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Flexo labels on demand

A US printer and his customers share their experience of fulfilling the promise of ‘true’ just-in-time labels at less cost

“Like many manufacturers, we need our labels yesterday,” says Toni Derby, director of operations for Cigar City Brewing, a Tampa, Florida-based craft beer brewery. “Labels can be pushed to the last minute for many reasons, including the occasional communication breakdown about when they are needed; or I’ll find out a beer will be ready sooner than I expected; or we are waiting for approvals from the FDA before we can even print the label, and that can push the ordering to the last minute.”

To accommodate quick turnaround or JIT orders, label printers have primarily employed two techniques: preprinting and stocking large quantities and/or investing in expensive print-on-demand (POD) equipment that can handle rush, low volume jobs.

Unfortunately, both techniques – though an adequate solution at times – have drawbacks. Preprinted labels can be rendered obsolete due to design changes, unnoticed errors, and evolving regulations. With each manufacturer potentially having tens, even hundreds, of different designs, label printers are less eager to maintain the variety and volume required in stock, particularly with the potential for product loss.

Print-on-demand label presses, on the other hand, provide true same day printing of low volume jobs. These full-colour digital print systems offer greater flexibility than conventional presses in job setup and changeover times. However, manufacturers pay significantly more for this type of printing than for non-rush jobs run on traditional label printing equipment.

“Although POD label presses are popular for short, quick runs, they’re limited to about 2,000 labels per order and typically cost up to 30% more than flexo printing,” says Steve Sabadosh, president of L&N Label Co, a Clearwater, Florida-based printer of industrial pressure-sensitive (PS) labels that invested in POD equipment to complement its four flexo presses.

Fortunately, however, workflow efficiencies and advances in prepress technology in the flexo process – the primary method of printing PS labels in North America and Europe – is moving toward what Sabadosh calls “flexo-on-demand”.

“As flexo becomes ‘flexo labels on demand’, manufacturers are able to get quality, same-day, mid-sized production runs of 50,000 to 100,000 labels at less cost than print-on-demand,” he says. He adds that because of the quick changeover, changes to labels, prototypes or even short runs can also be accommodated.

Although the flexo process has been popular for decades due to its relatively low cost, production speeds and quality, traditionally it has relied on the timeconsuming computer to film (CTF) platemaking process. Today, the next generation of flexo prepress equipment eliminates the film step entirely to go directly from computer-to-plate (CTP). Besides dramatically speeding changeover time, the elimination of film also improves the quality of the final product.

US printers such as L&N Label are already putting their next generation flexo prepress equipment to good use. The company purchased an Esko Cyrel digital flexo plate imager (CDI) last year, and says customers are noticing how it expedites turnaround at higher volumes when quick turnaround is needed.

Cigar City Brewing purchases 30-35 different labels from L&N Label and introduces a new design approximately once a month. “L&N can rush us up to 100,000 labels when we need them to keep production going and avoid downtime,” says director of operations Toni Derby. “That’s particularly important when we run short on stock or have to ramp up production after getting an FDA approval.”

He adds: “Just recently, we needed a rush job. I was able to get the labels I needed in a tight time-frame and we were able to label our beer and ship it without any downtime.”

Stuart Shepherd, a plant manager for Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer, had a similar experience with L&N Label. He says that when it comes to a new label design he doesn’t bother to ask certain printers because “it will take three to four days just to get back the proof. With the flexo labels on demand process, I can get a high quality label quickly at the right price.”

Steve Sabadosh concludes: “For manufacturers who have needed help responding to JIT demands, supply line/production line disruptions, and tight margins in a weak economy, flexo on demand may be just what the doctor ordered”.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and may not be shared by this publication.


Print-on-demand

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