Digital Printing
By Steve Katz, Editor | November 21, 2013 (Article sourced from

Improved technology has an increasing number of converters adding digital presses.
The digital printing space within the label industry has never been more robust, and all signs point to its continued growth and acceptance. InfoTrends, which tracks placements and installed bases of both electrophotographic (EP) and inkjet presses for label and package printing in all regions, estimates that the about 2,300 color digital presses for label and packaging converting will be operating globally by the end of 2013. According to Bob Leahey, associate director with InfoTrends Color Digital Label and Packaging Service, about 95% of the output of these presses is labels. Combined with the small but growing use of these presses for folding cartons and flexible packaging, InfoTrends estimates that total billings from this installed base were about $2.6 billion last year, and growing to about $4.6 billion in 2017, a 15% annual growth rate.

“One reason for growth in billings recently has been a big rise in the average rate of use of dedicated color digital presses for label printing,” Leahey says. “EP presses from HP Indigo and Xeikon now average over $1 million in annual billings per system today, almost all from labels. That is much more than a few years ago.”

Leahey attributes the growth to improved technology and the fact that digital label converters are more experienced users now. He also believes that inkjet presses from companies such as Durst, EFI, Epson, Stork and others are also growing their average billings.

Two general trends, according to InfoTrends: the rise of inkjet press technology and the arrival of a new generation of much wider web digital presses. On the rise of inkjet, Leahey says that the technology still ranks behind EP in label converting, but it is much younger than than EP printing is, having really only begun as an option for label converters about five years ago. Leahey adds, though, that inkjet has many developers now, starting with a crew of dedicated, influential head developers, notably Epson, Konica Minolta, Kyocera and Xaar.

More short runs, SKUs
It’s well known that the sweet spot for digital has been its ability to produce short run printing, on demand, without plates, affording converters the ability to offer customers faster turnaround time than conventional printing processes. Perhaps the single biggest trend that’s driving the acceptance of digital label printing is the increasing demand for short-run jobs due to the proliferation of SKUs.

Filip Weymans, director – segment marketing & business development – Labels & Packaging, Xeikon, says that within the global consumer packaged goods market, consumers want more and more variety of flavors, sizes, tastes and form factors. “This has led to massive SKU and brand proliferation, and CPG companies are facing accelerated time-to-market to compete,” he says. “A single brand may offer 20 different kinds of shampoo, each requiring a different label. In addition, this proliferation of so many products and product categories leaves consumers with a dizzying amount of information and brand messages to sort through. It’s absolutely critical for products to have impactful packaging and labels that help them stand out on the shelf.”

David Murphy, director of market development, Americas, HP Graphics Solutions Business, HP, notes that in addition to SKU proliferation, globalization has become a key market driver, and brand owners are also taking advantage of digital to further engage the consumer. “From 2007 to 2012, the average grocery store increased its SKU count from 38,000 to 48,000. As manufacturers increasingly extend their distribution reach to more countries and narrower segments, there are more language versions, colors and design variations. For example, Procter & Gamble has more than 50 different products in its Pantene Pro-V shampoo line. Consumer niche marketing and product variation such as this not only reduces the length of print runs, it also increases the complexity of the supply and production chain,” he says.

Murphy points out several other trends driving the demand for digital, including the increased usage of private labels by major brand owners and global retail groups; the need for more creative and innovative labels that enable brands to better engage consumers, as exemplified by Coca-Cola’s personalized “Share a Coke” campaign; brand protection against counterfeiting with the need for authentication and traceability; mobile internet access, QR codes, and social media to drive more localized and interactive consumer engagement.

Inkjet influx
At Labelexpo in Brussels there were more than 50 inkjet label printers on display. This number keeps growing with each exhibition, the influx pointing to an improved and more widely accepted technology.

Stephen Emery, vice president, ink business and Jetrion Industrial Inkjet, EFI, says inkjet is picking up steam because it operates from a slightly different business model within the digital space. “It gives converters a manufacturing cost advantage in digital because the label printer only pays for the actual digital ink they use – inkjet presses do not require click charges. The last thing a converter wants to do with a digital job is approach his or her customer with a huge price premium to switch a job from flexo to digital,” Emery says.

