Label Printers See Benefits in Flexo/Inkjet Hybrids
In the history of graphic technologies, hybridized production systems are nothing new. One of the earliest phototypesetters, for example, was built on the chassis of a Linotype hot-metal typecasting machine. For years, hybrid offset lithographic presses have been configured with chamber doctor blade systems, in-line foiling units, slitters and folders for webs, and other accessories that extend the basic capabilities of the equipment.
More recently, hybridization has come to include the marriage of digital technologies to conventional platforms: specifically, inkjet to flexography in narrow-web presses aimed at label printing. Although their embrace by the segment has been limited, their potential to impact the label business could be greatly out of proportion to the present size of their market share.
Bob Leahey, an associate director and analyst with InfoTrends, reckons that there are more than 100 hybrid flexo-inkjet presses operating globally today, counting both purpose-built systems — those manufactured from the ground up as integrated hybrids — and retrofits of inkjet units onto existing flexo presses.
Purpose-built systems usually cost more than retrofits but often have a greater range of capabilities. Leahey says that there are roles for both approaches in digital printing’s continuing push into label and packaging production, with some highly qualified vendors backing each type.
Purpose-built hybrid flexo-inkjet presses consist of inkjet units for process and expanded-gamut colors, and multipurpose flexographic stations that can dispense spot colors, coatings, cold foils, and metallic, neon, and opaque white inks. The platforms can also be equipped with diecutters, laminators and other finishing assets for one-pass, in-line label converting.
A Lot to Learn and Like
Two early adopters of purpose-built systems in the United States are Hub Labels of Hagerstown, Md., which went into production with its Gallus Labelfire 340 at the end of March; and Label Solutions of Marshfield, Mo., which has about nine months of operating a Mark Andy Digital Series hybrid press under its belt. Neither shop is done exploring the possibilities that combining the dependability of flexo with the versatility of inkjet opens up. Both report being pleased with what they’ve discovered thus far.
Hub’s Gallus Labelfire 340 is a joint creation of flexo and screen printing specialist Gallus and offset litho press maker Heidelberg, with UV inkjet technology supplied by Fujifilm. Designed for single-pass label production, the device can print web widths up to 13.3˝ in seven colors plus white at a native resolution of 1,200×1,200 dpi and a top printing speed of 164 fpm.
Label Solutions also has UV inkjet capabilities in its 13.25˝ wide Mark Andy Digital Series hybrid, which prints in four colors plus white at 600×600 dpi. It is a fast press with a maximum running speed of 240 fpm — a major factor in Label Solutions’ decision to buy it, according to Jeff Jaynes, the company’s engineering manager.
Just What Was Needed
Installing a hybrid solution solved problems at both locations.
Thomas Dahbura, president of Hub, was looking for a digital press that could handle short-run, multi-SKU jobs that were hard to produce economically on the plant’s conventional flexo equipment. He also wanted to offer his customers an expanded color gamut but was reluctant to do it with his flexo presses because of the extra plate charges it would entail.
Label Solutions had to replace an inkjet-only label press with excessive downtime and other performance issues. As North America’s largest supplier of labels to the compressed-gas industry, says Rob Freeman, director of sales and marketing, the company needed speed, flexibility and variable printing capabilities in digital equipment it knew it could rely on.
The Gallus Labelfire 340 is more than up to the color standards prevailing at Hub, Dahbura says. He describes its range as “unbelievable,” able to reproduce 90% of the Pantone gamut with a ∆E of 3 — a much better-than-anticipated result. Offering digital color of this breadth and quality shrinks flexo platemaking charges and makes it easier to satisfy customers for whom “it always comes back to cost,” Dahbura says.
Inkjet doesn’t necessarily do all of the color work in hybrid systems. Jaynes points out that when labels require full ink coverage, printing with CMYK builds in inkjet would be prohibitively expensive. A spot color from a plate in one of the flexo units on the Mark Andy Digital Series press is the ink-saving answer, making it cost-efficient to produce labels of this type in large volumes on the equipment.
Clicks? What Clicks?
There are other cost-saving advantages in hybrid production. A big one for Label Solutions is the fact that running the Mark Andy Digital Series press doesn’t involve click charges. (The Gallus Labelfire 340 at Hub carries no click charges, either.) Jaynes says that the click-charge model of the digital press the Mark Andy device replaced was frustrating because there was never quite enough volume to move up to the manufacturer’s next tier of usage, where the cost per click would have been smaller.
A lack of work for hybrid production isn’t an issue at either plant. Just prior to the Gallus Labelfire 340’s first week of full operation, Dahbura estimated that 10% to 15% of his conventional flexo volume would migrate to the hybrid press in that brief period alone, with more to follow.
Labels for food packaging and other jobs “with boatloads of SKUs in small quantities” are what Dahbura sees as the principal applications. He thinks the “sweet spot” of cost breakeven vs. conventional flexo will occur between 20,000 and 30,000 linear feet of substrate.
Just Keep the Jobs Coming
After less than a year of operating its Mark Andy Digital Series hybrid press, Label Solutions already produces an average of 45% to 70% of its volume on the device. Most of the work is in short runs, although the high speed of the press makes it practical for turning out larger batches of labels as well.
Jaynes says that the press excels at complex jobs such as a recent one calling for cold foil and white ink on a clear stock — tricky to get right on a conventional flexo press and impossible to run on a digital-only platform.
ROI should be achieved within 24 months of installation, says Freeman, who notes that the learning curve for the press includes coming up with new ways in which it can be used to serve customers. At the moment, the applications involve relatively little variable printing, but Jaynes says that demand for labels requiring consecutive numbering could sharply increase reliance on the device’s VDP capability.
Although Hub’s Gallus Labelfire 340 and Label Solutions’ Mark Andy Digital Series presses can be set up for in-line finishing after printing, the respective owners have not opted to do it that way. Dahbura says that in-line finishing can be challenging in jobs that print multiple SKUs on a roll. He also feels that in-line assets “add complexity to the platform” and heighten the risk of downstream mechanical problems.
At Label Solutions, off-line finishing takes place on a pair of Digicon label converting systems from ABG International: one serving the Mark Andy Digital Series hybrid, and one for another digital label press the plant operates.
Finding Its Proper Place
When the applications and the volumes are right, hybrid flexo-inkjet printing has much to recommend it as a solution for label production. Hybrids were among the first devices to bring color inkjet printing to the label industry, starting with the Agfa :Dotrix around 2005. Today there are options from a dozen suppliers.
Hybrid systems work better in some applications than in others. As Leahey observes, many label jobs simply don’t need hybridized printing on expensive, dual-process platforms. But, he also notes that hybrid printing offers efficient printing of complex, high-value print jobs, such as those requiring dozens or even hundreds of versions of the same basic image.
Leahey says the fact that Gallus, Mark Andy, Nilpeter and other flexo equipment makers have introduced hybrid systems is an important indicator of their potential.
“These companies are three of the biggest suppliers of narrow-web flexo presses to the label industry,” he says. “Each of them now has a digital print strategy as well, and for each of them, hybrid printing is a core part of that strategy.”
Still, hybrid production is not as easy a sell as it might appear to be. Dahbura says that even as he educates his customers about the advantages of a 1,200 dpi printing method that can reproduce their label designs in eight colors, some of them fret about what it will do to the printed look they are used to.
With a new process, he says, “there can be a lot of weird things you have to overcome” in order to earn buy-in from customers and in some cases internal staff. But Dahbura, the second U.S. label producer to place an order for a Gallus Labelfire 340 press, thinks that the device may not be the only investment he will ever make in hybrid flexo-inkjet printing.
At Label Solutions, Freeman and Jaynes agree that hybrid flexo-inkjet printing is a solution very much worth getting to know, even though it wasn’t originally on their wish list. That changed when they saw how fast the Mark Andy Digital Series hybrid could print and how good the quality of its printing was.
“Initially, I couldn’t get my head around the concept,” Jaynes says. “But now it’s like, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”