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Examining the Short-Run Digital Label Market

By Melissa Donovan

Short-run digital labels are worth consideration for print providers looking to expand services. Many narrow devices specifically target label production, with width sizes focused on eight to thirteen inches. Wide format machines, some a print service provider (PSP) may already have in house, are another viable alternative.


Width doesn’t play a large factor—it only limits the number or type of applications done on the printer. Digital technology is what makes short-run labels worthwhile. Its efficiency and cost effectiveness is remarkable. For example, EFI provided an example of a small run of 500 4.x5x8.1-inch labels. Printed digitally, this project cost $28; run on a flexographic printer—$108. The overall cost savings is $80.


Real world PSPs are realizing the benefits and their customers are as well.


Co-owners of Fort Worth, TX-based Signs by Tomorrow (SBT), Misty and Justin Brown began researching entrepreneurial opportunities in 2008. They turned to SBT after a thorough investigation of franchises. Although the Browns did not initially set out to enter the print business, they soon found themselves successfully offering everything short of billboards in their 2,400 square foot shop.


With three full-time employees in addition to the Browns, the Fort Worth, TX SBT is home to a Hewlett-Packard (HP) Designjet L25500 60-inch printer, a Summa, Inc. 60-inch plotter, and a 54-inch Seal laminator from Neschen Americas. Acquired about a year and a half ago, the HP Designjet L25500 was recommended by SBT headquarters. Justin Brown notes the benefits of the latex device compared to solvent printers.


“There is no daily maintenance, the quality is excellent, and it is a ‘green’ technology. Prints are ready to handle right off the printer. I can’t complain,” he continues. The printer’s 60-inch width is an additional advantage, providing application versatility. 


With no background in print, the Browns partake in franchise training on a regular basis to educate themselves on innovative opportunities. They learned about short-run label printing through an introduction class on the print-to-cut process, pairing the HP Designjet L25500 with the Summa plotter. The learning curve was minimal. Brown says it is easy to output labels off the device. A design is set to print multiple times, than location markings are added for the Summa to cut accordingly.


The latex device allows for the printing of multi-up labels in large quantities, minimizing the production time compared to using a traditional eight-inch label printer. For example, Brown says he can print a ten- by ten-foot sheet of vinyl for about a hundred two- by five-inch labels in ten to 15 minutes.


After learning about how they could perform the same function as mass producers of labels, the PSP set out to offer the new service. Surprisingly, customers approached SBT first.


One such client, Sweet Taste of Paradise, based in Paradise, TX, is a winery that requests labels for its wine bottles. Print runs range from 500 to 1,000. The HP Designjet L25500 handles all variations and because it is so economical, Brown says runs of five are also possible. Recently, Sweet Taste of Paradise requested an order for 24 sample bottle labels. Brown says a larger order of 1,000 could result from the project. And further down the road, he anticipates an order of 20,000. Because of the HP, he has no reservations about performing such a feat.


Fort Worth, TX SBT utilizes media from 3M Graphics Market Center, specifically 3M Scotchcal Graphic Film with Comply Adhesive IJ35C-10 for the wine bottle labels—and sometimes 3M Controltac Graphic Film with Comply Adhesive IJ180C for equipment labels where the customer requests a higher quality, more conformable and durable product.


IJ35C-10 offers ease of application for the winery, who applies each label by hand. The repositionability is very important and allows Sweet Taste of Paradise to eliminate waste and minimize the cost of extra labels if initial application is off. Originally, the owner of the wine company looked into paper labels, but after application the bottles are cleaned off with water and the paper becomes wet and damaged. Vinyl is the better alternative.


With short-run label printing less than ten percent of Fort Worth, TX SBT’s current business, Brown hopes it will expand. The application has the potential for large scale growth and the sign shop is positioned to leverage it into grand scale opportunity.


Adding Value and Service

SBT of Fort Worth, TX is a great example of PSPs understanding the benefits of how a wide format printer presents new business. This happens when additional printers are introduced to a shop as well. While cost can be a concern, especially when adding a specific printer for a specific task—i.e. short-run digital label printing—profitability is obtainable. Label printers familiar with flexographic devices may balk at first at adding digital, but they shouldn’t.


“The label printer can now actively seek out those opportunities and win new orders. New capabilities, such as variable data printing (VDP) and digital varnish, allow PSPs to differentiate themselves, providing new added value features and services to customers,” shares Jacques Gravel, sales and marketing coordinator, Durst Canada.


Omnilabel BV of Dalfsen, The Netherlands, recently installed the Durst Tau 150 UV inkjet label printer. Established in 1997, the company specializes in small and medium volumes of labels—both printed and blank. Printing blank labels represents about 70 percent of the company’s business, but they are always looking to add and invest in new technologies and found an opportunity to do so in the Durst Tau 150.


“The increasing demand for short runs has led us to evaluate various digital inkjet label presses to find the best possible option that would fit our current requirements and also offer good potential for future growth,” shares Michiel Smudde, managing director, Omnilabel.


