By Melissa Donovan
Converters, consumers, and packaging companies increasingly rely on dedicated digital label printers. The technology enables cost-effective, smaller volumes of labels, which are ideal for limited edition runs in a number of different product markets. Quality, cost, and ease of use are the biggest considerations for buyers when it comes to digital label presses. Challenges facing digital adoption include investment costs and hesitation in changing the way a business is run.
Above: Xeikon offers inkjet- and toner-based digital label presses.
Varying Stages of Progress
Segments implement technology at different phases based on their needs and awareness of trends. Where they are in the process—whether it be in the discovery phase, purchasing point, or physical integration—illustrates how up to speed a converter, consumer, or packaging company is on the benefits of digital presses used in label printing.
Converters are very attune to digital print. “The majority of converting companies recognize digital as a viable solution for short-run label production,” says Taylor Buckthorpe, director of sales and marketing, Colordyne Technologies, LLC.
Based on input from Epson America, Inc., more than 60 percent of large label converters already own a digital press. Most are looking to make an initial or even secondary purchase.
“These days, there is no label converter who is not questioning if they should go digital or not,” says Filip Weymans, VP global marketing, Xeikon. “The market is changing so much and their competition is/has been investing in digital print capacity, which makes it an even more competitive landscape.”
The degree to which converting companies embrace digital is really a function of markets served, niche applications, and areas of expertise. “When a converter is careful and diligent to factor in the uptime and availability that is possible with some digital presses, they then see there isn’t much of a difference between flexography and digital in run time or cost. This is especially true when prepress, plates, makeready, and waste are factored in,” explains Mark Schlimme, director of marketing, Screen Americas.
“The majority of label presses sold into label converting companies are digital,” say Brian Cleary, label segment category manager, HP Indigo, and Oana Manolache, marketing manager, HP Indigo labels and packaging, North America, HP Inc. “Digital presses are best positioned to meet the needs of the changing label market. The key driving forces are SKU proliferation, shorter run lengths, and shorter lead times.”
While converters recognize digital print’s potential, consumers are not as educated. “Digital printing is mostly driven by shrinking run lengths and the quality of digital output meeting or exceeding flexographic output, but most consumers are unaware of the transition,” admits Mike Barry, product marketing manager, digital solutions, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division.
“Consumers generally only experience digital adoption through the different type of high-quality label images they see being used by brands. They really have no information about print technology,” offers Mike Pruitt, SurePress product manager, Epson.
Weymans adds that the consumer actually has no preference if a carton, packaging, or labels is printed digitally. “What matters for them is that the product offers what they were looking for, and if it appeals to their requirements and desire.”
Olaf Walter, president, mprint, LLC, agrees. He expresses the sentiment that consumers don’t necessarily care about digital printing. He thinks they enjoy certain promotions like those in the beverage industry where they see their own name on a label.
It is because of this particular interest in personalization that Buckthorpe says consumers are the driving force for digital label and packaging production. “They demand more from brands like personalization, localization, and flavor variation. This change in consumer behavior is forcing brands to evaluate product offerings and marketing efforts to better connect with consumers through labels and packaging.”
Packaging companies are aware of digital print, but for many the adoption rate is slow. Juan Kim, CEO, Valloy Incorporation, says one reason for this is the fact that packaging companies are being provided with converted labels either by digital or analog systems.
Cleary and Manolache say packaging companies generally do not convert labels. If they do, they prefer digital for the same reasons as converters and consumers.
Packaging companies with digital print already in house see the benefits in action while working with converters. “Packaging companies embrace digitally printed labels as long as they give them a fast reaction, good quality, and the potential of variable data/images at a reasonable cost. Short runs and special promotions are ideal and packaging companies look to suppliers to have technologies that can support their fast-changing demands,” adds Walter.
“Today’s packaging companies are mixing both digital and conventional printed materials onto the same packaging line. Since the labels have such a broad working window, packaging companies experience no difference. The size of the reels, the frequency of changing the reels, that’s a different topic,” says Weymans.
Stewart Bell, VP sales, New Solution, argues that across all three segments there is a similar adoption trend. “Small- to medium-sized companies still outsource their printing and the larger companies where volume is possible produce their own.”
