Tabletop Printing & Converting Systems

By Jack Kenny | October 4, 2011

Compact and economical, these small machines have found homes in hundreds of label shops around the world.

Finding a digital press that is right for a label printing operation can be an exhaustive process. Say, for example, that a company owner and her team members visit Labelexpo to talk with representatives of press manufacturers, to examine the available equipment, to watch it run and to make comparisons. That's a big job, considering that the show now has a separate hall just for digital presses and related equipment, and that nearly three dozen manufacturers offer digital print systems of one type or another. After the show visit, serious analysis of the converter's business is in order, along with detailed investigations of the various digital

systems. It's likely that the prospective buyer will visit other label manufacturers for a look at active equipment and some peer perspective.

The big digital presses and big finishing systems dominate the industry, but those might not be what the converter is looking for, or can afford. What might prove to be a better system is a smaller printer, one that can sit on a countertop. And if it comes with a small finishing machine, so much the better.

A handful of companies produce such machines. In the label industry, desktop printers have been around for years, but only recently have a couple of manufacturers developed finishing units to accompany the printers. This article examines the printing and finishing systems by Primera Technology and by Allen Datagraph Systems Inc., and offers the views of converters who have installed the systems. It also takes a look at a label printer from VIPColor.

Primera Technology
Based in Plymouth, MN, USA, Primera manufactures a range of label printers, among other products. The choice for the label converter, however, is the CX1200, a recently developed printer designed for short run production work in process color. This year the company released its FX1200 finishing system, the companion piece to the CX, which now means that the converter can take the label from digital file to finished product.

The CX1200 features a CMYK toner-based laser printer and a Lexmark engine at its core. "We modify the printer significantly in the RIP, firmware and mechanics," says Mark Strobel, vice president of sales and marketing for Primera. "The RIP is modified so we can either do black mark sensing or print continuously. The engine wasn't designed for continuous printing, so the RIP and the firmware controlling the placement of dots had to be reworked to accommodate the stretch of dots. With a continuous web, we have to change the whole philosophy of how the laser printer works. The media does stretch as it goes through the printer continuously.

"We made mechanical modifications to get materials into and out of the printer successfully," he adds. The web is 8.5" wide, and the printer can accommodate a maximum roll diameter of 12", which Strobel says works out to about 1,250 feet of labelstock per roll.

Primera's CX1200 came onto the market as a stand-alone product, meaning that converters would have to print on pre-diecut labels, or else take the finished roll to another press for cutting and finishing. After a year of development, the company introduced the FX1200 finishing system as a complement to the printer.

"With the FX we provide a total solution to label converters," Strobel says. "We found that other products on the market didn't offer true digital diecutting. They could offer reregistration using black marks, but had to use flexible or hard dies, and that slows down any quick turnaround that the press provides."

The FX unit allows for lamination, diecutting, matrix removal, slitting, and rewinding. Cutting is accomplished by up to four knife blades. "That hadn't been done before," Strobel reports. "This is fast. The output speed is the same as on the digital press. The printer moves at 16.25 feet per minute, as will a typical cut job. Of course, the more intricate the cut, the longer it takes."

Lamination is the first step in the converting process. "It's important to have a tight wrap," Strobel says. "Without that there is variability on skew and feed path. The CX has a tensioning system that we invented which gives the tightest wrap on an output roll. When it's put onto the finishing system it feeds smoothly, with no skewing.When you're laminating, if the material is wandering you don't get a good lamination." And the machine features a takeup roll for those who use linered lamination.

Next is the cutter. The life span of the blades depends on the material being cut, and paper is toughest on them. "We suggest that people use 50 lb. liners," adds Strobel. "That helps with the cutting process, so you don't have to adjust so slightly.

The slitting operation can involve up to seven blades, and the material can be rewound onto multiple rolls.

Primera sees two target markets for the CX/FX combo: print service providers, and label converters and a few others. "The CX/FX solution is ideal for between several hundred and several thousand labels. That's the sweet spot. For 20,000 to 25,000 labels you might want to go to a larger press. But with 7,000 of one SKU and 6,000 of another, this system makes sense," says Strobel.

"Sometimes a label converter will resell a machine to a customer for those extra small jobs, as a service to the customer," he adds. "These are usually in pretty specific markets. One example is a company that sells welding supplies. They need five of this label, 12 of that, 10 of the next one. For a label house to put that through their process is too expensive." The FX knows where one job stops and the other begins, because of timing marks on the web. "You can run all inline in one run. That would be impossible on a flexo press."

