Digital Print Update
Now a strong force in the label converting industry, digital printing is accomplished using several competing processes.
By Jack Kenny
A couple of months ago a narrow web converter made this declaration: “I want a digital press. We can afford it and I really and truly want to own one. But because of the markets we serve, we won’t have enough work for it.” That’s an honest assessment, but you could feel the enthusiasm for the technology in the converter’s voice and delivery. That speaks volumes about digital printing today.
An artistic view of the inner works of an HP Indigo ws4500 digital press
The year 2007 is a mere dozen years past the introduction of the Indigo and Xeikon digital presses into this industry, though it seems like decades. Digital printing and prepress is so thoroughly entrenched in the imaging culture today that one rarely hears the question: “Will I ever have a digital press?” It’s simply a matter of when that acquisition will take place.
One sign of the growth trend will be visible next year at Labelexpo Americas in Chicago. One section of a hall will be devoted to digital products, including both presses and prepress equipment. In Brussels at Labelexpo Europe 2009, an entire hall will be set aside for exhibitors of digital print equipment and systems.
Growth of color digital printing in the narrow web packaging sector started small, which was to be expected. Indigo, an independent Israeli company now owned by Hewlett-Packard, was first on the block with its digital offset machine that employs electrostatic inks (still proprietary and available only from HP). Xeikon soon followed with its toner based tower, which attracted the attention of Nilpeter, the Danish press manufacturer. Nilpeter put its logo on the Xeikon engine for several years.
The Xeikon 330 digital label press
Penetration of these systems was slow and steady, though it seemed to retard a bit in the early part of this decade during the recession. Meanwhile, inkjet printers began bulking up, and development of this process was undertaken both by Mark Andy and by the former Webtron-Aquaflex group in conjunction with 17 converters who called themselves the Digital Label Alliance. Both efforts, now apparently moribund, involved the installation of a digital inkjet machine into a flexographic press, so that the benefits of variable printing in color could be incorporated into the flexo process. The Mark Andy version, developed in conjunction with Xaar in Belgium, featured a four- to six-color unit that was shown at Labelexpo Europe.
Digital means that several aspects of the conventional printing process are replaced by computerization. Designs produced in the prepress department are sent directly to the printing machine, which translates the digital image into instructions for the ink or toner application equipment. Digital means no printing plates, which removes a great many challenges that flexo operators encounter daily. Moreover, because the images come directly from the computer and are not restricted to images on a plate, each can be different. This presents broad opportunities for personalization and other variable information.
Inkjet has resurfaced in the arena, not strictly as a facet of a larger press, but rather as a stand-alone printing machine that can produce process color. EFI Jetrion was first out of the gate with its 4000 press, a machine described by Vice President Ken Stack as “cost effective for short to medium runs”. The 4000, introduced at Labelexpo in Chicago last year, comes in a 4″ (102mm) wide version, with an 8″ (203mm) model to come next year. It prints using up to six colors at speeds ranging from 50 to 100 feet per minute.
Sun Chemical has its own digital four-color inkjet press, similar in structure to the EFI Jetrion machine, which was seen for the first time in public at Labelexpo in Brussels this year. Called SolarJet, it offers a variety of print widths to meet the application requirements of converters and utilize their existing inventory of dies and converting equipment. Chris Faust, director of North American sales for SolarJet, says the press has “virtually no press setup time, and combined with print speeds of up to 80 linear feet per minute, it makes short work of most digital job requirements.”
Nilpeter’s new Caslon digital inkjet press unit
A rather quiet appearance at the rear of one of the halls of Labelexpo this year was made by Epson, which presented a prototype of its digital four-color inkjet press. The machine prints on a 13″ wide web using high density pigments in an aqueous solution. Its 17 print heads can produce a printed area 13″ x 36″ in dimension. According to Marc Tinkler, senior business development manager, the press prints on normal gloss stock that does not require pre-treating, as other digital presses do. Speed is about 33 feet per minute. Tinkler adds that the Epson press is still about a year away from commercial launch.
