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Making an Impression

High-Speed On Demand Digital Printing Takes a Hold of the Label Market

By Kim Crowley

Colors that pop, a glossy container, hip design, gotta-have-it promises...Many people admit an eye-catching package is what their purchases are based on, rather than an informed buy. This consumer behavior makes it imperative for packaging and labels to be designed and produced with a seasoned marketerís eye. With this in mind, high-speed digital printing presses are adopted more in the label industry for their color output and ability to handle a variety of substrates.

Print run quantity will always be a driver of digital printing technology. According to Hewlett-Packard (HP), 65 percent of label jobs printed worldwide are produced in runs less than 50,000, or under 6,500 feet. These quantities make label printing with gravure, flexography, or offset technology cost prohibitive.

Product marketers can use the short runs and no makeready of high-speed digital printing to change out labels with seasonal imagery or special promotions. High-speed digital presses also give the benefits of adding personalization to each label with variable data printing, tracking information, and security features.

Making the Move to Digital
Depending on a print providerís current capabilities and experience, and dictated by current customer activity, making the move to digital label printing can be a minor or major learning curve and financial leap.

Although the initial startup may require quite an investment, ultimately the purchase of equipment for printing and finishing high-speed digital labels opens other avenues for on demand and variable data print capabilities.

Some commercial print providers may start out offering digitally printed labels after the purchase of a narrow format label printing option such as Degrava Systemsí DP-8500, Primera Technology, Inc.ís LX 810, QuickLabel Systemsí Vivo!, or VIPColor Technologiesí VP8020. These units offer a maximum width of 8 to 11 inches.

For shops that are ready to make a larger investment in high-speed digital printing technology, a range of manufacturers offer presses that can address on demand needs, while featuring other benefits such as variable data and in-line finishing. Assessing current and projected printing needs may lead a print provider to purchase a system from EFI/VUTEk, Epson, Gerber Scientific, HP, Jetrion (an EFI company), Kodak, Matan Digital Printers, Mimaki USA, Primera Technology, Inc., Roland DGA, Sun Chemical, or Xeikon.

Officially launched at LabelExpo 2007 in September, Sun Chemicalís new SolarJet UV inkjet printer is one of a few new pieces of equipment designed to meet the growing short-run, narrow-web label market. SolarJet can print at 900x900 dpi at up to 25 meters per minute and employs Sun Chemicalís optimized SolarDot pigmented UV inks.

Other equipment can add variable data capability to label printers such as Digital Print, Inc.ís software and controllers. Laminating and die-cutting finishers are necessary as well.

Label Leaders
To get a feel for the high-speed digital label printing market and what some new investors in the technology look for, two leading digital press manufacturers share their insights.

Jetrion, an EFI Company
Jetrion, a major player in labels and packaging, was purchased by EFI for 40 million dollars last year. "One of our key core competencies is that we are an ink company which helps us address many of the marketís needs," notes Sean Skelly, director of marketing, EFI, Jetrion Industrial Inkjet Systems.

Skelly says that customers are looking for a number of highlights in a high-speed digital label printing solution. These include substrate flexibility, accurate color reproduction, security, simplified workflow, lower costs, and the ability to use standard finishing equipment.

Addressing these needs, EFI has created UV inks with a wide color gamut that can work on a range of substrates.

A custom ink program also allows EFI to develop specialty inks such as white or gold and allows the introduction of security features.

"We are also leveraging EFIís software and color management strength to create sophisticated printing workflows in our products that are easy to use and that offer superior color reproduction," adds Skelly.

The Jetrion 3025 is integrated onto existing narrow web presses or rewinders and prints monochrome full variable data for things such as barcodes, text, sequential numbering, or variable graphics and logos. "This combination of digital and analog printing is called hybrid printing, and is a powerful way for many companies to start their migration into digital," notes Skelly.

The 3025 offers up to 316x526 dpi resolution. It uses solvent or UV-curable inks with Jetrionís drop-on-demand (DOD) technology from piezoelectric inkjet printheads. The native width is 2.4 inches and is expandable up to 14.4 inches. Speed, as rated by Jetrion and dependent on resolution, substrate, and ink type, is rated at up to 400 feet-per-minute (fpm).

