At left is the Primera CX1200 color label printer. To the right is the FX1200 finishing system.
The past two years appear to have served as a fermentation period, of sorts, during which label converters (among many other things) put off their capital equipment expenditures for the day that the economy turned upward again. Press manufacturers certainly felt the pinch, but today the slump is beginning to end. For digital press makers, it can almost be said that happy days are here again.
That sentiment is probably too extreme, but it is safe to say that many a digital press purveyor has machinery under assembly on the shop floor, especially since Labelexpo Americas, and a smile to go with it. That is because the customer, the label converter, has made up her mind to make that long awaited digital purchase.
“At Labelexpo in 2008 we believe that digital printing was still in the ‘gee whiz’ phase,” says Mark Strobel, vice president of sales and marketing for Primera Technology, Plymouth, MN, USA. “Back then they were still looking at the technology and saying, ‘I have to do this someday.’ Now they’re saying, ‘I’m ready!’ They come to us fairly educated at this point. They have done their homework.”
“Without a doubt the potential buyers are considerably more knowledgeable about digital,” says Vince Pentella, North American sales director for HP Indigo. “They are no longer awestruck by the technology. Now they come with more definitive questions, more probing questions.”
This year’s Labelexpo in Chicago proved to be a busy event for digital equipment manufacturers. “It was almost overwhelming,” says Per Frost, CEO of Durst Canada, based in Dorval, QC. We were very pleased with the response. We closed several orders at the show, and we are busy fulfilling those orders now.”
With the exception of a handful of all-digital enterprises, label converters print using conventional flexo, letterpress, screen, or offset equipment, and a growing number of those have digital presses, mostly one. A growing number have more than one, and some have three or four. This appears to be a trend that will continue.
Leading the way in market share is HP Indigo, whose original press made its debut in 1995. Since then the company has come a long way (from a privately held business to ownership by one of the top technology firms), both in reach and in technology. The newest press is the WS6000, introduced in March 2009, which has a repeat of 36" and a speed twice that of its ws4500 sibling.
“We have sold 150 WS6000 presses worldwide since it was launched,” says Pentella. About 45 percent of those are in Europe. Simply stated, companies are growing up and expanding. Probably 60 percent of sales so far are to existing HP customers, which means that we are getting a fair share of new clients.”
Some converters who acquired a WS6000 press have gone on to purchase a second, or a third. One such company is Dion Label Printing, Westfield, MA, USA, which did so six months after buying their first. The company already had a ws4050, and replaced it with the second 6000.
“The installation of our second HP Indigo WS6000 press has allowed us to increase the scope of products we can offer to our customers,” says Dion GM Randy Duhaime. “As a solutions provider, our customer’s needs ultimately determine the direction of our investments. Our customers will continue to benefit from the highest print quality while being able to achieve longer run lengths with the increased productivity of the WS6000.” Duhaime adds that having two of the same digital presses allows the company to use the same workflow, allowing for a leaner and more productive process from order entry through production.
HP still produces the Indigo 4500 series, the predecessor of the 6000. “We continue to see that as a very viable option,” says Pentella. “I would say that 80 percent of the label market is under $4-5 million per company. In many cases the 4500 would be a good fit with those customers.” HP is hoping to get trade-ins from early models so that those can be refurbished and sold.
Pentella sees the digital platform continue to eat into a percentage of jobs run in the label shop. Though HP says that the WS6000 is most cost-effective in the 13,000 to 15,000-foot run, “I see customers running jobs that way exceed that. They say that they can eliminate inventory costs and distribution costs. And the quality is considerably higher than they would have gotten from a conventional process.”
HP Indigo describes its printing process as digital offset. Ink – a proprietary formulation often referred to as a wet toner – moves from an offset blanket to the web via an electrostatic discharge.
Xeikon, which introduced its press around the same time as the Indigo made its debut 15 years ago, utilizes dry toner for printing.
For the past several years, the Xeikon flagship was the 3300. The rollfed press 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.
Xeikon introduced the new Model 3500 20" wide digital pressat Labelexpo Americas in Chicago this year.
