The Case for Digital Retrofits
As digital printing continues its growth in the packaging industry, some converters have found that retrofitting existing conventional equipment with digital provides certain advantages over investing in a new digital press. Three converters spoke with packagePRINTING about their experience with this type of hybrid printing.
Topflight Corp., a Glen Rock, Pa.-based printer of labels, shrink sleeves and functional packaging parts, sought out digital capabilities because the company was seeing an increase in customers that were requesting short runs and variable data labels.
The company needed to meet these demands while continuing to improve on its waste and sustainability initiatives. Adding a DICEweb system from Prototype & Production Systems in 2014 to an existing press built in-house provided the perfect solution.
“We looked at some standalone printing systems, and had several millions of dollars invested in dies,” recalls Tonya Nye, director of sales operations and logistics at Topflight. “We wanted to be able to print digitally without having to invest in new tooling. The DICEweb system gives us the four-color digital printing capability we wanted, while making use of one of our custom flexo presses to apply primer and to diecut.”
Being a lean manufacturing facility that services a customer base with many SKUs and varying footages per SKU, Topflight also needed to be able to maximize throughput. Nye says that the DICEweb performs at around 160 fpm, which is faster than other presses the company looked at.
“We also wanted to have an array of digital options, so in addition to a small print option and large print option, the hybrid was a perfect choice somewhere in between,” adds Nye.
According to Joe Yontz, customer logistics lead at Topflight, the company runs a multitude of jobs on the press. The bulk of the work that it puts through the DICEweb are multiple SKUs with varying data, such as barcodes, QR codes and other variable data that changes from part to part.
“The hybrid option allows us to continually run these variable parts without stopping the press,” explains Yontz. “We have reduced plate usage and set-up footage; and also by ganging and grouping orders, we have been able to produce up to 90 jobs per shift. Conventionally, we could do around 30 jobs per shift.”
Since adding the DICEweb, the Topflight team has been surprised by the results.
“We knew that this would reduce set-up, waste and increase efficiencies, however, we were surprised to find how much it truly impacted our manufacturing process,” notes Nye. “In 2015, we reduced the total number of jobs by 30.89% through grouping and ganging. In 2016, we showed a 39% reduction in jobs. This not only improved manufacturing efficiencies, but also supported our lean office initiative by reducing paper, employee motion, copier toner and employee time.”
For converters looking to invest in this technology, Yontz stresses that before entering into the digital arena, they should take a deep dive into their customer base to understand what they are producing and how often.
In addition, their processes and workflows must support digital, as they have to be completely different if they want to benefit from this technology. Yontz also emphasizes that converters need to look at their sales team and make sure it is something that they can sell based on their current portfolio, as digital requires a different technique and doesn’t fit every print model.
Nye adds that converters considering this technology should also make sure that they have a robust front-end process. Although this will give them more manufacturing efficiency, it is a very different file preparation and data management solution, so these workflows need to be examined as well.
“The overall advantage of having a hybrid system is having the best of both worlds,” concludes Nye. “You can take the best features of both print techniques and use them together or apart.”
Another converter seeing the benefits of choosing the digital retrofit option is Diversified Labeling Solutions (DLS), a labeling solutions provider headquartered in Itasca, Ill. — with four additional locations in Atlanta; Cincinnati; Arlington, Texas; and Reno, Nev. According to Jim Kersten, CEO, the company moved into the digital marketplace because it was looking for a cost-effective way to produce short-run labels, as well as test labels, personalized labels and versioned labels, which are labels that may feature similar attributes, but with slight alterations to highlight different flavors or ingredients.
“We’ve been in the digital printing business for over five years and we have a fleet of digital presses — both water- and UV-based,” Kersten explains. “We wanted to include our Atlanta facility in the digital revolution that we were going through and we also had the need for another short-run flexographic press at that location. So we saw this as an opportunity for us to put digital into the Atlanta facility, and at the same time, increase our flexographic capacity.”
Last year, DLS installed a Colordyne 3600 Series Retrofit option (a four-color digital inkjet print module also referred to as the Mark Andy Digital +3600) from Colordyne Technologies on top of a 10˝-wide Mark Andy 2200 flexo press in its Atlanta facility. This new hybrid press is DLS’s second digital printing solution from Colordyne, and its fourth in total.
Since it was installed, the Colordyne 3600 has given DLS the capacity to produce high-quality digital and hybrid labels, to manage high-mix, low-volume runs more effectively, as well as to maintain digital print speeds of up to 275 fpm, full variable imaging capabilities, resolutions up to 1,600x1,375 dpi and existing rotary die inventory and on-press finishing capabilities.
“With the hybrid press, we can print a digital label, but if we want to add a spot color to hit a specific logo color for instance, we can achieve a perfect match by just running it on the flexographic plate versus running it through the digital press itself,” Kersten points out. “That was an important factor for us. Also, on our current digital presses that we have in the other facilities, we use laser diecutters. We like laser diecutting versus steel analog roll-to-roll diecutting because we can instantly cut the shape in any size. It makes it very easy to come up with unique shapes and designs because you don’t have to worry about buying an expensive die in order to make it happen.”
