Digital printing is leaving its mark on the industry, even though roughly 90% of labels are still printed flexographically. According to LPC, Inc., 75% of future press sales will be digital. Much of that can be attributed to label converters already owning productive flexo presses, but the fact remains: there has been and will continue to be a substantial investment in digital.
“Everyone in the industry can feel the winds of change blowing from the direction of the brands and their demand for digital,” says Eli Mahal, head of marketing, labels and packaging, at HP Indigo. “Our customers are embracing this change as an opportunity to grow, even though others may still consider it a challenge. With Indigo print users growing 4-5 times faster than the broader market, it is easy to understand why our customers are bullish about digital print with HP Indigo.”
The perception of digital printing is changing, too. Once thought to be limited to short runs, digital has evolved in terms of quality and speed. More label converters are relying on customization and variable data to drive their digital departments. For example, Simon Smith, managing director of CS Labels, utilized a Xeikon press for a digital job consisting of 500 million labels. “Digital really has been a game-changer for us as a company,” he notes.
“When we originally started selling digital back in the early 2000s, the idea was taking these really small runs – starting them off on digital and then moving them over to flexo,” says Joseph Sanchez, Northeast regional manager at Dantex. “What we’re seeing now is that’s no longer the case. Once you start with digital you keep the runs on digital. And with the speeds and technology that have been released, particularly with UV inkjet, we’re running at faster speeds than some customers I know run flexo presses full-time.”
Domino, meanwhile, started with single-color monochrome with its K600i digital UV inkjet printer, which was geared for printing variable data, sequential numbering, bar codes and QR codes. Using the same printhead technology, the company’s offerings have extended to 5-color (CMYK+W) roll-to-roll with the Domino N610i digital UV inkjet label press. Digital printers now have more options, as Domino offers a wide range of configurations such as roll-to-roll, roll-to-inline, roll-to-nearline, and hybrid (flexo + digital) with choice of the flexo and finishing from several OEM partners.
Digital printing can accommodate a wide range of applications, ranging from craft beer labels to industrial labels. “Customers are using digital printing in constantly new and creative ways,” explains Victor Gomez, director, Industrial Label Products, Epson America. “Our ColorWorks label printers are now being used in a wide variety of industries, for applications like ID badges, tradeshow badges, apparel labels, safety signs, event wristbands, and gamma ray sensitive sterilization markers for healthcare. Meanwhile, our SurePress models have evolved organically and have also been able to leverage technology from other areas of the company like robotics, ink developments, software and sensors.
“Boutique labels for short run, high value-added product labels are still important, of course, but the market is finding new and wonderfully interesting uses for these printers,” adds Gomez. “Macro trends underlie the expansion: mass customization, the need for lower inventories and faster turnaround and personalization.”
“Brands demand more agility, shorter runs and a faster time to market,” says Mahal. “We invest in a complete eco-system to ensure faster delivery of more jobs every day, starting with our PrintOS and workflow partners, more productive presses and converting equipment tailored for fast setup and minimal waste. Brands demand more creative and beautiful packages, and we help deliver that to them.”
Digital printing is not limited to one type of converter, either. There are products to meet the wide-ranging needs of the market, from large or small units, electrophotographic (EP) or inkjet. Dantex, which offers the PicoColour and the new PicoJet, specializes in inkjet technology. The company has a history with both inkjet and toner.
“Inkjet has many advantages to offer the perfect solution for the labels and packaging industry,” says Michelle Garza, VP of operations at Dantex. “As it’s a non-contact printing technique, this allows the systems the opportunity to print onto a wider variety of industry standard substrates more efficiently and cost effectively than other technologies. Dantex first entered the digital print market with a toner device. From that experience, we determined inkjet was the technology for the future. Since launching our mid-range PicoColour press, Dantex continued to improve many of the press’ integral components, enabling improved efficiency and print quality.”
Colordyne Technologies is another such supplier, as the company offers a suite of scalable solutions for digital label printing, which are driven by Memjet technology. Colordyne’s products range from digital inkjet benchtop printers to production-level inkjet presses. At the production-level, Colordyne offers aqueous dye, aqueous pigment and UV LED inkjet solutions as retrofits and standalone systems.
“Our technology is advancing because our customers want to print more label applications with digital inkjet solutions,” explains Katelyn Bohr, director of marketing at Colordyne. “We continue to evaluate how our technology can better meet the needs of our customers, which includes greater versatility, affordability and ease of use.”
Label printing is not an either/or proposition with digital and flexography, either. Many converters are investing in both technologies to better match the right jobs to the right press. Flexo is allowed to run more freely when short-run jobs are shifted to a digital press. Digital, meanwhile, does not incur the expenses of plate manufacturing for small jobs.
“Dantex customers state that having digital under their own roof allows them the advantages of total control of production and gives them the confidence to offer samples, variations, shorter runs and faster turnaround times,” adds Garza. “Another increase in profits is through a transition of lower runs from their existing flexo presses onto digital.”