With Jetrion presses, Emery adds, users can take the same types of label jobs they do now, and nearly all the substrates they use in flexo, and have them printed and finished in-line with one press. “Having that type of versatility is key – converters don’t want situations where they have to tell customers that digital labels have to be handled differently than the labels they already use.”

Andy Cook, FFEI managing director, states, “Digital printing of labels has moved from bleeding edge to mainstream, and it’s particularly noticeable with inkjet. In recent years, there has been hundreds of millions of dollars invested in inkjet technologies and the real benefits of inkjet printing are now being realized. With inkjet, you have the opportunity for printing high gamut, vibrant images on a wide range of substrates, something that has always been a limitation with toner-based printing. Also, the simplicity and productivity of the inkjet print process allows more flexibility integrating with finishing processes.”

Mike Pruitt, SurePress product manager, Epson America, emphasizes that inkjet has been able to grow at the rapid pace it has because converters can get everything they need from one supplier. “Inkjet has grown because it is available in ‘kit’ form,” he says. “Particularly in UV printing, many offerings allow businesses to buy print heads, ink, electronics and web transport from different vendors to make the package. There are just a handful of companies making a complete integrated digital printing system, with the Epson SurePress inkjet digital label press being one of them.

Advancing Technology
“One of the things we’ve learned from the past 20 years of our experience in this space is that label converters are not just looking for a digital press,” says Filip Weymans. “They’re looking for a full production solution to ensure they get a timely return on their investment.” With this in mind, Xeikon has developed its “Suite” concept. The Xeikon Suites are built for specific applications, such as SA/PS labels, heat transfer labels, folding cartons and IML. “In the case of Suites, such as the SA/PS label suite, we have even developed specific solutions for different types of SA/PS labels, such as beverage labels, pharma labels and health & beauty labels,” says Weymans, adding that Xeikon’s suites include relevant print media/substrates, workflow options, consumables & tools as well as auxiliary converting equipment from industry partners.

“We have also made significant technological breakthroughs in our toner development. A massive amount of R&D goes into toner innovations at Xeikon,” adds Weymans. “Our QA-I toner is specifically designed for the needs of label and packaging converters. It offers huge advantages in food safety, lightfastness and eco-friendliness.” In July 2013, Xeikon introduced its new ICE toner for digital label presses, designed specifically for heat sensitive substrates, including PE facestocks and thermal labels.

The Xeikon 3000 Series is based on full-rotary printing technology, with variable repeat length, to ensure press speeds are not affected by the label size and/or the number of colors used. The presses use Xeikon’s X-800 Digital Front End, which can be integrated into any production environment. It offers ICC color management, facilitates integration in a conventional print environment, and allows post-RIP color adjustment, minimizing downtime and offering extra flexibility. The X-800 processes all common input files and lowers the threshold for including metadata like sequential numbers or bar codes.

On the HP Indigo WS6600 Digital Press, the Enhanced Productivity Mode increases press color speed to 40 linear meters per minute for most color jobs. “This delivers the industry’s highest crossover point versus analog for the majority of PS label jobs,” Murphy says. “Offering the widest digital color gamut with up to seven ink stations on-press, up to 97% of the Pantone color gamut can be achieved using on-press simulations or an off-press ink mixing system.”

The WS6600 supports pre-treated materials, as well as standard off-the-shelf substrates with in-line priming. The press supports many eco-certified substrates as well as eco-friendly primers, varnishes and adhesives. Also, HP provides a scalable upgrade path – the majority of innovations released with the WS6600 are available as upgrades for HP Indigo WS6000 Digital Press owners.

Murphy emphasizes what he calls HP’s next breakthrough in innovation – the HP Indigo 20000 Digital Press. The 20000 is a 30″ wide roll-to-roll digital printing system, designed for 24/7 production operations. Murphy says the press is poised to transform the film converting market with its capability to digitally produce the majority of flexible packaging applications. For maximum versatility, the HP Indigo 20000 handles substrates from 0.4 to 10 pt. and prints on film, paper and aluminum.

EFI announced at Labelexpo a new Jetrion 4950lx LED that lets converters use digital for more primary applications. “It has the highest resolutions in inkjet digital label printing with 720 x 720 dpi, and the fact that it uses LED UV curing means users can print on thinner, more challenging stocks. Converters can use the press for flexible packaging and shrink sleeves, for example, and that opens new, very important segments,” Emery explains.

