Digital Printing

July 19, 2005

Forward motion by converters, and new products from suppliers, bring a growth spurt.

t long last, the narrow web industry has begun to show some widespread interest in digital press technology. From the introduction of the first machines in the last decade, the pace of acceptance has been slow. Certainly there have been ardent devotees of digital printing, those who made the decision to acquire an Indigo press or a Xeikon press to boldly go where no other printer had gone before. But they were few, and some of them had to work hard to create the markets for their products.

That scenario appears to be changing. Labelexpo Americas 2002 in Chicago provided the stage for new and improved digital printing machines, both stand-alone types and those that can be incorporated into conventional flexo presses. Markets for digitally printed labels — and they are all short run, and very short run — show signs of consistent growth. Those who have digital presses already are taking on work for converters who do not have them. And some who own one press are considering the purchase of — or have already purchased — a second machine.

In the beginning
Indigo, an Israel-based company that was recently acquired by Hewlett Packard, started the whole digital business at Drupa in 1995, the global print show held every five years in Dusseldorf, Germany. Indigo manufactures what are best described as digital offset machines, both web fed and sheet fed, that utilize proprietary electrostatic inks. The company’s web press, which had been called the Omnius, made its way into a handful of narrow web converting shops over the next five years, though the company will not give figures on how many installations they have anywhere on earth.

The Omnius became the Webstream a couple of years ago, and in September of this year, at Labelexpo, the newest generation press emerged: The HP Indigo Press ws4000.

The ws4000 utilizes a Series II print engine that delivers up to 105 feet per minute in two colors, and 57.5 feet per minute in four colors. The engine goes more than twice as fast as those in earlier models.

Speed of digital presses — or lack thereof — has always been an issue among many in the industry who are on the fence about going in that direction. No, they are not capable of running at 300, 400, or 700 feet per minute, like conventional presses. Yes, the quality is high, even higher. The argument in favor of digital presses that diminishes the complaint about speed is that the entire conventional prepress operation — film output, plate production, plate mounting, press inking — is gone, resulting in savings of time involved in those steps, and the costs of parts, labor, equipment, error and waste.

The HP Indigo ws4000 offers offset print quality; seven colors of instantly drying ink; and resolution of up to 800 dpi. Press owners must buy their inks from Indigo, and though they are considered expensive, bulk purchasing brings the price down, according to Ray Dickinson, product marketing manager.

The company also offers a six color process known as HP IndiChrome, which adds orange and green to the standard CMYK. Expanding the color gamut allows for depth and richness of color not possible with the standard four colors.

“The new generation print engine offers better web management, higher speed, and an overall lower cost for printing,” Dickinson says. “The engine was great to start with, and now we have extrapolated the core technologies to produce a better one. It’s laid out a bit differently now.”

Dickinson says that the new press model, which was unveiled in late September, has been installed at 10 locations prior to the end of October. “We’re sold out now through December,” he reports.

“We have multiple press installations,” Dickinson says. “We have two at Tapp Technologies in British Columbia, we have them at W/S Group, at Prestige Label in North Carolina, all the visible people. One customer has four of them. Some customers are doing a million impressions a month on a single press.”

Dry toner
For several years, Indigo’s only competitor was Xeikon, whose print engine was built on a different technology. Indigo’s electrically charged inks are liquid, yet each droplet leaps from a rotary blanket to the substrate. The Xeikon method uses dry toner, a product familiar to anyone who has changed the cartridge in an office laser printer.

Xeikon introduced its dry toner-based digital machine in the mid-1990s, and Nilpeter, the Danish press manufacturer, added the unit to its product line. The press prints at speeds up to 48 feet per minute. Its most recent generation machine is LabelSprint, a compact finishing unit based on the Xeikon UCOAT system. It operates in-line and offers roll-to-roll finished output. It has a modular design that can be configured for various options, including UV coating, rotary diecutting, slitting and stripping. The standard color gamut is CMYK, with the addition of white.

Mark Andy’s DT Series
For the past two years, Mark Andy has been teasing the narrow web industry with its digital printing module. The industry knew that the business inside the box would be built with inkjet heads, but the company has been careful and deliberate in its production. Last year select converters were invited to visit the production plant in Belgium during Labelexpo Europe week.

Mark Andy’s DT Series digital inkjet press, mounted on an inline Model 2200 flexo machine, drew crowds at Labelexpo Americas 2002 in Chicago.

This year, however, the wrap is off, and Labelexpo attendees in Chicago got an eyeful of what is called the DT Series — Digital Technology, which includes the digital printer and a laser diecutter from LasX.

The DT is a large black unit that rests in the center of a Model 2200 press. Right now the company is producing the digital machines mounted in 13" wide models, according to Ken Daming, Mark Andy’s director of product management. “In March of next year we will offer it on our new LP 3000 13" press,” he says.

The inkjet heads inside the unit — there is potential for six, but four are being developed now for CMYK — are from Xaar, the Dutch company, and are shared wall piezo electric drop-on-demand heads. Toshiba, in Japan, which is a licensee of Xaar, has improved on the heads.

Dotrix, a Belgian firm, buys the heads and puts the unit together and sells it to Mark Andy. The official name is the SPICE Rack, which stands for Single Pass Inkjet Color Engine. Dotrix also manufactures the Dot.Factory, a digital inkjet system used in other segments of the print industry.

