Assessing the Digital Decision
Converters seeking to enter the digital printing world have more options at their fingertips than ever before. With the rise of hybrid presses that combine digital and conventional printing technologies coinciding with advancements in stand-alone digital solutions, it’s imperative that printers understand the advantages of each format prior to making an investment.
For example, stand-alone presses can provide an entryway into digital production at a lower price point, while still maintaining high output quality. Hybrid machines meanwhile, in addition to their utilization of multiple print processes, can provide in-line finishing capabilities in one contained unit.
According to Marco Boer, VP of I.T. Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in digital print technologies, one of the first variables converters need to consider when deciding on a digital solution is how much capacity is required.
“If I am a small- to mid-sized label converter, and digital is new to me, I would not buy a hybrid right away,” he says, pointing out that approximately 80% of label converters currently do not have digital printing capabilities. “The reason is the amount of volume you have to put through those machines to make the return-on-investment appealing is significant.”
However, he explains that on the stand-alone digital side, there are entry-level solutions available for less than $250,000 that can provide a return on investment within 12 months.
“Unless you are very brave or have a lot of cash to slowly grow your way into it, if you are small- to mid-sized label converter, you really need to have something you will fill to optimal capacity right away so that it starts paying for itself,” Boer says.
At the other end of the spectrum, larger label converters that are seeing an increase in short-run work that requires a significant makeready effort may find a hybrid press to be an appealing solution, Boer says. He explains that this is primarily because hybrid machines can provide the productivity a bigger company is accustomed to, and they can be implemented relatively seamlessly with in-line finishing equipment.
“And more importantly, you’ve got the volume to fill that machine right away,” Boer says.
While having an understanding of internal capacity needs is essential in making the digital press decision, it is also important for printers to have a deep knowledge of their customers’ present and future needs that are driving the shift to digital. Kevin Karstedt, CEO of Karstedt Partners, a consulting and market research firm specializing in digital technologies for the packaging industry, explains that having an understanding of how a future digital asset will serve prospective customers is another important element of the decision-making process.
“You really have to consider what your customers are asking for,” Karstedt notes. “Not only what your current customers are asking for now, but what your next customers are going to ask for.”
For example, he explains that printers and converters should consider what their current strengths are as a company and which format will allow them to better serve their customers. With distinct differences in the production workflow between stand-alone digital and hybrid, considering how each platform performs with certain types of output can help in making the right choice.
“Companies need to look at where the next round of work will come from and what they will be asked to do to understand whether they need a hybrid or a stand-alone solution,” Karstedt says. “If you are really good at finishing and have a lot of varieties of finishing, you may have to do that all off-line because you can only do so many finishing applications with a hybrid press.”
Karstedt explains that with many digital press installations, the first jobs to make the transition from conventional are the “problem jobs,” that converters accept from customers, even if they tie-up production on conventional equipment. With workflows already established to produce these jobs, Karstedt explains they may not necessarily be the best candidates for a hybrid press.
“These are jobs that take long to set-up or are short-run and lose money, but [printers] take anyway,” he says. “Those types of jobs will be the first ones to shift over to the digital press. And [the converter] already knows how they are going to do finishing for those jobs. The low-hanging fruit or the first jobs to switch over may not need the in-line capability of a hybrid press.”
As an early adopter of digital technologies, International Label of Elk Grove Village, Ill., has experience using both hybrid and roll-to-roll digital printing. Mark Turk, president and CEO, recalls first looking into a hybrid solution in 2008 and being immediately impressed with the in-line concept. The company purchased a Nilpeter Caslon hybrid machine in 2010, the first “combination” press, as it was referred to at the time, installed in North America.
International Label then installed a five-color roll-to-roll Domino N610i inkjet press in 2014 and used the Nilpeter to handle finishing duties.
“What sold us on that press was the digital white,” Turk notes of the stand-alone Domino press. “We run a lot of clear labels and a lot of silver papers and metalized foils, so that was the key to it. It worked out fine for us for a few years, but as the run lengths got longer because more and more people like how digital printing looks, we had to diecut the jobs [off-line].”
The company upgraded to a CEI BossJet Powered by Domino in December 2017. Turk notes that he took advantage of Domino’s trade-up program to upgrade to the hybrid system, which features a seven-color Domino N610i as the digital component, along with integrated flexo stations and in-line converting.
“This put us on another echelon because it can run 250 fpm and it is diecut and you just put the next job on,” Turk says. “The one thing about it is it’s so simple to operate. I am on a YouTube video somewhere holding up a cell phone saying, ‘If you can run one of these, you can run the press.’”
The 30-employee company can also now handle more specialized work, including instant redeemable coupons and jobs that require a spot varnish or cold foil.
“This machine is a seven-color extended gamut and we have two flexo units and UV mixed in there,” Turk says. “So if we have to pre-coat something, we can. If we have to print on both sides of the web, we can.”
International Label is able to easily produce four-over-four printing jobs because the registration of the press is very good, Turk adds.
“We save time and with that, we save money,” Turk states. “And more jobs can get out the door on any given day.”
Karstedt notes that there are some entry-level hybrid machines with diecutting and laminating options. This could be a solution for print companies looking to add wine label or craft beer label production to the mix.
“That is an opportunity for print brokers to get into the label marketplace,” he says.
Another important determination for printers to make prior to investing in a hybrid press is the configuration, and where certain attributes will be placed in relation to the digital printing.
“Do you need to put a coating on first?” Karstedt asks. “Do you need analog white ahead of the printing process? And what is needed after the image is applied?”
Boer says that with the advancements being made across the digital printing spectrum, printers can be confident in the technology behind just about any press they are considering. The potential pitfall, he explains, is in a printer’s ability to fill capacity on the press they select, stating that adding a press and then seeking out short-run jobs and new customers can be challenging.
“At this stage of the game, there is almost no bad decision in terms of technology,” he says. “Where the risk lies is if you buy something, can you fill it?”