Jetrionís new 4000 series, officially launched at LabelExpo 2007, is a full color UV inkjet label printer using Jetrionís UV4000 CMYK ink set and designed for short and medium run labels. Skelly says that, compared to toner-based solutions, it has lower capital costs and consumables costs, and it is faster. The 4000 offers up to 900 dpi resolution with grayscale; 4-inch, 8-inch, or custom width; and is rated by Jetrion at a maximum of 65 fpm.

Some print providers voice concerns to press manufacturers over financial value and efficiency. "Our customers ask for flexibility in the order quantity for labels, efficient integration with standard workflows, and value," notes Vince Pentella, manager, North American label and packaging business, Indigo division, HP. "They also ask for the ability to print on just about any substrate, an increased gamut of accurate and repeatable color, as well as a solution for their ever-growing need to handle short runs and many different SKUs."

HP currently has almost 700 installed units of its on demand digital label printing equipment worldwide, and Pentella tells us HPís annual growth in worldwide print volume exceeds 40 percent. "Devices such as our latest-generation label press, the HP Indigo press ws4500, provide greater flexibility in terms of their ability to produce small-run and medium-run work very cost effectively," says Pentella. "A run can be as short as one label, and technically, in applications such as secure pharmaceutical labels that might have individual serial numbers or bar codes, they are runs of one." He tells us that the HP Indigo press ws4500 has been successfully demonstrated to be the cost-effective production solution for runs as long as 6,500 linear feet.

The HP Indigo ws4500 offers resolution up to 1624 dpi and a print size of up to 12.13x17.72 inches. The seven-color press uses HP ElectroInk liquid ink and has an Esko Graphics digital front end. HP rates the unitís speed at 52.5 fpm in four-color mode and 105 fpm in one- or two-color mode.

HP differentiates itself in the label market by offering features and compatibility that make workflow smooth. "Tools like our Label Job Estimator software enable an accurate cost analysis to show how even very long-run, multiple-SKU orders can be more cost-effective on an HP Indigo press," states Pentella. He adds, "For the many flexo businesses that already have an investment in Esko workflows, we offer integration tools that enable converters to operate digital and flexo operations in a single, color-managed Esko environment." Artwork Systems and Esko announced a merger in August that may add further consolidation and easy integration across multiple devices.

To make the Indigo stand out more in the label world, additional new features have been added to the presses, including zero-downtime for spot-color ink changeover and a new seven-color HP IndiChrome Plus color space for matching Pantone colors. HP Indigo white ink is also available and offers a solid backing to labels printed on clear substrates.

DigitalóA Screeminí Success
Home to one of the only two installed Jetrion 4000 units thus far, Screeminí Labels opened up shop 12 years ago.

A full 100 percent of the companyís output is on demand digital label printing, processed in a 31,500-square-foot space with the help of 14 employees.

"We offer a way for printers and print brokers to make great margins on digital on demand labels until it makes sense for them to acquire equipment and bring the printing in house," notes Bob Napierala, president, Screeminí Labels.

Napierala believes that digital prin-ting has changed the way he and his customers do business. "Our customers are now able to cost effectively offer shorter runs at increased margins with exceptionable turn around times. We are providing our customers as few as one to five prototypes if they desire, and have runs of over 50,000 labels."

The maximum quantity Screeminí Labels runs is up to the size of the label and the number of colors.

"We run a cost analysis on all questionable jobs and make a recommendation as to whether or not digital technology is the most cost effective solution," says Napierala.

Napierala attributes much of Screeminí Labels success to the technology. "We are excited about the opportunity we have with the Jetrion 4000 digital on demand press," he states. "We believe that digital inkjet is an emerging technology, and being able to print with UV inks is a major advantage."

Digital Grabs a Hold at Dion
In 1969, John Dion, Sr. began to print small cartons and dry-gum labels for brush companies in Westfield, MA. Twelve years later the company Dion Label Printing, Inc. was incorporated and soon sons Dave and John, Jr. were involved. Following several expansions, the business resides in a 30,000-square-foot space, employs almost 70 people, and generates approximately 11 million dollars in annual revenue. Customers include 3M, Newell-Rubbermaid, Orvis, Stanley, Top-Flite, and Vail.

Dion produces pressure-sensitive labels, tickets, vouchers, decals, and tags using both flexographic and digital printing technology. They also resell and support label applicators, thermal-transfer printers, software, and ribbons. To market their business, Dion uses their Web site, direct sales, and manufacturing representatives.

