Digital Label Printing

November 13, 2009

HP Indigo retains its dominance in the growing digital label market, but inkjet is making a strong bid for a share.

Digital Label Printing

Under the hood of the HP Indigo WS6000

HP Indigo retains its dominance in the growing digital label market, but inkjet is making a strong bid for a share.

By Jack Kenny

Nearly a decade and a half after its introduction to the rollfed label industry, digital print is flourishing. Converters are no longer wary of the technology, or waiting to see what the competition might do with it. Forward-thinking label printers have long been ahead of the curve, and today the greater bulk of the industry players are showing up at the dance.

Many years ago, Labelexpo set up a separate area for digital print exhibitors at one of the Chicago shows. It was not a roaring success, probably because the technology was in its childhood. This year the Labelexpo people added an entire exhibition hall at the show in Brussels just for digital systems and equipment, and it turned out to be the high energy locus of the whole event.

At the Label Industry Awards banquet, held on the evening of the first day of the show, EFI won the New Innovation Award for its Jetrion UV inkjet press. On the show floor, HP drew steady crowds around its new Indigo WS6000 label press, a machine with twice the speed and repeat of the company’s ws4500. Primera, which markets a tabletop digital laser press for label manufacture, demonstrated its power as a small, affordable digital alternative. Allen Datagraph Systems showed its new desktop inkjet press that features a compact converting system.

Inkjet presses were numerous, both inside the digital hall and without. Nilpeter presented its Caslon unit, Omet introduced its X-Jet module, and Stork Prints unveiled a complete four-color stand-alone inkjet press.

The main reason for the sharp rise in interest among converters in digital print technology is that their customers are driving them toward it. SKUs are proliferating and there is no end in sight for that trend. Short runs, increasing in frequency over the years, are ever more present in the product mix (see Short Run Labels on page 50). With its low waste, fast setup and lack of plates, digital label printing is meeting those marketplace demands.

Rosemary Joralemon of Info Label, which is the subject of our narrow web profile in this issue (page 36), says that half of the company’s production is now printed digitally, a technology that the company introduced less than three years ago. “We analyze every job and decide if it is better produced as a flexo job or a digital job,” she says. “More and more projects are coming in looking like digital jobs, because there’s little that the HP Indigos cannot do.”

HP’s Indigo WS6000 is the new big boy on the block. Introduced in prototype at Drupa last year, it has been in production throughout most of 2009, and sales have been better than anticipated.

“The 6000 took off really fast,” says Retha Petruzates, segment marketing manager, HP Indigo Labels and Packaging. “As of Labelexpo Europe, sales were 50-50 between the ws4500 and the WS6000. We have had new users who bought two of them. Others have replaced their 4500s, while others added to their 4500s. And we see a lot more flexo printing moving to the 6000 than to the 4500.”

The ws4500 has been HP Indigo’s flagship in the label business, but today its executives declare that they have two flagships. The 4500 has a 17" repeat, and prints at speeds of up to 100 fpm. The 6000, on the other hand, has a 36" repeat and can run at up to 200 fpm. Those familiar with both presses say that the 6000, which is meant for jobs that are longer than the shortest runs, performs significantly faster than the 4500.

HP Indigo’s technology and its inks are proprietary, and will not soon be duplicated by other manufacturers. Inkjet, however, is accessible, and it’s obvious that digital inkjet is jostling for more room on the digital stage. (See Inkjet Printing Equipment, page 46.)

Danish press manufacturer Nilpeter has been steadily making improvements to its Caslon digital inkjet platform, which is built as a stand-alone unit or for incorporation into its FA-Line presses. The inkjet press utilizes Xaar print heads (as do mostof the UV inkjet presses in the label industry today), and inks developed specifically for the Caslon by Nilpeter and produced by Sun Chemical. According to Jakob Landberg, Nilpeter’s vice president of sales and marketing, the company is now on its third generation of Caslon inks.

Nilpeter has sold seven Caslons to date in locations around the world. Landberg says that half are stand-alone, and half are integrated into FA-Line presses. “We have been perfecting it for two years,” he says. “It’s pretty new technology in our industry. Inkjet has been in banners and big promotions, and those are viewed from a distance. We look at labels, however, through a microscope. Developing a new ink is not something that takes a day; it takes weeks.”

EFI Jetrion, one of the pioneers of stand-alone UV inkjet presses in our industry, is seeing growth in sales of its four-color press. The company produces its own inks for the system, which is available in a variety of widths.

According to VP Kenneth Stack, who has been involved with the development of the press from its inception several years ago, the new model 4830 is wider and faster. It has a web width of up to 8.3", and now offers a single-pass white ink. “White ink is 15 percent of the label market,” Stack says. “The opacity of ours rivals that of flexography.”

