In-Line Digital Finishing Shows Promise
Raw label stock in, fully printed and finished, ready-to-apply labels out: such is the promise of the all-in-one digital label and packaging production systems now coming to market. These roll-fed solutions merge variable printing and high-end embellishment into one seamless process, eliminating the touches and delays that can occur when printing on one device and doing the post-processing on a separate unit.
This is the textbook definition of in-line production, and the main advantage of bringing everything together in one operation is that it “permits you to tailor the press to fit any application and run length,” says Richard Thomas, business development manager for label and packaging solutions, Durst Image Technology U.S.
Roy Oomen, category manager for flexible packaging, HP Indigo, cites “speed, agility and cost” as the payoffs of bypassing the individual machine setups that come with printing and finishing in off-line workflows.
Filip Weymans, VP of marketing for Xeikon, places waste reduction, simplified operation, and product accuracy among the principal benefits. When all steps are carried out in one pass by machine components working in digital harmony, he says, “you know the job is going to be done right.”
How Close is ‘Near’?
The concept of fully integrated production leapfrogs an ambiguity that exists among the terms “in-line,” “off-line” and “near-line,” which are commonly used to describe the ways in which printing and finishing equipment works. “Off-line” is clear enough, referring to machines that operate apart from each other and between which printed rolls have to be moved for finishing.
This definition of “off-line” is essentially the same as how Keith Nagle, digital product manager for Nilpeter, articulates “near-line.” He says that a near-line finishing device operates “in close proximity to the press, but with a separate infeed and press controls.”
Thomas says there can be a certain amount of integration in near-line finishing, describing it as a process that contains “both elements of in-line and off-line options. The finishing device is not directly connected to the printer, but there is still some degree of communication between the devices.”
“In-line” overrides the distinction by closing the gaps and daisy-chaining the printing and finishing functions. It means, says Thomas, that the finishing components are “linked directly to the press engine, and setups require little or no manual intervention. All aspects of the process are streamlined and automated.”
Putting it a bit more simply, Oomen notes that with in-line production, “you’re not winding up rolls on press.” Rewind doesn’t happen until after the labels have also received their foiling, opaque white ink, die stamping and any other embellishments their design calls for.
Keeping the Good Count Good
That makes for major gains in both product quality and manufacturing efficiency, according to Nagle. He says that apart from the fact that integrating the steps keeps work in progress from piling up on the floor while it awaits post-processing, “with full in-line production, you reduce your scrap and run overages, as it is not necessary to run extra to bring your near-line decorating and finishing into registration.”
He explains that registration problems can occur in near-line finishing when the repeat sizes of printed images “drift” or change, as they sometimes do in digital printing; or because of stretch arising from variations in roll tension. This can lead to spoilage, “causing you to cut into your good production count and forcing you back to press to make up the count.” Integrated production is the key to making the good count in one pass and one pass only, Nagle says.
Each of the four press manufacturers, on its own or in partnership with other suppliers, has developed a solution for printing and finishing labels, shrink sleeves and other packaging-related products with complete in-line integration. In some cases, the printing engine and the finishing modules can also be operated independently in near-line mode — an option that the manufacturers say can often be the best method for certain types of jobs.
Xeikon Fusion Technology
Xeikon’s entry, Fusion Technology, consists of a Xeikon dry-toner, five-color, 1,200-dpi electrophotographic press linked to digital modules for hot and cold foiling, high-opacity white ink, and matte, gloss, and structured varnishing in flood and spot applications. The modules can be positioned before or after the print engine, and each is controlled by a dedicated “layer” of software for its special effect within the PDF-based job file.
Because everything is digital, says Weymans, everything on the label can be personalized: the embellishments as well as the printing. Fusion Technology, presented at recent trade shows and currently in beta testing at a customer site in Belgium, prints a 13˝ or a 20˝ web at speeds up to 98 fpm.
Durst/OMET Hybrid System
At the recent interpack 2017 event in Germany, Durst showcased its collaboration with flexographic press manufacturer Omet, the Durst Tau 330/Omet XFlex X6 hybrid system for one-pass label and specialty packaging production. The heart of the solution is an integrated in-line inkjet unit in which the inkjet, flexo and converting stations are controlled from the same console.
The Durst Tau 330 is a narrow-web (13˝) digital UV inkjet press that prints in seven colors at up to 157 fpm. Options for finishing what it prints in the hybrid system include varnishing, cold foil, lamination, diecutting, slitting and rewinding.
Nilpeter recently announced major hardware and software upgrades to its Panorama product, a highly configurable digital production line that it brought to market two years ago.
Nagle says that the Panorama DP-3 system can run white plus CMYK on most traditional label and packaging materials at 164 fpm. Web width is 13.7˝. It has flexo printing units, and its in-line finishing capabilities include back printing, spot colors, multiple coatings, hot and cold foiling, embossing, lamination and diecutting.
Panorama can be operated either as a standalone DP-3 digital UV inkjet press or combined with finishing and converting stations. Nagle says that the latest version is fully hybridized and that when it is shown at Labelexpo Europe in Brussels in September, showgoers will see a “DP-3 in the middle of a flexo press.”
HP Digital Combination Press
HP and ABG International have had good luck with an offering that pairs an HP Indigo WS6800 press with ABG’s Omega Digicon 3 digital finishing system for diecutting, hot foiling, embossing, laminating, varnishing and screen printing. The press can print a 13.39˝ web at up to 98 fpm in four colors (six-and seven-color printing and specialty inks also are available). The finishing unit matches the press in web width and keeps pace with it in production speed.
Besides running in-line, the combination can also be used in “dual mode” — a cross between in-line and off-line in which the printing and finishing units stay connected but function independently in roll-to-roll fashion. This comes in handy when there are a lot of changes, such as diecutting adjustments, to accommodate. In such cases, says Oomen, printing roll-to-roll and then finishing roll-to-roll can be more efficient than one-pass production.
HP calls its venture in hybrid printing and finishing the Digital Combination Press concept, applicable both to the Indigo WS6800 and to the faster Indigo 8000. It expects to commercially launch the next iteration of Digital Combination Press technology next year, having previewed it at a number of trade shows beginning with drupa 2016.
Oomen says that the new Digital Combination Press, created with the help of UV inkjet developer JetFX, will use a specialized inkjet technology to add varnish, foil and other embellishments with full variability at speeds up to 240 fpm. HP’s SmartStream software controls the workflow, and an HP SmartStream Mosaic plug-in acts as the tool for generating unique patterns within the layers of finishing.
Enter the ‘HOV Lane’
These in-line systems are so new that any statement about how they will fare in the marketplace would be pure speculation. Some of them do not even have an installed base of equipment to draw preliminary conclusions from.
But, given digital printing’s acceptance as a method for printing labels and other packaging-related items in short, variable runs, it’s fair to assume that printers will also be open to integrated digital solutions that bring the same kind of efficiency and creative possibility to finishing.
“Drastically changed,” according to Oomen, is the notion that if something is printed digitally, its finishing will necessarily take place off-line. What printers and converters are beginning to see, he says, is that in-line integrated finishing has the potential to become, “the HOV lane for digital printing.”