By Cassandra Balentine
As digital print technologies continue to penetrate the label market, the need for supported media is critical to its success. Substrate options include paper-based or synthetic media. Synthetic substrates include polycarbonate, polyester, vinyl, and polypropylene. Beyond the printed substrate, digital label presses support adhesive and liner options.
Several media providers have zeroed in on the digital label printing market, offering media options well suited to digital print engines that support label output.
Above: GPA Label products are engineered specifically to each print platform, including dry toner, liquid electrophotographic, high-speed inkjet, and wide format.
Label Media Types
When it comes to selecting a substrate for a digital label production run, there are a variety types to consider.
Many digital print technologies can run paper, film, boardstock, vinyl, and foil without an issue. “However, depending on the media selected and the print method used, a topcoat could be required to achieve acceptable print quality. Polypropylene is still an issue with laser print systems due to the heat generated,” comments Melissa Walsh, product manager, digital media, Acucote.
Craig Surette, business development director – strategic services, GPA, points out that everything offset is now available in digital format, but with countless more options and solutions. From paper to synthetic—and an increasing array of specialty label products—expanded options exist to serve high performance, aesthetic, and economic goals.
Specialty labels are a fast growing segment in print; this is based on the ever-increasing demands of end users looking to differentiate their products and brands. “Products targeted at the wine and spirits or retail point of sale (POS) markets are examples where specialty labels are driving both volume growth and margin,” says Surette.
Variety and inventive label constructions drive digital volumes and profit growth. On demand availability is a requirement as well, where Surette says print buyers require short turnaround times or risk losing the application to another print provider.
Further, customization of label stocks supports both profitability and competitiveness in many print segments. Buyers leverage supply chains to align with large run digital applications, minimizing waste or engineering a unique facestock for applications benefiting from a array of off-the-shelf constructions not available just a few years go. “The result is more variety, greater solutions, and readily available stock,” says Surette.
The adoption of digital print technologies for label production is continually improved with advancements in substrates.
Mills work much closer with OEMs today than in the past. “That relationship of mill to OEM reflects the complexity of digital print technology and the essential need to fit the stock to the printer. Speeds are faster, the demands are greater, and successful printing is hinged on the marriage of the two,” says Surette.
Label applications are also much broader than they were historically. “Previously, the majority of digital labels were focused on address and variable information labeling. Today, the expanse of applications is vast—product identification, shelf marking, self-adhesive banner, POS signage, promotional decals, and the list goes on,” adds Surette.
Walsh notes that suppliers to digital presses evolved from selling mostly flexographic, direct thermal, and thermal transfer materials to either being top coaters or purchasing pretreated face stocks compatible with digital presses.
Nate Gill, product manager, Mactac, adds that the label media industry continues to release constructions and sizes optimized for digital presses.
Benefits and Challenges
There are many benefits and challenges to printing labels digitally.
One benefit is diversity—the application opportunities are endless when you combine variable information, powerful print technology, and robust substrates. Digital print also allows these to be created on demand and in short runs, making print providers more nimble and competitive, offers Surette.
Gill believes digital printing fills a market need for short-run, high-quality labels that can be quickly and cost-effectively produced. Set up time and waste are reduced, proofs are printed on the actual media instead of proofing paper, and digital printing allows for variable printing such as sequential numbering or personalization. “Lastly, digital printing has a relatively low start-up cost,” he adds.
By nature, digital presses reduce setup time, material waste, and human error.
Automated workflows are computerized and eliminate the process of ordering and affixing plates. “Color pallets are expanded and artwork is no longer limited to a defined number of inks,” says Walsh. In the majority of cases, She notes that these presses come with a smaller footprint compared to traditional flexographic presses.
While digital printing has many benefits, it does come with limitations for label printing.
Gill says the biggest challenge is large quantity print jobs. “The price per piece stays relatively the same regardless of the number of images printed. Offset price per piece reduces significantly as volume increases,” he explains.
New capabilities mean new requirements for substrates, and that can range from ink compatibility or a new size requirement to everything in between. “For example, digital white ink drives clear window signage applications, and that in turn means the stocks need to be engineered to withstand multiple, stressful exposures to fusers or dryers. By contrast, longer tray capabilities result in demands for unique-sized substrates, which requires suppliers to be nimble with custom cuts and custom sizes,” shares Surette.
A more recent challenge is in the high-speed production inkjet market. Here, customers are looking to migrate applications from other technologies onto this new platform. Qualifying media and creating specific scripts for compatibility with the OEM are required for successful runs.
Finding an approved product that satisfies all OEMs within a print category can be a challenge at times. “In terms of topcoating, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The media that passes and is approved at one OEM may need adjustments at another OEM, even though both presses are of the same print technology,” says Walsh.
On a similar note, as OEMs continue to make advancements with presses and inks, users need to be at the forefront of OEM product launches to ensure the current topcoat—if required—is still viable. “In addition, finding a topcoat that can crossover between print technologies can be another challenge. When a topcoat can service multiple print methods, it is not always economical for the customer,” warns Walsh.
Considerations for Digital
Before investing in a substrate, it is important to know your application and the press. Only purchase products trusted by the OEM for the best results.
“As simple as that sounds, there is tremendous risk if just one of those criteria is missed. Lacking in-depth knowledge of the application will determine the accuracy of the label specification. Miss that and the labels could be falling off a shelf or product, or even worse,” cautions Surette. Chose a dry toner label for a liquid ink application and ink adhesion can be in serious jeopardy. And an incorrect synthetic in a great press can be the difference between a successful, profitable application and a profitless, missed deadline with a costly technician visit.
