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Saying "Yes" to Inkjet Label Technology

Printers and converters used to cite legitimate objections for not printing labels digitally. Naysayers were entrenched in the flexographic workflow and processes, suggested Jim Lambert, VP and GM of INX International’s Digital Division. But now, “all the barriers are gone for getting into the digital label market,” insisted Lambert, whose firm manufactures the NW 140 UV-LED digital, narrow-web press that became commercially available this past fall. The digital workflow is smoother, he said. Its software is robust, and colors can be accurately matched.

It is no secret that the market for digital, color label and packaging devices continues to grow. More than 100 ultraviolet (UV) inkjet label presses were sold in 2012, compared with 84 in 2011. That number leaped to 148 in 2013, with 179 units projected for placement next year: a 23 percent compounded annual growth rate, according to a statistics from I.T. Strategies (Download a copy of the chart here: InfoTrends forecasts similar figures in North America, reported Bob Leahey, associate director and lead analyst for the research firm’s Color Digital Label and Package information service. “Today, nearly all the inkjet placements in this category are for narrow-format inkjet products dedicated to label printing,” Leahey told in mid-December.

What else do owners and managers of print service providers (PSPs) need to know about the INX NW 140, Domino N610i, EFI Jetrion 4950LX LED, Epson SurePress L-6034VW, Fujifilm Graphium, Reprographic Vortex 851R, and the other newest entrants to the digital label press market? “First, take into consideration companies that offer the complete digital label press solution, including the print head, ink, and control system,” advised Mike Pruitt, Epson America product manager for the SurePress.

“A digital press is a very complex system,” Pruitt noted, adding that manufacturers such as Epson and HP that can create a complete system with components designed to work with each other achieve two goals: 1) Improved reliability because there is a single point of expertise regarding any issues that arise, and 2) Contained costs because integrated manufacturers can leverage technology from other products.

The quantity barrier of digital label printing is going away, explained INX’s Lambert. “It used to be if you had 50,000 labels, you’d stick them on [a flexo] press. But now it is not unheard of to run 50,000 or more on a digital press. The actual run time may be longer [on press], but time is saved up front with no makeready, no plates, etc.”

The NW140 employs 12 digital print heads with six ink channels, a custom-designed high efficiency, water-cooled UV LED curing system, and an air-cooled UV LED pinning system. The LED curing lamps are used for the white layer base and varnish to hold the inkjet drops in position before a full cure is added by another LED lamp. The use of this lower heat-generating technology is “the most efficient way to cure the ink,” Lambert added. “It’s instant on and instant off, requiring no warm up like mercury lamps, which require a 60- to 120-second wait for temperature and wavelengths.” Developed in collaboration with Spartanics, INX offers laser diecutting capabilities on the NW 140, “which is huge from a conversion perspective,” he added.

Powered by the proprietary JetINX printhead drive and ink recirculation system, the 80-fpm NW 140 was beta-tested at Diversified Labeling Solutions (DLS), Itasca, IL, near Chicago. DLS has since bought and installed the press, after final software adjustments were made. Since its September rollout, INX has sold “less than a handful” of the new press model, reported Lambert, including an installation in Italy scheduled for January. “We have a lot of quotations out,” he added, in part thanks to INX teaming up with Komori America, which now serves as the sole national dealer in the United States. The NW 140 press supports media on three-inch cores up to two feet in diameter and uses KomoriKare K-Supply UV ink.

“Kosh is a visionary,” Lambert said of Komori America president and COO Kosh Miyao, who added: “As Komori expands its market reach in the digital space, the NW140 is a logical step to meet the needs of both the flexo and commercial markets.” The offset press manufacturer has built a digital demonstration center in its U.S. headquarters in Rolling Meadows, IL, near Chicago, where an open house is scheduled for January. Komori has been busy training its sales staff to sell the inkjet label press, which is installed and running in the new digital demo facility.

Silver lining

Extending into shrink sleeve and wrap-around label applications, the HP Indigo ws6600 digital press operates in the 12,000 to 16,000 linear-foot range, explained Roy Oomen, Hewlett-Packard’s North American category manager for labels and packaging. “Larger runs of up to 100,000 are possible with this device,” Oomen said, “even 140,000 or 150,000 depending on imposition.” With these higher volumes, the digital print vs. traditional flexography crossover point is becoming blurred, he added.

