Digital Packaging 'Technical Jargon' Deconstructed for DPS Attendees
What used to be "religious arguments" about the superiority of one digital printing technology over another are passé now, Marco Boer (I.T. Strategies) informed a general session of the Digital Packaging Summit. Label and packaging printers should realize that today, they co-exist complementarily — and that choosing the "right" one is a matter of determining which makes the best fit to the end-user's tasks.
Since no process is perfect, said Boer, "you've got to watch for those trade-offs" among them: aspects where advantages come with limitations that the technology is still striving to overcome. Inkjet printing, for example, remains challenged by offset stocks that present ink adhesion problems.
Boer, a Digital Packaging Summit co-chair, identified electrophotographic (EP) and inkjet printing systems as the principal technologies for digital labels and packaging. He said dry-toner EP is "right at its peak" of reproduction capability owing to its long history of development and use. Liquid-toner EP, personified by ElectroInk for HP Indigo systems, has made similar strides.
Turning to inkjet, Boer cited continuous progress in piezoelectric crystal technology as the reason that piezo inkjet remains "very stable, with still lots of upside," for digital printing. Thermal inkjet systems, with HP, Memjet, and Canon as their leading developers, are also seeing a great deal of innovation that will advance their performance.
Boer addressed various "caveats and exceptions" that need to be considered when selecting a digital printing solution. Among them are:
- Substrate independence. According to Boer, inkjet — especially UV inkjet — has the most independence in terms of the range of stocks it can work with. But, he noted that this often requires "lots of intermediary steps" to assure that the ink will stick to what it is trying to image.
- Print width. This is limited more by economic considerations than by technology, Boer observed. It is "cost prohibitive," he said, to make dry-toner EP systems that print wider than 20˝. Certain liquid-toner devices can print 29˝ wide, but it took the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in R&D to bring them to that capability, according to Boer.
- Productivity. There is a "finite limit," Boer said, to how fast digital presses can be made to print. The heat needed for fusing in dry-toner systems running at high speeds can be problematic. Inkjet systems run into issues of their own as jetting speeds increase.
- Complexity. EP systems, both dry and liquid, consist of "enormous amounts of moving parts" that all have to function properly for the press to work. Inkjet, somewhat simpler in design, should be the more reliable of the two processes, but isn't trouble-free.
Understand the trade-offs and "pick your battle," Boer urged the audience. "Focus on what is going to fit for you." He recommended a series of questions to ask in 1:1 meetings with vendors at the Digital Packaging Summit and in subsequent conversations with them:
- If there is a term that sounds proprietary, ask about the origin of the technology and what it is analogous to.
- What are you going to do to take me forward in digital package printing with respect to technology development and business models?
- What can you do to help me educate my customers about the benefits of digital printing?