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Digital Label Summit draws a large crowd to Barcelona

April 13, 2009

The conference was considered successful despite hard times.

The center of Barcelona may still be bustling, but the region all around is littered with deserted building sites and motionless cranes. This did not stop over 250 delegates from attending a two-day summit meeting about digital label printing organized by the Tarsus Group.

For those who associate digital printing simply with press technology, this conference was a reminder that the digital revolution has been creeping up on us like the rising tide. Prepress, inspection, servos, and diecutters are just a few of the areas where digital technology is becoming the norm.

The tabletop exhibition that ran alongside the conference brought together 25 exhibitors, including Avery Dennison, Delta Industrial, EFI Jetrion, HP Indigo, Exxonmobil, UPM, SMAG and Primera Technologies.

In his opening speech to delegates, Roger Pellow, director of the Tarsus Labels Group, stressed that successful label converters today are the ones who see themselves not as makers of goods but as providers of services. This theme was taken up by the ubiquitous Mike Fairley, on this occasion in tandem with Alon Bar-Shany, of HP Indigo Digital. Bar-Shany sketched the evolution of digital narrow web printing since it first broke surface at the 1995 Drupa show. He acknowledged that the number of digital presses installed since the onset of the economic crisis has fallen, but added that the volumes printed continue to increase. For the past 10 years, he said, digital printing was concerned with developing and perfecting the technologies; today’s concerns are to improve and extend the services provided to the end user, and particularly to major brand owners. “These major customers want more product differentiation, they want anti-counterfeit and security solutions, and this in addition to the very short runs and fast delivery that only digital can provide,” said Bar-Shany.

One of the most widely appreciated presentations at the conference came from Paul France, a senior executive for Procter & Gamble. “We now have contracts with just 500 printers and converters worldwide, and we aim to further reduce this number,” he noted. “To supply P&G, label and packaging suppliers must just become better, faster, cheaper, and greener.” (The label converter sitting next to your correspondent raised his eyes to the ceiling.)

Digital printing, however, did not win France’s wholehearted approval. “P&G is looking for faster print speeds from digital presses, and web widths up to 42” inches. Above all, converters must print the colors we want, and digital technologies can’t always achieve this.” France concluded with the oft-repeated lament that converters don’t listen to what brand owners really want.

A forum discussion brought together managers of label converting plants in South Africa, Finland and the United States. For Tero-Matti Kinanen, of Auraprint (Finland’s only digital label converter), the new technology has enabled the company to gain new business by printing much of the variable information which its customers previously printed themselves. Leon Witbooi from South Africa makes wine labels; with his digital press he is printing high quality labels for all the small wine producers around Capetown. John Roberds of Odyssey Digital Printing, located in Tulsa, OK, USA, came across as being less worried about top print quality. “Adequate quality, of course, but our business model is to have lots and lots of small orders to keep the presses turning. And we’re still making money month after month."

The Summit packed in several how-to sessions on digital technology (although not enough for some of the delegates). These included advice on matching substrates and inks, improving workflow, and understanding developments in process control. A core technical debate brought together onto the podium Mike Atkins of Primera Technology (Plymouth, MN, USA), Jon Pritchard of Xaar (Cambridge, England) and others. This session examined the differing technologies of HP and Xeikon, and also compared the latest developments in inkjet and thermal transfer solutions. A separate panel discussion, “Making sense of inkjet technology,” was led by Ken Stack, VP of EFI Jetrion, and three other acknowledged experts in the field.

The organizers of the conference went to some lengths to ensure that all digital technologies were covered, and in particular all the types of digital presses on the market. Listening to the presentations, one had the impression that Tomorrow Belongs to Digital; listening to off-the-record comments from converters, the impression was occasionally less upbeat. “Great technology, when it works," was the rather cynical conclusion of one delegate. Polemics aside, it is clear that today’s digital presses still have a way to go before becoming truly “plug and play” – and few converters are competent to identify and cure any bugs that occur.

— By John Penhallow

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