Features on Display
Converters, consumers, and packaging companies have different needs when it comes to digitally printed labels. However, universal requirements like quality and cost are similar across all three segments.
In addition to quality and cost, Walter believes converters look for a digital label printer that offers a total cost of ownership that can be broken down per label, ease of use, expandability, embellishment options, and an integrated digital hybrid system.
Kim says labels produced off of a digital label press need to be durable. Whichever ink or coating is used should protect against water, sunlight, and scratches, he offers.
Converters are looking to run standard, readily available substrates without priming or coating. “They need wide gamut color reproduction and the ability to reproduce fine text, lines, and graphics,” says Schlimme.
Label converters look to offer fast delivery times, unlimited SKUs, and changes along with top quality. Cleary and Manolache say label converters value digital for the reasons above as well as lower production costs on the majority of all label jobs.
“For the past few years, run lengths and lead times have come down, there is also pressure on price and margin. The drive to a more effective production technology—digital—provides an answer to that. No startup cost, straight from design onto press. This all allows for a more optimized, efficient manufacturing process. They can also offer new services to make just in time or personalized packaging materials,” says Weymans.
Consumers expect quality and accuracy. “They expect no defects, as well as 100 percent accurate information,” shares Pruitt.
“Traditional standards for labels and packaging remain, however, consumers are looking for a more individualized, one-to-one experience with the products they purchase. Brands increasingly use labels and packaging to create a connection to consumers’ distinct tastes and lifestyle choices,” adds Buckthorpe.
Label buyers and consumers use digital to differentiate on the store shelf. Variable data and unlimited SKUs allow regionalization, personalization, as well as seasonal labels, according to Cleary and Manolache.
Dana Goodale, director of product management, Gerber Technology, says packaging companies are similar to converters in terms of requirements. “They look for ease of integration into other printing processes, as well as complementary processes that may work outside of their mainstream production process. Reasonable cost of output, reliable equipment performance, imaging and substrate solutions that meet specific application needs, and output features that add value to finished products or save time and cost are also feature sets considered.”
Weymans says that as there is more product diversity, it becomes increasingly challenging to handle shorter runs cost effectively. “So the whole supply chain, packaging lines, etc. have been geared and focused towards the fast changeover. The decoration process being one of them. It’s not only digital printing that helps here, but also a more timely delivery and less quality issues.”
Any technology making inroads into a predominantly analog market is faced with some roadblocks along the way. Investment, workflow, and media runability are key challenges for digital presses designed for label output.
Colordyne identifies two challenges—estimating and understanding the total cost of digital label production, according to Buckthorpe.
“Initial investment is always a hurdle,” admits Walter. “Return on investment and total cost of ownership are metrics that these investments are evaluated by. Of course, every customer is different and has a different product portfolio,” he offers.
“The number one challenge for digital is production cost for longer runs,” say Cleary and Manolache. The number two challenge is printing niche applications—such as those that use metallic inks, highly decorated labels, and durable labels.
Workflow is another issue. “The importance of operator training with new workflows and technologies is frequently overlooked and can be the difference between successful adoption and failure. If an operator or manager doesn’t know system capabilities, then utilization will be slow,” recommends Goodale.
“One of the biggest challenges for digital adoption in regards to label printing is workflow automation, as well as the automation of maintenance functions,” suggests Pruitt.
“Through the years the label industry has grown based on the creativity people fostered, creativity in making tangible solutions with a screwdriver/hammer. Today the creativity needs to be bundled with the possibilities offered by software solutions, a field of expertise that still needs to grow,” adds Weymans.
Lastly, material compatibility is a concern. For a print house that’s been running a specific brand of media on their analog press for 50 plus years, moving to digital and figuring out the right combination of media and ink can be difficult.
“The biggest single challenge is probably the ability to move work between printing assets and achieve consistent results,” suggests Nat Davis, digital product manager, Mark Andy Inc.
