Digital Printing Market

By Jack Kenny, Editor | November 17, 2011

As the digital print market continues to grow, label converters opt for a variety of proven processes.

As expected, the digital hall at Labelexpo Europe 2011 in Brussels was packed for four straight days. There were a couple of times when one had trouble moving from booth to booth, or even through the crowd at one booth to the next. Digital label printing continues to attract a vast amount of attention from converters worldwide. This is no surprise. Label printers have found that digital printing technologies are giving them the ability to handle short run work with the kind of ease that a conventional flexo press might not. This is an arguable point, particularly among some manufacturers of flexo presses, but they know now that they have to be comfortable sharing production space with the young digital machines, the same as they must at home or in the work place with the young digital humans.

Also as expected, the inkjet press manufacturers were everywhere at the big label show. HP Indigo has its dominant and proprietary technology, and Xeikon has carved out its separate niche with its dry toner process. The rest are inkjet systems, and they come in a variety of shapes and forms. Because of its longevity in the segment, EFI Jetrion has a leading position; but apparently the market is active enough – today, at least – to support dozens of other inkjet label press makers. Over the next few years, industry pundits expect, the number of inkjet players will decrease as the suppliers either find a footing or slip.

The Tau 150 8C UV inkjet press from
Durst Phototechnik

Among the noteworthy introductions to the digital field are marriages of digital presses with laser cutters, such as those of EFI Jetrion with SEI, and INX International with Spartanics. Laser cutting is not new, but it has not been common in the narrow web label industry. Expo veterans might remember the introduction of a laser diecutter from Comco at least a decade ago; it was a fascinating device that did not reach full production. Since then others have made appearances, but only in the past few years has the technology become a relative fixture at industry events.

There is, in theory, a numerical point at which printing labels on a digital press becomes more costly than if the job were assigned to a flexo press. But label printers who operate digital presses have consistently pushed that limit, and are producing longer runs than they were when the machines were introduced. And the issue of speed is no longer a question. It might be to those who are still considering a digital machine, but seasoned users don’t consider that a factor any longer. The total absence of plate production and on-press makeready, along with the somewhat higher speeds that some of the digital press manufacturers have been able to coax out of their machines of late, has pretty much relegated that topic to the archives.

The small format digital label printers, the ones that can occupy a corner in the front office, are constant attention-getters. Primera Technology, Allen Datagraph Systems and one or two others have shown themselves to be useful for very short runs, or for the cautious printer who wants to get his feet wet in the digital sea. Both Primera and Allen Datagraph manufacture small converting systems to complement their tabletop presses; the converting units laminate the printed stock; use movable blades to cut shapes; remove matrix; and rewind the finished labels.

HP Indigo
Everyone in the industry watches Hewlett Packard, owner of the Indigo brand of digital label presses. The leader in terms of units in operation throughout the industry, HP Indigo has a proprietary printing technology and its own inks. The technology, described by the company as digital offset, uses wet toner for its inks and an electrostatic deposition process.

The big news this year from HP is the introduction of the WS6600 press, the second incarnation of the 6000, an industrial strength digital press that was successful since its launch a few years ago. The company says that the new 6600 “supports higher production throughput, unmatched print quality, and advanced color matching capabilities.” The press has a printing speed of 40 meters per minute (132 fpm), and a maximum speed of 60 meters per minute (197 fpm) using one or two colors.

HP indigo’s new WS6600 digital press with
substrate primer at far right

Most noticeable about the new machine at Labelexpo was the presence of a large squarish unit mounted at its front end. This is the substrate primer, which applies the requisite coating to the materials being printed. The priming unit is so new that it can coat only papers for now. Film coating is in development.

The good news for owners of WS6000 presses is that most of the new features found in the 6600 are retrofittable.

“The WS6600 has a built-in inline scanner, which makes calibration and monitoring of the press more automated,” says Christian Menegon, business development manager, industrial solutions, for HP Indigo. “Before the scanner was incorporated, prepping the machine required the time of an operator, but now it’s automatic. The machine will print and scan itself to determine ink densities and other parameters.”

