Finishing's Future: Limited Only By Creativity
About three years ago, Fitchburg, Mass.-based Boutwell, Owens & Co., a packaging and commercial printer, sought to set itself apart from its competition by installing an HP Indigo 30000 as a solution for printing short runs for its folding carton business. At the time, not many converters were offering short-run digital printing in a 20×29˝ sheet size with capabilities up to 24-pt. board. Although the Indigo 30000 could produce the jobs quickly, Bill Lorenz, VP of operations at Boutwell Owens, explains that the company still had to wait for a conventional die and account for the makeready time needed for one-time jobs. So two years ago, Boutwell Owens installed a Highcon Euclid to address the issue.
“Our sales people could sell things they couldn’t sell before for very short runs because of the cost of finishing the product, the cost of the tooling and the time,” Lorenz says. Mike Bacon, VP of sales and marketing for Spartanics, a Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based supplier of laser diecutters, explains that tooling costs and turnaround times are common concerns among converters and are two of the top reasons companies seek out laser diecutting.
He says that a typical label company can spend anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 annually on tooling, but digital finishing can eliminate those costs.
The other impetus for converters to turn to digital finishing is for the shortened turnaround times. Bacon says that when working with a semi-rotary machine, it could take 24 to 72 hours to acquire a new magnetic rotary die, but with laser diecutting, converters can change the job over in minutes, if not seconds.
He explains that with laser technology, a PDF can be pulled into the machine, where it identifies the vector layer within the file, extracts it and then diecuts it, all within a short period of time.
Lorenz explains that although digital finishing is great for one-time, short-run jobs by eliminating the cost of the die, it can also be used for overflow if a conventional diecutting system runs into a bottleneck.
“It has changed the way we look at things,” he says. “No job is too small. It’s a completely different mentality than where we were before.”
Lorenz also points out that converters considering going into digital finishing should do so with an open mind.
“It’s not like buying another diecutter or press,” he says. “It is a completely different thought process. You have to make sure you have the front-end workflow to be able to handle short jobs.”
However, because of the capabilities of digital finishing, it opens up several possibilities. Lorenz says that it should be considered for more than just the elimination of the die. It’s possible to design packaging with variable diecutting and engraving, to the point where each carton can be slightly different.
“The limitation is in the creativity, not the equipment anymore,” he says. “When you get a designer who can really design for it and understands it, that’s where you start hitting home runs with the true capabilities of the machine, versus just using it on short runs to avoid the die cost.”
In any industry, when new technologies enter the market, companies are often hesitant to adopt it. New finishing technology has faced a similar path.
Bacon cites four concerns that converters have when considering laser diecutting: cost, material, speed and application. He says that getting into laser diecutting can be expensive, and when a converter is making a large investment into digital printing, adding laser diecutting to the mix can prove to be too much. To combat this issue, Bacon says that approximately three to four years ago, Spartanics began to sell hybrid machines to give customers the option to choose from traditional with laser capabilities or traditional with the option to upgrade to laser at a later date.
The second concern that converters may have is the materials that can be cut by a laser machine. Although laser can cut any material, cutting PVC emits polyvinyl chloride gases as it is burned. The fumes have to be removed as they come off of the material and the entire laser module has to be coated to protect it from corrosion. Bacon says, for the most part, polypropylenes, polyesters and papers all work well when laser diecut.
The third concern is speed. And as Bacon explains, as digital printing gets faster, so too will the laser diecutters.
“We’re able to keep up with the digital printers for the time being with laser, but as they get faster, we’re going to have to figure out ways to get faster too,” he says. “For some applications, we put two lasers in-line to keep up with the minimum speeds of digital printers now.”
In fact, the past two laser diecutters that Spartanics put out on the market were designed with dual lasers, Bacon says. He explains that the overall speed for a semi-rotary diecutting machine is around 35 mpm. The speed variation with laser can run from 10 mpm to 50 mpm, so the average speed of semi-rotary and laser systems are about the same.