At this point, 24 percent of Dionís output is digital. "This is amazing to us since weíve only used digital for two and a half years," notes John Dion, Jr., co-president, Dion Label Printing, Inc.

To compete with commercial printers who offer digital technology, Dion Label Printing added two HP Indigo 4050s. The digital presses join existing Nilpeter and Profiteer presses for analog flexo printing. Today, the Indigos each run two shifts daily, and the Dion family seems satisfied with the digital additions. "The digital presses produce superb print for us," says Dion. "We try to run all of our most demanding jobs on them, sometimes even when the run length is a bit long. We chose HP Indigo presses because of output compatibility with our flexo products on many substrates."

HPís Pentella says that reliability, fast turnaround, and quality help HP Indigo customers become more efficient in their overall businesses. "For many of our customers who also run flexo label presses, the addition of an HP Indigo press means that they can now make profits on the increasing number of short-run jobs that come to their shop. By offering their own customers greater flexibility with run lengths and shorter time to market, they find that they are now placing themselves further up the supply chain by adding greater value."

In addition to the Indigo presses, an array of other tools are in use to help tackle label print jobs. For prepress and full graphic design, Dionís staff use Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop from Adobe Systems, Inc.; Artwork Systemís ArtPro; QuarkXPress; and other programs. For workflow support, Artwork Systemís Nexus software and HPís Yours Truly Designer (YTD) variable data utility are used.

The HP Indigo presses have built-in color calibration tools, while manual spectrophotometer readings and lightbox matching are used for flexo printing. For proofing, digital press-proofs can be made on an HP Indigo using the correct substrate or they are made on a Canon copier/printer with a Fiery RIP.

Most of Dion Label Printingís products are UV coated or laminated and have been die-cut. After printing, typically a job is inspected, counted, finished in rolls, fan-folded or sheeted, stacked in varying quantities, and shrink-wrapped. To accomplish these tasks, many pieces of finishing equipment are used, including upright models from AB Graphic International and tabletops by Web Techinques.

When to Go Digital
Choosing to output a label project with high-speed digital printing remains up to a number of elements. "Tasking a job for digital printing is dependent upon many factors, especially size, complexity, and construction," says Dion. "We have run in quantities from 50 to 1,000,000, but the usual is 20,000."

One of the Dion clientís labels, for Herbasway, are printed using an HP Indigo press on pressure-sensitive polypropylene and made for automatic application. For this project, digital printing is chosen to facilitate consistent quality and quick turnaround for new items. Art produced by Rhode van Gessel Design of Essex, CT contains trapping that proves to be quite tight for conventional flexo printing. When printed digitally, Dion tells us, significant reductions in setup and waste are achieved.

To print Ambassador Teaís labels, digital printing is utilized as well. The job began as several low quantity items printed in six-color process on a white linen pressure-sensitive stock. "[HP] Indigo digital output provided the opportunity for a high-end packaging look with lower start-up costs and better turnaround," says Dion. "From our printerís perspective, the ink density could not be maintained well with water-based flexo inks on the textured stock chosen. Also, the color-to-color registration of the Indigo is nearly perfect, which is helpful in achieving the best result for the design. Finally, we can print very clean highlight dots while using the 230-line screen available on the Indigo."

The Ambassador Tea customer and designer agree that digital printing is the best solution for this job. "The quality of the design and illustrations could not have been reproduced using four-color flexo printing on the textured stock, nor could the number of SKU versions be accomplished in a cost-effective way for the size run," states Dan Mishkind, principal, Pure Design Co., Leverett, MA.

A Digital Future
When asked if they plan to make new technology purchases in the next five years, we hear a resounding yes from Napierala, Dion, and other successful high-speed digital label printers. Dion plans to invest in both the next generation digital presses and new flexo presses, in addition to new color management software. If the advances of the last five years are an indicator, the technology will continue to make digital more desirable to print buyers and a high profit center for providers.

Whether digital printing is chosen for speed, short quantity, ability to personalize, substrate flexibility, mock-ups, or other reasons, it has truly become a force in the label and packaging world. "It is revolutionizing what we can do easily, how quickly we react, and how predictable the results are," Dion concludes.

Oct2007, Digital Output

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