By Melissa Donovan
While we commonly tout labels as an add-on service to existing digital print capabilities, it is no secret that traditional label converters reap the benefits of digital printing as well. These businesses look to digital to free up flexographic devices while simultaneously providing customers with the opportunity for more cost-effective, shorter runs.
The incorporation of digital does not diminish flexographic printing by any means, if anything it enables these presses to do what they were made to do—long runs with limited variability. When it comes to deciding whether to use digital or flexography, most printers factor in run length, job variability, and the overall workload between devices.
Looking to the Future
Based in Pasadena, TX, The Label Smith celebrated its 13 year anniversary this past September. At its start, the organization consisted of Tim Smith, owner, The Label Smith, and his wife, Stephanie. Today, the 18,000 square foot business is home to 23 employees.
Over the last few years, The Label Smith has found success thanks to Smith’s mentality of never saying no to a job. More than 300 consistent clients come through its doors, requesting label runs of all sizes. Some of these customers are only served once a year, and others submit monthly or weekly requests. Part of Smith’s philosophy is recognizing that a smaller customer could turn into a larger one as their own business grows.
In 2012, Smith’s staff worked around the clock to keep up with customer demand. They were making a lot of plates on flexographic presses and operators had operators helping them. Smith had to ask employees to work night shifts to maintain the workload.
“We began running longer jobs with no plate changes at night and the jobs that required copy changes or were short runs we ran during the day,” says Smith. But that was not a long-term solution. So, the company turned to digital.
Similar to when it purchased its last flexographic press, Smith and his wife looked to the future. “We got an eight-color press even though we didn’t have any eight-color jobs. Eventually we did and were glad we thought to buy with the future in mind. For digital, we wanted the biggest and the fastest. The most rolls, most colors. You can’t limit yourself—you need to prepare for growth,” explains Smith.
After considering several manufacturers, Smith leaned toward Xeikon. Representatives from the company came in to conduct a “blind taste test,” taking The Label Smith’s files, not manipulating them at all, and running four different sized labels—a mix of spot and process color—on one roll of paper in one run. Smith says the match between the flexographic and digital output was almost spot on.
Smith was impressed and in response purchased the Xeikon 3500 20-inch web width device, which prints at 63 feet per minute and is equipped with a 40-inch jumbo unwind. “Our largest flexographic printer was only ten inches in width, so having the 20-inch we doubled width and speed,” shares Smith.
The printer allows the company to continuously run millions of labels, with multiple copy changes. Smith reports overtime was reduced five to ten hours, eliminating the night shift. The result “meant the employees could be paid a higher base rate while working less hours,” says Smith.
Ink costs on the flexographic presses were significantly reduced during the first year. The amount of ink wasted during copy changes was reduced by $40,000. While toner costs more than ink, Smith says it is more efficient even with all the copy changes made using the Xeikon 3500.
Smith and his staff also benefit from the added option of opaque white on the digital press. Prior to the purchase, the company did not own flexographic white with a rotary screen—so Smith would have to turn away jobs that required it. “The one pass white is as white as can be, and so thick it looks like a rotary screen. It’s allowed us to enter into new markets like labels for water bottles,” he says.
The flexographic presses can handle more long run jobs because the Xeikon frees them up by handling the shorter runs. According to Smith, not only does this accomplish things that couldn’t be done on its flexographic press, but the Xeikon enables jobs to be performed in a more profitable way in less time.
Despite the allure, there is always a discussion when a job comes through the door about whether to print on flexography or digital. Smith says many variables play into the decision, but one of the biggest is the overall size of the job in relation to copy changes. For example, labels for e-cigarette products require a lot of SKUs and therefore run on the Xeikon.
Sometimes if the digital press is overwhelmed and a job can theoretically print flexographic, the team might make the decision to go that way. For example, an order of a million water bottle labels could come in. If less plates are required then it may run on flexographic if the digital press is too busy. Another scenario, if a job is submitted to run with flexography, but the files are locked or flattened and the design team has no rights to tweak the file, then it runs digital.
