The Right Balance
For years, Topflight Corp.’s customers have received top-notch printing from an array of flexographic, letterpress and screen presses. But despite these varying options, the Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, printer of labels, shrink sleeves and functional packaging parts still wanted to provide its customers with the latest technology the industry had to offer.
In September and October of last year, Topflight added digital printing capabilities to its already impressive arsenal of machinery, which includes multiple Mark Andy presses, two Kammann flatbed screen presses and two Gallus printers, which are capable of printing letterpress, screen, flexo and hot stamping in-line.
“Strategically, the introduction of digital equipment was to keep up with technology and offer our customers the ability to be innovative with their own packaging by keeping up with the times,” explains Tonya Nye, Topflight’s director of operations.
But before Topflight dove headfirst into digital, Nye explains the company started small, by first installing a Primera tabletop unit. Then, once the bugs were worked out and the Primera was fully functional, Nye says Topflight took the next step.
Topflight brought in a DICE-II inkjet printer from Prototype & Production Systems to sit atop an existing press, allowing the company to offer digital printing in-line with three flexo stations. Once the DICE press was installed, Nye says Topflight again added more digital equipment, bringing in an HP Indigo WS6800.
As Topflight began to figure out how to best balance its array of conventional presses with the new digital machines, Nye says the company first had to understand the strengths of each of its new digital printers.
“Each of them kind of has their niche,” she says.
The Primera, the company found, works well with short-runs, particularly those where the expense and delay of tooling can present a problem. Nye explains that the Primera’s flying knife finishing unit can cut custom shapes without implementing any additional tooling.
The DICE is best used for multi-SKU jobs, Nye says. Instead of changing a plate to print a different barcode, she explains that this device can print variable data on the fly.
She says the HP also performs well with variable data but really shines on jobs that require a lot of color.
“It’s very good at making a beautiful illustration out of wine, makeup, whatever the case is,” Nye says. “And it does it very quickly and very efficiently from a waste perspective.”
Even though digital printing is becoming more versatile, conventional printing is still king in the packaging world. This is especially true when it comes to long-run work. At Executive Label in Margate, Florida, work is split between an HP Indigo WS6800, which recently replaced an Indigo 4600, and Webtron flexo presses, which date back to the mid-1990s.
However, company President Richard Preiser says Executive Label will be upgrading on the flexo end by adding a new Nilpeter flexo press. With these changes, Preiser says he still expects longer run jobs to be printed flexographically, but the improved technology makes the choice between digital and flexo not as cut and dried.
“The flexo presses will still be the ones for long jobs, generally over 10,000 feet, but up to that point the digital press lets us do more in less time,” says Preiser. “But we’ll still run a 1,000 foot job on a flexo press when we have to. Or run a long job on the Indigo.”
In addition to run length and speed playing a role, Nye says color can also drive the decision between digital and flexo. While she explains that the seven-color gamut on the HP Indigo can hit about 97 percent of colors, digital printing still has limitations.
“If you are mixing inks, there’s a depth of what you can get that you are not going to be able to achieve digitally,” she explains. “From a custom color perspective, that’s definitely a challenge when you are looking at existing work.”
While Nye explains that this issue can be handled by HP’s ability to mix a custom color, that’s not always a viable option.
“If you don’t have the volume from a customer to buy them a custom color each time, that may push you back to a flexo press,” she says.
To further inform the decision-making process, Topflight has developed an estimating tool that is personalized for the company’s capabilities. Nye explains that the team at Topflight can input the specifications of a job and the estimator can then provide a recommendation on how it should be run.
“Our R&D team made a template and it has all of our equipment and its capabilities,” she says. “So it will feed exactly what piece of equipment could theoretically run the label that we’re talking about and it will tell us exactly what it’s going to take from a waste and a time perspective so we’re able to pick the best option for us and for the customer.”
Though digital printing has brought in several new opportunities for Topflight, Nye explains that only 6 percent of the company’s work is printed digitally. However, 41 percent is done on the hybrid press that combines Topflight’s own manufactured machine with the DICE-II.
Nye states that while flexographic printing is fast, it’s limited when it comes to variability. This is a huge opportunity for digital, she explains, because packaging is beginning to reflect society as a whole, where there is a desire to be unique.
In the past, Nye explains that some customers would maintain their own printers to provide variable information to a run of labels that was produced externally. Now, she says this type of work can be pushed to the digital presses, which helps free up the customer’s time.
“They were using their own time and resources, whereas now we can make each label different and they don’t have to do that work in their own shops,” she says. “We can print the whole thing.”
It’s All About Efficiency
At Executive Label, Director of Operations Jason Raye explains that about one-third of the company’s work is printed on its digital press. In addition to the Indigo’s ability to handle runs with multiple SKUs better than the flexo presses, Raye states that it also produces less waste.
Raye explains that when printing labels for a barbecue sauce company, for example, different flavors of sauce may have different ingredients. Instead of going through the time and expense of changing a plate to have that different ingredient printed on a label, the digital press can take care of that in a fraction of the time and with no additional cost.
“We primarily look at efficiency when choosing which press to use,” he says. “We recommend and use whichever press is best for the job.”