The list price in the US for the CX1200 printer is $18,995. The FX1200 is $34,995, and a discount is offered for the pair.

"The two together have turned out to be a very viable, rock solid solution for providing digital labels on quick turnaround in short to midrange quantities," Strobel notes. "We have many happy users."

One of those happy users is Randy Arnold, owner of Capital Label in Topeka, KS, USA. He runs three flexo presses for his larger orders, and has a CX/FX system for smaller runs.

"I looked at other units at Labelexpo last year, they weren't as clean of a fit as the Primera," Arnold says. "This has been a lot of fun for me. In the past I had to turn away those nice small jobs. Now I'm printing on polyester with a polyester overlam, and I can do bumper stickers or signage for outdoors. The toners for this thing are great. I put some of the bumper stickers on my truck months ago, and they still look great."

Arnold says that the company has been moving more into printing short runs of custom water bottle labels. "It's crazy. I've printed 200 to 300 different water bottle labels for weddings, funerals, mortgage brokers, banks, colleges, high schools, VFWs, fund raisers. For less than the price of a postage stamp you can give somebody a bottle of water with whatever you want to put on it. On the flexo presses, you have to deal with setup, wash up, waste. There's no short run affordability. Whereas with this, if you want 48 bottles of water, hey, I'll do it for you."

Capital Label acquired the digital system in late 2010, and Arnold says that for the first year they've been running it on three days a week on average. "And that's without really going out and selling it."

He did point out that the toner can be expensive when the labels have dark backgrounds and a lot of ink coverage. "I have a number of 4x4 heavy coverage process labels with dark backgrounds, printing on polyester with a polyester overlaminate, 2,500 labels. My cost on each of these labels by the bid system built in to the program is about 17 to 18 cents a label. Three fourths of that cost is the toner. The toner cartridges, are over $400 apiece for color, and just shy of $200 for the black. On simpler jobs with light backgrounds it does a phenomenal job."

Allen Datagraph Systems Inc.
Allen Datagraph (ADSI), based in Derry, NH, USA, produces a desktop printing and finishing system called the iTech Axxis Digital Label System. It uses an Epson business inkjet printer that has a heavy and long duty cycle, says Mark Vanover,ADSI's marketing director. "It's quite robust," he says. "Some systems are going on two years of steady work."

The speed of the printer is dependent on the width of the media, Vanover says. "We tell people that it's typically around four feet per minute, but for the market it doesn't need to print 30 feet a minute if you're doing 500 labels. And it doesn't matter what speed it's running at because you'll still have the order out in 48 hours. We've had customers who have maximized the printer after a while and spent the $7,000 for a second one.

The price of the printer and finisher together is $24,950 in North America. Cartridges for cyan, magenta and yellow hold 100 ml each, and black is 200 ml. Cartridges sell for about $60 each.

Substrates that run through the printer require a topcoating to accept water based inkjet ink. Vanover says that substrates available for the inkjet printer are becoming more widely available through the major labelstock suppliers. Film stocks such as polyester, polyethylene and polypropylene all can be run through the machine as long as they have the topcoat.

The finishing system, which is designed to operate separately and not inline with the printer, can run at speeds up to eight to 10 feet per minute. "More complexity in the label shape affects the speed," Vanover says, but it's typically more than double the print speed."

The finishing unit laminates, digitally diecuts, strips away matrix, slits, and winds into finished rolls. As with the Primera system, shape cutting is accomplished by a blade. Depending on the substrate being finished, a blade can typically last for about three weeks, says Vanover.

Fifty-five to 60 percent of ADSI's sales of the iTech Axxis are to traditional tag and label converters of all sizes, notes Vanover, "from the small guys to very, very big converters. The story from the larger converter is that he has a customer who buys a million labels a month, and once a month he wants 1,000 labels. The terror is that the customer will find someone with the capability of doing that 1,000-label job.

Twenty percent of ADSI's business is to end users. "These are mostly small businesses with runs so low they can't find converters to print that amount," Vanover notes. "An example is a maple sugar producer who wanted intricate label shapes. At a typical flexo house he would have to spend $18,000 and buy too many labels. After using our system, they are more green because never throw away a label, they can change labels for any season, and put private labels on their syrups for other customers."
The remaining customers are commercial printers and promo products companies, such as those who label lip balms, soaks, shampoos, "products that you will find in bed and breakfasts worldwide," he adds.

