Reducing run lengths, tighter batch control and personalized marketing are all combining to make digital technology a viable option. Having already adopted it at the front end, converters are now ready to get seriously stuck into the heavy metal, reports Archie McKendrick
The global market for printed packaging material is currently estimated to be worth around €330M, the bulk of which is produced on conventional flexo, gravure and offset presses. Having first elbowed its way into contention some 14 years ago, digital’s market share is still less than one per cent. How come then, we should be assessing it as anything other than an interesting alternative process for just the one-off specialist or quirky application that otherwise wouldn’t be commercially viable to produce?
Digital’s founding father, Benny Landa, the ex ceo of Indigo, once famously remarked that: “everything that can become digital, will become digital – and printing is no exception”. What might have sounded to be a rather fanciful clarion call in 1993 has subsequently morphed into a self evident fact of everyday life. Whilst revolutions are invariably announced with a bang, their repercussions travel at the more measured pace of ripples across a pond.
Analogue processes still undoubtedly command the market, but digital is where most of the investment is going – and into two sectarian camps: toner and liquid ink on the one side, and inkjet on the other.
Whilst digital technology in overall terms has had well over a decade in which to improve and mature, the more rapid development has been within the end user market. Time to market logistics plus the need to implement cost efficiencies across the overall supply chain have resulted in shorter lead times and lower run lengths. Within a highly competitive retail driven economy, the critical issue is the length of time it takes to reflect a change in circumstances on the shelf. Tesco expects delivery within 24 hours of receipt of order, arguably for the same product, but not necessarily displaying the same message every time.
Within that context, superior nameplate equipment running speed offered by conventional process technology loses relevance, whereas the capability to change direction on the fly and at no cost begins to stack up as an irresistible proposition.
I can’t believe it’s not offset
With the notable exception of signage and POP display – where inkjet has all but kicked the long established screen process into touch – it’s the toner based technologies from Xerox and Xeikon, and more prominently HP Indigo’s ‘digital offset’ liquid ink solution that have made most of the running.
The principal designated battleground has hitherto been selfadhesive labelling: initially for the simple reason of web width fit, but latterly due to demand for shorter and increasingly often customized run lengths.
According to market statistics published by HP Indigo, around 7.5B labels will be printed digitally this year. Within the next three years, digital technology will account for 20 per cent of the global installed machinery base of narrow web presses serving the sector, outputting in excess of 15B labels/year.
With print quality comparison issues in relation to conventional processes no longer a discussion point, the adoption of digital for labelling rests squarely on the fact that two-thirds of all jobs fall below 2,000 linear metres (about 50,000 off).
Whilst realising obvious benefits in terms of virtually zero prepress and downtime for job change-over, where digital cannot compete however is on speed of production: arguably, the last outstanding halter on wide scale adoption.
Running at 32ft/min at 600dpi, the recently launched Xeikon 5000plus is probably the fastest narrow web digital press now on the market – but, nonetheless, it lags way behind say the servo driven Gallus RCS 330 providing a combination of offset, UV flexo, UV gravure, screen and hot foil, and outputting at more like 160m/min.
But if the volumes are not necessarily falling but rather becoming spread more thinly, how much does speed actually count? The jury is still out on this. Yes it does, says Amberley Adhesive Labels technical director Richard Geller: “If they could double the press speed, then I think there would be a lot more flexo jobs coming into the digital area, even though run lengths are coming down”.
Not necessarily, says Labelsco operations director Paul Larkin: “Running speed is irrelevant – what it really comes down to is, is it more competitive than what you’re already doing conventionally? In certain areas, digital will easily succeed where flexo can be a nightmare: for example, a job that’s four or six colour process and has fine white out reversals all over the place.
“With flexo you’ve got a print cylinder, you’ve got a mother shaft, you’ve got a gear, you’ve got a cushion mount which you have to put around a cylinder – and then you have to stick a photopolymer plate to that mount. Every single one of those is a variable, and if you put that into a machine times six and try and get dead register six colour process with fine white out you’re going to struggle and it’s going to be very demanding. With the digital, the plate fit is assured – like litho – therefore, it’s a quality benefit in that area.”
Correspondingly, Richard Geller agrees that digital has filled a space left vacant by the habitually fiddly intricacies of flexo prepress. “Initially, flexo can be expensive to set up. You could be talking about a £250K investment in high end platesetter systems, whereas with digital that would very nearly pay for a press. So unless you’re going to be doing really, really long runs why would you invest in flexo?”
In line with narrow web sector trends, both HP Indigo and Xeikon are extending their remit into the flexible packaging applications and folding carton markets, respectively, through recently introduced equipment with increased capability.
With an installed customer base across Europe of around 175 units mostly achieved by its ws4050 press, HP Indigo’s next generation ws4500 is expected to add a further 80 units in full production within the next 12 months and, says EMEA sales manager Tim Carter, “will enable existing ws4050 users to upgrade as they will then achieve 99 per cent of the ws4500 functionality”.
