This trend is making headlines in the label-printing world. Historically, flexo press manufacturers have responded to the demand for short run labels by integrating digital platforms into a flexo workflow. The goal is to meet demand for large run flexo orders on the same press that is capable of handling a 500-label order from a local winery.
Major players in flexo are making inroads in developing hybrid technology. Gallus, Mark Andy, MPS, Nilpeter and Omet have all responded to the market’s need for digital. In the case of Durst and FFEI with Fujifilm, digital printing specialists have integrated flexo into their digital workflows.
Gallus, for example, offers the Labelfire 340, which has been developed to meet the requirements of quickly changing markets. This system is based on digital UV inkjet printing units and, according to Gallus, enables label printers to achieve offset quality with digital printing.
“The Gallus Labelfire digital converting system combines the speed of flexographic printing with the efficiency of digital printing, and meets Gallus’ high register accuracy standards,” explains Michael Ring, Gallus’ vice president of Digital Solutions. “The digital technology facilitates the processing of variable data and versioning in label printing, which supports the cost-efficient production of short runs. The new Gallus Labelfire also offers label printers the flexibility they expect from a digital press system. With its innovative integration concept, it combines digital printing with conventional printing, embellishing and converting in a single system.”
Gallus’ Labelfire also integrates Prinect software from Heidelberg to allow operators to transfer data from virtually any standard MIS system and provide a system interface for data handling. This enables an intuitive operation, whether changing the arrangement of labels on the web or making subsequent color corrections.
Mark Andy’s hybrid solution, the Digital Series, is a highly configurable, single-pass press, customized to meet converters’ needs. Typically, the Digital Series will include three to four flexo stations – along with decorating and converting features – in addition to the CMYK+White inkjet print capability. The company also recently launched Digital One at Labelexpo Americas. This non-configurable single-pass solution integrates a toner-based digital print engine with a single flexo station and diecut capability.
“Advantages of the Digital Series go beyond the configurability of the machine,” explains Ray Dickinson, Mark Andy’s vice president, marketing and business development, Digital Solutions. “Mark Andy partners with the converter to fully understand existing workflows to more fully understand and support integration needs. This optimization of workflow has resulted in revenue generation in as little as three weeks from the time of installation for some converters. Additionally, the press is built on the Performance Series platform, which has proven to be simple to learn, operate and maintain.”
According to Dickinson, converters regularly rely on the Digital Series to produce as much as 100,000 linear feet of product output daily. He adds that this hybrid press has proven to produce seven times the industry average for a digital label press.
“Any converter interested in expanding their capabilities, supporting an increase in short run demands, and boosting productivity should consider hybrid technology,” adds Dickinson. “Digital technology has proven to be extremely effective for shorter run work, and production-level hybrid technology can support a full gamut of run sizes, generating the same work as a traditional digital workflow using half the amount of substrate and resulting in 2-3 times the revenue.”
Fujifilm has teamed with FFEI to offer the Graphium hybrid press, which is built on a flexo press platform. According to Michael Barry, product marketing manager, Digital Solutions, Fujifilm North America Corp., Graphic Systems Division, the press provides excellent registration from operation-to-operation and a stable transport system for the digital component. “Hybrid presses have the advantage of having all the tools inline, but you do not have to use all the tools at once,” he says. “Having the combination of digital print options, flexo print options, and converting options inline allow you to tailor the press to fit any application or run length.”
Collaboration has proven to be a key aspect in this market. MPS, a press manufacturer most known for its conventional flexo and offset presses, has partnered with Domino on its EF Symjet hybrid press. According to Kees Nijenhuis, vice president at MPS Systems North America, the EF Symjet combines the stability of the company’s existing MPS EF flexo platform with the integration of Domino’s N610i inkjet engine. This hybrid technology allows converters to combine flexo and digital in one pass. “There’s no longer a need for separate workflows,” explains Nijenhuis. “The benefits of a combined workflow include the possibility to choose which technology is used for each job: flexo, digital or both. Some label designs are better suited to print partly in flexo, and the rest digitally. When the job size approaches flexo volumes, the hybrid is a versatile solution to efficiently meet these needs. Also, in hybrid solutions, 100% color gamut is achievable, also in combination with additional lacquer and metallics.”
