by Cassandra Balentine
Inkjet is evolving. When it comes to labels, both UV- and aqueous-based ink options, as well as toner are available. These technologies offer advantages and limitations compared to one another and analog print.
The digital label production market continues to develop with new vendors entering the space, as well as product advancements and introductions.
Perhaps most notably, Canon U.S.A., Inc. recently announced its upcoming LabelStream LS2000 inkjet press, which utilizes high-density pigmented aqueous-based ink. Introduced to the U.S. last year, the LabelStream LS2000 is expected to be available in early 2025.
Notable improvements on existing inkjet solutions are also happening. SCREEN announced the prototype development of an inline digital inkjet primer for its flagship label printing press—the Truepress LABEL 350UV SAI—at Labelexpo Europe last year. The primer addresses one of the biggest challenges in UV digital inkjet printing—poor ink adhesion on certain substrates.
A variety of inkjet, toner, and liquid electrophotographic options are available today. Depending on the specific technology and end use, inkjet offers certain benefits.
In addition to economics and color consistency, substrate and job versatility are advantages to inkjet in the digital label space, according to Benjamin Luly, product manager, digital presses, Mark Andy Inc.
Steve Lynn, director of labels and packaging, sales, Durst Image Technology U.S., LLC, adds that high-resolution, inkjet-based label presses can also offer speed, color consistency, low waste, material flexibility, and ease of use.
Jennifer Loegering, marketing manager, Primera Technology, Inc., sees on demand production as an advantage of inkjet label printers, along with affordability, flexibility, and the ability to produce labels with high print quality on varied materials.
Achieving just-in-time label production is a key differentiation of digital, this includes the ability to effectively produce customization and variable content.
“Shorter runs allow brands to order exactly the quantity they need, saving unwanted stock, waste, and storage costs for potentially thousands of labels. Faster turnaround capabilities also mean that brands can be much quicker and more flexible with their campaigns, leading to increased sales,” explains Dario Urbinati, CEO, Gallus Group.
In general, Luly expects the cost of print to continue to decrease in the inkjet space due to faster speeds and process improvements, allowing customers to transition not only short-run jobs, but also medium to longer run print jobs over to digital.”
Today, products are made and distributed at high speeds, and Kevin Davis, CEO, SnapPress, feels that this should also pertain to the labels that identify and market those products.
Inkjet printing is a cost-effective solution for label and packaging printing. “It’s faster, enhances productivity, and creates more market opportunities, resulting in a higher return on investment compared to other digital printing technologies,” shares Katie Graham, regional marketing and communications manager, Bobst North America, Inc.
For both UV- and aqueous- based inkjet label printing, Mike Pruitt, product manager, SurePress, Epson America, Inc., sees no difference in the ability to print high-quality labels. “Inkjet printing is controlled electronically, making it very precise. With an inkjet printer, customers should be able to return to a project a year later and print the same color without any change or shift in that color.”
Graham feels that in particular, UV inkjet technology is mature and the market is ready to widely adopt it. “The color quality of inkjet continues to improve each year, matching that of toner, especially in terms of color consistency and rubbing fastness.”
David Lee, technical sales director, Focus Label Machinery Ltd., says advantages of UV inkjet include greater color gamut and faster turnarounds.
This also extends to embellishments, which can add value to a traditional print. “An additional advantage of UV is the ability to use clear ink or digital varnish. Epson offers Digital Varnish on the SurePress L-6534VW,” offers Pruitt.
Juan Kim, CEO, Valloy Incorporated, agrees, adding that some UV digital inkjet printers feature easy to apply white and varnish inks plus cold foiling.
Setup and changeover times are minimal when it comes to UV inkjet, allowing more time for completing print runs. “Additionally, machines are not exposed to extended periods of inactivity between jobs due to color calibration operations,” comments Graham.
UV printing’s ability to flash dry quickly is a feature that enables print providers to run at high productivity and maintain a high print quality, according to Pruitt.
“We strongly believe that UV inkjet will soon replace a significant portion of other digital technologies due to its cost efficiency and stability,” states Graham.
Aqueous-based inkjet also produces on demand labels that do not require films or plates and long setups. Davis says this is critical to get high-quality, shorter run custom labels. “From manufacturing to market in a ‘snap.’ Aqueous pigment inkjet label printing is only limited by your imagination,” shares Davis.
