Digital Printing

July 20, 2005

Interest in digital label printing, as well as equipment purchases, is on the rise.

Mark Andy DT2200
In 1995, a company called Indigo unleashed a machine that has captured the attention of the printing industry worldwide. The Indigo digital press has since spawned competitors eager to capture a potentially vast market — high quality, infinitely variable digital printing, free from the constraints of plate printing and capable of production runs both long and short.

Over the past eight years digital printing has grown, albeit slowly. Last year, at Labelexpo Americas in Chicago, interest in the technology showed gains, despite the weight of economic recession. Today, in the wake of Labelexpo Europe in Brussels a couple of months ago, that interest is higher than ever. Industrial-level digital printing is true 21st Century stuff, and though the pace of acceptance is still measurable in small numbers, there is no denying that it has arrived.

And there is no doubt that converters are seeing runs get shorter. One converter in the Western US reports that over the past year and a half his short run work rose from 20 percent of all jobs to 50 percent. Another said he acquired a digital press to keep his existing long-run customers happy; on the occasions when they want a thousand labels he is able to accommodate them. (See the Narrow Web Profile on Lightning Labels, starting on page 40 of this issue.)

Indigo’s technology is popular in the sheetfed print markets, including quick printing operations; the roll-fed model, originally called the Omnius, is more an industrial machine. The company launched its next-generation roll-fed press, the ws4000, last year, the same year that the corporate name was changed to HP Indigo after acquisition by Hewlett Packard. Since then, the company reports, sales in the global label market have grown 150 percent and print volume has doubled. HP reported in September that 25 percent of recent sales have occurred with repeat customers.

HP Indigo ws4000 with Nilpeter converting line

New digital ideas for label printers, based on technologies that are proven in other fields, have emerged in the few years since the introduction of Indigo’s print engine, which can be described as utilizing electrostatic inks in an offset print process.

Immediately following the Omnius was Xeikon, whose dry toner based digital printing process was incorporated into equipment marketed by Nilpeter. Next was Aquaflex (formerly Chromas) with the Argio single-color inkjet engine. The newest player is Mark Andy, with its DT 2200 workhorse: a combination of six-color digital inkjet and flexo printing. Indigo, Xeikon and Mark Andy had significant presence at Labelexpo Europe this year.

The large digital engines tell only one side of the story. An emerging group of small presses is now sharing the limelight. Among these are Printing Technology Services, whose products utilize inkjet and electron beam imaging; and VIPcolor, whose printers perform with inkjet and electrophotography. (Many suppliers, such as Matan Digital Printers and Quicklabel Systems, produce digital printers using thermal transfer technology. These will be addressed in a future article.)

Indigo’s growth
“Our growth this year has been phenomenal,” says Vince Pentella, HP Indigo’s national sales manager for industrial markets, based in Littleton, MA. “We are easily up 200 percent over last year in the United States in the industrial section. The entire organization has grown, probably at a 50 percent pace. A great deal of the growth is because of the ws4000. It shows that we are a very serious contender, no longer a novelty or a niche. We have moved into the mainstream.

“Another telling factor,” he adds, “is that in a recent quarter we sold 26 machines, 13 of them to existing customers. The growth of impression count for each customer is growing.”

In the HP Indigo digital offset machine, the image to be printed travels directly from the prepress computer to the press. Proprietary electrostatic inks — from one to seven of them, depending on the job — are transferred via software command and electric charge to a blanket on a drum, and from there to the substrate. Inks are transferred in sequence one at a time before the substrate continues on its path to rewind.

The ws4000 can print at 52 feet per minute in four color process, or at 100 feet per minute using two colors. Speeds are not as fast as those of conventional flexographic presses, but the digital process eliminates quite a few time-consuming steps, such as film output, plate production, plate mounting, inking and other makeready procedures, as well as the cost of the parts, labor and potential errors associated with those steps.

Several years ago Indigo crafted a six color process it calls HP IndiChrome, which adds orange and green to the standard CMYK process. The addition of the two colors expands the color gamut well beyond the traditional four.

