Making the Inkjet Decision
Tennessee-based Graphic Label Solutions (GLS) was seeking an alternative to its existing label production process. The company was using screen printing as well as a wide-format printer to produce labels. But as run lengths shortened, the screen printing process became cost-prohibitive, and digital wide-format printing lacked the throughput needed to meet demand. In addition, GLS was seeking new business, a more efficient way to finish its work, and sought an environmentally sustainable solution to match the company's desire to have as small an environmental footprint as possible.
GLS brought in an EFI Jetrion 4950LX narrow-web LED inkjet press with inline die cutting. It allows them to take on more primary label applications, and its LED capability enables printing on lighter-weight, heat-sensitive and specialty substrates while delivering a low cost per label. The press also made smart financial sense because in most cases GLS can print and finish jobs using a single operator. Then, after using the machine for some months, GLS went all-up and all-in, selling its narrow web flexo press, screen press and a roll-to-roll solvent inkjet printer. "It transformed the company," says GLS President Deb Warner, "You can spend less on a press, but it will take more labor to get to the finished product. A press that only requires one operator is a better bet."
Filling customer needs
An inkjet-only shift like that at GLS is a rarity, but label printers and converters are increasingly finding that inkjet systems can keep customers coming back for shorter runs, specialty labels, prototypes and more. Luminer Labels in Lakewood, NJ uses a seven-color Epson SurePress L-4033AW in conjunction with the company's flexo presses to provide short runs of specialty labels that could not be economically produced on its analog machines. "It fills real customer needs that we otherwise wouldn't be able to meet," says John Borrelli, partner and COO. He cites a high-end beverage application—a very small batch of well-aged Scotch—that required just 17 linear feet of labels. "That kind of job could take half a day to set up on a conventional press, so if we didn't have a digital press that business would go somewhere else"
Across the country, Creative Labels in Gilroy, CA brought in an Epson SurePress L-4033A to address customers' short run needs for prime food labels, medical devices, and wine bottles. "The smaller footprint machines we looked at did a good job but the ink costs weren't the right match for the volume levels we expected, so the SurePress was a better choice," relates Vice President Chris Martin. Run lengths average about 2,000 feet and use up to six colors (CMYK plus orange and green) on the existing press. Inline varnishing, the ability to print on most stocks, an attractive entry price, and moderate total cost of ownership helped seal the deal.
Productivity is key
Profitable and efficient short-run production requires presses that are easy to use. And the busier the shop, the more important this becomes. Short runs for product testing, promotional products, warehouse rack labels, and more are part of the daily workload at Diversified Label Solutions (DLS), a label trade shop with operations in four states. According to CEO Jim Kersten, the compact five-color Komori NW140 UV inkjet 5.5˝ web label press (powered by JetINX Technology from INX International) with an integrated Spartanics laser diecutter is a favored solution. "We're a trade shop, so productivity is critical, and short run jobs should be 'touched' as little as possible," he says. To Kersten, that means a press must be easy to use, able to produce a wide range of labels on many substrates, change jobs on the fly, and provide inline diecutting. He notes that although the NW140 is typically used for runs up to about 5,000 linear feet, some finished runs have been as short as 100 labels.
Kersten says all the company's plants will ultimately have digital capability, with the press based on customer requirements. Until then, a second Komori, a new 8.75˝ NW210-E, will add more capability to DLS's growing digital business.
Screen, a long-time provider of computer-to-plate systems and inkjet presses for the commercial side of printing, now offers the Truepress Jet L350UV, designed specifically for label production. Printing at up to 164 feet per minute, this machine was the choice of Ryan Gaytan, vice president at The Label Shoppe in Industry, CA. Gaytan finds the press to be a good match for runs of 2,500 linear feet or less—which he says account for as much as 57 percent of jobs. "The Screen lets us do away with the 'pit stop mentality' of fast manual changeovers that are required for our flexo presses," Gaytan says. "For example, we had a job that took four hours to run on the Truepress that would have taken more than three days on our flexo presses because of all the changeovers required. On the other hand, we had a job that needed just 50 feet of material."
Gaytan says the machine's variable droplet size, the smallest being just 3 picoliters, provides a noticeable difference in quality and results in less ink thickness on the substrate.
Hybrids fuel the need for speed
Because flexo presses can run so fast, the lower speeds of many inkjet systems have limited their appeal. But as runs shorten—requiring more job changes—consistent speed without stopping for changeovers is becoming more important. Still, plenty of jobs that need the speed and added features of flexo can also benefit from the flexibility of inkjet. Enter the hybrids.
Fujifilm's Graphium is a 16˝ UV inkjet press capable of speeds up to 164 feet per minute (dependent on print mode). It can print CMYK plus white on most common label stocks including paper, PVC and top-coated polyolefins. More interesting than the speed, though, is the ability to integrate modules for flexographic printing both before and after the digital print engine, along with inline diecutting, slitting and embossing. Jobs can combine both flexo and digital printing or use either technology independently.