"The misnomer in the industry is that the big guys talk about short runs, and they mean 10,000 to 12,000 labels. That's not a short run. There's a whole market they're missing, and that's 2,000 labels. There are a lot of companies out there that might have 15 to 20 SKUs and need 15 to 20 labels a month in quantities of 500. That's a pretty decent margin business if someone can supply them with those labels.

"My customers are telling me they're making money hand over fist," Vanover says. "That's the best news we can hear."

Peachtree Technology Associates, a converting company in Woodstock, GA, USA, has a customer with a startup business making lotions. "They have eight different products, says Steve Haddock, co-owner of Peachtree. "They need only 800 labels each. For flexo that's small potatoes. It's so easy to drop them in the queue on the digital press and print away, and be done with it."

Haddock started looking into digital presses more than a year ago, the big ones and the small ones. He attended Labelexpo Americas in Chicago in September, made his decision there, and installed the ADSI system soon thereafter. "We didn't have the cash at that time to warrant a large digital press and finisher. So we looked around at the others systems, and after seeing the price of the Allen Datagraph system, we found it to be far more affordable.

"It doesn't do what the bigger digital presses do, but for small run stuff it's great. I don't know how we did it before that. We can do sample runs on it, so many things that come into the shop. Someone wants 1,000 of five particular items. You'd be in the thousands with plate charges on a flexo press. Now you can do six different labels, a thousand apiece, and it costs a tenth of the flexo price."

Haddock says that the company still farms out some digital printing to another converter with larger equipment. "If it gets up over 5000, the smaller systems get where it's not feasible, because of the cost of ink and time it takes. With the smaller stuff we can do a $125 run. You certainly can't do that in flexo."

Peachtree Technology has its tabletop digital printer and finisher in the prepress room, and uses an easy-release lamination, which does not produce the well known racket that standard overlam is famous for. "The overlam is quieter," Haddock says. "It's a bit more expensive, but we like it."

VIPColor Technologies
Other inkjet label printers for desktop use are produced by VIPColor Technologies, based in Newark, CA, USA. The majority of the sales are of the flagship model 485, an 8.5" wide printer that runs pre-diecut labels on rolls, or blackmark fanfolded labels.

"It's extremely flexible," says CEO Adrian Down. "Most users run with high gloss material. Our customers include a lot of prime label printers, some secondary labels, small organizations, small to medium enterprises, and startups. The 485 has been on the market since 2009 and it's in use in 35 countries." The system does not have finishing equipment.

The VIPColor 485 is designed for short run. "It can go extremely short run," Down says. "Frankly, within the market space we work people are more inclined to buy a unit if they are running 24/7, and a lot of people will run it day in and day out. They really hammer these things."

It features a large external unwinder capable of handling a 10" roll. Down says that the system has the largest ink tanks in of any comparable machine, "so it keeps switching of rolls and tanks to a minimum. It can be integrated directly to a network, it can run on USB, and you can throw all sorts of data at it. More people are really focused on Adobe Suite style design, and they get very good gamut on the machine, extremely bright, punchy labels, high impact. That's what our clients want. They use top gloss; they pay more for that stock but they get impact for their label."

The unit comes with an optional rewinder. According to Down, many customers run on demand, and constantly remove finished labels without using an uptake roll. Those who have higher run lengths will order the rewinder.

The image repeat is 48" at 2" wide. Some of the company's clients run shelf edging using the 485.

Image complexity has an influence on processing time, says Down. "If someone sends a large file with massive resolution, it takes a little time. We recommend 150 or 300 dpi; they'll say that visually it looks like a press label." The fastest print speed is 4.5 inches per second. "You can push it to five inches, but not at full width," Down notes.

The inks are proprietary. VIPColor has resellers throughout the country, and larger distributors who discount volume purchases.

The 485 is a $3,500 piece of equipment. "If you're doing 5,000 labels a week, it pays for itself quickly," says Down.

Inkjet coated materials are recommended. The company sells these as well. "Our high gloss material is not water proof but it's pretty water resistant," Down says. "It's scuff proof, scratch and smudge proof." Most customers print on paper, but PP and PE films are also used.

"We sell generally to end users," says Down. "When we first got into the business we had an idea that the majority of customers would be label converters who would use our products for short run work. That's a very small percentage of what we're actually selling. Bakeries, confectioners, pharma, agriculture, chemicals, coffee: These are the people who are buying."
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