Digital Finishing

November 12, 2008

The manufacturers of digital finishing equipment are enjoying the popularity of today’s digital printing presses.

Digital Finishing

The manufacturers of digital finishing equipment are enjoying the popularity of today’s digital printing presses.

By Jack Kenny

From the beginning, digital label presses required the assistance of finishing equipment. When Indigo and Xeikon introduced their large digital printing machines in the mid 1990s it became apparent that a supplemental niche was there for the asking. The labels that came out of those two presses were in need of diecutting, foil stamping, slitting and whatever other converting processes might be required.

Industry suppliers were not slow in responding to the need. The companies that made the earliest efforts to provide finishing systems for the digital presses focused on inline solutions. The most dramatic of these was produced by Gallus, which created an impressive inline array of machinery starting with an Indigo at one end and the rewind a good goal kick away in the other direction. The high-end system was expensive, and eventually faded from view. Nilpeter was another company that created finishing solutions, both for Indigo and for Xeikon machines. Some of these are still in use today, but the Danish press manufacturer no longer makes or markets them.

Inline solutions turned out to be less popular than people thought they would be. The converting capabilities of diecutters, foil applicators, embossing units, etc., perform far faster than a digital press cranks out labels, which meant that the potential of the inline finishers was under-utilized. Also, a dedicated finishing unit couldn’t be used for jobs produced on other presses.

The next phase was the emergence of offline finishers for digital presses. The three big contenders were Rotoflex, AB Graphic International and Delta Industrial. Rotoflex has suffered recent financial woes and is reported to be seeking a buyer, but Delta and AB Graphic are still going strong in this industry segment. Two other companies that are taking advantage of the offline digital converting market are Aztech Converting Systems and Allen Datagraph Systems.

AB Graphic

AB Graphic’s market position took a significant leap last year in Brussels, at Labelexpo, when HP Indigo announced that it had named the British company as its preferred supplier of finishing systems. The company’s Digicon has become a highly popular unit for owners of one or more digital presses, and it offers a wide range of capabilities. Last year, AB Graphic introduced the Digicon Series 2.

The Digicon series 2 converting unit from AB Graphic International
“It was the result of 12 months of research and development and construction of prototypes,” says Al Spendlow, VP and COO of the company. “We probably came out with it a bit earlier than we should have, but we were forced to do so because of the announcement of the HP Indigo WS6000. We needed a machine to accommodate faster presses.”

The Digicon 2 offers faster setup speed, more functionality, and different cylinder sizes to accommodate the longer repeat on the 6000 press. “The rule of thumb is that one Digicon would maintain two HP Indigo 4500s. With the introduction of the faster 6000, we are pretty much one-to-one.

“When we brought the Series 2 out, we made the machine modular in every sense of the word – truly modular. Physically, you can put anything and everything into the machine. We used to be restricted to five modules: diecutting, foil application, overlamination, flexo, and embossing. On the Series 1 machines that was about as far as you can go. Now, with Series 2, you can literally have as much as you want,” says Spendlow.

The diecutting module on the Digicons is semi-rotary as opposed to full rotary. The systems use a magnetic cylinder with flexible dies.

“With full rotary equipment and solid tooling, either you limit your business to 10 sizes of cylinders, or you limit the business you take in. With semi-rotary and flexible dies, your opportunities are infinite. It can be exactly 12" or it can be so many millimeters. There’s a lot more you can do with semi-rotary,” Spendlow says. “Even if you buy a rotary magnetic cylinder, say 12", you still have to go to your tooling library, locate the die, go back and install it. The time it takes could be 30 minutes. Whereas with a flexible plate, I can set up a job on a Digicon in three minutes.”

Screen printing heads also are available on Digicons. These can be employed for laying down a tactile varnish on a wine label or on a health and beauty product label. “For this type of label, the converter might want two flexo heads, two foil stations and two embossing heads. They are not concerned about spending money. They are known for their quality. When it comes down to the finishing, that’s what makes people stand apart from everyone else.”

Spendlow acknowledges that a Digicon is a high-end acquisition. “You could pay 25 percent more for a Digicon, but the quality will be that much higher,” he says. “We recently introduced the smallest Digicon ever, and it has all the things that make it a Digicon: laminating, diecutting, rewind, but no flexo. The list price, delivered, is under $200,000.”

Delta Industrial

Delta's Spectrum converting unit, featuring the Edge laser cutter
Delta’s Spectrum converting system features a base of six rotary modules, including a flexo print head for UV coating. The die station on this unit is also semi-rotary, utilizing a magnetic cylinder and flexible dies. The system is constructed to work inline or offline.

Delta partnered with LasX, a manufacturer of laser cutting systems, to develop the Edge laser technology, which replaces mechanical diecutting. The speed of the laser cutter is dependent on the shapes to be cut. “With a simple shape the laser can move faster than 100 feet per minute,” says Jason Newville, design engineer.

Allen Datagraph Systems

Two finishing systems are manufactured by Allen Datagraph Systems, and these are far more economical than some of the other systems available. The company makes a Fusion system that utilizes a semi-rotary magnetic diecutting station, runs at 10" per second, and takes 24" diameter rolls.

According to President Mike Elliott, “The purpose of the Fusion was to build a lower cost unit that was simpler to run, a machine that doesn’t run at flexo speeds but instead runs at digital speeds. It’s a full converting system with overlamination, diecutting, slitting, stripping, and rewinding. We have a modular UV coating station that will be available in 2009.”

The price for the Fusion, he says, is under $75,000.

Allen Datagraph's Fusion system
Allen Datagraph also produces the Centra, a fully digital finishing system that cuts without using dies. “Instead, it uses a blade to cut the shapes.” Software transmits the image to the blade for cutting, and the only part that wears is the single blade. “Our Centra customers include owners of Indigo, Jetrion and Degrava presses,” says Elliott. The Centra costs under $35,000, he adds.

“We have targeted our equipment for people doing shorter runs,” Elliot notes. “We know the competitors out there and the laser guys, everyone who wants to go fast. If you are running 5,000 labels, it’s irrelevant whether you do them in a minute or an hour.”

Aztech Converting Systems

Aztech Converting's DieMaster RR
Aztech manufactures its DieMaster RR for digital converting, a servo controlled reregister system. “We build our machines to offer lamination, diecutting, printing and floodcoating, hot foil and cold foil, anything that’s needed,” says André Beaudoin, national sales manager. We can outfit the system with magnetic cylinders for use with flexible dies, or they can use fully engraved solid tools.”

Beaudoin says that the modular system can be reconfigured to perform whatever task is needed. “The servos can be shut off and it can run in full rotary follower mode for producing blank dies.”

The DieMaster is a full rotary reregistration system. “The world doesn’t need semi-rotary to accomplish reregistration diecutting,” says Beaudoin. “Unless you have very long repeats, you just don’t need it.”

As for cost, Beaudoin says: “I can put a machine on the floor for $125,000, which will run equally as well as a machine in the $300,000 range. To spend that money on something you are never going to maximize is not worth it. Nobody has to pay $300,000 on top of a $700,000 investment in a digital press.”