While digital print’s involvement in self-adhesive materials is very accomplished, the next big challenge is moving from labels printed with self-adhesive to flexible materials, according to Jim Lambert, VP of digital sales – ink and hardware, INX International Ink Co. “The same machines that print stickers are now being configured to print on flexible films and packaging,” he shares.
Digital Label Presses
A number of inkjet- and toner-based digital label printers are available. Here, we include some of the newest models from leading vendors in the space.
Colordyne offers both UV and aqueous inkjet technology. The newest device is the 3600 Series UV – Retrofit. Launched in July 2017, it allows converters to add digital UV inkjet to an existing flexographic press. It prints digital CMYK plus white at speeds of up to 246 feet per minute (fpm). Available in widths of 8.5 or 12.75 inches, the 3600 Series UV – Retrofit offers a print resolution of 600×600 dpi.
A three-way partnership between Comet, INX Digital, and Uteco has produced the inkjet printing machine, Gaia, suitable for printing on flexible materials—both thin and thick films—thanks to its electron beam (EB) technology. Its alternative ink is cured using an EB compact lamp. The curing process is consistent and produces essentially zero volatile organic compounds, according to the companies.
Durst Image Technology US offers the Tau 330 Series UV inkjet, single-pass label printer. The latest development is the eight color label press, Tau 330 RSC inline with OMET’s Xflex X6 hybrid solution. The label and package printing press features a 13-inch print width combined with print speeds of up to 225 fpm at a resolution of 1,200×1,200 dpi.
EFI recently entered into an exclusive partnership with Xeikon, a division of Flint Group. Xeikon will service, support, and supply the EFI Jetrion digital inkjet label presses already in the field; as well as continue direct sales of the presses. The EFI Jetrion portfolio features opaque white ink, which extends possibilities for users. Not only do the presses print labels, but varnish, cutting, and slitting are all possible in one footprint.
Epson sells the SurePress L-4533AW, which uses water-based resin encapsulated ink. With two types of black, CMYK, orange, and green, the press’ color gamut is huge at a deltaE of 1.5. White ink also increases application options, printing on films used in flexible packaging. Epson also provides the SurePress L-6034, which uses high-speed UV ink with high-accuracy dot placement. Most of the process is automated, so the operator can run a full shift without any intervention or manual cleaning.
Fujifilm promotes the Graphium UV digital hybrid inkjet press. According to the company, the Graphium is a production class device that can be configured with flexographic, finishing, and embellishing in an inline process. It prints at a maximum media width of 17 inches at speeds of up to 164 fpm. Xaar 1001 Thruflow UV inkjet drop on demand printheads run with Fujifilm’s Uvijet Graphium UV inkjet inks—CMYK plus high-opacity white.
The Gerber EDGE FX is a digital production system that features spot color overprinting via GerberColor Spectratone. A electronic contour cutting capability cuts any shape, including kiss cutting, liner cutting, and slitting. Variable data, quick response codes, and traditional barcodes are also output using the device.
Mark Andy’s Digital Series is available as a four-color process UV inkjet printing CMYK plus white. Hybrid flexography stations are available for top coating, metallics, and cold foil. The press offers a maximum digital print width of 12.5 inches and true 240 fpm speed at-quality with a four-color process. Substrates ideal for this press include pressure-sensitive paper and film, unsupported paper, tag stocks, and light carton.
mprint offers UV ink presses, both regular and low migration UV for labels and other narrow web applications. The most recent development on the mlabel generation three includes a Digital Metal Liner module for digital foil embellishment, eight plus colors, and RFID insertion. The machine is designed as a 13-inch hybrid press, but can be outfitted with a smaller print width to start and then expanded in field.
New Solution’s NS Pro Evo digital label printer utilizes inkjet Niagara water-based dye ink with Memjet printhead technology. It is a high-speed, single-pass inkjet printer that allows a maximum printable width of 8.7 inches. To operate a complete, end-to-end solution, the NS F22 digital cutter can be added inline.
Screen recently announced the Truepress Jet L350UV+, a UV inkjet narrow web press. It targets short run, print on demand label runs up to 2,000 meters. Based on configuration it costs anywhere from $550,000 to $650,000. Of note, is the addition of a fifth ink channel—orange—to provide gamut expansion and provide the ability to match more difficult spot and brand colors. An optional Chill Roller allows for handling thick heat sensitive films.