“The Xeikon 3050 offers label converters an attractive entry-level investment into high quality digital label printing, with the additional flexibility of greater width,” says Filip Weymans, business development manager, labels and packaging. “It completes our Xeikon 3000 series, and we can now offer entry-level and high productivity versions in two print widths, all with the same high quality of printing.”
The flexible print width of the Xeikon 3050 allows customers to print according to the job requirements. Depending on their size, labels can be imposed more efficiently, which results in higher throughput. The press speed of 31.5 fpm (9.6 m/m) can be maintained regardless of whether four or five colors are printed. Like the other Xeikon presses, the 3050 is an LED-array-based digital press, printing at 1,200 dpi imaging resolution. It can print on a wide range of substrates, including such films as BOPP, PVC and PET.
One niche in the digital label printing market that certainly has attracted its share of attention is the tabletop printing/converting system. One of those, by Primera Technologies, makes use of a color laser printer. The other, from Allen Datagraph Systems Inc., Derry, NH, USA, uses an Epson inkjet printer.
“We didn’t think that in the long term inkjet was the right technology for us, mostly because of durability issues: UV and water resistance, for example,” says Mark Strobel. “When we went looking for different technologies we found that dry toner made a lot of sense. It’s inexpensive, has very strong UV resistance, and prints on a wide range of substrates.” Primera makes use of Lexmark laser machinery.
“We had to offer a solution that not only gave them the print technology they needed, but also included diecutting for a reasonable price. That has always been the stumblingblock for the digital technologies. You still have to finish the labels. There hasn’t been a reasonably priced finishing solution anywhere in the market. Our FX1200 for around $30,000 will laminate, digitally diecut, slit, and rewind.”
The diecutting, based on plotting technology, uses four blades, which quadruples the speed of a conventional plotter. “All of a sudden we are finishing labels at 16 fpm, which matches the speed of our printer.” The combination of the FX1200 with the CX1200 printer sells for around $50,000. It can print to a width of 8" on an 8.5" web, using rolls up to 12" in diameter.
Strobel says that the recession was a driver in pushingprinters and their customers to seek digital solutions. “We see that end users don’t want to take in extra inventory. And the converters are being pushed into digital for that reason. Higher quality labels, photographic quality on prime labels is extra difficult to produce in small quantities on a flexo press. It’s more that than anything else. The economy in the last two years have pushed people toward digital for that reason.
“Some of the other digital technologies might give you a different perspective,” he adds. “The others are for longer runs for different reasons. Ours are for short to medium runs.” Strobel adds that many of his customers also own a “heavy metal” digital press – meaning an Indigo or a Xeikon – and that the Primera meets the needs of the short to medium runs.
Also competing in the tabletop digital print/convert arena is Allen Datagraph, which launched its iTech Axxis Digital Label System in 2009.
“We have been delivering the systems for a year. Sales have far exceeded expectations, and we had high expectations,” says Mark Vanover, vice president of sales and marketing. “The real surprise at this point is that we have been making a large percentage of sales to end users. A lot of companies need 2,500 or fewer labels, some 500 or less. Converters know there’s an unmet need there. A third, maybe a little more, are looking for those converters, and come to me and buy the label technology. I knew we would get a portion of that market, the print-to-use market, but got a larger portion than we expected.”
One example he cited is a small industrial manufacturer in Arkansas who needed a total of 25,000 labels, some in quantities of 50 each, others up to 1,200. “They were throwing them away because they don’t need inventory. Another example is a maple sugar producer who was going to manufacture 15 new label shapes and spend $22,000 in dies. They bought our system and transformed the business. They can manufacture labels when needed, in any shape. And they can change labels with the season.”
Allen Datagraph’s system includes a cutting tool that accomplishes what a solid metal die would deliver. “Anything that you can design as a vector file in Adobe Illustrator we can cut,” says Vanover. The finishing system also strips matrix from the printed and cut roll and rewinds the labels.
The iTech Axxis Finisher’s print-to-cut registration is accomplished via the SMARTMark Optical Registration System, where multiple marks can be scanned to automatically adjust the cut file to compensate for any skew or scale issues that may have been caused by material instability. The technology insures precise label reproduction.
