At about the same time the use of new types of polypropylene and polystyrene (later polyethylene) film materials for more demanding label applications were being introduced. High quality printing of filmic materials used for labelling shampoos, toiletries, industrial products, etc, were now required by the leading brand owners. This presented more demanding label printing and converting challenges for press manufacturers and converters.
Three decades of evolutionary changes in label printing technology
To meet changing label printing requirements over the past 30 years the dominant label printing technology of the time has undergone several changes: in the 1980s it was rotary letterpress that dominated new press sales. Then came growth in the flexo process during the 1990s. Much of the early part of the 21st century has seen UV flexo as the dominant technology for new label press sales. Since the mid-2000s, digital printing has also begun to evolve quite rapidly, initially with electrophotographic liquid and dry toner technologies and, most recently, with new generations of UV and water-based inkjet.
In the pipeline for launch in 2014 is the newly developed Landa nanographic printing process, an offset inkjet process that has already created significant market interest amongst label, folding carton and flexible packaging printers.
Without unduly wishing to worry the label converter, there is also considerable development work being undertaken at the present time with the longer-term aim of eventually using inkjet technology to print direct onto glass or plastic bottles or onto a variety of can shapes and sizes. Maybe not a concern for today, but possibly a more real threat for the future.
What will the future bring? Factors to consider
Put together, the key challenge today for any label printer is to decide what his new label printing press investment will be this year, next year or the year after. Will it be another conventional UV flexo analogue press? Or maybe an offset or combination process press? Some converters are perhaps still deciding whether to go digital. If so, will the investment be in toner or inkjet technologies?
In the past, the decision, which press to invest in was perhaps rather simpler. Today there are even more factors to be considered – even with conventional analogue press technology. A press’s environmental footprint and energy consumption might be an important factor. So might the press colour gamut and the number of colours or print stations available on the press.
What added-value finishing options are available? What inspection or control technology is required on the press? What kind of output speed is demanded for the type of work being produced? How long does the press require to changeover from one job to another? Does the converter want to print other products as well as labels, such as flexible packaging, tube laminates, folding cartons, sachets, etc. These factors may well influence press investment. Each of the main press manufacturers undoubtedly has their own technology variations and solutions they wish to promote and offer.
Going Digital: Additional Factors
When it comes to investing in digital there are various other factors to be considered as well as just investment in a press. Digital printing is all about new ways of working. It’s about enhanced colour management. It’s about making decisions whether to go conventional or digital as late as possible. What throughput of different jobs can be handled each day without getting bogged down in administration and paperwork? All these factors are likely to require more sophisticated Management Information Systems (MIS). Yet another key investment decision to be made.
Then there is the additional challenge with digital of what dpi resolution to go for; does the work produced need a white ink in one of the printing heads; does the press have an extended colour gamut. Press running speeds between all the digital label press technologies also vary quite considerably. How important is speed with many short-run job changes?