Four-color digital inkjet label printers are making a bid to find a home in the narrow web marketplace, as the digital segment shows steady growth among converters and customers.
By Jack Kenny
At every Labelexpo, the question most asked by everyone is “What’s new?” What have we seen on the show floor that is revolutionary, not just evolutionary? Who is pushing the frontier out farther than the others? In Chicago this year, there were no shocks or gasps, but quite a few nods of appreciation in the direction of products and concepts that show promise in our industry. Probably the most significant were in the arena of digital print technology.
Digital printing is always examined carefully by narrow web converters because it is still the new kid on the block. Lately the look-see by the printers has been getting closer, because customers have changed, in the products they offer and in their demands.
The big kids on the block have always been HP Indigo and Xeikon, in size and in longevity in the marketplace. Their technology employs toners: dry toner with Xeikon and liquid electrostatic toner in the HP machine. In the late 1990s, a group of converters along with a press manufacturer began flirting with inkjet. A one-color unit was developed for insertion inline into a flexo press, and apparently a few of those — the unit was called the Argio — remain in use to this day.
Mark Andy then picked up the inkjet torch and developed a module that would print four-color process using inkjet heads, said module mounted in the middle of a 2200 press. It was shown at Labelexpo a couple of times, but development has not gone further.
Now, it appears, the time has come for the inkjet companies to get into the digital inkjet label printing business. Jetrion and Sun Chemical both introduced digital inkjet label presses at Labelexpo Americas this year, the former with a machine at the booth, the latter with a video and word that the first press was just coming off the production line. Attendees were impressed.
These are not small inkjet units. They are large, square machines that can print four-color rollfed labels at substantial speeds.
“We are the only company that manufactures hardware and ink,” says Ken Stack, president of Jetrion, of Ypsilanti, MI, USA, which also makes add-on inkjet units for presses. “The new Jetrion 4000 is a digital UV inkjet press, and it requires no need for
|The Jetrion 4000|
The 4000, he says, was developed for short and medium production runs, as well as for variable data imaging. Because the press is fully digital, printed data can change constantly; no plates or fixed images are involved. The model shown at Labelexpo was the demo; Stack says that the unit will be available in the first quarter of 2007.
Jetrion developed a set of UV curable inks for the press, which Stack says can print at fast speeds on a wide range of papers, films, foils, and small caliper tag stocks. Imaging width ranges from four to eight inches, and speed is up to 65 fpm (20m/min.), depending on the substrate. The print engine is the Xaar Leopard, the maximum roll diameter is 22" (560mm), and the machine is 60" wide and 42" deep.
“Our UV digital inkjet color technology holds tremendous promise with its grayscale quality of print, making it a perfect fit for secondary labels and industrial labels,” Stack says. The ink quality, he notes, “is not up to that required for wine labels. This is good for secondary and back labels, warning signs, auto and chemical labels, and similar products. This is a sub-segment that makes up more than 50 percent of the market. The Jetrion 4000 provides quality images at higher production speeds with lower operating costs than other, more complex digital printing systems.”
In a 4" width, the Jetrion 4000 has a price tag of $299,000. The 6" width model is $350,000, and the 8" press is $400,000, Stack says.
Also in the first quarter of next year the industry will see the availability of the Solaris Digital Label Press, a first for Sun Chemical, of Northlake, IL, USA, the world’s largest ink manufacturer. The press is a joint development between Sun Chemical Digital and ITI, an equipment manufacturer based in Boulder, CO, USA.
Jeff Wettersten, business development manager for inkjet business at Sun Chemical, says that the development of inkjet application equipment is a logical step for a company such as Sun Chemical. “The OEM print head providers, such as the Spectras and the Xaars, have been struggling in this area. The next level up is the integrators who are developing them into presses and the business solution, if you will. Then you have the chemistry providers,” he says.
“Sun has mastery of the chemistry and physical properties of jetting ink. We have well established competency around the marketplace, in the management of markets and in satisfying and servicing customer requirements through existing infrastructures and distribution structures. These provide very good opportunities for integrators to want to participate with Sun. They could develop the technology, but they really didn’t have the infrastructure in place to pursue these markets.”
Sun Chemical, he notes, developed a digital application of inks onto corrugated board in the recent past, and that led to narrow web. Then they partnered with ITI to develop what they consider is “a good solution for an entry level press in the label market.”
