The early days of digital print were full of promise for packaging applications, but they were also full of compromises. Early presses were slow, and production required off-line die cutting and finishing. As the technology has come into its own, however, digital print has opened doors for unique applications and transformed what is possible with product packaging.

One big advantage digital brings to the process is personalization. The capacity digital presses have for creating cost-effective short-run and even one-of-a-kind packaging gives brands and designers a powerful tool for addressing a range of needs both functional and aesthetic.

Using digital in combination with flexo, for example, it is possible to print alphanumeric codes for a loyalty program. With a back-end system to track loyalty code redemption, brands can gather a host of market information, including SKUs purchased and the region where the redemption took place.

In another instance, a serialized bar code printed on a package becomes a kind of license plate for the product. This bar code can be used to check product in and out of kiosks located throughout the country or to keep tabs on a product as it goes through the stages of production.

This kind of serialization is valuable for supply chain management, product authentication, fraud prevention, games, and loyalty programs. It allows brands to be more transparent with the products they produce while providing valuable information for use in marketing and development.

On the aesthetic end, digital allows the creation of packaging that varies with the season or the region where the product is sold, all in high-quality, color print. Digital presses give designers a wider range of options for what they can create, and because of the low costs associated with making changes, designers now have a more cost-effective way to review designs before deciding on final production plans.

Last year, Ulta Beauty created a range of limited-edition hand wash labels for the holiday season. Because the labels were printed on a foil material, it was difficult to visualize how they would look without actually going to press. Before digital, printing test versions of each label would have been an expensive proposition. With a digital press, however, it was possible to gang versions of the label on a single sheet and run a few scenarios before landing on a final design.

That level of flexibility opens the door for packaging designers to try new things and to create the kind of variety and personalization shoppers increasingly demand.

Digital presses are still in early days compared to other print technology, but their evolution shows no signs of slowing. As digital continues to develop, the technology will make possible applications we haven’t yet considered. That’s an exciting prospect.