Half a decade ago, a company called Jetrion introduced a stand-alone inkjet press of industrial strength, printing four colors on webs up to eight inches with UV curable inks that it manufactured itself. The company was owned by Flint, the ink producer, but soon was acquired by EFI. Today, after a couple of incarnations, the EFI Jetrion press has found homes throughout the US and beyond, now offering a white ink, and presenting itself as an affordable and versatile digital alternative with an agreeable ROI.
“UV inkjet has advantages over other processes,” says Kenneth Stack, vice president of EFI Jetrion. “The inks have very high density and produce glossy print. UV curability means durability, similar to a UV flexo. Inkjet prints directly to many substrates, and eliminates the need for lamination and overvarnish, and offers a broad variety of end user applications.”
This year the company is touting the fact that the Jetrion is the “first ever digital print system to pass UL compliance,” a bonus for converters of durable labels. “It offers UL PGJI2 recognition on many substrates – PETs, vinyls, BOPPs. This means that there is no additional UL testing required, but a paper transfer only,” says Stack.
The Jetrion system is upwards of a quarter million dollars, and that does not include finishing equipment. At first the acceptance of the large inkjet press was on the slow side, but that has changed, and the marketplace is now entertaining several competitors with products in the same price and performance range.
Stork Prints, well known for its rotary screen products, has been in the inkjet press arena for more than a year with its DSI 4330 four-color press. The company has had decades of experience with inkjet in markets such as textiles and RFID, and now has extended that to the label field.
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. The company manufactures its own inks for the press.
The system is modular, so expansion of the number of colors is possible. The web transport is isolated, so that other modules can be mounted in front of or behind the print module without disturbing the web or the print quality.
CSAT entered the label market this year with its four-color digital inkjet press
“Our experience at Labelexpo this year was very positive,” says Natalie Gilbert, managing director of CSAT America. “We have been following up leads continually, and people are calling us back.” The company offers a four-color UV digital inkjet process, and Gilbert says that a white ink is in development. Web widths of four and eight inches are available today, and the press runs at 50 m/min (164 fpm).
Durst, a company based in northeast Italy with an operation in Dorval, QC, Canada, is yet another manufacturer of a large inkjet label press.
“People who have experience in digital printing have had a good degree of success, though some have had mixed experience,” says Per Frost. “Others haven’t tried it. Inkjet provides them with a new opportunity and a platform that they can consider.
“There are distinct attractions: the relatively high speed, as far as digital is concerned, opens people’s eyes. We included a white ink in our first wave of offerings. Now we have orange and violet as well, plus a varnish station, for a total of eight colors.”
Durst has a strong background in the photographic and wide format sectors, “though many in the label industry are not familiar with us. From that perspective we are very much a newcomer. Yet we did open quite a few eyes at Labelexpo.”
The Durst Tau 150
The Tau reaches a print speed of 48 m/min (157 fpm). Frost says that the press can handle short run jobs from a few hundred labels up to more than 40,000 labels “very economically, thus turning unprofitable short run jobs of flexographic presses into profitable print jobs.”
There’s one more niche in the inkjet field that has been occupied for quite a few years, and that is the single-color add-on unit.
“Our strategy is to provide inkjet that can augment a flexo press or a rewinder, as opposed to a stand-alone roll-to-roll press,” says Glenn Toole, vice president of sales and marketing for MCS Inc., Gaithersburg, MD, USA. MCS offers a UV curable black monochrome 4.25" head in a modular format. “We introduced it with water-based ink last year, and now with UV curable. On a flexo press you can put three of them to stretch across 13 inches. It eliminates that gap, the stitching line between the heads, across that broad span. Right now its the widest single nonstitched head in the industry.
Another supplier of variable single color inkjet units is Squid Ink, which manufactures the VDP In-Line printing system. Designed to print variable information in-line on an existing narrow web flexo press, the machine mounts on the web press or rewind station, and thus the job does not have to be taken off line for a second pass.
Users have the ability to print on non-porous surfaces such as uncoated paper, or on porous surfaces such as films, foils, or coated stocks with Squid Ink’s library of compatible inks. The machine’s printhead uses piezo technology to print up to 2.1" of sharp text, bar codes, logos or small characters. It uses a single print engine, so no stitching is required.