Digital Printing

November 28, 2005

The growth of plateless printing is steady, and is attracting attention from some non-traditional printers.

Digital Printing

The growth of plateless printing is steady, and is attracting attention from some non-traditional printers.

By Jack Kenny

Digital printing, according to a recent study, commands a 3 percent share of the overall prime label market worldwide. That percentage, says IT Strategies, of Hanover, MA, USA, translates to $900 million dollars in retail value. The researcher says also that more than 200 printing machines are responsible for that value, and that the old short run benchmark of 5,000 labels has now risen to 30,000 or more.

At Labelexpo Europe 2005 in Brussels, an HP Indigo ws4050 with inline converting using AB Graphics’ Omega Digicon
Digital printing machines were introduced to the label industry by Indigo and Xeikon a little more than a decade ago. The technologies, involving the electrical transfer of inks or toners to paper or film, fascinated the label industry. Soon, however, the sales and marketing minds inside converting companies began to wonder who the digital label customer would be. Who are the extremely short run customers? Not everyone wants 400 labels for demo samples every day, do they? The technology isn’t cheap, either: It’s high quality equipment that requires the addition of reliable finishing equipment, a proposition that might cost the printer up to a million dollars for the entire installation. And then there’s payback: How many short runs will it take until the numbers go into the black?

Slowly, over the years, Indigo presses were installed in label converting shops. When Hewlett-Packard acquired the company a few years back, printers paid attention. Though the use of the HP Indigo rollfed press is less widespread than that of the company’s sheetfed machine, sales have risen in the past couple of years.

The Indigo machine, invented by Israeli engineer Benny Landa, uses proprietary inks in a process known as digital offset. The liquid inks move from the print blanket to the substrate via an electrical charge. The Xeikon machine uses dry toner to achieve its four-color process printing.

Xeikon and Indigo battled for dominance in the mid-1990s, the former attracting the attention of Nilpeter and Mark Andy, who put their names on the print engines to claim a presence in the nascent digital label market. Xeikon’s light dimmed after several years, while Indigo added the initials HP and began to grow. Last year, however, Xeikon was acquired by Punch Graphix, of Lier, Belgium, which has undertaken a heroic effort to resuscitate the brand and the product.

The Xeikon 330
“Last year we made a new introduction of the main Xeikon engine at Labelexpo Americas,” says Filip Weymans, business development manager. “This year, at Labelexpo Europe, we really got the attention we deserve. We have put in a year of hard work, and we have achieved a great deal.”

Is the new Xeikon 330 different from the original machine? “If you look at the 330 compared with the earlier model, there is no big difference in the hardware,” says Weymans. “The differences lie inside the machine. Quality certainly has improved. The cost of printing is now drastically reduced by having new components with longer lifetimes. That definitely brings the cost down.”

In addition, Weymans adds, the machine features the X800 front end, a new system that serves as the brains of the digital printing process. “One of ways in which we help label converters is by integrating a bar code generator, similar to what you can find in a thermal transfer printer. It can generate bar codes, linear codes, and more, randomly, sequentially, or in other patterns. We see that as a very big help for label printers to meet market requirements.”

One converter taking advantage of the new Xeikon 330 is Go Tape and Label Inc., of Miami, FL, USA. Wendy Fried, president, says the company has made a commitment to expanding its short run business, and chose the Xeikon press to increase output. “Now that short run printing is really taking off, we’re ready to expand our services to our existing customers and to new ones,” she says. Among the products being produced are point-of-purchase materials for customers in the personal care, sports beverage, bottled water, automotive oil, and vitamin markets.

Go Tape and Label’s vice president, Jaime Rabchinsky, says that the company projects a 37 percent increase over the bottom line this year over last, and credits the digital press to a good part of that growth.

Mark Andy, headquartered in St. Louis, MO, USA, produced a digital inkjet system several years ago which it installed into a Model 2200 press. The DT2200, as it is called, can print flexo and process inkjet in one pass.

Ken Daming, director of product management at Mark Andy, says that the company has sold two of the presses, one to a converter in Sweden, the other to a US printer. The cost of the technology is high, he adds, “so we are working to make the cost per label more attractive.”

HP Indigo

Labelexpo Europe was a significant venue for HP Indigo this year. The company had several digital presses in operation on the show floor, each demonstrating a different type of label production. “We wrote orders for about 14 presses in Brussels,” says Ray Dickinson, director of marketing. “Most of those were for Europe.”