The two-year-old ws6600 model is adding a silver-ink feature that HP’s customers wanted badly, according to Oomen. “Silver is used on 3 percent to 4 percent of all labels,” he said, adding that the mid-luster and brilliance inks, formulated to match PMS-877 Metallic Silver, will be released in the spring of 2014. Also, in February, HP will begin beta-testing its Indigo 20000 model, a 30-inch-wide digital web printing solution geared for higher volumes of flexible packaging. The new roll-to-roll device is expected to become commercially available in mid-2014, Oomen reported.

Epson’s Pruitt highly recommended visiting or talking to an owner of the press “to get honest feedback about press ROI, output quality, and reliability.” Productivity depends on three press attributes, Pruitt said: print speed, label quality, and reliability. “If the press is not up and running, then print speed is zero. The same is true if print quality is inconsistent,” he explained. “More time will have to be spent in inspection and rework. Look for a press that will give exactly the same results from the first label to the last one in the run and will print the same six months later. The press should actually be calibrated to a global master, and all presses of that model should print the same.” The best digital presses have complex control systems, which automate maintenance and make the operator input simple, he added.

Mapping label growth

“PSPs need to plan carefully to unify the production side with the sales side” of digital label production, added Oomen of HP, which recommends a three- to four-year business plan. Whether a print firm or converter ventures into the health and beauty vertical market, automotive, beverage, or “nutraceutical” makes a difference, he said. “Investigation and education early on is essential,” Oomen stressed. For example, decide whether your firm is going to offer pressure-sensitive labels only or expand into shrink-sleeve production. “Converting modules are needed for shrink sleeves,” he said. Also, adding products such as squeezable tubes requires adhesives: Should they be repositionable or permanent?

From a business-development standpoint, HP helps its customers conduct needs assessments for consumer products label production, working with media suppliers in the process. The digital press manufacturer also runs a formal product management course as well as marketing plan consultation and two-day sales courses in Alpharetta, GA, near Atlanta.

Knowing your competition is important, too, added Epson’s Pruitt. “There are many label and packaging convertors with several generations of experience, and those PSPs that have strong existing accounts … and have embraced web-based order systems can have some advantages.” Also, “if you are targeting specialized markets and printing, make sure your digital press can handle the appropriate substrates,” Pruitt noted. “Look for a press which does not require precoating of substrates. This provides for lowers costs and allows for a wide variety of standard flexo substrates, which are easily available.”

Digital or Flexo Print?

Decreased time to market may be the largest competitive advantage offered by digital label production, said INX’s Lambert. “No conventional makeready, prepress, film, and plates means faster response times to customers,” he noted. “Time frames are much shorter, sometimes same day.”

Understanding what a “sellable label” means is very important to entering the market, added Pruitt of Epson. “For example, some customers demand exceptional offset type labels with several spot colors, while other customers want a minimum number of colors and are not concerned about complex gradients,” he explained. “The digital press should be easily able to scale up or down to limit the work your art department must do in process files.”

As digital label volumes rise, so does the proverbial sweet spot for conventional flexographic print pricing. HP category manager Roy Oomen pointed out that the Indigo ws6600 digital press can yield print runs in excess of 100,000 labels. In addition to outputting at a speedy 131 feet per minute (fpm), label design is a factor as well.

“With seven, eight, or even nine-color labels, registration is a concern with conventional flexo printing,” noted Oomen, who brings a label converting background to HP. “Digital label converters can produce these same jobs using six or seven colors due to the enhanced color gamut. Plus, with digital press technology, [job] repeatability is another positive trend.”

Other digital label advantages over flexo occur both before and behind the press, according to Oomen:

  • The “automation engine,” including MIS and workflow, is key to structure and templates. “Automation provides the capability to handle new SKUs and more jobs,” Oomen said.
  • Supporting software is important, too, such as Label Traxx for estimating and Esko for color management.
  • Commercial printers diversifying into labels need to pay attention to back-end finishing components, such as rewinders. “Convertibility, whether inline or offline, is a key factor to success,” Oomen stressed.
  • Digital print production is all about reducing the number of touches, Oomen concluded. “Now, we’re adding velocity and frequency of changes.”