May 30, 2023

The evolution of digital printing in coffee packaging

Over the past few years, coffee packaging has become more of a focus for roasters and consumers alike. With the increasing need to stand out from competitor brands on retail shelves, roasters are opting for different ways to produce high-quality packaging, such as digital printing.

Classic printing methods for coffee packaging have been well established for many years. Recently, however, the increasing digitalisation of printing means that roasters have more options than ever when it comes to their coffee bags.

To find out more, I spoke with three coffee packaging and printing experts. Read on to learn more about their insight on how printing has evolved in coffee packaging, and how this can benefit roasters.

You may also like our article on three emerging trends in coffee packaging .

In order to produce customised coffee bags, printing is a necessary step. But for the most part, printing methods for coffee bags have largely remained the same for years.

Eli Mahal is the Head of L&P Marketing for HP Indigo. He tells me that with regards to traditional methods, flexographic and rotogravure printing are the two most popular.

"The high-quality results of these two methods make them popular, especially for larger custom coffee packaging orders," he says.

Flexographic printing technology has been around since the 1800s. This method involves applying ink to a raised image on a flexible plate. The image can then be pressed onto the packaging material.

To apply different colours or designs using flexography, the roll of packaging material is passed through multiple flexible plates, with each plate used for a certain colour or design.

Rotogravure printing also directly applies ink to the packaging material, but it is generally considered more precise than flexography. This is because it uses a printing press which has a laser-engraved sleeve or cylinder.

The pressure and rotation of the cylinders causes ink to be released onto the packaging material in line with the required design. A small blade then removes any excess ink to guarantee precision.

Despite their popularity, both of these traditional printing methods come with their disadvantages – mainly the fact that they are unsuitable for high-volume printing.

Mark Zhou is the founder of MTPak Coffee – a sustainable coffee packaging manufacturer.

"Rotogravure printing, for instance, requires expensive, custom-built plates (or rollers)," he says. "This means that for every new design we have to make a bespoke plate, so the costs are usually passed onto the roaster."

Although the cost of flexographic printing is generally lower than it is for rotogravure printing, the machine setup can be complex and time-intensive. As such, flexographic printing isn't the most suitable method for smaller volumes which require a shorter turnaround time.

Eli agrees, saying: "Traditional printing methods come with a number of restrictions which affect efficiency, lead time, minimum order quantity (MOQ), and quality.

"For example, for smaller roasters with an MOQ of 10,000 units, using more traditional packaging printing methods means they won't be able to fulfil smaller orders with shorter lead times," he adds.

With the number of smaller roasters operating in the specialty coffee industry growing by the month, it's clear that the demand for high-quality, low-MOQ custom printed coffee bags is growing.

However, in response to this, digital printing technology for coffee packaging is now becoming more prominent.

Elyne Yang is the Chief Assistant and Supply Chain Manager at MTPak Coffee.

"Compared to traditional printing techniques, digital printing is more suitable for low MOQs and shorter lead times, but can still produce high-quality coffee packaging," she says.

High-quality coffee packaging has never been so important for roasters. A study from European Supermarket Magazine found that 81% of surveyed consumers were willing to try a new product because of its packaging – indicating just how important eye-catching coffee bags are.

But minimum order quantities and shorter lead times are also important considerations for roasters. This is why digital printing methods have become more popular.

Digital printing allows brands to print designs and text quickly and easily on the packaging material – making it cost-effective and efficient, as well as high quality.

"With digital printing, roasters can customise their packaging designs at no additional expense," Mark says.

For example, with MTPak Coffee's new HP Indigo 25K Digital Press, the packaging designs are sent as digital files to the printer, and can be easily printed onto the material.

Because of this, digital printing allows for lower MOQs, which can make custom printed coffee bags more accessible for smaller roasters.

"Traditional printing methods have high MOQs to recoup the costs of custom-built plates," Mark says. "However, with digital printing, we can produce anywhere from 50 to 50,000 bags at a low unit cost.

"These lower MOQs can help smaller roasters switch easily between designs, offer limited-edition coffees in more unique packaging, and keep the cost of their packaging down," he adds.