Quality and price are factors to consider. Product reliability and press uptime are absolutely necessary for label substrates. Printer piece of mind—including the ability to run the job with confidence and avoid fighting with the press—are the key media drivers we hear from our customers, comments Surette. “They’re looking to have maximum uptime, and that’s clearly driven by product reliability and consistency.”
Gill says quality is typically the primary feature, “because ultimately, there is a client who wants their brand to look good. Digital print quality continually improves and compares well with traditional commercial printing. Media that supports the digital OEM’s improvement is vital,” he offers.
The other truth in today’s market is that printers want what they want, when they want it. This is typically on very short timelines. “That means availability is critical in this on demand world,” adds Surette.
Gill agrees, adding that fast turnaround times is one advantage of digital printing. “Clients embraced that feature very quickly. Therefore, it is critical for digital media providers to have the right media readily available to meet a client’s deadline.”
It is important to remember that many projects are cost sensitive, and therefore price is a consideration. “At the end of the day, good quality and availability do save time and money. Having to run a job twice or wait on media can add overtime costs and expedited delivery to the client. That will not look good on the bottom line,” warns Gill.
Customers should be aware of their suppliers’ stock offerings—determine if rolls are offered pre slit or without trim. How large is minimum order quantity—does it make sense for the press model? How flexible are they about having a variety of stocked adhesive and liner options? In the case of retro presses, is the material flexographic compatibility? asks Walsh.
She says customers should determine if a topcoat is required to meet print standards for all the media utilized across a variety of print technologies. “However, we suggest running topcoated materials designed for a specific system to enhance the image quality of the label, reduce bleed, improve fine lines, and increase label durability.”
Durability is also a factor to consider. “It is entirely possible for a topcoated dye, pigment, UV inkjet, or laser sheet to run beautifully with pristine image quality, but then fail scratch and durability testing,” cautions Walsh.
On the Market
Many label substrate options are available for digital label providers. Here, we highlight three players in the space—GPA, a distributor; and Acucote and Mactac, manufacturers of digital media.
Acucote provides media for UV inkjet, dye, pigment, laser, and HP print systems. “Our line of UV inkjet media is OEM approved. Products include polypropylenes, polyesters, vinyls, semi-glosses, high gloss, boardstocks, metallized paper, and foils. Unique to Acucote are the single-ply instant redeemable coupons for UV inkjet printers—60# UV Semi Gloss Diamond-Cote SP and IRComplete. These single-web constructions are built with a geometric designed release system to support any die cut shape and provide UV inkjet printers the capability to offer both single- and two-sided coupons,” shares Walsh.
Waterjet is Acucote’s line of dye and pigment media, which includes white polypropylenes, both silver and clear polyesters, semi gloss, high gloss, and matte paper. The company also offers a single-ply coupon for both dye and pigment systems—#6 Extra Bright Waterjet Single Ply Semi Gloss.
For the durable label market, the company stocks BS5609 Section 3 certified Kimdura DualTech—pigment and laser, and Kimdra Inkjet Ultra—pigment. “These are commonly used as drum labels,” shares Walsh.
For laser printers, Acucote offers clear and white polyesters, semi gloss and high gloss papers, vinyl, and BS5609 Section 3 certified DualTech Kimdura.
HP-compatible media includes polypropylenes, vinyl, semi glosses, high gloss, and metallized paper and foils. Single-ply coupons are also available—#60 UV Semi Gloss Diamond-Cote SP and IRComplete.
“At Acucote, digital product customizations with low minimum order quantities are key. We are flexible with our face, adhesive, and liner combinations, and do not require customers to select a product off of a stocked product listing,” says Walsh. With the minimum order quantity of a master width by 5,000 feet, customers can order an adhesive/liner combination with a digital facestock. Stocked adhesive combinations for all print technologies include removable acrylics to high-temperature and high-performance acrylics, to textile and blockout acrylics.
“If customers are unsure which material and adhesive combination meets their needs most effectively, our application development team works with them to build a custom-tailored solution,” says Walsh.
GPA’s roots stem back to Gummed Papers of America, a label innovator. “With that heritage we continue to deliver label innovation to all print platforms to this day,” shares Surette. GPA label products are engineered specifically to each print platform, including dry toner, liquid electrophotographic, high-speed inkjet, and wide format.
Engineering and material science determine runnability, compatibility, and imaginability based on various, critical label characteristics. “For example, topcoats may be necessary for adhesion, and topcoat chemistry varies by print technology,” offers Surette. By contrast, adhesive engineering may need to be adjusted for heat to avoid risk of printer contamination. Further, the liner may vary depending on the print engine and performance characteristics—all of which can have a significant impact on performance and cost.
Uptime, variety, and customization of label solutions help differentiate GPA in the market. To ensure maximum uptime, GPA qualifies label stocks with each of the leading OEMs, testing for compatibility and printability. “Optimizing the label for the press technology translates directly to highest uptime, ease of set up, and ultimately—printer productivity. GPA refers to that as printer piece of mind,” says Surette.
Mactac offers pressure-sensitive options for many digital presses. This includes sheet-fed digital, wide format inkjet, and web-fed digital. Gill says the company was one of the first pressure-sensitive manufacturers to offer label media for HP Indigo presses. “We use a proprietary system to ensure the adhesive does not ooze,” he says. Likewise, Mactac’s automated manufacturing process produces consistently square sheets.
According to Gill, Mactac works with press manufacturers and third parties to ensure its products run optimally on digital presses.
The use of digital print technology continues to gain ground in the label industry. The benefits of digital print are attractive to brand managers. As the cost to produce lower runs comes down, digital becomes even more appealing. Substrates play a major role in the success of a print run, so it is important to understand the options and how a specific press reacts to ensure the best results. dps
Mar2019, DPS Magazine