HP Indigo does not manufacture its own finishing equipment. The company has relationships with Nilpeter, Omega and Rotoflex for the necessary converting machines, some of which can be installed in-line. Most Indigo printers, however, convert off-line.

Inkjet presses
Mark Andy’s DT2200 press drew large crowds at Labelexpo Europe. The press is basically a 13" 2200 flexo press with a large black inkjet device installed amidships.

Inside the inkjet housing are from four to six inkjet heads developed by Xaar and Toshiba and packaged by a Belgian company called Dotrix. They are described as shared wall piezo electric drop-on-demand heads. The unit is called the SPICE Rack — Single Pass Inkjet Color Engine. The maximum speed of the press is 80 feet per minute.

The thinking behind the DT Series is that printers can make good use of flexo stations beyond the fully variable capabilities of the digital inkjet press. They can lay down solids or other print or adhesive patterns, for example.

“There is a ton of interest in this press,” says Ken Daming, Mark Andy’s director of product management. “People are in awe of this kind of technology.” None of the new models had been sold as of October, “but there are a lot of people on the hook,” Daming adds. Interested converters, he says, are examining their own production models, “going over the economics, the crossover point of how short your jobs have to be to justify the cost of the press. It offers a reduction in set-up procedures, and the shorter the set-up times the more money you can make with this.”

Daming says that Mark Andy is at work on next-generation equipment as well, “like a single color inkjet bar to go all the way across the web. That will allow us to jet a white ink and cure it before the other four colors are added. Or to add metallic inks, or adhesives if it’s a cold foil application, or add an ink or coating to the back side of the web if that’s necessary.”

The Aquaflex Argio UV inkjet unit, developed following the 1997 formation of the Digital Label Alliance involving the company and 17 converters, has seen limited production. “The units are selling, moving slowly,” says Chris Faust, director of business development. The unit, which can be installed in any press, will print on a web 7.5" wide at 100 feet per minute.

The VP2020 desktop inkjet printer from VIPcolor

Smaller digital printers
Size isn’t everything. Tabletop printers, or near-tabletop size, are emerging with the industrial strength required by label manufacturers. Printing Technology Services manufactures the ElectroFlex 1225X, a variable data electronic printer that can handle a web width to 10.5" and a print width to 8.5". Speeds can reach 225 feet per minute. The small press utilizes electron beam imaging technology, and is capable of integrating with web presses and collators, operating in-line or off-line as the application requires.

Two other machines have taken the digital stage, both from VIPcolor. The VP2020 is a tabletop inkjet web-fed printer, utilizing HP technology. The maximum web width is six inches, and the machine can print as narrow as 1.5".

“It prints good four-color quality at three-quarters of an inch per second,” says Fred Noll, director of sales. The unit is priced at around $7,000 through resellers.

The other machine is the VP8020, which is a floor model with a relatively small footprint, less than a square yard. The press uses dry toner technology “with cool fusion,” Noll says. “Most toner-based printers have a heat roll which can be damaging to adhesives or film materials. In our process we flash a light on the toner, and the toner itself, which is proprietary, has the chemistry to cure.” Resolution is 600 x 1800 dpi.

The market is dual, Noll adds. “Flexo printers by far have expressed the most interest. The other market is the large manufacturers with a lot of different labels and the requirement for high through-put, such as a tire manufacturer.”

One advantage of the VP8020, Noll observes, is its price. “Just about everyone is aware of web-fed digital devices that cost upwards of $500,000. We have positioned this press under $100,000.”

The future
The enthusiasm is there and growing, though cautiously. “Digital is changing the landscape of printing quite a bit,” says Pentella of HP Indigo. But this technology is not for the masses yet. It’s still an emerging technology — brand new, in many ways.”

New developments will come sooner rather than later, the suppliers predict. “We will take the product we have and make it more efficient, develop a better work flow, develop tools to perform more jobs in a shift. It doesn’t mean that we have to make it faster, just better.”