When a design is more intricate, or when production calls for many labels across, Kersten says that this can slow down the press. But with the hybrid digital, DLS is able to use steel analog dies, which means that it can run the digital press at its full capacity — an extra 200 fpm — and that, according to Kersten, is perfect for the speed of the flexographic press.
DLS runs short- to medium-length jobs on the press that range from product and equipment labeling to promotional labeling and retail labels. While digital and flexo are comparable when it comes to putting ink on paper, Kersten explains that the difference is apparent when there are variable images on the label or several versions.
Among the benefits that Kersten notes since adding the Colordyne 3600 is the ability for the company to get jobs on press quicker because it eliminates the requirement of making plates. The user just takes a digital file, rips it and puts it on the press.
Another benefit is the greater ease of handling emergency production runs because those types of jobs can get on the press quicker. The quality of the inkjet printing is also comparable to flexographic production, allowing DLS to seamlessly transition between the two types of printing.
“There’s work that we do for some clients where we run their jobs flexographically on multiple presses in our plants. In the case of an emergency, what we have done in the past is profile the client’s labels on a digital press. This allows us to handle emergencies a lot easier than we could have before.”
Kersten offers the following advice for other converters looking into a digital retrofit option.
“Converters should first look at all of the options that are out there for digital and digital hybrid in order to determine what matches up best for their particular market or new markets they want to enter. They also need to make sure that they are getting the right print technology that suits the markets they serve. In addition, converters need to come up with a workflow that is abbreviated and simpler than what they are doing today.” Kersten also affirms that converters need to understand that their cost structure will be completely different — for example, ink and material costs for digital retrofits are much higher than typical ink and material costs for flexo environments.
“There’s a limitation on water-based digital or hybrid presses,” he explains. “You have to rethink your pricing model to make sure that you’re covering your costs properly and that you’re not just assuming what you did in the flexo world is going to be the same in the digital world. It’s going to be different.”
Some advantages that Kersten points out about having a hybrid system in general is that the press can run as both a flexo and digital press at full speed with the use of analog dies. The hybrid press also allows DLS to get precise color matches — using the digital for part of it and then using flexo to make sure that all of the colors are properly produced.
In addition, the fact that they are using the analog dies and running at higher speeds, DLS can do longer-run jobs on the hybrid press than on the full digital presses that have laser diecutters. With the hybrid flexo press, DLS can do everything in one pass, eliminating the need to print on one device and then convert on a second device.
“By bringing digital into the company, not only have we grown our digital business but we’ve seen our flexographic business grow because customers look at us now and they see us as being more creative, being more solutions oriented, and able to solve unique problems,” Kersten concludes. “We didn’t realize that digital would actually have a positive impact on flexographic printing.”
Like DLS, Prairie State Group (PSG), a full-service printer of packaging materials (such as pressure-sensitive labels and flexible packaging for the food and beverage, health and beauty, nutritional bars, pet snack packaging, pouching, cold chain technology and automotive after-market industries) in Franklin Park, Ill., is also seeing the benefits of choosing to retrofit its existing Mark Andy 2200 flexo press with a Colordyne 3600 Series Retrofit. It was installed at its facility in 2016. PSG added digital printing to its business to address the increasing demand for short-run jobs and to reduce its outsourced digital printing. The company also produces printed work for other converters that have not made the digital leap.
Prior to adding digital printing capabilities, PSG produced more than 150 jobs under 5,000 ft. every month on its own flexo presses or outsourced the work to a digital printer. Many of these analog jobs required longer set up times than run times. PSG chose to retrofit its existing Mark Andy 2200 flexo press due to the low cost of entry, minimal disruption to its current business, and the ability to use existing tooling and finishing.
“With the growing demand for short-run jobs, we knew it was a bigger risk not to go digital,” remarks Dan Doherty, executive VP of operations/principal at PSG. “Adding the Colordyne 3600 Series Retrofit allows us to transition our existing high-mix, low-volume jobs to the digital press. This opens up the capacity to print hybrid jobs and new product launches, particularly in the test market stage, for our customers.”
Doherty adds that what he likes about the Colordyne is that if there is a spot color that can’t be matched with a four-color build, he can throw in an additional deck, which works really well for bright orange or a metallic.
“Colors that are hard to hit can be put in the flexo deck, which makes the graphics of the four-color print edges look really sharp,” he shares.
Since adding the retrofit, Doherty relays that existing work is being done more quickly, saving money on plates and allowing clients to walk into a project without fear of their inventory becoming obsolete.
Educating its clients about the value of digital — personalization, variable data and elimination of plates — has also been a large part of PSG’s success in both transitioning and growing its digital business. Other benefits include shorter lead times, less waste and quicker changeovers. PSG takes advantage of these benefits by combining runs to the same die size, allowing it to run multiple jobs as one longer job.
Doherty advises converters looking into a digital retrofit option to do their homework on the different options available, and to evaluate the pros and cons when deciding what will fit their business the best in the long run.
“The digital retrofit option is living up to our expectations — with shorter runs, more versatility, more capacity and better print quality,” concludes Doherty. “It’s helped us to be more relevant in the label world, along with having a digital asset on our floor that we can go out and market.”