Key features of the ws4500 include the extension into seven colours (the new addition is green) to realise over 90 per cent of the Pantone gamut, and a new splicing table that can save 10 minutes per substrate change. Inks for new jobs can now be replaced without disrupting existing production, and as a result of a partnering arrangement with Esko the addition of Scope workflow support has the capability to reduce colour matching time by as much as 50 per cent.
Purchase price including front end workflow and customized DigiCon finishing system from AB Graphic is around €650,000. Upgrades are also to be made available to existing ws4050 users at a cost of just €25,000.
Much of the ws4500 development work has been done in conjunction with HPI customers, notably Eshuis, in The Netherlands, who having acted as the initial alpha test site was the first European converter to go into full production. According to md Peter Overbeek: “This machine will produce 1.5M impressions/month and can manage over 10 different jobs per shift, with the new software making it easier to switch jobs between digital and conventional when necessary”.
Xeikon’s new 5000plus incorporates single pass duplex outputting technology and advanced form adapted (FA) toner to handle variable substrate widths between the 320-500mm band with virtually no restriction in sheet length.
At an installed cost of around €550,000, the 5000plus has an average running speed of 32ft/min at 600dpi and will handle a wide range of coated and uncoated papers, board, synthetic media and labelstock from 40 to 350g/m2. It also incorporates an easily swappable fifth colour station and is equipped with Xeikon’s modular X-800 digital front end technology, facilitating the simultaneous set-up, RIPing and outputting of PostScript, PDF and PPML/VDX files, as well as future JDF based digital printing job tickets.
It is often said that the key to successful utilization of digital print technology is within the finishing line. AB Graphic – a long time HP Indigo preferred partner – recently introduced an adaptation of its existing Digicon system to support the ws4500 press specifically for pharmaceutical label applications.
Designed for converting, slitting and rewinding of labels up to 330mm, the Digipharma line is integrated with the fleyeVision system, which enables 100 per cent print face inspection capabilities. When a flaw is detected, the machine slows down and the web stops with the defective image in a predefined position; the web is then gathered back into the festoon system, where the error is positioned upon the inspection table for rectification. Any further errors occurring in this production phase are stored in a memory back-up.
A full range of options includes hot foil stamping, varnishing, die cutting, and slitting and rewinding capabilities, plus an optional UV flexo print station facilitating varnishing, wet laminating or cold foiling.
The next big thing
Neither constrained to narrow web, nor subject to a maximum substrate grammage – nor even necessarily to performing as a standalone unit – inkjet technology integrated within a multi process production press is likely to represent the next critical stage of digital print’s forward progression. This is largely due to its ability to formulate different inks for a much wider range of substrates than toner based and liquid ink systems.
Running speed is the other significant point of difference compared with the toner solution. Although 0.5m/s is currently the norm, the strong likelihood is that will at least triple to around 1.5m/s within the next two to three years.
Agfa’s Dotrix solution has already taken the hybrid route, initially, but not altogether successfully, by providing a digital station within a Mark Andy press (the only European taker for that option being the Scandinavian labelling producer Stralfors); and more recently, reversing the strategy by incorporating a flexo station within its reconfigured modular system. Mondi Packaging Flexibles is the most recent high profile adopter, with a system now in place at its Vienna based R&D centre.
Corrugated board applications, however, look most likely to provide inkjet with its best potential point of entry into the converting sector. Leading the pack is the Sun Chemical/Inca Digital joint collaboration on the FastJet system: a single pass digital flatbed printer with running speeds in excess of 4,000m2/hour in four colour process using UV curable pigmented inks. It can handle substrates of up to 10mm thickness board with a print width of 520mm at 300dpi.
“There’s a flexo part of that business where a fairly crude print quality is acceptable to the market,” says Inca marketing director Heather Kendle. “It doesn’t have to be top end; we’re not trying to match the litho laminate business.
“It’s clearly not just as a short run solution, and we potentially see a good market in cartonboard, but we need to look at what are the commercial pressures in that sector: whether there’s the same production in run lengths and if there’s a requirement for personalization.”
Cambridge based printhead developer Xaar has recently extended into a purpose built £9M manufacturing facility to support anticipated demand for its next generation hybrid side-shooter (HSS 1001) technology, which has already attracted OEM interest in Europe and North America.
The HSS platform combines advanced piezoelectric, drop on demand inkjet technology with Xaar’s patented ‘through flow’ system to provide jetting reliability and enable self recovery through re-circulated inks. It also features a patented multi pulse greyscale technology.
The HSS 1001 also has the potential to revolutionize the coating industry, for which digital varnishing has not to date been considered feasible due to a perceived shortfall print quality and reliability, says Jamie Koehler head of NPD at initial adopter Montreal based PAT Technology Systems. “Our coaters perform flood, spot coating, textures, variable gloss levels with a single fluid, and special effects without the need for plates. This is bringing coating into the digital age.”
PAT’s confidence in the technology was recently underlined when its Varstar sheet-fed digital UV coater finishing system – incorporating the HSS 1001 platform – won the ‘Best of Show’ award at the On Demand Conference and Expo in Boston, this April.
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