How PMI leverages digital printing to accelerate towards a smoke-free future

3 min read

The need for agility and speed is more crucial than ever.

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Philip Morris International (PMI) is in the midst of a transformation – focusing its business on smoke-free products to replace cigarettes as soon as possible. Alongside many transformations taking place across the company, it is making huge advances in printing technology.

The move towards smoke-free products has taken PMI into unchartered territory, without decades of data to drive its production decisions. The need to rapidly respond and adapt to the dynamic needs of the growing smoke-free market in real time is critical.

Digital technology is already widely used by other FMCG producers for certain packaging materials, such as labels. But printing digitally on cardboard packs at scale – and at a high quality – was a puzzle that until now hadn’t been solved.

Andreia Fontes (pictured above), PMI’s Director of Printing & Converting, describes the challenge which prompted the company to change its strategy: “It takes us up to four months to put a new product into the marketplace, and the printed packaging material accounts for the longest lead times. With the introduction of our smoke-free products, our need for agility, flexibility and speed is more critical than ever. That’s why we set ourselves the goal to reduce the time to market from four months to seven days.”

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Tony Snyder (pictured above), PMI’s VP Product Portfolio Management & Deployment, adds: “When you’re launching a new category, you have to do everything possible to drive adoption. If someone has just switched, a consistent availability is critical.”

In a bid to respond to this challenge, PMI engaged with printing suppliers and machine manufacturers, but did not find what it was looking for. There was no readily available commercial solution for the quality and scale required. Despite not being in the printing industry itself, PMI made the radical decision to develop its own in-house printing and converting solution.

PMI’s Printing Technologies team partnered with one of the world’s leading digital printing suppliers and co-developed a hybrid digital printing and converting solution at PMI’s Innovation Development Center in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The new technology allows PMI to print digitally on folding cartons at scale, with the flexibility to add on traditional printing colors and finishes when needed.

After two years of development and testing, the team was thrilled with the results. In 2019, this achievement gave PMI the confidence to install two digital hybrid printing presses in its Romanian facility, which produces smoke-free products.

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“PMI’s digital printing solution allows us to produce – in real time – the exact quantities of printed materials we need to fulfill consumer demand, with no set up cost or lead-in time”, says Fontes. “It offers us opportunities and possibilities beyond traditional printing.”

This was not only a milestone for PMI as a company, but for the printing industry as a whole.

For PMI, the decision to challenge what was thought impossible in digital printing has been met with admiration by those in both the printing and consumer goods industries. “We’re at the point that even our suppliers recognize the expertise we’ve built internally,” Snyder says. “The pride of knowing that we’re pushing the boundaries of technology, and that we’re now regarded by people in the printing industry as pioneers in this field, is very powerful and rewarding for everyone who’s been working on this project for the last two years.”

This drive to shorten the printed packaging materials lead times for PMI’s smoke-free products is a vital catalyst in helping the company reach its smoke-free future vision in the shortest time possible.

The team is now aiming to ramp-up capacity and use this new technology to print an increasing portion of its smoke-free products portfolio. So, can PMI one day have digital printing capabilities installed in every factory? “Absolutely,” says Fontes. “That’s our vision, and I’m confident we will make it a reality.”