Omet has a hybrid press and a collaborative partnership with Durst. The Omet XFlex X6 JetPlus features an integrated inkjet unit, where inkjet, flexo, and a converting station are commanded by one single console. The setup and register control are all integrated as well. The company’s Vision-1 system controls flexo and inkjet register at the same time. “Omet offers complete solutions,” says Marco Calcagni, sales director at Omet. “From narrow web up to 850mm wide web, we offer all kinds of printing technologies combined together: flexo, UV flexo, digital, offset and gravure.”
Durst’s recent partnership with Omet equips its Tau 330 digital platform with Omet’s near-line pre- and post-press finishing solutions. Durst’s hybrid solution features Omet’s XFlex technology, which allows for increased flexibility throughout a wide range of applications. “Our partnership with Durst has really been excellent,” adds Calcagni. “As a supplier of flexo and converting units, we can optimize a solution that is integrated with their digital printing unit.”
Within different print jobs, a variable part of the label, such as the image, can be changed without stopping the press. The variable part is better suited to inkjet, while other aspects of the label may be more efficient to print with flexo. Certain markets, like the industrial, home, and personal care segments, might benefit from hybrid printing, as certain images or text might be slightly altered.
Keith Nagle, digital product manager at Nilpeter USA, states that his company’s approach involves providing complete solutions for today’s narrow web print industry. “Along with our market leading presses, like the FA and the MO, we can offer a complete digital solution to fit a specific need,” he says. “Whether it is a standalone DP3 roll-to-roll UV inkjet digital press or that same press with our own converting technology inline, or finally, a complete hybrid solution with our DP3 press incorporated inline within our market-leading narrow web flexo press.”
A Changing Landscape
The flexibility of the hybrid press has the opportunity to change the way printers think about converting. According to Dan Doherty, executive vice president of operations and principal at Prairie State Group, a converter using hybrid technology, nearly 40% of his company’s orders have been less than 5,000 feet, and Prairie State Group deals with 300-400 orders per month. The PRIMIR 2014 study on “Tag and Label Printing Trends” by LPC and AWA estimates that North American digital press installations will surpass conventional in 2018. In 2013, however, conventional still accounted for 74% of the market.
Right now, hybrid solutions are designed to offer the best of both worlds. “Hybrid printing will push the envelope for what applications and jobs can be run in a digital environment, thus increasing the digital adoption rate,” says Fujifilm’s Barry. “The hybrid press platform has received very positive feedback.”
As opposed to running two separate presses – one flexo and one digital – the hybrid press offers a smaller and more compact footprint, lower waste due to inline converting and a reduced need for operator intervention.
According to Gallus’ Ring, there are numerous benefits associated with this flexible technology. “The Gallus Labelfire is particularly impressive when it comes to small characters, fine lines and gradients down to 0%,” he says. “The unique shaped inkjet printhead also makes it possible to achieve seamless head stitching, resulting in a smooth print across the entire web. In addition to this superior inkjet technology, the Gallus Labelfire 340 also has conventional converting modules taken from the Gallus ECS 340, which is tried and tested 100 times over. The Gallus Labelfire’s user-friendly HMI, which controls both conventional and digital modules, ensures that label printers manage and control their entire machine system with the same operating philosophy.”
Ring cites lower tool costs, less waste and shorter setup times as key advantages for hybrid technology. Converters also deal with lower stock levels and storage costs. Increased flexibility prevents the need to dispose of old stock while reducing the outlay required for quality and reliability, event marketing and more.
There are challenges associated with hybrid presses, but Barry explains that most of them can be solved through better understanding of the product. “The challenge is education,” he says. “Once a converter truly understands the capabilities of hybrid printing, it is the obvious choice for an investment.”