As of Labelexpo, Sun Chemical had a demo model at its plant in Carlstadt, NJ, USA. By the end of this year, Wettersten says, a beta site will be in operation.
The Solaris also is a four-color UV inkjet press. It uses Xaar OmniDot grayscale heads, operates at print speeds up to 150 fpm (45m/min.) and has a print width range of 2.1" ($225,000), 4.2" ($275,000) and 6.3" ($325,000).
As with the Jetrion inkjet machine, the quality differs from that of other digital presses on the market. “It’s not to the HP Indigo level,” says Wettersten, “and that’s in part by design. The current state of inkjet technology is not capable of achieving that level of quality.
“Our digital inkjet press is positioned to be able to offload a significant portion of the traditional flexo business that’s run today in a typical converting environment,” he adds. “It is designed and developed to slot in from a capital standpoint at a much lower threshold from the HP Indigo, and at a much higher output.”
Wettersten sees a bright future for digital inkjet, despite the slow beginnings. “I have no doubt about that,” he says. “If you look at the technology today compared against where it was three years ago, from a quality standpoint it has gotten dramatically better. Three years ago, if you were printing at 300 x 300 dpi in binary mode you were at the high end of print capability at that time. Today that’s standard for the industry, and is considered to be the old workhorse. Now, because it’s grayscale, inkjet printing can have an apparent resolution of 1000 x 1000 dpi or better. So the image quality in the past few years has dramatically improved, as have speeds and volumes.”
Xeikon’s latest entry
The established digital press manufacturers have been busy with improvements to their technologies as well. The Xeikon digital press (Xeikon is owned by Punch Graphix of Belgium and has a US office in Itasca, IL.) received a major upgrade this year with the introduction of the Xeikon 6000, its new web-fed digital color press. The machine includes a new digital front end (X-800) and form adapted (FA) toner. It offers benefits over the Xeikon 5000, which has been on the market since February 2004.
The Xeikon 6000 is aimed more at commercial printers because it prints and creates multi-page documents. Punch Graphix also offers the Xeikon 330, aimed at the labeling and packaging industries, which it showcased at Labelexpo. The 330 is the company’s fourth generation digital color press, running inline with the Xeikon LabelSprint digital finishing system to produce fully finished, high quality labels. It has a top speed of 48 feet per minute and a web width of 13".
The Indigo factor
The leader of the pack in the digital world, of course, is HP Indigo. Labelexpo Americas saw the introduction of the latest version, the ws4500, which contains a few improvements but not enough to render obsolete any existing equipment. Instead, the features of the ws4500, such as the ability to change different colored inks without stopping the press, are available to existing customers as an upgrade.
The 4500 offers about 10 percent more productivity than the previous generations, the 4050 and the 4000.
HP Indigo is enjoying substantial success. Alon Bar-Shany, vice president and general manager, says that the division is growing at 30 to 40 percent per year. “We want to have the top volume of press sales in the label industry,” Bar-Shany says, “and we are getting close to that.” At the moment the largest market for the digital label press is Europe, followed by the US, Latin America and Australia.
More than 100 presses are now sold each year, Bar-Shany says. The ws4050 alone sold 300 units to the label converting marketplace.
Still, many hesitate to make the substantial investment in the press and the necessary finishing equipment. “A lot of converters need help to make the decision,” Bar-Shany notes. “They know that they want the HP, but they need to know more abut the technology, the return on investment, the jobs that they can print. Most runs are moderately short, though they range from extra short to pretty long.” Growing markets for digital labels include nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals and wine.
Once labels are printed on the digital press, they have to be diecut, but also perhaps embossed or given a foil treatment, or some screen printed ink, and inspected as well, and finally slit and rewound. Enter the finishers.
Among the companies that supply finishing systems for HP Indigo digital presses, as well as others, are Rotoflex, of Mississauga, Canada, and AB Graphic International, of Bridlington, England. According to Alon Bar-Shany, the Digicon manufactured by AB Graphic is the best seller among HP Indigo owners. Al Spendlow, VP of operations for AB Graphic, estimates that 85 percent of Indigo users worldwide have one of his company’s machines.
“We continue to improve the Digicon, to make the equipment more efficient using the technology that we already have,” Spendlow says. “One new development is an automated slitting setup using crush knives which are servo positioned, using a bar code on the web that pulls the knife positions from the database in the machine’s memory.”
