Digital Print Update

July 11, 2005

Converters continue to make use of existing digital presses, while waiting for the next thrill.

Thus far in the relatively brief history of narrow web converting, two fully digital printing presses have come to the marketplace. One is the Omnius, a web press developed by the Israel-based Indigo. The other is a printing engine manufactured by Xeikon, a Belgian company, and marketed as a web press by Nilpeter, of Denmark. These presses have been available since 1995, and have had modest success. They are selling and being put to good use, mostly in Europe, though there has been no great groundswell of excitement. Most narrow web printers have adopted a wait-and-see posture.

The industry is waiting now to see what will come from the DLA — the Digital Label Alliance. The DLA was formed in 1995 and officially launched in 1996 to explore new and different digital printing technology. The group said it would have something to say — and to show — in two years, but the group has been quiet and secretive. Something, however, is about to emerge.

According to Jason Oliver, marketing director for Chromas Technologies (the new company formed by Webtron and Aquaflex), the world should get a look at the new technology after the first of the year. “Things are going in the field,” he says, “but there’s no reason to release it yet.”

The DLA is a limited liability company formed by Didde Corp., parent of Chromas, and 17 converters from the United States, Canada and Europe. At its launch, a DLA official said that the group’s goal “is to make a breakthrough in digital technology that will benefit the label converter.” Indications today are that the technology is dedicated specifically to the narrow web printer, and does not involve strictly the acquisition of a new press. Because the members of the DLA have taken oaths of silence, little is known. Oliver, however, made some remarks in a September presentation at the TLMI Technical Conference in Chicago, in which he referred to “The Missing Link.”

It’s a digital print station
“The Missing Link” in the world of digital printing, he said, involves a digital spot color printer, one that is retrofittable to existing printing machines, offers resolution from 600 to 800 dpi, color matching, durability, and speed greater than 100 feet per minute.

Such a printer, he continued, would be ideal for short- to medium-run spot color labels, multiple SKU jobs, multiple spot color jobs, and useful for variable color text and bar codes. The technology would overcome the challenges of monochrome and multi-color digital printing available today, he added.

The product, he told the audience, is “currently field testing” and will be available in 2000.

“It’s the opportunity for anyone to turn their flexo press into a digital press also,” Oliver says. The digital print stations apparently can be incorporated into existing presses, “or we can build a whole press out of it.”

The technology also involves UV inks. “They have the durability and consistency,” he adds, “and they make a big difference in packaging.”

Digital web printing technology possibly scares some people, who might envision a radically new process rendering their expensive analog equipment obsolete in no time. “We’re trying to change people’s mindsets,” Oliver says. “Printers are worried: They’ve invested millions of dollars in equipment. Along comes digital, and what are they going to do with the analog machines?” The “Missing Link” is aimed at relieving that concern.

The member companies in the DLA are enthusiastic about the technology’s arrival. Jim Valestrino, president of Los Angeles Label, one of the founding members, says he is excited. “It has been a learning experience to create a new technology,” he says. The press is geared specifically to label printers, he adds, “and it does just what a label press is supposed to do.”

The veterans
Digital presses are constructed to take the label design from the computer directly to the substrate, skipping the prepress stage entirely.

Nilpeter’s DL 3300 digital press, featuring the Xeikon engine, operates on the principle of electrophotography, a cousin of the xerographic copy process that uses a microfine dry toner in CMYK colors. The press runs a web of 12” in width, can print an image 32 feet long, and is capable of speeds up to 48 feet per minute, according to Mike Hite, regional manager for Nilpeter. Though the unit comes as a stand-alone, with unwind and rewind in front and back, finishing equipment such as UV coaters, diecutters, strippers, slitters, waste rewind and unwind are available as add-ons.

The Indigo Omnius is a different machine. It uses a proprietary “electrostatic” ink, which is transferred from a print blanket to the substrate. One at a time the colors — up to six — will be transferred to the waiting substrate, and then the web will move to the next position. The largest printable image is 11” x 17”.

The Omnius is also a stand-alone machine, and does not come with post-press equipment. Gallus, the Swiss manufacturer of narrow web presses, has developed a press called the DO 330, which has the Indigo Omnius at the starting end, followed by a long line of sturdy finishing equipment. According to Klaus Bachstein, vice president of manufacturing, Gallus has sold three of these high-ticket presses in Europe, “and we will soon deliver a couple of more.”

These machines are not fast — some would say slow — but the work they produce is unquestionably excellent. “One major question from potential customers,” Bachstein says, “is how fast the press runs. That was step one — and we are definitely over that now.” The quality of the finished product and the cost-savings in eliminating prepress eventually settle into the minds of shoppers and users.

The limiting side in the decision-making process, Bachstein says, has to do with how much the printer is willing to invest up front on a piece of equipment whose market has to be developed by the converter. Users of the DO 330, he adds, are “producing all kinds of labels, but usually for very short runs — from cosmetics to high-end foodstuffs, some pharmaceutical. It’s really quite mixed.”

Dow Industries, Wilmington, Mass., is a label converter with two Omnius presses. “We have two because the business really grew,” says Andy Farquharson, vice president and general manager. “And you can’t really have one of anything.”

At Dow, the sales and marketing people “have had to create a market in the minds of the customers,” Farquharson says. “You show the customers what the digital technology can do, and they go crazy and start coming up with new ideas. You’re showing people the technology and also holding their hands, and ultimately they realize what’s in it for them. We had a shrink film converter in here who runs on gravure presses, but he also needs some very small runs. So we did the work on the Indigo. It was something that had never occurred to him, and he liked it. With the digital press, it doesn’t matter whether you’re running pressure sensitive or non-PS.”

Indigo’s sales are “brisk worldwide,” says company spokesman Martin Maloney. Many of the success stories, he adds, are hidden, because the owners of the presses don’t want people to know they have them.

One of the challenges with the digital press, says Farquharson, is that packaging customers are demanding more and more clear film labels. “The Indigo has its challenges in putting white underneath the printing, whereas with a Gallus press you can put the white down with screen and print with letterpress on top of that.

“Another problem is the after-handling,” he adds. “They figured out how to print, but not what happens afterward. I think that the evolution will be in readily coating the stock, followed by diecutting and foil stamping and the other post-printing steps that can be accomplished in an economical fashion.”

“It is not yet at the phase of commercial excitement,” says Bachstein of Gallus, “with broad acceptance and thereby commercial success. On the other hand, I am convinced that this technology will take off in this industry, and still leave enough room for conventional technology.”

Can narrow web converters expect some great new changes in the existing digital technology? A hint of an answer came recently from Benni Landa, chairman and founder of Indigo, and the man who predicts that digital printing will be rampant by the year 2006. He recently commented about DRUPA 2000, the world’s largest printing equipment show held every five years in Germany.

“DRUPA,” said Landa, “is the Olympics of the graphic arts industry. Nobody will go to DRUPA with warmed-up products. Everyone will have a new-generation product.”