Pre-printed cartons vs inline printed cartons: should you make the switch?

pre-printed cartons vs inline printed cartons

In the relentless search for ways to optimise the cost and efficiency of production lines, every process counts. Here, we put the spotlight on carton printing.

For years, manufacturers have relied on pre-printed cartons for packing and shipping their products. However, as product ranges expand and exports increase, there’s a lot to be gained from investigating alternative methods, such as inline carton printing.

So what’s the difference between pre-printed cartons and inline carton printing? And should your company make the switch?

Take a look at the options below…

Pre-printed cartons

The concept is simple: cartons are pre-printed with information, such as the product name, brand, graphics, logos, barcodes, and messaging. Cartons are typically pre-printed in large quantities, so the manufacturer has batches of cartons stored onsite. Within each batch, cartons have the same information. Every time the manufacturer introduces a new product SKU, promotion or seasonal varietal, either a new carton needs to be pre-printed or the variable information is added at the end of line using labels, case coders or stamps.

Herein lies the major challenge for manufacturers. The pressure to meet growing consumer demands is leading to a proliferation of product lines and the pre-printed cartons to match. The more SKUs there are, the more costly and challenging pre-printed cartons become. With a growing stock of pre-printed cartons, manufacturers are faced with the challenge of finding space to store them and employees to organise, monitor and pick through them as required – both of which can quickly become expensive and complex.

Then there’s the issue of what happens when a product line is discontinued or product information changes? The pre-printed cartons are scrapped, and all the time and money associated with creating them is wasted.

While you’re thinking about packaging, check out this whitepaper on how properly designed and constructed packaging enables your products to move smoothly through the supply chain, lowering overall logistics costs and raising the level of supply and/or delivery service. Sound good? Then… Download Now


Inline printed and/or labelled cartons

In an effort to improve costs, flexibility and efficiencies, an increasing number of manufacturers are choosing to adopt inline printing on cartons. High-resolution coders are installed within the production line to directly mark the cartons. The major advantage of this method is that inline carton coders can print static information (brand, logo, product name, etc.) as well as variable information (batch numbers, date codes, ingredients and more). Label printer applicators (LPAs) can be used to print variable information onto labels and apply them on cartons on the production line.

Why choose inline printing for cartons

  • High quality printing: Today’s inline carton coders and LPAs are capable of printing high resolution, high quality information, such as barcodes, graphics, large and small text, logos, 2D codes and linear 1D codes. And they can achieve this at high speeds. High resolution inkjet printers, like Matthews’ MPERIA™ T-Series, are generally the best option, providing optimum print resolution and high speed printing for large or small mark sizes on corrugated boxes and other secondary packaging.
  • Print variable information: Inline carton coders can print variable information at the same time as static information. This enables manufacturers to reduce or even eliminate the number of pre-printed cartons, simply using one plain carton type in various sizes.
  • Save space: By printing on demand, manufacturers can drastically reduce carton inventory and free up the space they previously took up. Plus, inline printers have a small footprint on the production line.
  • Gain flexibility: Inline carton printing requires less forward planning than pre-printed cartons, which means operations and planning complexity is eliminated. Messages can be quickly changed to meet production schedules and new messages can be created and stored in seconds. Ultimately, the operation’s flexibility is maximised by allowing packaging to be performed based on product availability, not packaging availability.
  • Reduce changeover time: This is particularly important for smaller manufacturers who change products or packaging multiple times per day and for contract manufacturers who manufacturer for different brands. By using generic cartons, the cases are only changed when a different size is required. Messages are quickly and easily programmed into the coder, meaning a line can be ready for coding new cartons in just a few minutes.
  • Fully integrated: With MPERIA, multiple technologies on a production line can be managed from a single, centralised controller. By integrating the system with enterprise resource planning (ERP), and other databases, coding errors are reduced and multiple printers can be managed simultaneously. (See here for information about the MPERIA line controller.)
  • Save costs: By switching from pre-printed cartons to plain cartons for inline printing, manufacturers can substantially save costs. There’s no waste associated with obsolete pre-printed cases with “old” variable data from discontinued lines or historical promotions. The cost of storage is reduced, in addition to the time and resources needed to maintain the inventory level of cartons. (This case study shows how Patritti Wines uses generic carton coding for high-end, contract manufacturing.)

Should you make the switch?

Pre-printed cartons remain a viable option for manufacturers with limited SKUs and variables. However, if you have multiple SKUS or are planning on expanding your product range, inline carton printing provides lots of advantages. While there is an upfront investment in the coding technology, in the long run, inline coding enables a more efficient, cost-effective and sustainable business.

However, it’s also worth considering that some of Australia’s major grocery retailers do not accept barcodes printed on cartons, so you may choose to use labelling instead.

Best solution

The most apt solution for your business will depend on your current circumstances and future plans. It could be a combination of pre-printing certain information — such as the branding — and printing variable information — such as product description and batch number — using coders, and finally applying barcode labels using LPA technology.

Speak to our experts about the best carton printing technology for your production line.  

Curious about how laser and inkjet coding stack up against each other? This paper gives a comparison of these popular technology types and takes you through which is best suited for your application. Download Now


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Image credit: Pat Herman

Matt Nichol
Matt is a laser marking expert and has in-depth knowledge of product ID technologies. He is a regular at international trade shows like Pack Expo and is constantly looking at emerging trends and technologies.
Matt Nichol

by Matt Nichol

Matt is a laser marking expert and has in-depth knowledge of product ID technologies. He is a regular at international trade shows like Pack Expo and is constantly looking at emerging trends and technologies.

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