In the long run, there are price advantages to going digital, so says Sanchez. “One of the nice aspects of UV inkjet is the cost,” he adds. “The only consumable you have is the cost of the ink. Once you start adding that to the process, you don’t have the waste or the make-ready, and you have the consistency of colors and the ability to save information for jobs, where everything is printed exactly the same way it was the first time. You really have that consistency, which is pushing digital inkjet.”
“The digital market space continues to grow, as converters who have made the investments have seen the rewards,” notes Paul Teachout, vice president of sales and marketing for Nilpeter USA, whose company has partnered with Screen. “But they also express that by investing in this technology, it has opened up capacity on the conventional side. They now have digital and finishing solutions to manage much of their short-run work, which now creates opportunity on the conventional side. This often leads to securing more longer run work that requires another conventional press. The two technologies are a very good complement to each other.”
Digital’s relevance has only been validated through the investments of conventional press manufacturers. Leading suppliers like Bobst, Gallus, Mark Andy, MPS, Nilpeter, Omet and a host of others have all entered the digital space – be it in the form of a hybrid or standalone digital offering. “I see digital being incorporated into almost every aspect of the print business, but I see flexo finding ways to stay relevant,” Catherine Haynes, technical training and resource specialist at APR, said at a recent open house.
Partnerships abound, as Omet has teamed up with Durst, MPS with Domino, Nilpeter with Screen, in addition to others. A hybrid press will combine digital printing with inline converting and decorating to create a hybrid workflow. For example, Domino has teamed up with multiple partners, including CEI and MPS. Recently, Orion Labels and Wegmann Companies have selected the CEI BossJet Driven by Domino. Meanwhile, DWS Printing has turned to the MPS SymJet Driven by Domino.
“That’s where the whole concept of hybrid came into the picture. If we could print digitally, put down UV white inline, and get high quality at speeds with all the benefits of digital – all in one pass – that was a nice, attractive option for us,” explains Tom Staib, owner and president of DWS Printing. “It wasn’t without its challenges, but MPS and Domino have worked very well together. Where we are today, compared to a year and a half ago, we are lightyears ahead. We are very happy with the system, and no regrets.”
“Our partnership with Screen has progressed nicely,” states Nilpeter’s Teachout. “Screen has had a long reputation of providing the most reliable digital UV inkjet solution in the market. When Nilpeter decided to be a market driver in the digital and hybrid printing space, it was critical for us to partner with a leading global digital supplier. We also made a clear decision that UV inkjet was going to be the technology that we moved forward with.”
Nilpeter’s Panorama hybrid provides a complete digital product, from standalone to near-line to a complete hybrid solution. Nilpeter went the hybrid route to complement its Nilpeter FA Line of conventional technologies, allowing the company to offer a wide range of printing, embellishment and converting applications with complete Clean Hand technology operations to embody a digital solution.
Digital printing is not limited to printing a short run of craft beer labels for a local brewery. In fact, the broad range of capabilities extends to food-safe packaging and anti-counterfeiting features. Plus, top quality and eye-popping aesthetics are no longer enough.
“Brands demand more ways to protect themselves,” notes HP Indigo’s Mahal. “With our partners, we have developed a complete solution for brand protection, including UV visible inks and unique SW solutions. These allow brands to deliver multi-layer protection in one pass. Brands are also demanding more eco-friendly and safe packaging. Our inks are safe for food packaging and qualified for compostable packaging, and our production process requires less waste and no tooling.”
According to Epson, digital printing will find itself in new industries – responding to customer demands that were not previously thought of. “Digital printing will continue to evolve to fit more applications in more industries,” notes Epson’s Gomez. “Digital will continue to rationalize the label business so that whatever can be produced most efficiently close to where it’s needed, will be. Customer needs will create the spaces for the technology to take hold. Technology will evolve to create new customer needs as they find creative and unexpected ways of using it. One clear path is connectivity. The printer or press stops being a standalone production station and is integrated into the value chain more deeply and seamlessly.”
Digital also has the ability to go beyond pressure sensitive labels. The technology has served as a key differentiator for DWS Printing, helping the NY-based label converter produce shrink sleeves. Added capabilities will allow printers to explore new areas of business.
“Digital printing will continue to grow and evolve to all forms of packaging, including shrink sleeves, flexible packaging, folding carton, corrugated and so on,” says Bill Myers, marketing manager at Domino. He adds, “Especially as brand owners continue to see the benefits of digital and how they can use digital printing to connect with consumers to gain and retain mind share and loyalty, whether through personalization or versioning.”
In the future, inkjet should see continued proliferation. “Our customers are excited to see us develop innovative digital label printing solutions with new inkjet technologies,” says Colordyne’s Bohr. “Some customers come to us needing a solution that meets food and beverage safety regulations, while others are looking for a solution to print durable and industrial applications. Increasingly, though, we’ve seen an increased demand for a product that can offer low migration inks and enhanced durability, including lightfastness, waterfastness and rub resistance.”
“Digital, particularly inkjet, will continue to grow,” adds Dantex’s Garza. “Inkjet is utilized in so many industries and the competition within the global environment will push for continuous technological improvements. We undoubtedly will see wider, faster presses with environmental considerations.”