Another new feature is the Enhanced Productivity Mode, “a system by which we reproduce a certain color gamut with three colors instead of four,” says Menegon. “Unlike any other press, where the web passes from one color to another, we lay down all colors in one shot. The more colors to print, the more revolutions you have to wait. But on a given job you can save one revolution to achieve one color space. That’s the whole idea. We are working on the system in order to produce a color gamut using fewer colors. When you look at the CMYK space, the vertical axis is light to dark. Instead of using black, we recreate darkness with the other colors. The process has to use CMYK or fewer colors. It’s too early to know what the full color gamut is that we can work with in the Enhanced Productivity Mode, because it depends on the darkness of the color and the ability of the others to replicate the original color.”

What all this means, Menegon adds, is that the reduction of colors in a job will mean that the print engine can run faster, “which means that the ink consumption is lower, and for the customer it’s cheaper. And also, more jobs can be transferred to digital, and the press can do longer runs.

HP Indigo sees a remarkable shift of printing from conventional presses to digital, Menegon observes. “From data we gather from existing customers, we realize that the number of jobs transferred from conventional to digital increases daily. Shorter runs are not only making sense for the converter, but also for the brand owner. The need to go to more short runs is occurring more frequently.

“When I visit customers, I am trying to get a sense of job distribution based on run length,” he says. “Someone gave me a number that is quite impressive: Out of 19,000 jobs over a period of time, he had 14,000 that were less than 500 meters. That’s more or less the waste of setup on a conventional press. It doesn’t mean that in terms of square meters digital is printing more, and still the long runs are much bigger than what digital is doing. But in terms of shorter runs, this is big time.”

From a technical point of view, HP Indigo doesn’t consider itself to be competing strongly against inkjet technology. “Inkjet is a technology that is clearly there to grow,” says Menegon. “A wide variety of inks are available, and they can really print high quality, like photo quality, but at a very slow speed.” Inkjet is limited when it comes to certain substrates, he adds. “Given the wide range of substrates needed in the label industry, Indigo will do three quarters of what a customer wants, and Xeikon will do half. But inkjet works within a very narrow range of applications.”

The SurePress L-4033A from Epson uses
water-based inkjet inks.
Menegon says that the trend in digital will continue to be “shorter versions that run more often,” and that the industry will see “more demands from brand owners for what digital can address.” He also envisions a saturation in the North American and European markets over the next few years. “Latin America and Asia Pacific are behind, and that’s where we see the growth.”

The Xeikon digital label press was introduced in the mid-1990s around the same time as the Indigo. The press did not make the same kind of sales progress as the Indigo, and by the early 1990s it had become somewhat dormant. With the acquisition of Xeikon by Punch Graphics several years back, the brand was re-energized, and today is moving well forward under aggressive leadership, both in Europe and in North America.

Xeikon’s leaders are sanguine about the power of digital printing today.

“We are experiencing the industry moving from ‘digital printing’ to ‘digital production’, says Filip Weymans, business development manager, labels and packaging at Xeikon. “It becomes a necessity to provide flexibility and transparency to the end user, and if a printer ignores this he will be passed by his neighbor who does. For example, look at Labelsprint in the UK. This is a digital-only company with, after five years in business, total revenue of £2.5 million. If the industry had provided an answer to the market demand, then Labelsprint would never have been able to grow to this kind of company.

Digital production does not necessarily mean that people have to invest in digital printing – that depends on their strategy – but you will see more and more that the printing process will be become digital.”

Samples of labels printed on the DICE GT press

Inside the Xeikon label press is a dry toner print engine. The company produces four label presses: The 3030 is the basic model, which prints at up to 32 fpm and has a web width of about 13”; the 3050 is the same press with a width of 20”. The higher-end 3300 13” model is faster, with a web speed of up to 63 fpm; the 20” version of that press is the 3500.

Xeikon recently introduced new printing configuration software known as VariLane. Using this plug-in for the X-800 digital front end, printers can create impositions for label print runs with different references and with labels of different sizes. “This offers printers the maximum flexibility to optimize the amount of material used and to maximize the print time,” says Weymans.