“The inks are tailored toward the label market,” Daming says. “Converters don’t like to be told where to buy their inks, so we are certifying three ink suppliers: Avecia, Akzo Nobel, and SunJet. We’re testing now, and we plan to work for the next year or so to add more colors.”

Print results, Daming adds, “are between UV flexo and screen printing. The ink is a bit thicker than UV ink, but not as heavy as screen. It has a very glossy look.” The inks for the Mark Andy DT are UV curable, and don’t require a varnish.

The unit that was on display at Labelexpo is back in the company’s demonstration facility, and is being shown to potential customers as the mechanics tinker with it. “The reaction at Labelexpo was extra positive,” Daming says. “People told us we hit a home run.” The company has begun to sell the press, he notes, adding that announcements will be forthcoming.

The DT Series benefits by being preceded and followed by conventional flexo print stations, which can be used to lay down solids or other print patterns. The digital unit itself prints at 80 feet per minute, maximum. “That’s all four colors at once, for 100 percent coverage,” Daming reports.

The Mark Andy DT shown in the center of a 2200 flexo press.

The digital press is marketed with a head replacement package. “When the heads wear out, we send a new pair. The price of the heads is amortized into the price of the ink. The new heads just snap into place.” It’s too early to gauge the lifespan of the heads, Daming says. “It could be six months, maybe longer.”

The DT does not require special substrates, he adds. Some stocks might need a coating, which can be put down in line or ahead of time.

Mark Andy has exclusive rights to sell the LasX digital diecutter with its system. The cutter comes with either a 300 watt or a 300 watt sealed CO2 laser. “We are writing software to tie the DT and the LasX together,” Daming says. “This means that the prepress person would create one file that would be interpreted into the digital press language as well as the diecutter language.”

Training of pressroom personnel on the DT is short, he notes. “We installed our first beta machine in Sweden, and during the second week we began to train. Within a few days the operators could run the DT. The operator interface is very user friendly, very simple.”

The Argio
Chromas Technologies, of Canada, back when it was known as Webtron and Aquaflex, started a group called the Digital Label Alliance. The year was 1996, and the alliance of 17 converters and one press manufacturer was intent on coming up with a new digital printing process. After a few years of quiet effort, the Argio was introduced.

Chromas Techologies’ Argio inkjet print station
The Argio (named for the argiope spider, which spins an intricate web) is an inkjet machine that also mounts into a conventional flexo press. Chris Faust, director of business development, says that the unit can be mounted into any press. “We can put it on Mark Andy, Comco, Webtron presses, even custom presses, in addition to Aquaflex presses,” he says. “We’re looking to make it more mainstream, not limited to our press platform. If we do that, it limits the potential.

“The only qualification we require is a good tension control system. You can’t put it on a 20-year-old band driven press with lots of vibration.” The Argio has a separate servo control motor that takes the tension from the press, stabilizes it, and returns the web to the press.

The Argio press prints one color. “One color right now, but we have a design and testing system in Montreal today for a multicolor platform,” Faust says. “We are pursuing a multicolor system, but it will probably not be a four-color process system.”

The reasoning, Faust explains, is that the short run market focuses on solids, text, line type and variable imaging almost exclusively. “We feel that that’s more the marketplace than process images,” he says. “Most end users don’t have a library of multiple process images. We’re going to target it at the multicolor work. Ours will most likely be a four- to six-color system.” Chromas’ Argio utilizes inkjet inks from SunJet, a division of Sun Chemical.

Faust says that the inkjet heads in the Argio, which are manufactured by Spectra, differ from those built by Xaar in that the Xaar head walls change shape to suck the ink into the chamber, whereas the Spectra heads have the ceiling of the chamber rise and fall to bring ink in from the sides. “It’s not a wear item,” he says. “So far we have seen our heads last up to three years.

“The other nice thing is that you don’t have to coat the substrates, as you do with some other digital processes,” notes Faust. “In fact, the inks work better in some cases without the coatings.” With films, he says, standard corona treating is adequate, as long as the surface tension is a the proper level.

The markets
From the beginning of the narrow web digital era, press owners have worked hard to develop markets to sell their digitally printed products. Some find it easy; others struggle, and have to “invent” markets for customers.

That doesn’t seem to be the case today. One example: At the annual meeting of the Tag and Label Manufacturers Institute in October, several converters inquired about others who own digital presses, because they had really short run print opportunities and wanted to keep the customer happy. Quite a few of the digital press owners, it turns out, do a fair amount of work for other converters.

Steve Dunlevy, president of Reid PSC Printing and Manufacturing in Andover, MA, has owned an HP Indigo Omnius for about a year. “We’re still cutting our teeth with it,” he says, “and we’re finding out something new every day. We find that we are having to invent markets. We can compete with offset people on POP materials, but it depends on what you can coat and what you can run through the press.

“But most important, we are comfortable with it. It’s not a racehorse but it does a great job, and the Indigo people give very good support.”

“I see most of the secondary brand markets taking advantage of digital printing,” says Ray Dickinson of HP Indigo. “It is definitely popular for the boutique products, the private label brands. And also for nutraceuticals — boatloads of nutraceuticals. Most of our customers are in the $3-$5 million sales range, and most of them deal with regional brands. Business is booming, and our customers are booming. Even in down times there are still double-digit growth sectors. This is definitely one of them.”
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