With the Tau 150, the label provider has already won new business from a handful of clients. For example, thanks to the durability found in the UV ink set of the printer, they were able to create outdoor flower display labels for a major chain of garden centers.


Another project, for a milk producer looking to launch a European brand of butter, involved sample labels from a PDF proof. With traditional presses, it would have taken Omnilabel three days to create proofs; with the digital press it only took a couple of hours. “The customer was so impressed by our response time and quality of the samples that we were immediately awarded the contract,” adds Smudde.


The Tau 150 allowed Omnilabel to grow during a down economic period and still respond to customers’ needs in the form of quick turnaround times. It hopes the printer will continue to do so.


Flexo and Digital Hand-in-Hand

Flexographic printing isn’t going by the wayside. It is still valuable and profitable for larger runs of the same, static label. Sean Skelly, VP/GM, EFI Jetrion, explains that short-run digital complements flexographic printing. However, the evolution of digital—from speeds, to VDP, specialty inks, and printer/cutter configurations—makes it financially feasible to offer short runs of labels ranging from one offs to 2,500.


Roland DGA Corporation cites its VersaUV LEC series as more cost effective than flexographic presses on quantities up to around 10,000 labels. Durst’s Tau 150 works best at up to and around 50,000 compared to flexographic. Many factors play into this, with variables such as ink coverage, label size, and even media cost.


Media waste is drastically limited. “Inkjet devices don’t require webbing, explains Hiroshi Ono, group product manager, Roland. “Digital presses still tend to take six or eight feet of material to web, while an inkjet device, whether eco-solvent or UV, prints from the first inch of paper.”

VDP is not possible with flexographic/analog presses. For example, EFI’s Jetrion series of UV printers offer personalization, barcoding, sequential numbering, localization, and versioning as short-run VDP services. Skelly says VDP is a feature that many flexographic printers are pressured to utilize, which should help drive label printers to digital.


Pre- and Post-Press Considerations

For those familiar with flexographic and offset label printing, the change or addition to digital may present a learning curve in the production process. Components such as printing certain colors, workflow issues including RIPs, and when and where to make changes to a file all vary compared to traditional printing methods.


“One important consideration is that flexographic presses typically print spot colors, either exclusively or in addition to CMYK. When working with a wide format inkjet device, spot colors are created as part of a four-color process using spot color matching techniques and tools. This requires a color managed workflow, which can be facilitated by standalone software or within the printer’s RIP software,” explains Ono.


In regards to production scheduling, press users need to understand the amount of attention that must be paid to shorter runs. More labels come off the printer at a faster pace. They are used to longer runs that print for hours.


“For prepress training, not only does a new user need to be trained on the printer itself, they also need to learn how to best prepare print files and learn how to optimize prepress work. In an analog world, a user may only have to deal with a few long-run label orders a day versus a much higher number of short-run orders with digital. It’s critical to analyze current flexographic work to see which jobs should be moved over to digital in order to optimize all printing assets,” recommends Skelly.


Width Reservations

Specific digital printers are designed to print labels, including those from EFI, Epson, Gerber Scientific Products, Inc. (GSP), and Durst. Other wide format printers offer short-run label capabilities. Depending on your production load, width is somewhat of a consideration.


“Generally labels are small in size so a 13-inch wide web is typically satisfactory,” comments Mark Elsbernd, North America region sales manager, Epson. The company’s SurePress L-4033A label printer is 13 inches wide, and does allow for banners to be printed as well.


Heidi Luck, marketing communications manager, GSP, says that width isn’t a factor, as long as a job is nested properly. Using a wide format digital printer may mean configuring the labels in a particular manner to save on paper costs, but any RIP can layout multiple images in a cost-effective manner and provide trim and cut lines to help determine the finished product.


“Most label applicators are designed for 20-inch or smaller media rolls and do not accommodate wider media. While many wide format inkjet printers are designed to support media up to 64 inches wide and larger, you may need to run the standard 20-inch rolls through them or slit the rolls in smaller sizes to facilitate the label application and finishing process. That said, a wider inkjet device can support this media option in addition to larger media rolls, which provides more opportunities for the end user to branch out into other applications,” shares Ono.


Tag and Mark

Two primary categories of PSPs are interested in short-run digital label printing—those who already print labels in the flexographic space and find the need for cost-effective short-run production as well as a host of new features not possible via analog print, such as specialty inks and VDP. The other set of PSPs are those who already have a wide format printer in house and are looking for ways to maximize their product portfolio.


While there are digital devices available specifically suited for label printing, width isn’t a major consideration. It is more important to examine the throughput and capabilities needed to fulfill a shop’s requirements. When these needs are examined, it is easy to understand the best fit. For an overview of digital printers—narrow and wide in width—used in digital label printing, please look to our corresponding chart.


Click here to view the Narrow and Wide Format Digital Label Printers Target Chart - an all-inclusive information resource!


Oct2011, Digital Output

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