Typically, labels are arranged in lanes across the web roll, and because the labels are of equal size, the print lanes are of equal size. VariLane allows prepress operators to create imposition templates which can arrange labels in print lanes of variable sizes.

“In their drive to meet the needs of specific groups of consumers, brand owners are developing more and more product variants,” says Weymans. “As a consequence, label printers are facing more unique labels for an ever-increasing number of different SKUs – but with lower volumes of each. This presents an ongoing challenge for label printers, as it’s obviously important that they optimize material used. The advent of digital imposition, which creates the layout in an instant, has helped a lot, but to date this technique could only handle labels of the same size. With VariLane, print operators can now create imposition templates for labels with different references and with different sizes.”

CSAT’s ITS 600 digital UV inkjet press
Xeikon also has developed an industrial heat transfer process, traditionally used for decorating plastic containers of industrial goods, that delivers 1,200 dpi image quality. Containers made from a range of plastics including polypropylene and high density polyethylene can be decorated with graphics and text. According to Weymans, recent advances in light fastness of Xeikon’s QA-I toner ensures that colors don’t fade and remain in good condition for their whole shelf life.

Heat transfer is a two-step process, he says. “First, the Xeikon press prints the exact number of heat transfer labels. The roll of printed transfers is then fed into an applicator which applies the label onto the container using heat and/or pressure.” Today, Xeikon supports four transfer processes: industrial transfers, promotional transfers, textile transfers and waterslide transfers.

“Traditional decoration techniques used for industrial goods, such as direct printing, are now struggling to meet the image quality levels demanded by the market,” he says. “In-mold label technology scores well on the quality front, but because the decoration has to be applied when the containers are molded, it’s better suited to more high volume production with longer lead time. Xeikon’s new digital heat transfer solution now enables printers to offer their clients superior image quality for greater shelf impact and flexibility to decorate containers on a just-in-time basis.”

EFI Jetrion, a leader in the digital inkjet label press segment, caused ripples at Labelexpo with the unveiling of a completely redesigned press packaged with a laser diecutter from SEI. The new 4900 press is similar to its 4830 model, but it benefits from a better transport and an industrial design, according to Sean Skelly, EFI Jetrion’s vice president and general manager.

“We made a conscious decision to take almost the exact construction we have now on the 4830: same print heads, same inks, same substrates that the press supports. We have combined evolution and revolution.”

The 4900 press, Skelly says, “provides an advantage for the future, with the ability to add other capabilities.” EFI Jetrion selected SEI, of Italy, as its laser diecutting partner because it wanted a company “that has great capabilities in laser, and they do,” Skelly adds. The companies worked on the sleek new design and configuration of the 4900 press for about 18 months. That’s pretty fast to go from barely knowing each other to exhibiting together at a show,” he says.

Skelly recalls that the 2010 Labelexpo featured 39 vendors of inkjet printing machines. “Some of them are not around any more,” he observes. “Introducing a product is fun, but the hard work is in support. It’s easy to make the first couple of presses for shows. It’s a lot harder to turn it into a business.”

EFI Jetrion’s 4900 inkjet press is paired with
an SEI laser cutter.

Many label printers who invest in an EFI Jetrion UV inkjet press also have HP Indigo presses,” Skelly says. “We say to people that if 99 percent of your work is very high end stuff, you should get yourself an Indigo and make sure you can load it up with work. But we are seeing more people who are conscious of the cost of the label. They don’t care about the purchase price of the press, it’s the ongoing cost that is driving them crazy.” There is “absolutely room in this space” for both technologies,” he adds.

The digital label opportunity is attracting those who are not part of the narrow web converting field, he notes: “People who are outside traditional label converting are now looking to get in. They know that they can make labels with digital and not be a flexo guy. They see it as a money maker, immediately.”

Digital printing won’t replace conventional printing any time soon,” Skelly says. “They are complementary and serve different aspects of a business’s problems. As time goes on and inkjet printers – being non-contact – compete with flexo, ink pricing will have to be lower. Then they will be more competitive. It matters today, for sure, but it will matter more in the future.”