With Stork Prints, AB Graphic has been supplying rotary screen heads on the Digicon, and is in development now of a semi-rotary screen unit.
The Digicon offers different versions of foil application, using either anvil or magnetic foiling cylinders. Two foil-saving configurations are also available.
Three Digicon models are produced. The Digicon E is the entry level machine, featuring lamination, flood coat flexo, UV curing, diecutting, matrix stripping, slitting, and rewinding. That machine, says Spendlow, accounts for 5 percent of Digicon sales.
Next is the S model, which includes a hot air dryer, semi-rotary spot varnish, cold foil, supervarnish, wet laminate, and laminate with a carrier rewind. Half of Digicon buyers choose that model.
The HS model has all of the features offered on the S, with the addition of hot foil application. The HS accounts for 45 percent of the Digicon sales, Spendlow says, along with custom designed models.
Matan launches new Spring unit
Matan Digital Printers, of Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel, has introduced the third generation of its Spring12 line of six-color digital thermal transfer printers: Matan SprinG3. The SprinG3 delivers faster printing speed and accepts a wider range of substrates, according to Matan President Hanan Yosefi.
“The third generation of the Matan Spring is the fruit of an extensive development process, resulting in the creation of innovative proprietary print head technology designed specifically for the Matan Spring product line,” Yosefi says. “The new print heads and the related software significantly improve the overall performance of the Spring printing system. Within the same system specifications, there is a dramatic leap forward in print quality and actual printing speeds. Improved quality parameters include enhanced trapping results, more vivid colors with higher gloss level and smoother tints. Productivity may increase up to 300 percent, since desired quality can be achieved in faster print modes. In addition, identifying the appropriate print parameters is much faster and easier.
“The new SprinG3 can now print with much broader media versatility, allowing quality printing on substrates including many types of paper, coarse-surfaced media and exotic substrates such as diamond grade reflective sheeting.”
One of the options for the SprinG3 is the enhanced Flex-Print system, enabling “digital hot stamping” on preprinted media rolls from any print platform, analog or digital. The automatic optical registration system allows overprinting at an accuracy rate of 0.1mm (0.004"), the company says.
Romancing digital: ‘A huge change of mindset’
Editor’s note: Label World, of Rochester, NY, USA, the subject of our Narrow Web Profile this issue, has had an HP Indigo digital label press in-house for a little more than a year. During the interview, President Richard Spencer and VP John McDermott told of how the use of such a machine can change — and has changed — the way the converter and the customer think about labels and packaging. Following are excerpts from that discussion.
McDermott: Working with the HP Indigo has been a relatively slow learning process, a slow ramp up for us. Initially we spent time trying to understand, productionwise, how to get it up and running properly, training the people. We also had to factor in the finishing station, a Rotoflex Vericut.
When I first arrived there were questions about how to sell digitally printed labels, but those are behind us now. There is no question among our sales and customer service people how to talk about digital to the customer.
Spencer: Sure, it’s great for short run stuff, although we’re pretty good at doing short run in the flexo shop because we have a lot of short run work. But we are doing some really exciting stuff with variable data printing. Every label has some unique features on it somehow.
McDermott: The behavior is changing at the customer as they learn about the digital press. One example is a company with a division that was sold. They had to transition the labels and asked us to do all the rebranding. There are 830 labels in the total package. Most are very small runs, but a number of them are long runs. Because they know that they will go through several sets of rebranding over the next year, it was much easier for them to say ‘Just print the whole thing digitally, and we won’t have to worry about new plates and other print costs. When we come out of this we will re-rationalize what we want to run flexo
|The HP Indigo ws4050 digital label press at Label World|
Spencer: It’s a huge change of mindset. People have been trained over the years to say that if it’s a low runner the answer is to run a year’s inventory, because otherwise the price is too high. Then labels change all the time, especially in some markets, and therefore they end up throwing them away. So what the smart customers have figured out, when they really look at the total cost of ownership — the cost of holding all that inventory, storing it, moving it, obsoleting it, throwing out stuff — the labels are actually costing them two or three times as much. They discover that they can get a week’s supply printed digitally and can change it whenever they want to. Even though the piece price might be higher, they are figuring out that the equation is beneficial to them. And they can get better quality and features that cannot be achieved on a flexo press.