Front Row

The Unready

By Jack Kenny, Contributing Editor | May 22, 2012

Label printers and the digital future: Some get it, some don’t.

There is no substitute for attending a big trade show. My experience of drupa 2012 came through the bright rectangle of my laptop screen, atop the desk in my office. I saved thousands on travel, lodging and meals, and my feet did not require replacement after two weeks of roaming 19 exhibit halls. But I didn’t see a thing with my own eyes, and I could not feel the crowd. Nothing comes close to that experience.

Had I attended drupa, however, I probably would not have had the time to read the thoughtful and provocative analyses published by my peers in the business. Foremost among them is the observation that this quadrennial carnival of print has shifted mightily in its focus. It has always been the premier showcase for offset, and it still is, but offset now shares the stage with digital printing. Indeed, all conventional print processes have had to make room for this bold young god.
Patrick Henry, executive editor of, made the point clearly in his overview of drupa on May 8: “Too many digital alternatives to offset have come into being, and the suppliers of these solutions are now among the largest exhibitors at the show. What’s more, given universal agreement that no printing business can have a long-term future without acquiring digital capability of some kind, the focus of drupa predictably has shifted in the direction of providing those answers.”

Let’s pause for a moment and study just one part of that paragraph: universal agreement that no printing business can have a long-term future without acquiring digital capability of some kind.
Universal agreement is a bold claim, but it is accurate. Take out the word “printing” and the statement applies to all businesses. Digital is everywhere. My local SCORE chapter holds frequent sessions on marketing via social media, and the meeting rooms are filled with average folks intent on mastering the new.

Now put the word “printing” back into place and consider how deeply into the entire industry digital has penetrated. Prepress? Completely digital. Why? There’s no choice. We got rid of our old cameras and Rubylith a long time ago because we had to. Today’s prepress technicians probably don’t even know what Rubylith is. Does anyone out there still calculate a flexo plate curve with pencil and paper?

Commercial printers embraced digital printing when first it became available, and drupa 2012 proves that they continue to do so today, with gusto. In April I attended EFI Connect, a gathering of printers who use one or more digital software and hardware products from EFI. The commercial printers were there in force, embracing the new and sharing insights that could lead to next year’s upgrades. Here is a group that does not hesitate when it comes to taking on the new stuff.

All aspects of the printing industry benefit from MIS systems, either accuired from established vendors or built in-house. The leading companies in the field are pushing the boundaries of information management to embrace all aspects of the print business, from the front office right through to the shipping dock. How was it done in the past? How did management and finance mesh with scheduling and production before the all-powerful MIS came along?

Ever heard of lights-out printing? It’s a scary idea, but it is not far off in the future, so they say. It refers to a smart factory, one that is managed and operated with few or no bodies. Digital systems someday might eliminate all people from the process. That might not be good news from a human perspective, but many a large print business owner is looking closely at this idea.

Whither labels?
Where is the label converter in this discussion? Is there universal agreement about long-term future and digital capability in the narrow web space? Oddly – or sadly – the answer is yes and no.

The penetration of digital print technology into the label sector is minuscule – just a few percent. That will change, it will have to change, but not rapidly.

Packaging is different from other print segments. The production of labels and packages requires, of course, the proper execution of finishing, a complex series of processes that the commercial set doesn’t have to deal with. When digital rollfed presses were introduced in the mid-1990s, they did not come with diecutting stations, foil applicators, laminators and other tools necessary for conversion of the web. Quite soon, though, a couple of companies came up with inline systems that incorporated the digital press and finishing modules. These sold like coldcakes. Most digital label presses today are not affixed to inline finishing systems, although EFI Jetrion hopes to change that with its modular 4900 digital UV inkjet system.

In the beginning, label converters did not exactly line up to purchase digital presses. Most just stood where they were and watched. Narrow web converters have a reputation in the printing industry of being slow to adopt new technology. One might think that after nearly 20 years of exposure to digital print and to the stories of success by those who have adopted it, the narrow web people as a whole would be embracing the technology. One would be wrong.

Why? Whence the hesitation, the risk aversion? If I had the answer I would write it here. I’ve had this conversation with many people in the industry, and it usually involves head-shaking. Is it fear of investing deeply in a technology that you don’t understand? Can’t help you there. Worry about the return on investment? That horse left the gate a long time ago: If the ROI wasn’t there from the beginning, there wouldn’t be any digital printing.

Those few who do take risks, and who appreciate digital technology to the point at which they write big checks to bring it in-house, have profits to show for their actions. These are the CL&Ds, the Lightning Labels and Digital Dogmas, the Repacorps and the Tapecons. They understand the necessity of digital printing and are on top of its evolution.

To be fair, there are a couple of decent reasons for not adopting digital label printing, for sticking with flexo. One converter told me that he would love to own a digital press, but that his production volume is not suited to it. Another, who has been shopping for digital over many years, simply can’t decide which one to procure. A third has chosen to invest in the acquisition of companies, placing digital on a back burner.

Over the years I have been inside many, many label manufacturing plants, and have spent hours and hours talking about the business with owners and executives. There are still people out there who just blink when the subject of digital comes around. There are those who say they are fine with things the way they are. (I doubt that.) Others assert that they are about to dabble in digital, or are poised to test the waters. They really have no intention to go digital, because up until now they have made a good living for themselves and their associates, so why disrupt something that works?

(A few of these guys, by the way, are not good at email or the internet. I have been in presidential offices where there’s not a computer in sight.)

Ah, disruption. That is what digital printing is for a good many label converters. Now a word to the wise: Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. Disruption means growth. Let’s think again about what Patrick Henry said: “No printing business can have a long-term future without acquiring digital capability of some kind.”

The author is president of Jack Kenny Media, a communications firm specializing in the packaging industry, and is the former editor of L&NW magazine. He can be reached at