Epson has been showing up at Labelexpos for the past several years with prototypes of a digital inkjet press. Now, the SurePress L-4033A is on the market and stands apart from the other inkjet machines by virtue of its water-based ink and a lower price point than most of the larger presses.

The SurePress prints on a range of off-the-shelf substrates in widths ranging from 80 mm to 330 mm (3” to 13”). It uses Epson’s MicroPiezo inkjet technology and its own AQ (aqueous) inks. AQ ink was developed, the company says, specifically to improve image quality over analog printed labels and to maintain water fastness and resistance to rubbing. It is engineered to dry quickly to increase productivity.

“We have seen really serious interest in the SurePress,” says Mark Elsbernd, North American regional sales manager for Epson America. “The first part of this year we had our first commercial beta programs, and now with a lot of trade shows in the fall, we are seeing a lot of activity.”

Epson relies on its branded MicroPiezo technology, which is used in many of the company’s products. “Epson is known for image quality because of our technology,” says Elsbernd. Every year there are new refinements. For the SurePress, we have been able to tune it and create very high resolution print heads, and cost effectively. We can create very accurate, variable droplets that are extremely well tuned.”

The resin- and water-based AQ ink was developed for the packaging market, he notes. “The cost of the label is key, so we specifically developed the ink so you don’t need specially coated or pretreated substrates. With AQ ink we enable the converter to use the same substrates as on a flexo press today. The converter does not have to carry two different SKUs, and the appearance of the ink is the same on the same substrate.”

The press has two drying systems, one in the platen area where the printing takes place, and in an oven. “The platen is warm, and when the ink droplet hits the substrate, the spread of the droplet is controlled with a certain temperature. Complete drying occurs in a secondary oven, which circulates warm air and removes water.”

The SurePress prints six colors: CMYK plus orange and green. About 20 units have been installed worldwide, Elsbernd says. The list price is $285,000 in North America, including a 12 month full warranty, installation and training, file management software, Wasatch RIP, and X-rite spectrophotometer. An option for EskoArtwork software is available.

The speed of the SurePress is five m/m (16.4 fpm). “Other players are faster than we are, but we have positioned the SurePress not to compete with them directly,” says Elsbernd. “We developed the press with a lower acquisition point for customers to get into the market, but also to bring them efficiencies, such as ease of operation. We wanted to position the product from price performance, at a level the customer can afford.

“But also,” he added, “with short runs, we found that 500 linear feet range is a common length that converters are running. SurePress can produce that quickly and efficiently.”

CSAT is a German company that had its start in pharmaceutical packaging, but recently introduced its digital UV inkjet press to the narrow web label marketplace. The company opened an office in North America last year, and this year was acquired by Heidelberg.

CSAT’s ITS 600 press accommodates web widths ranging from 100 mm to 420 mm (4” to 16.5”). The optical resolution is up to 1,800 dpi (variable droplet size) and the machine comes with CMYK, though six colors is available on request. Speed is up to 50 m/m (164 fpm) per print head, and the company says that resolution and print speed can be doubled by varying the arrangement of the print heads.

“People want to know about the quality differences between the CSAT press and the HP Indigo press,” says Natalie Gilbert, president of CSAT America. “We think that they are complementary.

She adds, however, that the CSAT machine stands apart from other inkjet presses because of the speed of the print process. “Speed is the differentiator,” she says. “Plus we can interface with converting equipment, and produce labels at pharmaceutical quality.”

The CSAT ITS 600 lists for €350,000.

Another inkjet press making inroads in the digital label field is the Tau 150 8C from Durst Phototechnik, an Italian manufacturer. The short-run press accommodates web widths from 10 cm (4”) to “16.5 cm (6.5”), reaching a print speed of 48m/m (157 fpm). It can be Tau 150 8C is built to the latest state of the art digital UV Inkjet technology that can be configured with up to eight color modules. Its standard CMYK color configuration can be enhanced with orange and violet, which can cover up to 90 percent of the Pantone color gamut.

