Digital inkjet printing, whether it be water-based or UV, has undergone seismic growth in recent years. The number of industry players has multiplied, and the technology continues to improve. The proliferation of single pass UV inkjet printing has also gained traction among label converters.
Michael Barry, product marketing manager of digital solutions at Fujifilm North America, defines inkjet printing as “a non-contact printing process, which opens the door to print on anything that can be passed under the inkjet heads.” He adds that continued improvements in inkjet ink make this digital technology a versatile process. “This is critical for the label market as material types vary arguably more than any other process,” says Barry.
Domino has continued to invest in digital inkjet, and the company sees this technology as the future of label printing. Bill Myers, marketing manager, digital printing, Domino, notes that this thriving print process has allowed Domino to hire and promote more people while helping customers make money.
“The response that we have seen from label customers has been fantastic,” says Myers. “We see better speed, print quality and reliability. This leads to a lower total cost of ownership, allowing printers to make more money.”
Domino associates an enhanced total cost of ownership with its digital solutions. The company notes that label converters could achieve a 500% increase in annual gross margin, 300% increase in annual revenue, 10-15% margin increase, 300% increase in run speed, 35% increase in throughput/print width, and a 70% decrease in production time.
There is no doubt that the technology has improved, too. “Inkjet technology has made significant steps forward as it has evolved from an experimental technology to a true production platform,” explains Helmuth Munter, segment manager, Labels & Package Printing at Durst. “In addition to its obvious advantages like high speed, excellent lightfastness and high scratch resistance, its high reliability with press uptime– within a range of 90-95%–has a significant impact on production capacity and running costs.”
“There have been great improvements to overcome the low resolution and large drop size of the ink that were holding back customer acceptance,” says Michael Ring, VP of digital solutions at Gallus. “Now with the Gallus Labelfire, we are able to offer a true 1200 x 1200 dpi system with only a 2-picoliter drop size, eliminating the hepatic look and feel of older generation inkjet devices.”
According to Alex Henkel, president of Electronic Imaging Materials (EIM), his company’s original Jetrion 4000 press produced an image quality of 360 dpi. This production was suitable for durable and industrial labels, but the quality needed to improve. Many equipment manufacturers are now featuring 1200 dpi resolutions. Henkel also notes that ink opacity and color matching have improved significantly, which has been noticed on EIM’s mprint mLabel press.
Now, label converters have the ability to go from blank labelstock to a fully finished variable color label in a single pass. “UV inkjet offers vivid colors that withstand sun exposure, chemical resistance, mechanical durability even without lamination, and high material compatibility even before topcoating,” explains Henkel. “We find that inkjet technology gives us the ability to quickly create and vary label designs, allowing quick customization even to the point where every label is different – on a wide variety of substrates with high image quality, colorfastness and durability.”
Robert McJury, partner at TLF Graphics and a Durst inkjet press adopter, says, “We consider inkjet to be replacement technology to flexo in our world of smaller quantities and lots of versioning. The improving quality will eventually – if it has not already – rival HP Indigo, and we have three Indigos, as well.
“Since installing our Durst Tau 330 LFS, we’ve run 6,840 orders/jobs at a revenue of $6,098,469,” he adds. “It’s by far our most productive press.”
TLF Graphics has found inkjet printing suitable for variable data and imaging. Its workflow speed, press uptime, ease of estimating, and ability to – in most cases – run uncoated materials, have also made inkjet advantageous.
One of the main detractions for inkjet presses was their inability to match the speeds of flexo printing, but the technology has gotten faster. The increases in speed have not detracted from the ability to produce vibrant colors and overall quality images either. “Converters are very much impressed with the achievable print quality in terms of resolution and color gamut, as well as the leading-edge printing speed, which is getting very close to average flexo press speeds,” adds Munter. “During the R&D phase of our newest press, we were focused strongly on reducing the overall total running costs.”
The Label Makers, a label converter based in the United Kingdom and a Durst beta test site, is producing run lengths between 15,000 and 20,000 linear meters, citing that the achievable run lengths have made this press a true alternative to conventional flexo presses.
There are differences between water-based and UV inkjet printing. UV ink offers better adhesion, lightfastness and rub-resistant properties when compared to water-based. UV lamps also require far less physical space than water-based drying systems.
While inkjet has been perceived as a challenging technology, growing education among suppliers and converters has dispelled many of these notions. A major concern has historically revolved around service and maintenance costs related to printhead replacements. However, printhead technology has seen significant enhancements, as well.
“There is a bit of trial and error when qualifying new materials,” explains McJury. “Finishing needs to be considered more closely. We created our own bottleneck in finishing as we added roll digital equipment. Ripping files when variable data is involved can be more time consuming than expected, as well.”
