Digital Printing

November 12, 2008

Its enthusiastic acceptance by converters of all sizes has helped the large player, the smaller suppliers and the hopefuls meet growing demand and introduce more powerful products.

Digital Printing

Digital printing is now a strong presence in the label industry. Its enthusiastic acceptance by converters of all sizes has helped the large player, the smaller suppliers and the hopefuls meet growing demand and introduce more powerful products.

By Jack Kenny

Xeikon's booth at Labelexpo Americas 2008 in Chicago, featuring the new 3300 press.
Michael Ring is about to complete the most challenging year of his career. Ring was hired not long ago by Xeikon as vice president of sales and chief marketing officer, a job that requires him to take a moribund brand and b reathe life back into it. Everybody remembers Xeikon, the digital press that went away. Now it’s back, and with a new machine, and it’s Ring’s job to make sure that everyone understands that.

Despite the disastrous economy, Xeikon’s push comes at a good time for digital printing as a segment. The future of print is digital, and to an increasing extent the present also is digital. Flexo is still the dominant label printing technology, and will remain so for years to come, but it’s worth looking at the recent past and briefly chronicling the technology shifts.

Indigo and Xeikon emerged in the mid 1990s with their large digital presses. UV flexo was in its ascendancy, which soon spelled an end to new letterpress sales in the label market. At the same time, rotary screen modules were growing in popularity. Attempts by Webtron and Mark Andy to create digital inkjet modules within flexographic presses were not successful, and for a while, it appeared that interest in digital machines was just floating along.

That began to change a few years ago. HP, which now owns the Indigo brand, is triumphing with its digital press, enjoying the reputation as having one of the best-selling presses on earth. At the opposite end of the size and cost scale is Degrava Systems, with its desktop four-color rollfed unit, also attracting significant attention. Somewhere between are the new digital inkjet contenders, whose ranks over the past four years have swelled from one to two to five or more.

Into this picture Xeikon re-emerges.

Over the past decade, Xeikon’s parent company, Punch Graphix, based in Belgium, underwent internal upheavals. “Management spent a lot of time trying to get back control of the company, and in the US there was a revolving door of management. It was a combination of errors,” says Ring. “They have incredible technology but failed on the tactical execution, the value proposition of customer care. They just were riding the annuity of the service and toner revenue. That’s a going-out-of-business strategy.

“I give a lot of credit to the company for realizing that if they infuse capital into R&D they could really come out and be positioned well. Through all this management change and poor marketing execution and not necessarily proper sales management, they were infusing R&D with dollars.”

When Ring came in he dismissed most of the sales force. “This is a tough sell,” he says. “You don’t need a digital press. A lot of the people have been in the industry for two or three generations and have been thinking about digital, and the handwriting on the wall says it’s going to go digital, but you don’t have to go digital today. It’s not a necessity. You can wait a little bit.

“So we have to position ourselves properly. What’s our base? What’s the churn of the base? What’s the defection of the base? That’s what we need to look at the most, and we are also looking at adjacent markets.”

“I think a bad economy is a good thing,” Ring suggests, “because it forces you to look at your business model, to look at every aspect of your business, and if you are going to make change, now is the time to do it.”

Xeikon recently made two unusual moves in North America. They established distribution partnerships with two companies – RBCOR in the west and JV Imaging Solutions in the east – to help market the Xeikon brand and technology. Both RBCOR and JV are distributors of flexographic printing plates, and so their move to work with a digital press maker indicates their awareness of change in the marketplace.

“We’re marketing Xeikon like an olympic athlete,” says Ring. “We are going to stay in our lane and run our hardest. I’m not going to try to trick the guy next to me. We are going to run on our own merits. We are going to align the value proposition of our technology to the requirements of the market, and if it fits for some people then it fits. If it doesn’t fit then it wasn’t the right alignment and we’ll move on.”

Xeikon presses use toner for printing, are available in five colors, have no repeat and no frames, and the new model 3300 can reach speeds of 63 fpm. Substrates require no coatings.

HP Indigo: A challenge to flexo

Meanwhile, the ws4500 by HP Indigo is proving to be a runaway bestseller. Alon Bar-Shany, vice president and general manager of the Indigo division, says that label industry growth overall is 4 percent, and that digital label growth is at a remarkable 45 percent. Packaging as a whole, he adds, is growing at 4 percent, and digital packaging products are at 59 percent. And the ws4500 press is out in front of the pack that is making those numbers.

The HP Indigo WS6000 at Labelexpo Americas
“In 2003 we had under 200 of our industrial presses operating, and in 2007 we had more than 600,” says Bar-Shany, adding that by the end of 2008 the company estimates that HP presses “will account for 73 percent of the 1,007 digital label presses installed worldwide.”

This year the company introduced a new digital press, a muscular sibling known as the WS6000. This press, which will be ready for delivery in early 2009, is faster and has a longer repeat length than the ws4500.

