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David France of ConAgra shares his insights about the digital printing industry

" I get to dream about stuff like that."--David France

Smithers Pira recently spoke with David France of ConAgra to gain his insights on what the next big frontier is in digital.

What is most interesting to you about digital print and how it applies to packaging?

In my job, I see great benefit in the ability for rapid response on changing production needs. Whether it is rapid changes in artwork or something else, being able to nimbly adapt to changing needs is huge for me. I also think that digital print can provide reduced inventories and serious cost controls.  I also think prototyping and “print on demand” – including printing of variable information on a pre-printed common base graphic background – are potentially groundbreaking.


What areas provide potential for growth?

There’s a need for the technology to continue to scale for higher volume applications.  And the ability to develop methods and options to print on non-flexible webs, like preformed containers or rigid substrates, need some more development from my perspective. But it is a big and bright future.


Can you speak to the biggest driver as you review any new technology, but especially digital?

We continue to investigate technology and look for opportunities to take advantage of any capabilities that provide us with lower total delivered cost. We’re just really seeking cost savings and value speed and lower total cost.  Digital might provide ways to minimize or eliminate minimum print runs, which would be huge. If we got there, we could really lower our inventory carrying costs and any fees (like plate setup and such). It’s always a challenge to match a production run to the needed size or volume of packaging needed. So lowering those costs – inventory, fees, and either wasted capacity or too little capacity – that’s one reason why I’m constantly exploring digital print.


Do you see much value in personalization for your work?

For us, I don’t think the value of mass personalization is really there. I don’t quite see where it would benefit me – the things I’ve thought of already seem too  gimmicky and lack real value. I’m sure that personalization – whether it’s someone’s name on a can of soda or a billion unique designs – is a real value from a marketing and customer engagement perspective… but I see that as value for brand recognition, but for me doesn’t provide the lower total cost advantage I’d like to see. If we can find a way to use personalization as a lever to increase product appeal and raise selling price and our margins as a result, then that also would be interesting. However, those opportunities remain to be uncovered to this point. I go back to the value in eliminating or reducing total carrying costs.


Are there other pieces of digital print for packaging that you see that I’ve missed?

I do see some opportunity for seasonality and special items. But for me, that’s more about ordering closer to right size in terms of inventory and volume. There is also an added benefit from the speed to market aspect to allow our brand marketing and sales teams to react more quickly to special customer requests and market opportunities.

I think minimizing or working on the number of stock keeping units is important.  For example, flexible packaging that would allow us to print variable information right on the line could also allow us to reduce our carried stock.

The challenge there that I see is that printing right on the line might require more expertise, especially in print quality than before. If a print run happens at the factory floor and not at a traditional commercial printer or packaging converter, there could definitely be challenges.  Especially as you begin to consider custom substrates on the factory floor – we might need more expertise to manage and ensure consistency and quality.

Another factor worth considering is the ink market. Cost of inks continue to be an area where I think we see hurdles for adoption in digital. Can after-market ink suppliers step in and provide a service? Or is it all going to continue to be locked-in via technology so that it must provided by the hardware suppliers, similar to the office and home inkjet market? I absolutely appreciate and admire how the print technology companies view this as part of their business model, but it provides challenges on my end as we work towards lowest total delivered cost.

Final thoughts – what do you see as the next big frontier in digital?

I think it is hard to ignore what HP and other leaders like them are doing. They are really advancing the state of the art and they keep pushing the envelope on new capabilities and the economics for higher volumes. One example is the recent announcement by HP about their new platform for 3D printing. I don’t see any near term way for my company to utilize that, but it is undoubtedly cutting edge and very interesting for the future of high volume additive manufacturing, and could be combined with digital ink printing to open up a new world of innovative products and business models.

I also think the continued exploration of the specialty corrugated market is huge. I would add to it point of purchase displays. When I think about promotional displays, especially in store or end of aisle displays, places where you can do low volume high mix applications, that is where digital print can really shine.

I’m also really interested in future of digitally printed electronics. That might be years off and may be a pipe dream – though I do get to dream about things like that – I’d love to see how to incorporate circuitry into corrugated and display packaging. I even think outside of packaging, there is room for printed electronics on durable goods. I think there are lots of niche and specialty applications there. We’ve seen some proof of concept, but that is an area I think we might see what is next.