One attraction at the trade show was a setup that HP Indigo calls DLW, or Digital Laser Workflow. “It’s true digital,” says Dickinson. “Digital meets digital meets digital.” The process begins with prepress software based on Esko-Graphic’s modular Scope workflow, which integrates information for the press as well as for the diecutter. After printing, the labels are shaped by the laser diecutter in AB Graphic’s Omega Digicon finishing system.

“The Esko-Graphics equipment gets the file all ready for print, and while it’s doing that it’s setting up the laser,” Dickinson says. “So in a single prepress operation, about 15 to 20 minutes, you have the entire job set up for converting. And with the laser diecutting, you don’t have to wait for the dies to show up.”

The Omega Digicon is a line of finishing equipment that can be customized in a wide variety of ways, depending on the converter’s requirements. According to Al Spendlow, vice president of operations for AB Graphic’s North American arm in Ontario, CA, the converting line on display at Labelexpo showed how a job could change completely on the HP Indigo press and not interrupt the diecutting or finishing process in any way.

“The Indigo would print a bar code in the gutter, and the Digicon’s scanner would read it, load a file into the machine for a new print job, and the position of the new job coming from the press would be loaded.” The key here is the cutting of the label shapes, which is accomplished by a laser. “The laser can cut a new pattern instantly without the machine stopping,” says Spendlow.

Spendlow says he is certain that the digital print market share will continue to rise. “The biggest leap in this technology was when HP got involved. Those who were on the fence at the time knew that they should get into it. With HP working on development of the technology, it’s getting better.”

The new digital print shop?

It might be too early to say for sure, but it’s possible that a new segment might be emerging in the industry: the digital only label printer. These are the shops with only digital printing machines. They’re young, but they’re busy.

According to HP Indigo’s Ray Dickinson, this scenario can be the ideal investment for a printer who is getting in the ground floor. “A flexo shop has mountains of dies; that’s a lot of working capital tied up, and he can’t really liberate it. A printer who can do the math and understand the value of capitalizing, the converting costs, can realize that it’s much easier to go digital for someone who is starting out than for one who has good flexo capability.”

A whole system — from prepress to finishing — could cost a million dollars. “Eliminate your setup times, cut out a half hour three or four times a day, and that investment will pay for itself in under 24 months,” says Dickinson.

HP Indigo, he adds, sees a growth challenge in the established flexographic label businesses. “If you’re a high quality flexo shop now, you’re not as compelled to add digital capability. You have to want it. If you’re a really good prepress person your skills have to migrate a lot if you go digital. If you’re a good flexo press operator, there’s no prediction that you’ll be a good digital press operator. Again, you have to want it.

“The sales force has to want it, too,” he says. “They have to know how to use the technology to make their goals.”

Paul Mulcahey grew up in a flexo shop in California owned and operated by his family. He was in charge of the plant, watched the Indigo from a distance, “and when I saw that HP backed it up, I was very interested. I thought it would be a good fit for our conventional label work, but the others didn’t want to go in that direction.”

Steve Smith, left, and Peter Renton, of Lightning Labels, with one of their two HP Indigo 2000 presses
So Mulcahey left the family operation, and in July 2003 teamed up with partner Matt Walsh and established Digital Dogma, a label shop in Santa Fe Springs, CA. The press? An HP Indigo 4000. No flexo. A few months ago they installed their second press: An HP Indigo 4050. The company, which employs eight people, also has two Omega Digicons for the finishing work.

“I wasn’t taking business away from the family, because they weren’t doing four-color process,” Mulcahey says. So whom did he call upon to sell labels? “Nobody. They called me. Word got around.” Now Digital Dogma prints labels in the cosmetics market, the wine market, and a host of others.

Another digital-only converter is Lightning Labels, in Denver, CO, USA, operated by Peter Renton and Steve Smith. Two years ago the company did a half-million dollars in sales. This year it’s $1.5 million, and Renton expects to top $2 million next year. Digital label printing has been so busy, he said, that he sold his original business (a stock label supplier) when the new company was bringing in double the income.

Lightning Labels recently acquired its second HP Indigo ws2000 press. The company uses a Rotoflex Varicut machine for post-print converting.

“We feel that the markets for 500 or 1,000 labels is just huge,” Renton says. “We compete more with people who print at home on their inkjet printers.”

As with the people at Digital Dogma, the acquisition of the second press eased the minds of Lightning Labels’ people. “We get more than your average person who wants their labels in a hurry,” says Renton, “so we can’t afford to be down for a day. We were down for a couple of days in August, and that just about killed us. Now we’ll be able to handle peak demands with ease.”

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