Epson, the manufacturer of SurePress digital label presses, has seen the integration of workflow automation increase, as well. “This trend fits in well with our presses, since there is no manual maintenance required in the middle of the shift, which is usually done at the beginning or the end of the shift,” says Mike Pruitt, SurePress product manager, Epson America, Inc. “Web-to-print for converters or internal ordering for vertical manufacturers is one example.”
Remaining challenges involve color matching, which Henkel says, “still takes a little bit of effort.” Converters can extend the color range by adding additional green, orange, violet or white heads to the standard cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Full variable color also requires careful design, processing and finishing, he adds.
Another added benefit, Domino’s Myers adds, is the ability to attract new workers. “The label printing industry, in general, has an aging workforce,” he says. “Many flexo press operators that have been with their company for years are getting up there in age and will be retiring soon. Workforce development and the recruiting of young talent are among the main concerns that many label printers face. Some of them realize that to acquire the next generation of employees, they can use their digital assets as a recruiting tool.”
A number of industry players offer a wide range of solutions, from water-based and UV inkjet printing to retrofits. One of the main reasons that so many companies have thrown their hat into the inkjet ring is because of the technology’s inherent improvements.
“The basic technology is fairly simple,” explains Epson’s Pruitt. “Accuracy, speed and redundancy are achievable at reasonable costs. With the right ink sets, standard flexo materials can be used. Head cost is a big issue. Epson manufactures its own printheads, which is a big advantage for our customers in terms of cost and cutting-edge quality.”
From a UV inkjet standpoint, these presses have seen enhanced printing speeds regardless of the number of colors, plus the ability to run high opacity whites in a single pass. Material providers have also upped their game, as a greater range of substrates can be printed without the need for special priming. This modular and scalable technology allows easy upgradability of additional colors and/or print width in the field.
Domino’s N610i digital UV inkjet label press utilizes proven and reliable technology for digital printing in either monochrome (black or white ink), 7-color (CMYKOV+W) or cold foil. The press incorporates Domino’s iTech technology, which maximizes throughput and efficiency while minimizing operator intervention and printer downtime.
Domino offers its customers options by providing digital choices that match up the label converter’s book of business with the best-fit configuration for their needs, be it digital roll-to-roll, roll-to-inline, roll-to-nearline, or hybrid. In order to further assist its customers, Domino has released an Inkjet Coverage Guide booklet to help label converters estimate ink costs with their new digital asset. “We can estimate production costs for the Domino N610i and compare that to a typical flexo press and electrophotography (EP),” says Myers. “We can also estimate ink cost as a percentage of total job cost. We also provide other business support services such as project management, training, color management review and marketing support.”
Misco Products, a Domino customer, manufactures labels for industrial liquid cleaning chemicals, and the printer must accommodate 380 different brands, 1,600 different formulations, 14,000 different SKUs and over 100 different package sizes, styles and shapes for their customers. “The ink is so tough and so durable with Domino. We actually did chemical testing with all of our chemicals here at Misco, and we found that the Domino UV inkjet-printed labels stood up to everything – even an ink remover that we use in the commercial printing industry. It’s amazing,” says Dave Kutz, vice president of operations at Misco.
David Webster, managing director of The Label Makers in the UK, has experienced the improvements associated with inkjet first-hand. “We’re constantly striving to keep ahead of the curve, and becoming the first customer to install the new Durst Tau 330 RSC is another huge step forward for us. I definitely see the future of label production as inkjet. A major reason for us getting our third Tau 330 is its increase in printing speed to 78 m/m. Another is a big jump in quality, with twice the resolution at 1200 x 1200 dpi compared to other vendors, plus the addition of the extra green color. This means we can cover 98% of Pantone shades. The increases in speed and quality make the Durst Tau 330 RSC as competitive as most flexo presses, and we’re confident that this new press will once again open up many more doors as we continue to expand.”
Gallus’ Ring also states that inkjet’s overall simplicity, when compared to electrophotography, leads to a more durable technology, which can easily be scaled in both size and speed.
The growing prevalence of inkjet led Xeikon, traditionally a toner-based digital press manufacturer, to unveil its Panther technology. This UV inkjet platform, which is highlighted by the PX3000, complements Xeikon’s dry toner press portfolio. The PX3000 features PantherCure UV inks and utilizes the Xeikon X-800 workflow to connect to the press.
Dantex recently launched the PicoJet UV digital inkjet label press. This modular platform offers a wide range of inline finishing options and uses a 2.5 picoliter ink droplet size, which provides excellent ink coverage without any loss of quality or color integrity.
Not only does INX International Ink Co. supply inks to the narrow web industry, it also markets inkjet label presses. The NW210 UV narrow web inkjet press features UV LED advanced curing technology and printing speeds up to 80 fpm. The NW210 press uses Xaar printhead technology and features 15 1002 8-level gray-scale printheads capable of producing apparent resolution greater than 1000 dpi.
