Digital Printing

July 20, 2005

Technological improvements spur an increase in converter enthusiasm.

Nearly 10 years after its emergence in the narrow web industry, digital label printing has come into its own. HP Indigo demonstrated its marketplace muscle at a breakfast meeting at Labelexpo Americas in Chicago this year, an event that drew more than 300 attendees who wanted to learn more about the company’s technology from converters who own HP presses.

Labelexpo was a playground for digital print technology this year. Xeikon, which had dipped below the radar for a few years, emerged with a new model digital press. Matan Digital Printers drew crowds to its booth with its six-color thermal transfer label press. Domino unveiled its variable data inkjet system. Primera introduced a desktop tag and label inkjet printer for under $2,500. Nipson weighted in with its magnetographic press that can operate at speeds up to 410 feet per minute. Mark Andy and Jetrion announced a venture to launch a single-color inkjet module for flexographic presses.

It can be said that the digital printing market has moved in fits and starts. Large and powerful machines that print multiple colors in high quality — and fully variable images — have jockeyed for position over the past decade. Conventional press manufacturers have struggled to develop digital systems compatible with flexo, and in some cases have succeeded. Converters have been faced with an array of options in print and ink technology, the question about return on investment in a new and expensive technology, and uncertainty about the place for digital printing in the marketplaces they serve.

HP Indigo prints using inks with an electrostatic charge; Xeikon’s system utilizes dry toners; Matan’s is a thermal transfer machine; Nipson’s process involves electromagnets; most of the others make use of inkjet, which is making a strong showing in the industry.

The Indigo factor
Indigo, which was acquired a few years ago by Hewlett-Packard, can lay claim to having made perhaps the biggest impact in the label industry with respect to digital printing. Its digital offset press utilizes proprietary inks (up to seven colors) that are offset from a blanket to the substrate via an electrostatic charge. There are no plates involved: The image goes from the screen in prepress to the press to the substrate. Though in-line finishing equipment is available from ABG International, Nilpeter and Rotoflex, most printers take rolls off-line for diecutting, inspection and rewinding.

Digital printing received a big boost at Labelexpo 2004 when HP put five converters on a dais for 90 minutes to share their experiences as users of ws4000 label presses: Bob Scherer of CL&D Digital, Elisha Tropper of Prestige Label, Ralph Reichert of Fort Dearborn, Phil Naidrich of Innovative Creative Packaging Solutions, and Maui Chai of Flexible Technology. Topics ranged from sales and marketing to prepress, colors, and flexographic conflicts.

In response to a question about color matching, Tropper said, “Every once in a while a customer complains about color, but it’s very rare that we have a hard time matching special colors.”

“We have had a lot of success,” said Chai. “We have not found a color that we cannot mix.”

Naidrich observed that a digital press operator “should have a knowledge of printing, but a knowledge of the computer side of the operation also is valuable. Color management feeds into it.” Scherer and Chai both said that they had put prepress people to work on the digital press.

Educating customers to the benefits of digital printing — fully variable images, extremely short runs — has been a challenge in the short life of the technology. “Once a customer is familiar with digital,” said Chai, “once they grasp the vision, it’s hard to hold them back.”

“They will find new ways to make use of it,” added Tropper. “They will make you stretch your boundaries.”

“And when you upgrade one of their labels on a digital press at no extra cost, and they like it, they will never go back,” said Scherer.

Switching a customer from a digital press to a flexo press can be an issue, the printers acknowledged. “We try to create that first digital run so that the flexo press can reproduce it. If your customer knows in advance that there could be a slight difference between flexo and digital, they will most likely understand,” said Tropper.

“I have seen 5 percent of digital work go to flexo,” remarked Chai, “but far more going from flexo to digital.”

According to Ray Dickinson, director of marketing for the Indigo division, the introduction of a digital press to a conventional print shop “is a disruptive technology. We’re dealing with fear of change in a lot of cases,” he says. “In many ways we are still the new kid on the block.” On the other hand, he adds, one in five HP Indigo customers have more than one machine, “and some have three. Or five.”

Xeikon at Labelexpo Americas 2004

Redesign from Xeikon
Xeikon, which introduced its large roll-fed label press soon after the Indigo, unveiled its Model 330 digital printing machine at Labelexpo this year. The redesigned press, which utilizes dry toner, prints at a resolution of 600 dpi with variable density levels per dot in combination with professional screen rulings from 85 to 170 lines per inch. The press is standard with CMYK and an opaque white station which can be used also for a spot color or special toner.