Valloy’s TOPAZET UV 13R is a 13-inch UV LED inkjet roll-to-roll label printer. It includes six colors plus white/varnish ink and prints on any kind of uncoated media such as soft package films. The printer utilizes Ricoh GH2220 printheads. Print speed is dependent on the number of printheads, but the basic model offers about three to five meters per minute.
Xeikon offers its Panther series, a UV inkjet platform introduced this year. It includes for presses, the Xeikon PX2000—featuring an 8.3-inch web width, and the PX3000—featuring a 13-inch web width, both are available in a four- and five-color configuration. Xeikon Panther products focus on durable labels with a glossy and tactile look and feel. It is ideally suited for health and beauty, industrial chemical, beverage labels, and complementing screen and flexographic printing.
Liquid Electrophotography (LEP)
HP Indigo offers a full line of digital label presses including the HP Indigo WS6800, HP Indigo 8000, and HP Indigo 20000. These digital offset presses utilize electrophotograpy (EP) and liquid HP ElectroInk.
The HP Indigo 8000 produces output speeds of up to 262 fpm. The HP Indigo 20000 features a 30-inch width, enabling production costs to be reduced on longer run print jobs.
All HP Indigo label presses have optional inline finishing. In dual mode, inline finishing configuration operators can choose to finish inline or offline with each job to maximize productivity on each shift. The new HP GEM offers inline—with the HP Indigo WS6800—digital embellishments including digital spot varnish, tactile varnish, foil, and holographs. These digital embellishments are done inline, in register, at full speed, and are completely variable with no tooling. Embellishments on labels can be unique using HP SmartStream Mosaic software. HP Indigo digital label presses print up to seven colors, including PMS spot colors, in any order. Up to 16 color separations are printed in one pass. HP Indigo offers multiple white HP ElectroInks to meet various opacity and application needs.
Konica Minolta Business Solutions recently rebranded its bizhub PRESS C71cf to the AccurioLabel 190, a full-color label printing system. The dry toner, EP press prints at 1,200×1,200 dpi offering gradations, photographic image quality, variable printing, bar code printing, reproduction of skin tones, thin-line expression, small point characters, and solid density. It is positioned for sample to production prints in the small- to medium-volume label market.
Mark Andy’s Digital One press, targeting short-run prime labels, operates using CMYK dry toner EP. The 13-inch web width is complemented by inline flexographic decoration and converting—spot color, varnish, laminate, cold foil, die cut, strip, and slit. It prints at a maximum speed of 62 fpm at 1,200 dpi.
The MGI JETvarnish 3D Web Color + combines the MGI traditions of digital innovation in the realms of post-press embellishment and multi-substrate printing with a new approach to flexible packaging and label production. The MGI Meteor Press Series uses a specialized EP toner ink process to deliver high resolution, digital color printing on hundreds of different substrates. The JETvarnish 3D Enhancement Press Series offers dynamic enrichment of digital, offset, and flexographic printed output via unique inkjet applications of dimensional varnish and foil textures.
Valloy’s ANY-002 is an 8.5-inch LED toner-based roll-to-roll label printer that targets 200 units per year. It features white/varnish toner and RIP software designed for special effect applications. Valloy also offers the BIZPRESS 13R, which is a 13-inch LED toner-based roll-to-roll label printer.
In addition to the inkjet-based Panther products, Xeikon offers its Cheetah series, featuring a new dry toner platform introduced this year, including the Xeikon CX500—featuring a 20.3-inch web width and the Xeikon CX3—featuring a 13-inch web width. Xeikon Cheetah focuses on food safe labels, printing on a broad variety of challenging paper materials, and high quality. It is ideally suited for wine and spirits, food labels, pharma labels, and complementing flexographic and offset printing.
Labels represent an expanding application in digital print. Converters, consumers, and packaging companies all look to dedicated digital label presses—both toner and inkjet configurations—to cost effectively create high-quality, short runs.
Jan 2018, DPS Magazine