The speed of the 4830, he adds, is now up to 120-plus fpm (37+ m/min.)

The DSI digital inkjet label press from Stork Prints
Stork Prints is well known in the label industry for supplying RotaScreen rotary screen units. What it is not known for in this market is its expertise in UV inkjet printing. That is now changing. The company unveiled its DSI 4330 press at Labelexpo Europe, backed by its history of more than 20 years in inkjet in other markets, such as textiles and RFID. “What we have done in the label industry is take the experience we have with inkjet and put it into a digital press for label printing,” says Bert Grootjen, program manager.

Though the press has Xaar inkjet heads, “everything surrounding the head – the ink handling, positioning of the head – is all manufactured by Stork Prints. Since we have been making inkjet heads and parts ourselves in the past, we have combined some of our technology in this press.”

The DSI (Digital System Integration) has a web width of 330mm (13"), a speed of 35 m/min. (115 fpm), and can print on a wide range of coated and uncoated substrates. It features LED curing between the print heads for fixation of droplets, and full curing by UV at the end. Stork Prints manufactures its own inks for the press.

“The system is modular, so if we want to expand, it’s possible to increase the converting options,” Grootjen says. “We have isolated the web transport, so you can virtually put anything in front or behind the print module without disturbing the web or the print quality. At Labelexpo we showed a machine with digital and semi-rotary flexo, for varnish, and semi-rotary diecutting. Because it’s modular, you can put anything inline, but digital is for the short run, so if you make the press with a very long web path, you have to ask yourself if you are you still achieving your goal.”

The converting portion of the press is manufactured by AB Graphic International, and EskoArtwork supplies the digital workflow.

Xeikon, which entered the digital print market in the mid 1990s with its toner-based label press, has embarked on a renewed sales and marketing push in the industry. Thus, it’s presence at Labelexpo in the digital hall was prominent.

Michael Ring, VP of sales for Xeikon’s North American operation, says that in some ways digital print is becoming commoditized, and that traditional flexo printers should be concerned by that. But, he adds, “digital is not a replacement, but rather another tool. We are bringing knowledge to the marketplace.”
Xeikon markets its 3300 rollfed press to the label market. The machine offers 1200 dpi resolution at four bits per spot, has a top speed of 19.2 m/min (63 fpm) and a duty cycle of 700,000 meters (2.3 million feet) per month. The press includes four colors for CMYK and a fifth to add opaque white or spot colors.

Very short runs

Serving the very short run market is Primera Technology, which recently introduced its CX1200 digital label press. The machine prints using laser applied toner in CMYK process.

“Our booth at Labelexpo Europe was mobbed from the beginning of the show until an hour after it ended each day,” says Primera’s VP of sales and marketing, Mark Strobel. “Since the show we have sold a number of units.” Those most willing to acquire a CX press are those who already have some digital experience, he adds. “Quite a number of our machines have gone to companies that own larger big-name digital presses. The waste on a CX is one to three feet on the front and the back, and the first label that comes out is identical to the last label.”

Like all others, Strobel sees the impetus for very short run labels coming from the acceleration of SKUs. “A lot of private labeling is being printed on these presses, with variations throughout the run,” he says. “The customer will need 30 different sets of information on any given day with 200 to 300 labels each. It’s very difficult to run that type of work on any other press.”

Primera’s CX1200 press runs laser qualified substrates. Recently the CX has been used to print on cork, fabrics, nonwovens, and magnetic sheeting. Press speed is a fixed 16 fpm, and the maximum roll diameter is 12".

In February 2010, Primera will roll out its FX1200 finishing system for the CX1200. The FX will laminate, cut shapes, strip matrix, slit and rewind into multiple rolls. The dieless cutter utilizes four knives to increase the finishing speed. The FX will retail for about $23,000, and the CX is around $19,000, but the two will be bundled for $40,000.

Allen Datagraph’s iTech Axxis Digital Label System, featuring a four-color Epson inkjet printer and a converting station, all fitting on a desktop.
Brand new to the inkjet label print space is the iTech Axxis Digital Label System, from Allen Datagraph Systems Inc. This rollfed tabletop product is a combination of printer and converting unit and is geared for the extreme short run market. The Epson industrial four-color printer can handle rolls from 4" to 81⁄2" wide, and is capable of a maximum print resolution of 1440 x 5760 dpi. At a resolution of 720 dpi it can run up to 700 feet per hour on a 4" substrate. The unit handles rolls up to a diameter of 11". The converting station, designed and manufactured by Allen Datagraph, provides overlamination, digital dieless cutting (via a knife), matrix stripping, and rewinding.

