Making up just 3% of total print volumes in 2013, the market for digitally printed labels is still relatively small. However, it is growing fast (by some 15-20% per year), and with a total production value of around 9%, it already offers highly attractive margins. IT Strategies predicts that digital printing is set to be a particularly important alternative to flexographic printing, with 10% of all of today’s flexographic jobs being produced digitally in the medium term. For label printers aiming to provide customers with the full spectrum of applications over the entire product life cycle of a particular label, it will therefore be necessary to consider offering digital solutions for short runs and processing industrially variable data (bar codes, QR codes, serial numbers, etc.).
Given that less than 15% of all label printers worldwide have a digital printing system, many companies are still deliberating over which to invest in. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that it is so difficult to gain an overview of this market. At Labelexpo 2013, some 30 manufacturers exhibited over 55 new printing systems.
As readers may already be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of different conventional printing and finishing methods, we will restrict the current discussion to just three aspects useful for further consideration of digital printing systems.
Currently, the main advantages of using digital rather than conventional printing systems are:
Shorter throughput times for short runs (200 - 1,500 meters)
Lower tool costs, less waste and shorter setup times
Lower stock levels and lower storage costs (cf. tools and products)
New applications (e.g. variable data for traceability or versioning)
Shorter job pre-processing and processing times. This is an advantage for label buyers and can make higher prices more acceptable.
Higher average margins per job. The increased flexibility also brings label buyers further benefits (lower stock levels, no need to dispose of old stock, reduced outlay required for quality and reliability, event marketing, etc.).
However, there are still significant disadvantages of using digital instead of conventional printing systems:
Print quality (physical resolution, dot size and color space) – there are limitations on gradations down to zero, small fonts, symbols (below 4pt) and fine lines.
Register accuracy – this is critical for covering as large a Pantone color space as possible with the available CMYK process colors and GOV color space enlargement colors.
Production speed (as independent of resolution and color space as possible)
System availability due to high maintenance needs, additional automated calibration and cleaning cycles, and insufficient system stability
Choice of substrates (e.g. shrink sleeves, in-mold, textured paper)
Inks and toner properties (adhesion & abrasion, low migration, lightfastness, etc.)
There are currently very few integrated inline solutions that make it possible to progress from substrate to finished label in a single production run.
The successful use of digital rather than conventional printing systems depends on the following conditions being met – because a digital system is not “just another printing press”:
In-house prepress expertise (measuring substrates, color management, optimization of prepress data for the digital printing method chosen) is absolutely essential – otherwise it is not possible to ensure print quality and flexibility for last-minute changes.
Efficient processes for bringing in, preparing, producing and delivering the small print jobs (200-1500m) that are needed.
Openness toward new business models – webshop sales, delivery to filling line, offering additional logistics services to label buyers, etc.
Good financial position so that the initial difficulties and learning curves associated with introducing new technology can be properly addressed (in cooperation with the system supplier).
Most suppliers have failed to satisfactorily fulfill their responsibility to support users with the introduction of digital technology.
Making the right decision can be difficult – which printing system is the right one for a particular label printer to choose? There are several options available, including: a digital printing system with offline converting machinery; a combination of a conventional printing press and digital (offline) imprinting; a digital printing system and use of existing conventional inline printing press for finishing and converting; or a conventional printing press with an integrated digital printing unit, currently known as a hybrid printing system.
The term “hybrid printing system” does not yet have a fixed definition, but it is used to describe the combined use of digital and analog production processes within one printing system. The term hybrid is often used in technology to refer to a system made up of elements that each offer a particular solution already. Bringing these elements together can produce new properties. Hybrid therefore means that double or multiple solutions, with different internal structures, are used for the same function.
The first hybrid vehicles were probably steamships with sails (coal or wood used for water wheel/propeller and wind for sails). A hybrid electric vehicle has two storage and drive systems, one of which powers an electric motor. The hybrid vehicles sold in Europe usually have a petrol engine and an electric motor. In summary, a hybrid system is created by combining different processes/systems designed for the same purpose, so that whichever is most suitable in a particular instance can be used. This combination inevitably requires complex interfaces, complicated optimizations and often compromises, as the system as a whole is not guided by one primary intended purpose.