One enhancement that the Tau press offers that has attracted significant attention in the label world is the option for a digital varnish print module for digital spot varnish, generating different gloss levels with only one fluid in a single pass. This takes place during the printing of the labels.

“The Tau 150 8C distinguishes itself from the other digital presses because it offers digital spot varnish, full opaque white ink, six process colors, an insetter to print on pre-diecut labels, variable data printing – bar code, sequential numbering, variable text, and variable imaging,” says Helmut Munter, the label printing segment manager at Durst Phototechnik.

Inks are proprietary, Munter says, but the press can print on “most common standard substrates, and that includes paper, white film and clear film.” About 20 units have been installed to date. A fully equipped Tau 150 8C sells for about €500,000.

A new generation DSI digital label printer has been developed by Stork Prints. The new version of the inkjet press achieves productivity rates in excess of 700 square meters per hour, the company says. Stork produces its own inkjet inks, which it says provide “superior labels which are highly resistant to light, chemicals and scratching.”

The DSI has a distinctly modular design, which makes it suitable for stand-alone digital printing or for use with inline semi-rotary converting. The standard configuration includes four print heads, though an additional six can be added to enable options like digital white, digital primer and an extended color gamut.

The DSI achieves visual resolution on labels of up to 1,000 dpi, as well as 3D effects that resemble screen printing. It also accurately reproduces tonal values as low as 1 percent. Printing on many different types of substrates can be accomplished, and the new digital primer enables printing on machine coated paper. Repeat lengths of up to 7 meters are possible, and are not limited by the drum size.

Another pairing of digital inkjet with laser cutting was presented by INX International and Spartanics. INX unveiled its NW140 UV digital press, and Spartanics supplied the laser diecutter. This particular system featured LED curing of the UV inks, with curing systems supplied by Phoseon Technology and Integration Technology.

“We were very excited about introducing the NW140 UV digital press and so were the many people who stopped by and visited us at Graph Expo,” said Jim Lambert, VP and General Manager of INX International Ink Co. – Digital Division. 

“This press is unique in several ways,” says Jim Lambert, vice president and general manager of INX. “It starts with the pre-treatment that opens the door to many possibilities for all material, and is not limited to only digital friendly. The NW140 also combines printing and conversion in one machine when using the Spartanics laser cutter, which means you don’t need to remove a printed roll from the machine and put it back on for conversion.”

The NW140 UV provides single pass printing at speeds up to 80 feet per minute on any label stock. It offers a base coat application for non-treated media and will support media up to 2 mm in thickness.

The LED curing lamps from Integration Technology are used for the pre-coat, white base layer and varnish to hold the inkjet drops in position (pinning) before a full cure is added by the Phoseon LED lamp.

Inkjet/flexo combo
More than a decade ago, a group called the Digital Label Alliance worked on a multi-color inkjet module that would be retrofitted into a flexo press to create a digital/flexo hybrid. A couple of prototypes were built, but nothing more came of the plan. Then Mark Andy tried a similar approach with a 2200 flexo press that featured a digital inkjet system in the middle of the press.

That project was not pushed forward into production.

The Xeikon 3300 digital press
Today, however, an alliance of two companies in the United States has produced a similar printing module, called the DICE GT, and they are “selling as fast as we can build them,” says Kirk Schulz, president of DICE Graphic Technologies. Schulz is a printer from Cincinnati, OH, who had the idea for one of these machines, and approached a company called Prototype & Production Systems in Plymouth, MN, about building it. “We were going to make just one of them,” Schulz says, “but it worked so well that we just kept going.” Schulz designed the transport system, and Prototype & Production designed the inkjet package.

“At the highest resolution the unit runs at 80 feet per minute,” Schulz says. “But we’ve cranked the press up to 120 feet per minute and it still works. It depends on the image; you can reduce the grayscale level and increase the speed.”

Those who are buying the DICE press include label printers and makers of wrist bands (one company has two of them and is buying two more). 3M has installed a couple of units for a proprietary product.

“There’s a lot of interest,” Schulz says. “We weren’t very confident at first, but we’ve been running in the field for a year and we feel really good about it now.”
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