter and the equipment or consumable supplier – who get there first.

As with all new technology these players do not yet know what will succeed, so my message is go and try. In science I was always taught that it is experiment that does not provide the expected results that provides the basis for a breakthrough. I think that the current supply chains are under pressure as the retail landscape is under pressure, and digital packaging will allow shifts and changes. There may be continuing reductions in run length as minimum order quantities are consigned to history.  Entry barriers to production will fall, so some converters will broaden their activities to serve customers with other packaging needs, managing their artwork and developing the relationship.  There will be new entrants, from the beleaguered publication and commercial sector.  Some manufacturers will take on their packaging, packer/filler companies may expand into printing, some retailers may bring their packaging needs in-house. 

There will be innovative campaigns carried out, some will succeed and be praised, others will fail miserably. The key point is to learn from the experience, whether a manufacturer, supplier or brand owner. Experiment with the technology to find out what it can do for your business, a successful ideal at this stage could be a world-beater!

Q: What are you most looking forward to about this year’s Digital Print for Packaging event?

I have attended most of them and have got a lot from the events, from the formal parts of the event and the networking opportunities. I am fundamentally curious (I object to the term nosey) and enjoy finding out what companies are working on – even sometimes suggesting some directions to follow. Hearing the real world experiences and case studies is always exciting, and I am sure we will hear more in Tampa in June.  The world is changing, and in the print world digital packaging is the most vibrant sector, the conference will show the directions and aspirations of equipment suppliers, converters and their customers. I can’t wait!

Hear more from Sean Smyth at his presentation "Failing Fast – take risks, make mistakes and succeed with digital printed packaging" at Digital Print for Packaging US 2015