“The interest in the iTech Axxis has been overwhelming – beyond our expectations,” says Mark Vanover, the company’s VP of sales and marketing. “We are taking plenty of orders, and are beginning deliveries in early December. Interest is coming from all sorts of end users, both traditional tag and label converters, as well as from very large consumer products companies. One of our customers has 10 flexo presses and an HP Indigo.

“Customers tell us multiple times a day about their need to print extra short runs that can’t economically be produced on flexo or the Indigo. It’s the finishing capability of our system that’s attracting them. If they need 500 little labels, that’s five frames on the Indigo and all that waste. Four or five years ago they would have turned those customers away, they tell me, but they can’t do that any more,” says Vanover.

Pricing for the iTech Axxis is about $25,000 in the US. The company is now working on distribution in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Press manufacturer Omet is well known for its multi-combination printing and packaging presses. This year it has introduced its own inkjet module, which can be used as a stand-alone press or incorporated into its X-Flex flexographic press.

Steve Leiben of Matik, which markets Omet equipment in North America, declares that the advantage of the X-Jet is its 16" wide web width and the flexibility of the platform to work in combination with other print and converting processes. The X-Jet made its introduction at Labelexpo Europe, and with it was the new Mono Twin finishing unit, receiving the inkjet-printed substrate and running it through a series of converting functions. Available processes include diecutting, flexographic and screen printing, as well as foil application.

This is a time of health and excitement for label printers who know that now they can serve the expanding needs of existing and new customers with digital magic. One such company is Whitlam Label, based in Center Line, MI, USA, whose fortunes in the past were tied to the automotive industry, but which now has diversified and entered other markets. The company is active in prime labels, flexible packaging, high performance labels, and security products, among many others.

Whitlam Label prints using flexographic presses, and also owns an HP Indigo digital press. Very recently, the company took possession of a new EFI Jetrion 4830 digital inkjet press, and was enjoying running tests of various products. Why add a second, different digital press?

“We have a lot of opportunities with lower volume silkscreen type applications,” says Alex Elezaj, VP of sales and marketing. “We looked at this machine to give us that type of quality. The ink laydown is very good.

“Customers in outdoor equipment and heavy machinery have a need for it, and many of them need only a thousand, or only 50 labels. These are all custom labels with variable information. The beauty of this inkjet process,” adds Elezaj, “is the minimal waste.”

The digital workflow: Partners in prepress

By Dennis Mason

Flexo printers, like their lithographic counterparts, now face a true technological shift – digital printing – that promises to dramatically impact their business. Labelexpo Europe in Brussels in September 2009 added a new hall, just to showcase digital printing technology. And although printers in Brussels were duly impressed with the quality and speed of the various digital offerings, printing digitally involves more than simply installing a digital press where a flexo press otherwise would go. Most label printers currently use a workflow based on the flexo process, and digital is different, so the issue is how best to make the transition.

On the HP stand in Brussels, the makers of the Indigo presses recognized the workflow issues facing printers, and showed how to deal with the new environment. One such demonstration consisted of a partnership between two software vendors: Tailored Solutions, the maker of the popular Label Traxx print business management program, and EskoArtwork, which offers the Esko BackStage prepress production software. Label Traxx and Esko BackStage showed how the two programs interface to smooth out label production workflow.

The Esko BackStage/Label Traxx communications begin when the job specifications and artwork are seamlessly transmitted from Label Traxx, where they have been input by the customer service representative or estimator. An important aspect of the initial information transfer is that prepress personnel need not re-enter any data, thus eliminating possible errors. All pertinent information in the product database – including customer name, order number, and reference to other similar jobs – is available to the Esko BackStage operator for reference. Because the two programs communicate in real time, both CSRs and prepress operators are prompted immediately to perform any necessary operations, and the print business management system is instantaneously apprised of any changes in job status. Also because of the constant connection, the job as finally prepared by the prepress operator can be approved for production by the CSR or anyone else designated by the individual manufacturer’s workflow, based on an alert created the moment prepress work is complete. An interesting supporting feature in Label Traxx is its E-Traxx module, which provides label printers’ customers with an online view of current job status and even enables customers to approve jobs on line. Thus, if desired, even the label customer can approve the final job layout before it is sent to production.

Esko BackStage and Label Traxx are able to communicate because both adhere to the JDF (Job Definition Format) and JMF (Job Messaging Format) protocols, which are rapidly becoming the de facto standards in the printing industry for machine-to-machine and machine-to-MIS information exchange. The protocols were developed by an industry consortium known as CIP4 (the International Cooperation for the Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press, and Postpress), a voluntary collaboration of key industry players which establishes protocols used in virtually all modern printing equipment and software. Both Tailored Solutions and EskoArtwork are members of the organization, which promises to simplify communications throughout the printing industry.
Dennis Mason is the president of Mason Consulting Inc. which numbers Label Traxx among its clientele. The web address is
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