Lower lead times are also an important factor, particularly for smaller roasters – including micro roasters who sell a number of different low-volume exclusive coffees.

Ultimately, the limited quantities of these coffees means they are likely to sell out at a faster rate, so roasters need to receive their packaging as quickly as possible. This can mean their coffee bags are delivered within days, rather than weeks.

Digital printers, like the HP Indigo, can also provide faster turnaround times than traditional printing methods. This means there's more flexibility for smaller roasters to make design changes at shorter notice if necessary.

"Digital printing technology allows roasters to quickly meet the growing and ever-changing demands of their customers, as well as providing more diverse and personalised packaging solutions," Eli tells me.

Alongside the rise in demand for brands which offer coffee in "eye-catching" packaging, we’ve also seen more of a focus on sustainability as far as consumer behaviour is concerned.

Now more than ever, customers are opting for more sustainable packaging materials, including kraft paper, rice paper, polylactic acid (PLA), and low-density polyethylene (LDPE).

Typically, when we talk about sustainability in packaging, we often focus on the materials used. However, the ink can also have a significant environmental impact.

The main issue with printing inks is the use of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When the wet ink dries on the packaging material, high volumes of VOCs – which can include petroleum fuels and cleaning agents – dissipate into the atmosphere.

"When emitted in high volumes, VOCs can be damaging to the environment," Mark says. "However, most new water-based inks are low-VOC."

Low-VOC inks, which can also be made from soy or vegetable-based solvents, can fully break down once disposed of correctly – actively reducing the packaging's environmental footprint.

Some digital printers, like the HP Indigo 25K, use liquid electrophotography (LEP) technology, which applies water-based inks to a range of packaging materials.

However, alongside the ink, it's also important to note that the equipment used for printing is a key factor, too.

"Digital printing is one of the most sustainable methods because it doesn't require custom-built printing plates or rollers, which are very difficult to recycle," Mark explains.

Furthermore, Elyne says the manufacturing process for MTPak Coffee's HP Indigo digital presses is also carbon neutral, further reducing emissions in the supply chain.

These changes in how coffee packaging is customised are reasonably new, but how could they change in the years to come?

First and foremost, Eli tells me that digital printing could well become an industry standard for coffee packaging in the years ahead.

"[I think coffee packaging designs] will be printed digitally, unless the print job is significantly better suited to more traditional methods," he says.

Elyne, meanwhile, believes that sustainability will remain a key factor with more and more roasters working towards becoming carbon neutral – including with their coffee packaging.

Mark thinks that digital printing technology will play a role here, too.

"More roasters will start exploring other ways to reduce their emissions," he says. "Digital printing is an easy way to do this and also improve access to custom printed designs."

Eli agrees, noting that he thinks demand for sustainable coffee packaging will continue to grow at pace.

"Sustainability will continue to be a top priority for consumers, particularly with issues such as climate change and waste reduction," he says. "The challenge for coffee brands lies in making new and existing packaging more sustainable and accessible, while still being high-quality."

Additionally, Eli says that custom printed coffee bags will also remain popular with roasters as well as being a key factor for retail sales – making digital printing technology a more pertinent discussion point for many coffee brands and retailers.

As technology continues to evolve across the coffee sector, we can see that packaging and printing are very much keeping up. With digitalisation becoming a growing focus, we’re seeing more and more accessible and efficient ways to print custom printed coffee bags.

As well as prioritising the consumer demand for sustainable packaging, we’re also seeing more and more roasters become able to order lower quantities of coffee bags with a faster lead time – allowing them to remain competitive.

However, just how much digital printing in coffee packaging will evolve in the coming years remains to be seen.

"It will be exciting to see how the physical and digital boundaries will continue to converge when printing coffee packaging," Eli concludes

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how sustainable your coffee packaging is .

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: MTPak Coffee is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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Zoe is an expert content marketer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She has a deep-rooted passion for all things coffee with over five years of coffee copywriting and barista experience.

You may also like our article on three emerging trends in coffee packaging . How has printing for coffee packaging changed over the years? The emergence of digital printing What are the benefits of digital printing for coffee roasters? A growing focus on sustainability How might printing for coffee packaging change in the future? Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how sustainable your coffee packaging is . Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter !