Shelf Space: Spraying Ink on the Future
The product planners and engineers behind inkjet presses believe that spraying tiny droplets of colored ink onto a substrate is a key part of the future of label printing—and perhaps even more of packaging. And they are right. Inkjet has been gobbling up share in some segments of commercial printing, proving to be a reliable, flexible and reasonably economical technology. It’s not perfect, but there is no reason it cannot also be the go-to technology for a growing share of the labels and packaging market. Already, about half the readers of this magazine have some type of digital press handling a portion of the printing in their operation. I predict that in three years that will rise to 80 percent and that most of those will be inkjet.
I’m normally tuned in to the various models of digital presses on the market, yet as I worked on this month’s feature on inkjet presses I was surprised by the number of machines readily available and at how quickly they are evolving to meet market needs. Almost every machine can be configured with additional colors, including white, and all can handle a wide range of substrates. Finishing remains an issue, but some systems offer laser diecutting options and both inline and nearline finishing options are, or will soon be available.
Then there’s speed. The inkjet presses intended for labeling initially ran at very low speeds, a function of delivering the image quality needed and ensuring inks would dry or cure correctly on the substrate. Now, though, most inkjet machines run much faster, some approaching 250 feet per minute.
Still, speed is a relative issue. While there are many jobs running on flexo presses that go for tens of thousands of feet or more and need high throughput, there is a growing segment of far shorter jobs where sheer speed is not critical. In the past few months, I’ve talked with converters who have had 100,000-foot label runs that required 50 plate changes to accommodate differences in SKU, color, or image for essentially the same product. At the same time, owners of inkjet presses are telling me the average run lengths on their digital presses are 2,000 to 5,000 feet. More SKUs, new products from major, regional and local brands, and a desire to control inventory costs and waste all drive shorter run lengths.
When you do the math, the labor costs associated with making new plates, stopping a press, changing plates, perhaps adding or changing inks, getting back up to color, and wasted materials add up quickly. Aside from the impact on profitability, they also reduce the actual throughput speed of a conventional press and increase the cost of the finished product, especially for modest run lengths.
Inkjet clearly changes the game, and the story is not only marketing hype from the digital-only intruders. Companies with their roots in conventional printing are rolling out both digital and hybrid systems and streamlining changeover processes to help analog presses compete on a short-run playing field. The proof is out there in examples of how label printers are answering customer needs for shorter runs, targeted markets and specialty orders.
The time has come to evaluate how inkjet presses may fit into your operation. For many shops, inkjet may make the difference between doing OK—and thriving. pP
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