LED also provides cost and reliability advantages compared to arc lamp curing, Emery says. “The LED lamps last significantly longer and they don’t gradually degrade the way arc lamps do, so the printed output can be that much more consistent over the life of the lamp. EFI has also created new finishing modules for its 4900 printer family, including a varnish/lamination module and a new high-powered laser cutter. “

Epson has expanded its range of digital label presses with the launch of the SurePress L-6034VW, the company’s first single-pass industrial press, and the first to use Epson’s new PrecisionCore linehead technology and LED-cured UV ink with in-line digital varnish technology. Epson has incorporated sophisticated automatic monitoring, maintenance and cleaning features within the SurePress L-6034VW. Unique to Epson is Nozzle State Analysis technology, which automatically senses if a nozzle is not firing and rapidly cleans and recovers it. Printing interruption is minimal and quality is not affected.

The new PrecisionCore linehead is the key component behind the high performance, high reliability, low maintenance and low running costs of the SurePress L-6034VW, notes Mike Pruitt. “Each of the six lineheads in the press comprises 11 PrecisionCore printhead modules that deliver precise quality with fine, multi-size dot control and high native resolution. The linehead is tuned to work with Epson’s new low-energy, LED-cured UV ink and in-line digital varnish technology to deliver the best combination of 600 x 600 dpi quality at 15m/min.”

Primera’s CX1200 prints at 16.25 feet per minute while utilizing a fast, high resolution color laser engine. With its 1200 x 1200 dpi print resolution 4800 Color Quality (2400 x 600 dpi), the CX1200 prints labels with vibrant colors, along with sharp text and bar codes. For precise color control, Pantone-approved color support is included.

Included with the CX1200 is Windows XP/Vista/7 PC, including PTPrint 9.0 RIP software, four starter toner cartridges (CMYK), 1250’ (381m) roll of matte paper label material, unwind and rewind stations, guillotine cutter, print engine and automatic tensioning control station. Primera’s exclusive IntelliTorque tensioning control system continuously monitors tension across the web. It uses this feedback to apply variable torque on the rewind mandrel, resulting in perfect, tightly wound rolls every time. According to Primera, IntelliTorque is a first in this category of digital label presses.

The CX 1200 can print on pressure-sensitive papers to white and clear polyesters and more. The CX1200 is designed to allow maximum substrate flexibility. A wide range of approved matte, semi-gloss and high-gloss materials are available, allowing printers to precisely match substrates to specific customer requirements.

FFEI’s new Graphium press incorporates nine years of the company’s investment, research and experience. “During this time, we focused our developments on a number of key areas including printhead performance optimization, enhancing image quality and reliability. The Xaar 1001 is a perfect head for printing labels due to its ability to jet low viscosity fluids, such as high opacity UV-curable inks,” Cook says.

“Due to their high adhesion characteristics, these inks can often be quite aggressive to the head technologies and so careful consideration was needed on how the system operates with temperatures, pressures, flow rates, etc. Through our partnership Xaar, we have identified the perfect running parameters that give maximum life and image print quality,” says Cook.

Allen Datagraph (ADSI)
The iTech AXXIS HS Digital Label Printer includes an LED toner roll-to-roll printer, imaging consumer-quality labels with brilliant, durable, consistent color at 1200 x 600 dpi, at speeds up to 25 fpm. It delivers high definition printing with four-color stochastic screening versus traditional flexographic and laser printer-based systems using halftone screening. With a maximum width of 8.5″, the printer has a wide degree of substrate flexibility that does not require topcoating and is capable of being used standalone in a pre-diecut label workflow. The AXXIS HS prints on most standard PS paper substrates, which, according to ADSI’s Mark Vanover, are typically half to a third the cost of inkjet substrates.

Domino has expanded its N-Series range of inkjet label presses with the launch of its N610i, which includes the ability to print opaque white ink. The N610i uses Domino’s i-Tech technology, optimizing output of the UV-curable press to maximize production and provide extended color capabilities. Central to the appeal of the N610i is the new opaque digital white ink, specifically formulated by Domino to run with the press. The ink delivers a silkscreen-like finish, and provides high opacity white when printing at 164 fpm. Operating at speeds up to 246 fpm with a 600 dpi native resolution, the N610i offers double the print speed of most high resolution digital systems, says Philip Easton, director of Domino’s Digital Printing Business. “This capability expands the range and viability of high volume production work that a digital solution can handle,” he says.