A similar approach comes from Mark Andy with its new Digital Series, designed to run at speeds of up to 250 feet per minute. Based on the company's highly successful Performance Series flexo presses, the 13˝-wide Digital Series integrates high-resolution six-color UV inkjet printing (CMYK, orange, violet, plus white) with top-coating, fully integrated in-line flexographic printing modules (such as metallics), various converting options, cold foil, and more. Its roots in the Performance line enable the Digital Series to take advantage of proven Mark Andy designs such as its flexo print stations and quick change die stations (QCDS) that facilitate the rapid changeovers common to digital printing.
Taking a different path to hybrid presses is Prototype and Production Systems' bolt-on DICEweb inkjet engine for flexo presses. The base version is CMYK but two optional print heads can add white, spot varnish or PMS colors. Available in 15˝ and 20˝ print widths, the bolt-on unit converts a flexo press into a digital hybrid press that can run at up to 360 feet per minute. The system allows jobs to be run digital- or flexo-only or both at the same time.
This adds short-run capabilities, but as digital press owners often claim, consistency is often another factor behind the decision to add digital capabilities; accurate color is often easier to achieve with a digital press. "The DICEweb gives us speed, efficiency and perfect printing every time," says David Haak, owner of First Tape and Label in Plymouth, MN. "We get better consistency than with our flexo press. Whether we print the label today, tomorrow or a month from now, the colors look the same."
Still more speed
Other fast inkjet presses come with new offerings in the form of Durst's new Tau 330, a 14˝ web press that can run at up to 157 feet per minute and can be equipped with an inline Spartanics laser diecutting unit and other options. It also features chill rollers and the standard CMYK colors can be expanded with white, orange and violet.
Faster still is Domino's N610i. This 13˝ UV press runs at up to 246 feet per minute, printing up to seven colors. According to Domino, this speed means that during a 30-minute flexo make-ready period, a Domino N610i could theoretically produce some 7,300 feet of printed materials. Third party inline finishing options are available from AB Graphics and GM.
Another fast inkjet system comes from Colordyne Technologies in the form of its new 3600 Series press powered by Memjet technology. According to Colordyne, the system features reduced RIP times, and a print resolution of 1600 x 1375 dpi, even at print speeds up to 225 feet per minute. To aid in converting, CDT partnered with Paper Converting Machine Company (PCMC) on the new press, which features a PCMC web handling system. The system is designed to provide customers investment protection by allowing for implementation of digital upgrades and enhancements as they become available.
Some package printing veterans will recall a press maker called Stork, which first made its name in screen printing. Today, Stork has evolved into SPGprints, which offers the DSI UV inkjet label printer, a modular concept for short and medium run digital label printing. This machine can be configured for stand-alone digital printing or with semi-rotary inline converting. The DSI comes with four print heads as standard, although additional colors can be added, including digital white, digital primer and an extended color gamut with orange and violet. Depending on converter requirements, the SPG DSI system can be configured to support print widths ranging from 5 to 20 inches.
Is it inkjet time for you?
Even its most ardent advocates acknowledge that inkjet (or any other digital printing technology) will only complement, not replace, conventional printing. But as SKUs expand, established brands ask for shorter run lengths, and hundreds of smaller brands come to market, label printers and converters can no longer count on long analog runs being business as usual. While some of the latest conventional presses feature shorter job changeover times, many inkjet presses do better. And with throughput being a key attribute, having a press that can change from one job to another on the fly can be a decided advantage.
Substrates remain an issue, but each vendor has a list of approved substrates, and it is often possible to use many of the same materials as on a conventional press.
Speed has also been a concern, but with the fastest inkjet machines now exceeding 200 feet per minute, this is less of a issue. Although still slower than conventional presses, the savings associated with not having to change plates, wash down the press, and being able to get up to color faster (resulting in less waste) makes slower speeds less of a problem for many label printers and converters. There are numerous examples of the math, calculating the actual throughput per hour of a conventional press that stops every few thousand feet for job or SKU changes, compared to a slower inkjet press that changes jobs without a pause. In many cases, the actual throughput difference is not very large, and that is without accounting for the cost of plates and waste usually associated with an analog system.
There's always a "however." Some inkjet presses are still limited to CMYK, so the color gamut may be less than that of, say, an eight- or ten-color flexo machine. Therefore, jobs requiring a wider gamut or special colors (such as certain Pantone hues, metallics or fluorescents) can still require conventional presses. Or, you can wait a bit. Adding colors to inkjet presses is nothing new, so there's no doubt that the color gamut of inkjet will expand within the next two to three years.
The other "however" is inkjet systems' lack of inline finishing options from die-cutting and trimming to embossing, debossing, metallizing, and some types of coating. Today, many converters will print a job on their inkjet press and move it to an offline system such as those from AB Graphics or Delta Industrial for finishing, or even to a properly equipped flexo press where they bypass the print stations. Some inkjet vendors already offer inline laser cutting, and finishing equipment suppliers are readying inline or nearline finishing systems designed to work with inkjet presses.
A final note: Some converters report receiving RFPs that require them to have either inkjet or toner presses with at least a 13˝ width, even if it is not required for a specific project. This may indicate that some forward-thinking brand owners are aware of the value digital presses can provide, and may be selecting suppliers based on the presence of digital capabilities. Which means you may need to start shopping for an inkjet press. pP
Inkjet Press Suppliers
Prototype & Production Systems
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