“It plays into the whole letting us say yes every time. We can take on more jobs because the press picks up work to free the others and enables us to work with locked files—two things that would make us turn away jobs in the past,” says Smith.
While the company remains successful, Smith admits it really hasn’t pushed the envelope when it comes to digital. Although the Xeikon 3500 is in place, there is still more it can do—and that is the beauty in buying big, with the future in mind. “Everyone needs digital—if you have flexographic equipment and want to stay invested in labels you need some type of digital, it is what your customers expect,” advises Smith.
Coating on its Own
When Mogadore, OH-based Label Print Technologies began looking for a digital press to complement its existing traditional flexographic label presses in early 2014, it had a major requirement—it needed to work with the materials the company coats in house.
In business since 2011, the company employs a staff of 33 in a 50,000 square foot space and specializes in labels for the food and beverage industry. While it sells nationwide, most of its business is conducted in the Midwest. With the mentality, “if you have a label problem, we can solve it,” its custom coating capabilities are a major factor in creating unique solutions for its clients.
As such, paper compatibility was key when it evaluated digital presses to add to the shop. After much debate, it chose the Epson SurePress L-4033AW in August 2015, as it met its top criteria—being able to print to the company’s own coated materials.
Other elements of the Epson also appeal to Label Print Technologies, like how it is ideal for the firm’s small to mid-size customers. “The press features a wide color gamut and repeatedly. We have to hit customers’ colors, as we are helping them build their brands,” explains Jodi Westphal, president, Label Print Technologies.
The Epson SurePress L-4033AW helps the company land accounts due to the nature of quick turnaround requests—the luxury of no plate changes expedites the print process. It can handle 50 or 500 labels and the press runs best when a couple 1,000 feet of material is run consecutively.
When deciding whether to use the flexographic or digital press on a job, two main points are addressed, the number of SKUs and turnaround speed. “Our goal is to find a solution that is the best fit for the customer,” admits Westphal.
Other variables that affect the decision include the level of graphic on the label. Tight registration, intense screens, and higher end, short-run graphics are all ideal for the Epson SurePress L-4033AW. If it’s a spot color job—especially if the plates are already on file—then it will run on flexographic. Or if a five million label, ten-color job comes in, Westphal says digital can’t absorb that type of volume and it will print flexographic as well.
Label Print Technologies and its customers are pleased with the current work on the Epson SurePress L-4033AW. Upholding the vision of helping to solve label problems, the press’ ability to run one label without a plate cost is a popular selling feature.
“A customer can do four or five concepts and present all of those labels to their customer to better sell it. It’s a win-win for everyone,” she concludes.
The Digital Direction
Quality Tape & Label (QTL) was a 100 percent flexography shop since its inception in 1979. That all changed in 2008 when it purchased a Hewlett-Packard (HP) Indigo WS2000 Digital Press.
“After entering the business full time after college, I noticed we were taking a lot of orders for very small margins with thermal labels and one- to two-color work. We investigated between RFID and digital and after reviewing trends and customer requests, we decided on digital,” explains Rob Daniels, president, QTL.
Today, the company employs 27 out of a 13,500 square foot location in Smyrna, GA. It serves North America with a concentration in the Southeast. The shop also does work for customers in Canada and Latin America.
Thanks in part to its leap to digital, it offers labels, shrink sleeves, flexible packaging, folding cartons, tags, and unsupported papers/films. One of Daniels’ objectives when the company entered digital was to offer its customers anything they asked for and its product range illustrates this achievement.
“We wanted to set ourselves apart from the competition and offer customers the highest quality product at a competitive price,” he continues.
The HP Indigo WS2000 enriches this with features such as variable data printing tools, expanded color gamut, spot colors, and material versatility. HP’s Enhanced Productivity Mode, HP Indigo ElectroInk White for Sleeves, and an inline priming unit are other features found on the HP Indigo WS6600 that help QTL set themselves apart from the competition.
