By Melissa Donovan
Part 1 of 2
For label production, both print providers and converters find success using a number of different technologies, whether analog or digital—it all depends on what works best for their operation. However, as customer demands change, trends morph in response. Shorter runs, varied SKUs, and a host of other features make digital technologies a necessity. For those still running static jobs, a hybrid approach provides a way to address these advancements while still maintaining the needs of legacy accounts.
It’s always a good idea to have a firm understanding of what a term means depending on the topic at hand. For example, when we discuss hybrid printing in relation to digital/flexographic label production—what does it signify exactly?
Joseph Sanchez, digital business development manager – USA, Dantex Group, says the term “hybrid digital press” is used quite loosely. “There are many different interpretations of what constitutes a hybrid digital press. Some say a hybrid press integrates analog and digital printing capabilities in one unit. In contrast, others believe it is the merging of the capabilities of a traditional flexographic press with a digital engine. I think it’s the latter—a true hybrid press takes the inline production workflow of a conventional flexographic press and seamlessly integrates a digital print engine.”
“With regard to label production, the term hybrid printing typically refers to the combination of a traditional flexographic process, combined with digital print—toner/inkjet—plus inline finishing,” explains Antony Cotton, sales manager, Focus Label Machinery Ltd.
Dean Haertel, U.S. and Canada PL NMW sales director, BOBST, believes hybrid is more than just the combination of two technologies. “First, there is the need to make sure that the two print technologies speak the same language. In addition, we propose integrating priming, embellishment, and finishing modules to build a true label production press delivering what is expected from digital and the same level of a flexographic press. All-in-one, all inline, this is what we offer as an hybrid press.”
“Hybrid printing refers to combination of analog printing, flexography, and digital printing,” notes Peter Kuschnitzky, digital applications specialist, Paper Converting Machine Company (PCMC). And the digital base can vary, as in PCMC’s case it is a pigmented aqueous inkjet system, while other vendors offer UV inkjet, for example.
The Good and the Bad
There are advantages and disadvantages to any technology, and hybrid label printers are no exception.
For benefits, Haertel lists no idle time between processes, access to digital when required, access to flexographic when necessary, and priming, printing, spot colors, embellishment, and die cutting can all be done in one pass with full automation and flexibility.
“Limiting the number of touches in the production process—not taking a job offline to finish. Reducing the waste needed for offline makeready and helping eliminate the chance of additional user error are just some of the benefits, with the technology and speed of UV Inkjet and the integration of inline finishing,” comments Sanchez.
Additionally, with digital utilized, this opens up possibilities for variable data, sequential numbering, versioning, and personalization, says Cotton.
Kuschnitzky does not believe there are any limitations to hybrid printing. “Hybrid printing gives the converter the best of both worlds, efficient printing for both long and short runs. Or the capability to print many SKUs without changing plates or perhaps printing a specific spot color that just can’t be printed with a CMYK ink set.”
“A benefit the hybrid press offers is the flexibility of utilizing digital printing for shorter run jobs and faster job set-ups. The limitations of a hybrid press are slower run speeds for longer jobs and the width of the presses compared to flexographic-only offerings,” shares Chris Baldwin, sales director, OMET Americas.
In regards to limitations, Cotton believes that a hybrid press requires a higher level of operator skill and experience compared to a digital press. In addition, there can be longer setup and changeover times versus digital.
Hybrid printers offer a range of features, which is part of their allure. Of course, not everyone uses all of them—all of the time. Some of the most often utilized ones include lamination, die cutting, and embellishment inline.
It’s all about leveraging all of the features in one machine. “With a hybrid press the converter can print the job, die-cut, laminate, and add other embellishment inline with one pass without having to use a secondary step in the production workflow,” says Baldwin.
In Haertel’s experience, BOBST customers see several features as the most beneficial. “Each client can make its own configuration but adding two or three flexographic modules for priming, spot colors, and cold foil is a real benefit. Some like the inline die cutting as well as it allows faster time to market. For high ink coverage including white, a flexographic module is appreciated and for coating/varnish another flexographic module can be convenient.”
The ability to print variable information is attractive to most. “The most common features being used by our customers is the ability to print variable information like barcodes, addresses, and serial numbers. Also, the capability to chain multiple SKUs in the workflow and printing non-stop—changing from one SKU to the other without stopping the press is impressive to watch. In my opinion the ability to print many different SKUs without changing plates or stopping the press is where digital printing shines the most,” says Kuschnitzky.
“Besides the benefits of digital printing; lamination, die cutting, edge trimming, and slitting are utilized the most. Adding a flexographic station to the press opens up additional features like cold foil, full lamination, spot coating, flood coating, and the ability to print an additional flexographic spot color. This turns a digital press into an essential part of the production process, expanding their digital offering and generating more opportunities,” continues Sanchez.
There are instances were a label converter currently using a hybrid label press would consider moving everything to all digital.
“Historically, we have seen going all digital when you print short-run work—let’s call it less than 5,000 images. That number varies depending on what market you are in. Going all digital is a moving target as well. With new or improvements in existing technology coming to market the space where digital printing plays is much larger than in the past,” shares Kuschnitzky.
Baldwin notes several reasons a converter may want to go all digital, noting job size, current production workflow, and the skill level of press operators.
“This is largely dependent on the application and type of work being performed. Digital print will never fully replace flexographic print,” believes Cotton.
“The beautiful thing about a digital hybrid press is that you can choose how or when to use your hybrid modules, allowing functionality to dictate your production. You never want to limit yourself,” shares Sanchez.
Hybrid printers, a combination of analog and digital technology in one device, are ideal for label printing and converting environments—providing the best of both worlds. Also, the technology often includes inline finishing features like die cutting, embellishments, laminates, foiling, and spot and flood coating.
The next article in this two-part series provides information on various hybrid printers for labels.
Apr2022, DPS Magazine