Nilpeter, which no longer markets the Xeikon machine under its brand, made a major introduction in September of the Caslon unit, a module that prints four-color inkjet that can operate as a stand-alone press or run inline with the FA-Line UV flexo presses or the Nilpeter MO offset machines. Depending on the choice of grayscale levels, the Caslon (named for the 18th Century English type designer) prints from 25 to 50 mpm (82 to 164 fpm). “That makes it one of the industry’s fastest inkjet printers of its type,” says Jakob Landberg, Nilpeter’s vice president of sales.
Xeikon, owned by Punch Graphix of Belgium, says the pace of sales of its large digital presses is on the rise. The company reports “impressive sales results during the four days of Labelexpo Europe. This includes the sale to customers buying an additional machine to their existing Xeikon label presses: S. Lerner from Israel, JoDi Etiketter from Sweden and X-label from Germany, to name a few,” says Siegfried Trinker, chief sales officer.
Sun Chemical’s SolarJet inkjet press
“The market for digital label printing is growing rapidly and customers appreciate the variety of pre- and postpress solutions we can offer,” he says. “When customers choose an additional Xeikon, it confirms that they appreciate the quality and outstanding performance of our solutions and the first class service we offer to them.”
Overall, 2007 shows a highly increased sales activity of the Xeikon 330, says Trinker. “Due to our increased focus on the label industry, installations of the Xeikon 330 in 2007 so far already doubled the installations in 2006. The Xeikon 330 is a top product and we are committed to play a leading role in the label industry by continuous innovation and first class customer care.”
By far the HP Indigo press is the leader in the digital print field in the narrow web label industry. Since the acquisition several years ago by HP, the Indigo press has become ubiquitous, and is one of the best selling machines world wide in this segment of the printing and packaging business. The company says that sales throughout 2007 escalated, and growth from August 2006 to August of this year was 44 percent.
Epson’s prototype digital color inkjet press,
shown at Labelexpo Europe 2007 in Brussels
The company has begun to stress its relationship with industry partners, publicly announcing alliances with other suppliers, such as AB Graphic International and EskoArtwork.
“The end-to-end offerings from HP and its partners make digital label production both cost-effective and highly efficient,” says Alon Bar-Shany, vice president and general manager of the Indigo Division. “We have more than 500 HP Indigo presses for the label market installed worldwide, and by the end of this year more than 20 percent of our total install base will be for our most recent press, the HP Indigo press ws4500, launched just a year ago. The number of customers installing multiple presses is testament to the market trend toward shorter runs, variable data, security, and on-demand printing.”
Many companies throughout the world own and operate more than one HP Indigo label press. Stralfors of Sweden has four. Rako, based in Germany, has six of them. Lightning Labels, in the US, has two new ws4500 machines, and no other types of presses.
A rendering of the inside
of a Xeikon digital press
HP has worked with many companies on finishing solutions that can be used offline or inline with the press. By and large the post-press work is handled offline. This year the company made the announcement that AB Graphic was its sole strategic partner and preferred supplier of finishing equipment.
AB Graphic launched its new Omega Digicon series 2 label converting line in September, offering an expanded range of processing technologies for digitally printed webs. The fully modular Digicon series 2 features automated pre-positioning, resulting in minimum waste and quick make-ready. The servo driven web tension control is capable of handling a wide range of substrates; both paper and non-paper. The semi-rotary web motion with dial-in repeat lengths and only one cylinder size means that there are no gears or shafts to change. The basics of the machine include unwind/rewind units, electronic web guide, infeed roller, semi rotary flexographic printing station, air cooled UV curing, mid press dance roller to allow for combinations of rotary flexo and semi rotary die cutting, servo driven out-feed nip roller, waste matrix and HMI touch screen control.
Nipson makes high speed digital presses that print only in black ink. The VaryPress 200, the latest generation, is built for continuous production and can operate at speeds up to 295 fpm (90 mpm) on a printable width of 18.45″ (web width of 20.5″). The range of materials the machine can use includes coated and uncoated paper, pressure sensitive stocks, foils, and plastic affixed cards.
The Nipson machines utilize a magnetographic printing process, which incorporates toner and allows for reproduction of images at 600 dots per inch.