There a host of compact, tabletop cost-effective digital inkjet label printers available to the industry, as well. Afinia Label offers the L301, L501, and L901. The L501 is highlighted by Duo Ink Technology, which is designed to handle pigment and dye inks. The L901 is powered by Memjet’s Sirius engine. Memjet printheads have been featured on many digital label printers, including Colordyne Technologies, TrojanLabel, Lemorau and more. In addition, Allen Datagraph has multiple inkjet solutions in this product range, including the i-Tech Cypher label printer. This narrow web inkjet printer runs at speeds up to 100 fpm at resolutions up to 2400 x 1200 dpi.
In addition to printers and presses, Colordyne Technologies has released the 3600 Series UV – retrofit. This retrofit product provides a cost-effective method for adding process color UV inkjet printing capabilities to existing conventional converting equipment. Colordyne utilizes its proprietary print engine control software to provide label printers with the latest UV inkjet imaging technology. The 3600 Series UV - retrofit prints digital CMYK plus white at speeds up to 246 fpm (75 m/m).
How About Hybrid?
UV inkjet presses can be integrated with flexo technology as well as pre- and post-press finishing solutions to form a hybrid press.
Mark Andy is continuing its commitment to hybrid printing with the recent addition of a suite of enhancements to its Digital Series platform. The new Digital Series HD combines the flexibility of inline converting and high-resolution digital print. It can be configured with five through eight digital colors and can support integrated inline or future-proof near-line converting options.This added flexibility enables Mark Andy’s digital hybrid press portfolio to reach a larger percentage of the market in terms of budget, as well as unique application or workflow needs.
With the Digital Series HD, expanded gamut is now offered in a high-chroma ink set (CMYK + OVG), which complements an existing richly pigmented white ink formulation. Touted as delivering output comparable to rotary screen, Mark Andy reports the ink provides three times the opacity of flexo white and more than double that of conventional EP white, measured in excess of 80%. Digital white can be run without trade-off in speeds at the platform’s standard of 240 fpm.
The most notable alteration to the Digital Series HD press comes in the form of the digital module. Once a flat table section, the new platform now showcases an arched IDS. The arch design accepts unsupported films and improves operator ergonomics, enabling quick and clean ink changeover. New printhead technology housed in the module also matches the quality standard of 1200 dpi. Digital Series HD also comes with further configurability in the way of 3-head cleaning options- manual, automatic and semi-automatic. This variety translates to less downtime, improved head health and reduced costs for converters. Additionally, the platform now offers a more advantaged VDP tool in response to market demand for sophisticated personalization.
Durst’s new Tau 330 RSC UV inkjet label and package printing press can be purchased as a standalone unit, or it can be configured as a hybrid press with Omet’s XFlex series of conventional finishing options, providing material flexibility for a vast range of applications.
Fujifilm’s Graphium UV inkjet press, which is designed for labels, packaging and specialty print, is said to streamline workflows, requires less setup material, less ink/varnish/laminate, provides lower running waste and eliminates overruns. “Label customers have greatly increased their interest and knowledge in the inkjet printing space, realizing how inkjet can revolutionize their business – being able to provide quick turnaround high-quality output – with inks that work with their existing label material,” explains Fujifilm’s Barry. “Converters have seen the benefits of a hybrid press to increase their capabilities and reduce their production costs.”
Gallus offers the Labelfire. This inkjet hybrid press offers inline printing, as well as decorating and converting functionality, allowing converters to significantly reduce waste and labor by printing right from a PDF to a finished product. Gallus’ Ring says the Labelfire is “the only digital press that combines digital, flexo and screen printing technologies inline.” Ring concludes, “Hybrids are the logical conclusion for industrial label converting. This technology enables the right fit for the job. Using a hybrid press gives a converter all the flexibility they need to run an efficient and profitable business, with only one operator. This saves time, money, reduces waste and improves profitability.”
Domino has teamed up with MPS to offer the EF SymJet powered by Domino. The automated MPS EF platform is integrated with a Domino N610i digital UV inkjet label press. The solution can either be installed as a fully integrated inline press or as a standalone off-line digital solution.
The Panorama product line from Nilpeter consists of the DP-3 digital inkjet unit, flexo units and converting solutions, configured to fit customer needs – all inline. The digital hybrid configurations cover a wide and varied spectrum of customer needs and requirements with a 5-color inkjet print engine, web infeed for optimal tension and fast register, touchscreen operation and 14" flexo printing units with Nilpeter’s CleanInking chambers. Value adding units, such as the Nilpeter FP-4 for hot stamping and embossing, can also be integrated.
In a relatively short period of time, inkjet technology has made great strides in competing with not only EP-based label presses but also flexography. There are more products available on the market than ever before, and many within the industry believe the technology will only improve in the future.