I wrote this article after attending Labelexpo Americas 2016 in the Chicago area last September. Two observations were very obvious to me. One, the show seemed to be more vibrant and customers were very engaging. In fact, many were serious about buying, so it was quite refreshing. Second, the digital presentations that I saw were filled with different features and functions to the point where it could be confusing. Even for those of us in the digital business, it was a minefield, so I will do my best to sort through all that I saw and heard.
First, the obvious. We all know the benefits of digital labels. They’re high-resolution, offer photographic-quality imagery and can be rapidly turned around for short-to-medium-sized runs. The accuracy and precision of digital printing technologies ensure that each digital label in a print run is absolutely consistent from first label to last.
Digital label printers and narrow web printing systems will help you meet growing demand for shorter runs, versioning, all while helping to reduce inventory. Digital printers also will help you keep up with markets that are ever changing, so you can react quicker to these changes. I think we all get that and really don’t disagree. But what type of machine and what resolutions are you looking for? Are you interested in variable data? What types of inks and materials are you planning to run? What converting capabilities are you looking for?
I have some opinions to help answer a few of these questions, but I will limit my remarks to inkjet digital presses that use UV-curable inks.
Fully Digital or Hybrid?
There are a number of fully digital machines, which simply means that all the process is digital. Printing is done without plates and any converting that is done is digital as well. If the label is die cut, that’s done digitally and typically with a laser.
Hybrid machines have conventional printing stations and a variety of conventional converting capabilities, like rotary and semi-rotary die cutting, along with a digital component to augment the conventional printing process. You still create conventional printing plates, and the plates are set up on press to imprint your design onto the label stock.
Traditional printing plates are efficient and cost effective to some degree for large-scale orders. They do, however, take time to create and have significant setup and changeover costs. The result is inefficient for short- or medium-sized runs. The digital component of the hybrid machine is used only to augment conventional printing in these machines, typically for variable data or things that cannot be accomplished with printing plates.
The key here really boils down to run length. You will hear different breaking points from almost every vendor, but I think a good number to use is 50,000 labels. If your entire business is built on run lengths of 50,000 or greater, a hybrid machine would probably be your best bet. A fully digital machine is for those of us who are building business on label runs up to that 50,000 threshold.
As digital printers evolve and adopt the latest technologies – mainly from printhead manufacturers – digital labels have become very reliable and offer high quality. Small- to medium-sized runs are a great option for digital printing and, in most cases, are great replacements to flexographic label printing. The latest advancements in printhead technologies has allowed new digital presses to achieve 600, 900 and even 1,200 dpi native resolutions across the width of the web. Dpi of 360 with 8-level grey scale printheads are great for continuous tone image reproduction, and the newer resolution machines are now approaching the output quality of offset printing for fine-point text.
Variable/Incremental Data Printing
Believe it or not, there are some digital and hybrid printers out there that don’t offer variable data technology. The most common way variable and incremental data technology is handled involves taking job information from a database and parsing that information so each label within a print run can have unique information or designs. Instead of producing just one design as in conventional printing with plates, variable and incremental data technology printing allows you to change every design. It’s great for barcodes that change from label to label, sequential changes, numbering, changing titles and altering text.
Inks and Materials
I mentioned earlier that my focus is on UV inkjet. Digitally printed labels use vibrant UV ink colors with many options, including gradients, different opacities and high-accuracy drop placement. Due to the process used in digital printing, labels provide a wide color gamut. Digital presses print with perfect registration, each color perfectly interlaced to create a clear and accurate picture on your label.
Materials including paper, film and foil are possible candidates for digital presses. The key is that each material should have the appropriate surface characteristics that interact appropriately with the ink used. The good news is that most of the manufacturers have done their homework. Each press has a recommended materials list that has been tested with the ink set used in its digital press. Some have even been run through the UL process that certifies a specific material with a specific ink set.
One of the most popular features is die cutting labels inline with the digital printing process. Machines with this feature truly make the printing and converting process quick and easy. Cutting on the fly is truly a time- and cost-saving benefit of the digital process, as no steel rule dies are necessary.
Don’t forget to check out all the other necessary stuff. Corona treatments, plasma treatments for difficult-to-print materials, film laminates, liquid roller laminates, slitter options, visual inspection systems and a few others that make the digital process very conventional-like. Since digital printing removes the make-ready process – and moving from one job to the other is a matter of seconds and not hours to change inks and plates – don’t forget to ask about job and workflow management software that manages digital print jobs on press. These software tools are one of the most valuable features that are almost always overlooked.
The devil is in the details. Make sure that you thoroughly look at your current label process and have everything covered in the acquisition of a digital machine. Your due diligence on the front end is essential for a successful purchase and implementation of this interesting and useful technology.
INX International Ink Co.