The concern over sustainability is not going away. Inherently, digital offers a less-waste model compared with analog printing technologies. Aqueous-based inks offer sustainable benefits.
Dan Lacey, strategic business developer, Canon U.S.A, Inc., points to the positive sustainability impact of Canon’s water-based ink and lack of materials normally expended in the analog printing process, especially for short- and medium-run length converting applications.
Digital Inkjet Limitations
While there is healthy adoption of digital inkjet label presses, it makes up a small portion of the overall market.
For many, it is still widely accepted as supporting analog printing processes rather than a threat.
“Canon views our hybrid and digital UV and water-based inkjet solutions as complementary to the analog printing process,” stresses Lacey.
Certain limitations keep inkjet better suited to shorter run lengths compared to analog counterparts.
For one, Graham admits that inkjet compatible media stocks are fewer than those available for toner-based devices.
Kim adds that it is hard to represent flexographic/offset output’s matte touch and feel with UV inkjet at this time.
Jay Larsen, GM/R&D director, digital hardware, INX International Ink Co., agrees, noting that UV has a look and feel that is different than aqueous or toner. “For this reason some may consider other technologies when a particular look and feel is required.”
Inkjet has common print quality issues such as lines caused by a missing jet from a defective nozzle. However, technologies like Bobst’s Accucheck enable presses to automatically detect and compensate any bad nozzle to ensure the highest quality in every printed foot.
One current limitation is the cost to print for long runs, which is still advantageous in the flexography space says Luly. This includes the ability to quickly change to specific primers, coating, flood coats, and spot colors that are more economical in flexographic printing. “When combining these technologies in our hybrid applications, flexography can be utilized for these strengths while the digital engine can provide its advantages of variable data, ganged jobs, and quick setup times. This allows the customer to take advantage of the lowest cost to print with each technology working to its strengths,” shares Luly.
When it comes to UV, Urbinati says there are color and ink options, such as metallic inks, that aren’t yet supported. In addition, most inkjet presses aren’t able to offer long run lengths or the production speeds demanded of some applications. “If we’re to really move forward as an industry, fully embracing digital transformation and working to build a successful industry future, then a diversity of solutions, ideas, and expertise—and true, industry wide collaboration spanning each of these elements—will be critical,” says Urbinati.
While Pruitt feels that aqueous-based inkjet is a very good long-term solution for labels, it can be hard to dry quickly, especially on films. “This is due to the large amount of water that needs to be removed from the print. Given this, often a very sophisticated drying mechanism needs to be used with aqueous in order to match the high print volume of UV printing.”
Davis adds that although aqueous pigment inkjet is water resistant, like any label production, certain labels may require a protective lamination or an overprint protective varnish.
Of course, it is essential to remember that not all inkjet is created equal. “Traditionally inkjet has had some challenges with resolution, nozzle stability, and ink adhesion on a wide range of materials and cost of operation. The latest generation of 1,200 dpi inkjet offerings address all of these challenges to provide a very reliable, high quality, high productivity alternative to older lower resolution inkjet and aging toner technologies,” shares Lynn.
An extension of digital label printing is the capacity for flexible packaging.
Lacey says Canon is currently testing substrates for a variety of label applications, including flexible packaging, for its upcoming LabelStream products.
“We are able to do some short-run flexible packaging, future developments in technology will move into the flexible packaging market,” says Lynn.
On the digital side, Urbinati says the Gallus One is designed specifically for label printing. “However, from a hybrid perspective, the Gallus Labelfire 340 is also able to produce foldable carton and tubes, with our UVF01 flexible inks.”
The Epson SurePress models are capable of flexible packaging, however Pruitt points out that they are best suited for narrow web, as the web width is limited to 13.4 inches, whereas some flexible packaging applications require a web width of 28 inches.
Larsen points out that there is some flexible packaging production on INX UV inkjet presses.
Davis says SnapPress has tested several types of flexible packaging that produce great results on the LP-1.
UV and aqueous digital label printing systems continue to advance to offer an excellent option for on demand production featuring variability and sustainability advancements.
Jan2024, DPS Magazine