The final concern is that laser diecutting is not a one-size-fits-all type of technology, as some applications are not well-suited for laser diecutting.
Bacon explains that the lasers cut at a 25-to 30-degree angle. For example, he says if a label has full ink coverage, like a wine label on a dark red bottle of wine, if the substrate is white, the edges will be exposed. However, Bacon says that Spartanics works with customers who print wine labels to test jobs to see if the technology is the right fit.
“For a lot of years, laser got a bad rap because it wasn’t fast enough and the quality wasn’t there,” he says. “I think what people are finding is, it becomes application-specific. So the companies we sell lasers to are doing industrial labels, but it is opening up to different markets, like stickers, pharmaceutical and private labeling. It’s opening up people’s eyes.”
Lorenz says that there also may be some hesitation with the visual differences between digital and conventional finishing.
“The first thing somebody looks at, they might look at the crease and say, ‘This doesn’t work, it doesn’t look the same,’” he says. “But, it doesn’t matter.”
He contends that if it functions the same for the customer and if converters are consistent with their product so that the customer does not see a difference from job to job, it shouldn’t matter if the package was finished conventionally or if it went through a digital workflow.
Brad Shuff, division operations manager at ITW Labels, a St. Charles, Mo.-based label provider, worked with Mark Andy to install its Digital Series hybrid press and an off-line semi-rotary Rotoflex digital diecutter to meet its growing number of short runs. Although the hybrid can varnish and laminate in-line, ITW Labels is doing 100% of its finishing off-line on the Rotoflex. Currently, the Rotoflex is meeting ITW Labels’ needs, but Shuff explains that once the hybrid is running two to three shifts, it will begin to outmatch the capabilities of the off-line digital finisher. He explains that the company is now faced with a decision to either add a second digital finisher or add an in-line device.
“We weren’t in favor of in-line diecutting a year ago, but now that we are acclimated to the speed of the digital press and did all of the rounds with finishing equipment manufacturers, we believe diecutting in-line is the most efficient for us,” he says.
Shuff explains that when deciding to add finishing capabilities in-line versus off-line with digital printing, each converter needs to analyze their book of business, along with the speed of their digital equipment and decide what device is right for their needs.
The Future of Conventional and Digital
As digital finishing continues to grow, conventional finishing technology will have an important role to play.
According to Bacon, they’re complementary technologies. Since there are still far more conventional presses operating in the world than digital, the two types of technologies will continue to be necessary, depending on the application. Conventional finishing is still dominating in terms of overall speed, but as the demand for short-run packaging and quick turnarounds grows, so too will digital finishing, Bacon says.
Lorenz suggests that the two technologies “will blend together,” similar to what is happening in the digital printing world.
“Looking at the next generation, what are they coming out with for digital printing presses?” he asks. “They’re coming out with these presses that are built on offset press frames and the sheets are handled like they are on an offset press, but they have imaging heads mounted to that.”
That merging of technologies, he says, means that the body of the press isn’t that much different from traditional offset and people are used to the format, which isn’t as intimidating to operators. He says that the Highcon Euclid and the new Highcon Beam are similar in that conventional operators are able to run the devices easily, as are operators with little to no experience.
Shuff suggests looking at hybrid devices and in-line finishing and to “scrutinize what you’re trying to do, because if you don’t, you might end up with a digital asset that runs so fast that you need two finishing pieces instead of one.” He also says that one thing that is necessary is for converters to evaluate finishing at the same time they evaluate printing.
“People looked at finishing as a secondary function, [something] not that important,” he says. “They looked at it as the last component, but I think you have to look at all of your needs together at the same time.”
And although digital printing isn’t a brand new technology, it’s really just beginning to gain traction with converters, meaning that digital finishing is starting to find its place in the packaging industry.
“From a packaging standpoint, digital printing is at its infancy,” Lorenz says. “We’re at a handful of years that anyone has been able to do it successfully, so it hasn’t built up to where it’s going to be. … Digital finishing is getting in at the right time.”