The press comes with the X-800 Digital Front-End, which combines prepress functionality with variable data print processing capabilities, and includes a bar code and sequential numbers generator. The Xeikon 330 can print at a top speed of 48 feet per minute regardless of the number of colors. (HP Indigo’s new model, the ws4050, prints at 52.5 fpm in four-color mode, and at 104 fpm in one- or two-color mode.)

Modular inkjet
A few years ago, flexographic press manufacturer Mark Andy worked with Xaar, Toshiba and Dotrix to create a four- to six-color inkjet system that mounts in a Model 2200 press and can print process color with the full variability that digital printing offers. The 13" wide press, known as the DT2200, has found two homes in the converting field, according to Ken Daming, Mark Andy’s director of product management. The drop-on-demand inkjet heads can print at 80 feet per minute.

“It’s expensive,” says Daming, “and we have sold two. But at Labelexpo we had half a dozen really, really strong prospects. There was more interest in that technology at Labelexpo than I’ve ever seen before. People see it as good quality, and a lot of productivity advantages.”

Today Mark Andy has joined with Jetrion, a new inkjet arm of Flint Ink, to offer a far less expensive variable information print system. The Jetrion 3025 inkjet system, which can be installed at any print station on a flexo press, prints in a single color — “black, though it could be other colors,” notes Daming, “and is meant for addressing, bar coding, and consecutive numbering. It runs at a reasonable speed of 250 feet per minute with UV inks, and faster if the converter wants to use solvent inks. And the quality is high.”

The Jetrion unit sells in the $80,000 range, says Daming. “And don’t be surprised if at some point you see something from us in the middle range of these two digital print products.”

Nipson VaryPress 200

Several other companies market inkjet add-on units for mounting on in-line presses. Domino Amjet now offers its Domino ON Demand system that offers high inkjet quality and the capability of networking up to 16 print heads, which allows the system to be scaled to projects of various sizes. The available inks can print on a range of substrates, and Domino offers the option of Pantone-matched inks. The print heads can be mounted either vertically or horizontally onto the press, depending upon the requirements of the print job.

On a much smaller scale, but still in the inkjet zone, is Primera Technology’s LX800 Color Label Printer, which prints full-color labels and tags onto media as small as 1.5" wide and .75" long up to a maximum of 8.25" wide and 24" long. Print resolution is 4,800 x 1,200 dpi.

Substrates can include matte-finish labels as well as semi-gloss and high-gloss materials. The driver is Windows based, and NiceLabel design software is included.

The roll-fed printer can sit on top of a desk, and the unit can print at various speeds (up to 2" per second is typical on a 4"x6" label with 25 percent coverage).

According to Mark Strobel, Primera’s vice president of sales and marketing, the LX800 “prints labels and tags with better quality than high-end thermal printers costing literally thousands of dollars more.” The price tag on the unit is $2,495.

Primera’s LX800 tabletop printer

Thermal transfer
Matan Digital Printers, an Israeli company making a strong push into the Western Hemisphere, attracted a crowd at Labelexpo with its SpringPro, a digital press which utilizes industrial thermal transfer technology. The press prints four, five or six colors, in spots, process or metallics.

The unit accepts substrates up to 12" wide, and prints in resolutions up to 1,600 x 400 dpi. The speed is approximately 885 feet per hour (about 15 fpm).

Matan promotes the Spring12 as a printer ideal for short run labels, tags, decals and tickets. It can print fully variable information, of course, and can combine graphic images with multiple fields of personalized text, serial numbers, and bar codes. It also allows printing on top of pre-printed media from traditional analog presses or other digital presses. Metallic colors offered by Matan include gold and silver, and white is available also.

Nipson America manufactures a line of digital printers called VaryPress, in two models: the 200 and the 400. “The 400 is a very high speed machine that can be mounted in-line with a traditional flexo press,” says David Dunn, marketing director. “It can print color work and variable black on a label at the same time.”

The 400, which sells in the $465,000 range, can run at speeds up to 410 feet per minute. It utilizes a toner process called magnetography. Inside the unit is a drum of very hard metal that is receptive to magnetic fields. The print heads, Dunn says, “are basically groups of electromagnets — 600 of them to the inch. As you energize collectively the electromagnets, you create dots of magnetic charge on the surface of the drum. The toner has a magnetic content, and is attracted to that image on the drum.”

Nipson’s VaryPress also does away with the heat factor that some other systems employ. The toner is “cold flashed” onto the substrate. During that brief process, the toner heats and adheres, “but the substrate itself does not heat appreciably, not more than 90° or 100° F. It doesn’t shrink or distort or dry out,” Dunn says, “and there is much less static electricity build-up for downstream finishing.”