The N610i features CleanCap, Domino’s automated print head cleaning and capping station that maintains uptime operation and print quality. In addition, the ActiFlow ink circulation system ensures precise ink temperature control and degasses the ink, which maintains nozzle performance for improved print quality and reliability.

The SPGPrints DSI UV inkjet press is modular in its configuration: a standalone digital unit or a complete line with in-line (semi-rotary) converting. The DSI comes with four print heads as standard, although an additional six can be added to enable options like digital white, digital primer and an extended color gamut through the colors orange and violet. There’s modularity in printing widths, ranging from 135 mm to to as wide as 530 mm.

The Heidelberg Linoprint L, now marketed by Gallus, offers a resolution of 600 dpi and a printing speed of up to 48 meters per minute in four-color mode. The system is designed to be an ideal addition for high-quality flexo, offset and screen printing applications where small batches need to be produced cost-efficiently as and when required or variable data needs to be printed on prefabricated labels. It uses Prinect workflow technology, what Heidelberg has been using for more than ten years in commercial printing applications.

One Size Does NOT Fit All: Digital press benefits are well understood: for many jobs, they can dramatically reduce labor costs, eliminate substrate waste and plate costs, improve turnaround time and enable new capabilities, such as VDP (variable data printing). Converters need to translate these generic benefits into their own specific business requirements and objectives, and then find the best digital label press for them. No one vendor can simultaneously meet every possible market need on price, performance, footprint, width, etc. Only with personalized goals for buying a press can a converter make the optimal choice, and then quantify and monitor its return on investment (ROI).

Avoid Digital Disappointment: 2 additional factors must be considered to align expectations with reality: (i) some print jobs may not be suitable for digital due to run length or special needs (e.g., embossing); digital currently complements flexo printing, but does not completely replace traditional analog presses, (ii) digital benefits will not all be realized on Day 1 of implementation, but will accrue over time as converters move past the onboarding phase, ramp up with more jobs and become more proficient in running and maintaining their press.

Think “Ink”: Although we are normally “wow’ed” by seeing a digital press in action, the system’s ink or toner may be even more critical. Everything from durability to color gamut to substrate compatibility will determine which jobs you can do and which markets you can pursue with your new press. In the long run, consumables and ongoing running costs will outstrip your original equipment investment and have a huge effect on your overall ROI. This is driven by the cost of ink, amount of ink used per label and the consumables pricing model (click charge versus pay-for-usage).

References and Test Data: Seek out other converters who have purchased the same press to understand the experience they have had. How well did pre-press work? What about finishing? Often converters who have had a bumpy start and have worked through the issues with their vendor have the most valuable learnings to offer, and the most realistic view of new technology adoption. If it’s a newly released press (especially from a new vendor), ask for extensive test data documenting how the press works in a production mode over long periods of time.

Buy for Today, Ask about Tomorrow: Your new digital press is more than just a capital equipment purchase; it’s an investment in the future of your press vendor. Since you are likely to be buying additional presses at some point, it’s important that you know what your vendor’s plans are for the next several years. Who are they hiring? What does their product roadmap look like? Make sure you find out about their technical resources, staffing plans, key technology partnerships (ink, finishing, MIS, printheads), geographic expansion strategy and service model. This tech market is moving fast, so it’s crucial to understand how they will keep up.

1-800-INEEDHELP: Before buying, do a deep dive on the vendor’s service and application support teams and strategy. Ask questions about: service engineer locations, response time, service plans, remote service, pre-press capabilities, training, maintenance procedures and spare parts. A digital press is a complex integration of ink, hardware and software, so you need to understand how service will be provided seamlessly and effectively (e.g., is poor adhesion a problem with the ink, UV lamp, corona treater, substrate, software, RIP?).

For converters looking to better serve their customers by incorporating digital capabilities into their operation, this is a great time. We are in a golden age of digital label printing innovation, and there is no shortage of quality choices on the menu from which to choose. With the right approach as outlined in this article, you can maximize your chances of success and choose the best possible digital label press for your business.