Corrugated Packaging: Design Opportunities and Cost Challenges

Author: David Zwang,


Digital printed corrugated packaging offers FMCG brands a variety of opportunities to engage and convert new customers. For boutique brands, it is how they do business since they are looking for short runs to keep inventory costs down and design flexibility up, so the incremental cost is less of an issue than for larger brands. Since the ink becomes the determining cost factor in the analog vs. digital equation, reducing the digital ink cost is an imperative, especially for larger brands. Ultimately, we can expect that as digital inkjet adoption increases, there will be some reduction in ink cost. However even when that happens it still may not reach the lower cost of analog (flexo) ink.

Larger brands and even smaller brands are beginning to realize that they can adapt their designs to reduce the amount of ink used, which can significantly reduce the cost of digitally produced corrugated and bring it closer to flexo. According to Marc Jorge, the Technical Manager of the Barberan Digital Printing Division, the biggest challenge is working with the brands on what design works well with digital. “What is easy to do in flexo is sometimes difficult in single-pass digital, and what is difficult in flexo is easy in digital. What is cheap to do in flexo is expensive to do in digital and what is expensive to do in flexo is cheap to do in digital.” There is another option, that of using “hybrid” production incorporating flexo and digital inline, similar to what Zumbiel packaging and Kodak created for folding carton production. 

Larger brands are willing to bear an small incremental increase in cost to take advantage of the opportunities offered by digital print production, especially in marketing campaigns. While they are a re-packager and not a FMCG brand manufacturer, Amazon recently offered a great example. As one of the largest users of corrugated boxes, in an effort to distract attention from the mountains of boxes going to the landfill and promote their desire for sustainability, they have recently introduced a campaign on reuse of their corrugated boxes. They are also using it as a way to introduce their customers to the Amazon AR app, which I am sure will find other uses in the future.

During their recent Prime Day event, they are shipping certain purchases in a new eco-friendly designed carton which includes a QR code and a white pumpkin.


When you draw on the pumpkin and use the Amazon AR app on your mobile phone, you are presented with a simulation of a pumpkin with your design.

While this may not be the best “reuse” of a carton from an environmental perspective, it does highlight some of the possibilities offered by digitally printed corrugated cartons, and the added value it can present. Of course, the opportunities for client engagement and advertising are increasingly being used as a part of the “unboxing experience” by many online retailers from photobook producers to boutique brands, like the following box from Thrive Market.

The growth opportunities, technical and cost challenges in moving production from analog to digital are nothing new. We saw it in the 80s and 90s when digital print (toner) was introduced and are now experiencing the same types of issues, although there are also sales and manufacturing challenges for early adopter newcomers in digital corrugated production as well as old line corrugate converters. In the next article we will take a look at some of those.



Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black, also known as CMYK (and pronounced ‘Smeek’ in Russian which has stuck with me) is a substrative process. Most of the things you buy or print at home use this color combination. Many folks confuse CMYK for an additive process. It is a logical mistake because printers add Cyan or add Magenta to the page. In that context they are correct. However, unlike RGB where we begin in total darkness, printing starts on a white, blank sheet of paper. By placing Cyan, Magenta, Yellow or Black ink on a white sheet, light is absorbed by the ink and reflected back to us to see. If I have a Green and Blue light, I am left with Cyan. If I have Red and Green light, I will make Yellow. In theory, Cyan, Magenta and Yellow should make black but in reality, most things are never perfect, and Black is used to create a solid black, or save on ink costs. CMYK is communicated in percentage from 0 to 100. A bright red would be communicated as C0, M94, Y100, B0.


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