Although the potential exists to further change the label printing market, Omet’s Calcagni believes the advent of digital printing has already shifted the marketplace. “In my opinion, digital technology has already changed a lot of the label printing industry,” he says. “I think that digital technology will not replace traditional printing, but there will be possibilities for both in the market, depending on the printer’s needs.”
Meeting Market Demand
Hybrid presses can serve a specific need in the label industry. Typically, lower costs are reported for small and medium-sized jobs – up to 10,000 running feet in narrow web, which accounts for approximately 70,000 labels. The average digital job will produce up to 10,000 labels.
“To decide whether a hybrid is an ideal solution for a converter, we highly recommend that label printers review their label production and job structure over the past 3-5 years,” says MPS’ Nijenhuis. “They need to determine if the overall quantity of labels produced is the same, but the number of print jobs might have increased, meaning more job changes. When a label printer’s daily production consists partly of job structures – so-called job families – hybrid printing can be a very profitable solution.”
A number of factors will determine whether a company decides to go into hybrid printing technologies. The quantity of smaller sized jobs, the amount of job variations and more diversified jobs, and to what extent workflows congest production capacity will all play a role in the ultimate decision.
“Investing in hybrid technology is a key strategic decision for your business,” says Nagle. “Digital capabilities, while impressive, have their limitations. When you can bring the process completely inline for printing metallic and fluorescents, along with impeccable digital process print and then finally post print decoration with foils, coatings or tactile, you really have a competitive advantage in your market space.”
Although converters will face a larger initial investment, the flexibility to change between printing technologies can provide long-term benefits. “The added cost is repaid by greater efficiency,” says Nijenhuis. “Considering the lifetime of the press, the customer receives higher productivity. It also provides label printers with more flexibility in production planning that can be extended to their clients, which in turn increases customer satisfaction.”
The tangible results are starting to be seen in the industry. MPS sold its first EF Symjet to Optikett, who utilizes the press for 4- to 6-color short runs. According to the company, 4-color and 6-color traditional printing solutions can replicate 70-90% of the color gamut, while a hybrid solution can reach 100%.
Following Labelexpo, Mark Andy installed its first Digital Series in Europe at Polish converter Arti-Bau. There are already a number US installations, including most recently at Adcraft Labels in California. In Mark Andy’s case, market feedback led to the development of its newest press. “Every converter we speak with is excited to see the market develop and deliver a viable alternative to other more mature digital printing technologies,” says Dickinson. “The supportive feedback from the production-level Digital Series hybrid solution drove the development of Digital One.”
“The marketplace has voted with their checkbooks,” explains Ring. “Multi-print process digital presses are the future of digital label printing. We have had a fanatical response from converters. With the level of integration in the Labefire, converters can now use the best of both print technologies without any compromises.”
“Feedback on the concept has been positive and very inspiring,” says Nilpeter’s Nagle. “We have a vision with the digital platform, and when our vision matches the feedback of the market, it reassures everyone that we are on the proper path.”
The retrofit hybrid
Retrofit technology represents another hybrid solution, where full color digital printing can be applied to an existing flexo press. Colordyne Technologies, a digital inkjet printing systems manufacturer, has partnered with Mark Andy to distribute the Colordyne 3600 Series retrofit. This strategic partnership introduces digital technology to Mark Andy legacy press models – the 2200 and 4150.
Retrofit technology is designed to avoid setup costs incurred with the installation of a new standalone press. The 3600 Series Retrofit – powered by Memjet technology – runs at speeds up to 275 fpm at 1600 x 1375 dpi. “Converters are always positive and supportive of any new concepts to help them deliver more value to their clients,” says Dickinson. “Mark Andy is proud to support partnerships with co-suppliers and converters alike to deliver the best solution fit for the application.”
Dickinson adds that retrofit technology has seen steady growth since its inception nearly 10 years ago. “For some converters and applications, it is a great fit,” he says. “Mark Andy is proud of the steps we have made in this hybrid space. We are unique in that we have invested in the resources to provide support and solutions to any size converter looking to run any size job. Our Total Solutions Partner philosophy supports our commitment to understand our customers’ goals and provide the resources and assets to reach them.”