Hybrid’s appeal comes with challenges
An existing familiarity with conventional production processes can make the concept of a hybrid system appealing to many label printers. However, the additional challenges associated with opting for a hybrid printing system need to be taken into account. They include:
Synchronizing the requirements of digital elements (ideal for short runs) with those of conventional elements (ideal for long runs)
Integrating the various digital and conventional workflows
Defining the optimum job spectrum (best possible working point) for the system as a whole and thus the optimum use
Understanding the complexity of operating combined processes and the different ideas behind their use
Technical integration and optimization of both processes (e.g. through automation)
Appropriate training for operators/task profiles
Calculation of production costs for labels, as label printing is possible with both digital and conventional methods.
In the view of this author, hybrid printing systems have so far been an intermediate stage toward a fully integrated digital converting system. Even when combination of the processes is well thought-out, operating a hybrid system is very complex, and the job spectrum for profitable use is limited.
The small but important difference that a fully integrated digital converting system brings is that the performance data for all conventional finishing processes is adapted to the characteristics of the primary digital print. As production speed plays a less significant role for shorter runs, it is particularly important to ensure efficient changeover between the individual jobs. The waste, setup times and tool costs of the conventional processes must therefore be minimized before integration takes place, so that the disadvantages of conventional printing do not outweigh the advantages of digital printing and therefore prevent the system as a whole from being worthwhile.
For instance, flexographic printing units should only be used for non-format applications, such as primers, varnishes and special effects that cannot be produced digitally. A semi-rotary diecutter with pre-setting is preferable to a rotary diecutter. Similarly, cold foil embossing is preferable to hot foil due to the lower tool costs.
It is also highly important that the different processes are integrated intelligently to ensure maximum user-friendliness of this inherently complex digital converting system. A standardized user interface with a consistent operating concept is just as important as regular monitoring and management of the individual functions. Examples include having a central control desk for centralized management of all UV and LED dryers and centralized monitoring of all filling levels, or a central cockpit that monitors all the production processes required throughout the system.
Reference was made above to how difficult it is to gain an overview of the many suppliers of narrow web digital printing systems for self-adhesive labels. The speed of innovation cycles means there will always be a digital printing system with unique selling points that match the current trends. Making a long-term investment in equipment calls for both a comparison of the technical (digital) specifications of the print system and consideration of even more wide-ranging issues regarding the business partner. The following sample questions can provide an initial framework for selecting a system:
Do my business partners and system suppliers understand my company’s work and the factors that are critical for success?
Well-founded application expertise needs to be in place so that the whole system can continue to be developed in the future for addressing new types of application efficiently. This is one of the key conditions for ensuring that the digital printing system selected can make a company’s label printing business more competitive.
Will my business partner be able to provide me with comprehensive support throughout the entire service life of my digital converting system?
When acquiring a digital printing system to expand the range of solutions offered, it is important to have access to a high level of support at the start to ease the learning curve. System suppliers need to be of a size that enables quick-response support when training or servicing is required, so that the short processing times (48-72 hours) often demanded by print buyers can be complied with.
Is my business partner capable of managing the complexity of the system as a whole? How many different sub-suppliers and system interfaces does the digital converting system in question involve?
Successful label printing requires optimum compatibility between the key components, conventional printing and finishing, digital printing, digital prepress processes, inks and toner. Having too many separate suppliers – with their own particular interests – can make problem-solving during servicing more complicated and place limitations on optimizing the system as a whole.
Furthermore, a system integrator (as one among many) has only a very restricted means of influencing the other suppliers, who will in turn also have to be accountable to several other system integrators.
Is the selected supplier’s digital printing system based on a consistent and future-focused business model?
In digital technology, innovation cycles are often relatively short. The capital-intensive development speed required can only be sustained by system suppliers if they also benefit from the consumables and use of the system. Furthermore, it is only this arrangement that can assure the printing system buyer that both partners are working toward a common goal – i.e. that they both gain from the intensive use and high availability of the digital printing system.
Martin Leonhard is Business Development Manager Digital at Gallus Group, a position he has held since 2007. Prior to joining Gallus, Leonhard worked at Heidelberg for eight years, an experience he says has proven vital in ensuring the smooth market launch of the joint development project for the Gallus DCS 340.