“The 4500 continues to be the work horse of our portfolio,” Bar-Shany says. “The 6000 is a high-end industrial press.”

Vince Pentella, national business manager for HP Indigo, says that the 6000 is aimed more at the longer-run market. “It can handle short run, but you wouldn’t buy it for that,” he says. Pentella estimates that sales of the 6000 press in the near future will be about half of the expected sales of the 4500.

The WS6000 will print in four colors at 100 fpm, and in two colors at 200 fpm. The repeat length is up to 39", and the ink cannisters are larger than on the 4500. The physical footprint is the same for both machines.

“This is a challenge to flexo,” says Pentella. “The 4000 series took on the Webtrons and some Mark Andys. I think that now we will make a further impact on the flexo market with the 6000. We definitely see this as taking on flexo.”

The inkjet bid

Inkjet has been around for quite some time, but only in the first decade of the 21st Century have inkjet label presses emerged as serious contenders for market share. First on the scene was Jetrion, which came out of Flint and now is owned by EFI. That was followed soon by Sun Chemical’s SolarJet, also a stand-alone UV inkjet label press.

This year at Drupa, and again at Labelexpo, inkjet seemed to be everywhere. Epson brought its press to Chicago, as did Delta Industrial, Stork Prints and Nilpeter.

EFI Jetrion’s press has several new features, including workflow software and RIP, along with a new ink set. “We can print on any synthetic substrate,” says VP Ken Stack, “with generally no corona treating. We have drastically increased the number of matte papers we can print on as well.” The Jetrion press can print on pre-diecut blank labels and register them on the fly.

Sun Chemical’s SolarJet is equipped with Xaar 760 printheads, which provide a visual resolution of 900x900 dpi. The company has capitalized on its ink expertise to develop SunJet UV inks for use in the SolarJet. The four-color press can print at a speed of up to 80 fpm, and offers print widths from 2.1" to 6.3".

The new DSI inkjet module from Stork Prints
Stork Prints introduced its DSI inkjet module this year, marking the company’s entry into the field. The DSI – which stands for Digital System Integration – has what the company describes as an “open platform,” meaning that “it is easy to integrate into presses from many label printing press manufacturers,” says Danny Sheikh, vice president and general manager of Stork Prints America.

The unit has a top speed of 115 fpm, and can handle all major paper and film label substrates, Sheikh says. “It gives label printers the chance to complement their existing press with inkjet technology, effectively topping up productivity, with short high value full color production runs, or configure it as a  dedicated press, alongside – for example – inline converting processes.”

Epson, a major player in the global inkjet business, showed up quietly at Labelexpo Europe last year with a prototype machine that turned some heads. This year Epson made noise about its new machine.

While many of the inkjet label presses available today utilize Xaar printheads, Epson employs its own MicroPiezo technology, which prints at 720 dpi in seven colors. It prints on substrates from all major suppliers without special coatings, and can handle rolls up to 13" wide. The Epson machine has a 36" repeat.

The Caslon inkjet press, from Nilpeter
Yet another inkjet project that made its debut in Belgium last year and showed itself in Chicago for the first time this year is Caslon, a high-end inkjet system from Nilpeter. The company describes Caslon as “a true industrial print concept, based on industrialized platforms and designed for heavy duty production.” The press is named for William Caslon, the 18th Century English designer of typefaces.

A four-color printer, Caslon features hybrid side-shooter heads that deposit UV curable inks. Print resolution can reach 720x360 dpi at eight gray levels. The maximum image size, depending on the configuration and integration with other Nilpeter presses, is 13" or 16" wide with a length of about 40". Print speed at the highest resolution is 41 fpm; at the lowest resolution (180x360 dpi) it is 166 fpm.

Nilpeter envisions two settings for the Caslon: a stand-alone inkjet press for printers who need special digital print applications without any inline processes or converting, or a high-end combination platform for the converter who wants to combine digital print with all standard print processes.

Degrava Systems’ 9500 prototype digital label printer

Really small runs

One company has sought to capitalize on the niche of label converters who require runs that are truly small. “Our business is in that 0-10,000 label run,” says Tim Sykes, VP of sales and marketing for Degrava Systems. “Our press is a stepping stone to the larger digital machines.”

Degrava made its debut several years ago with its four-color toner based printer, built around the Oki print engine. Its model DP8500 includes a fully licensed Pantone color library and support for SWOP, Japan Color, Euroscale and custom ink simulations.

The 8500 prints at a width of 81⁄4", at a speed of about 10 fpm, and its unwind can handle about 1,200 feet of pressure sensitive labelstock. It can print on most label substrates, with the exception of polypropylene. It can print from PC or Macintosh graphics programs, manage sequential or variable data, make color corrections on the fly, and archive jobs for future printing.

Sykes says that about half of the company’s unit sales are outside North America. He adds that a new generation of printer is on its way to the market, and that it will print on a 12" wide web at faster speeds, and will accept more substrates because the internal temperature will be significantly lower.

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