Customers request orders with up to 980,000 feet of material to produce 4.5 million labels. The presses offer quality, consistency, and quickness. “This frees up cash flow for our customers to allocate money in other areas while increasing the quality of their packaging and giving flexibility to change artwork every run without additional preparation charges,” explains Daniels.
The digital direction has changed the company’s split of business, with 85 percent digital and 15 percent flexographic. When deciding which technology to use, QTL looks at the complexity of the job and not the square footage. If it is a complex, four-color process, has fine gradations, or a lot of tight register, it runs on an HP Indigo.
QTL says it has maintained better margins in its 35 plus years of business since implementing the HP Indigo WS2000 in 2008 and subsequently the HP Indigo WS4500 and WS6600. From 2008 to 2011, it reports 3.5 million impressions, 2011 to 2013 24.75 million impressions, and 2013 to 2014 19.3 million impressions. In 2015 it is on pace for 30 million impressions.
“I expect digital to continue to drive our company’s growth in the future, we are always looking for ways to improve our offerings,” says Daniels. For example, at press time the company was rolling out its QTL Chameleon printing technology with HP Indigo presses. The goal is to provide customers with each and every individual label, sleeve, box, and pouch to be unique and different—very much in the direction of digital.
Bringing it In House
Based in Santa Maria, CA, B&B Label, Inc. is owned by Steve and Catherine Brookshire, who employ 11 in a 6,000 square foot space. The print provider serves the Western U.S. with pressure-sensitive labels. Established in 1969, it performs as a trade-only operation.
B&B Label has been involved with digital printing for the past eight years, but it 2013 it decided to bring the technology in house. The goal, to improve its ability to respond to unique custom label requests it was not competitive in, especially short-run, full-color labels. Secondly, the B&B Label team was excited about the ability to die cut any label shape without the use of steel engraved or magnetic cutting tools.
“Digital’s influence on the label industry is huge. It has in effect put more power in the hands of the consumer as they are now able to cost effectively customize their marketing efforts,” shares Steve Brookshire, owner, B&B Label.
Introducing digital in house to its all-flexographic production facility meant educating themselves on the options. The B&B Label team chose Allen Datagraph Systems, Inc.’s iTech Axxis HS Digital Label Printer. Factors that played into the decision were the cost of print consumables, their software—enabling variable barcodes and numbers, and technical support.
There was a learning curve that had to be overcome, despite its many years in flexography printing. Vance Kernes, digital press operator, B&B Label, reached out to peers—fellow converters—who provided real world production advice. “Vance literally contacted dozens of converters running various types of digital equipment—all of whom were more than willing to help,” says Brookshire.
What the team learned provided them with the knowledge to decide whether to put a job on a flexographic or digital press. The iTech Axxis HS is designed for short-run label production and the team finds it works best for quantities 1,000 and under. Although, larger orders are run if they consist of multiple versions—for example a job with 17 versions that totals several thousand overall labels. This is completed because of Allen Datagraph’s variable data software, which allows for multiple skews to print easily and correctly. It supports B&B Label’s goal to provide its customers with custom, unique labels.
Weighing All the Factors
As illustrated by the print providers profiled here, deciding whether to place a job on a flexographic or digital printer is more than basing the choice on run size alone.
Factors such as variability come into play, whether it be multiple skews or number of colors. Add in how busy the physical printer might be—and although a job might make more monetary sense to be run on digital—if the colors are limited and the variability of the copy isn’t expediential, flexography might be used because the digital press is tied up with an even shorter run.
Weighing all of the factors is what makes companies like The Label Smith, Label Printing Technologies, QTL, and B&B Label thrive. Each business acknowledges the strengths—and weaknesses—of both analog and digital technologies and continues to make the best decisions for the job at hand and ultimately their customers. dps