Digital Print Market Update
SKU proliferation and customization have accelerated the rate of digital print adoption.
Colordyne displays the inner workings of its digital technology.
Victor Gomez (L) and Mike Pruitt tout Epson’s newest digital presses.
Neil and Ben Waldrop with their new hybrid press.
Durst showcased its newest digital inkjet label printing options at Labelexpo Americas, as several Tau units were on display for visitors.
Digital Pro MAX
Digital printing is no longer a nice-to-have technology. In today’s label printing climate, meeting demand for smaller and more frequent orders is a necessity, which is perfectly suited for digital printing. Digital is capable of short, medium and long runs, and most converters today have some sort of digital capability.
“Digital printing has become an essential tool for every converter in today’s narrow web market, and it continues to change the way converters think about their production,” says Michelle Garza, VP of operations, Dantex USA. “It has given them the confidence and ability to explore new markets and opportunities while maintaining a competitive business model with high efficiencies.”
The necessity of digital has not gotten lost on converters, either, as the numbers show strong growth. “We have seen digital label printing take more of a foothold in mainstream label production,” states Steve Lynn, director and GM, new markets, Durst North America. “As the quality of inkjet label production has improved with 1200 dpi inkjet and speeds that can now rival traditional flexo label production, we see more label converters consider inkjet printers like the Durst RSC range as an alternative to flexo for medium and long run production.”
As brands have evolved, so too has the need for digital label printing. There is no longer just one version of a product. In many cases, food brands, for example, will have tens of flavors and packaging requirements.
“With the proliferation of SKUs that has evolved, the shift has highlighted the benefits of digital printing. But, in addition, brand owners want what digital printing provides such as color consistency and repeatability from label to label, personalization and variable data printing, shorter lead times and quicker turn-around times/just-in-time delivery, reduced inventory,” remarks Bill Myers, marketing manager, Domino Digital Printing North America. “Regarding technology, certainly 1200 dpi is gaining attention. That being said, the best-fit technology really depends on a label converter’s book of business and the markets they serve.”
To illustrate the importance and growth of digital printing, all presses on demonstration at Labelexpo Americas 2022, which was held for the first time in four years, were digital. Numerous exhibitors used the event to launch their new digital assets, from the HP Indigo V12 to the Epson SurePress L-6534VW.
“Printing up to two million square feet per month is achievable with presses costing well under $1 million dollars. And we saw that much of the focus at Labelexpo Americas 2022 was on digital,” notes Mike Pruitt, senior product manager, Epson America. “Companies from all areas of the market are interested in investing in digital technology, and technology in general that can help to drive their businesses forward.”
According to the TLMI Market Watch report, with data compiled by LPC, Inc., capital expenditures among label converters have remained strong in 2022. While one in four TLMI converters indicated that their companies will have purchased a conventional press in 2022, 2023 is expected to be a significant year for digital press purchases.
“While we foresee conventional press sales outpacing digital press sales in 2022, the TLMI data shows us that we can expect next year to paint a very different story,” explains Jennifer Dochstader, managing director, LPC, Inc. “One in five converters indicated that they will be buying a digital press in 2023 while less than 10% of companies indicated that they planned to purchase a conventional press next year. We predict that from 2023-2025 we will once again see digital press sales outpacing conventional press sales by a wide margin.”
While digital printing was once utilized for only the shortest of runs that were not economical for producing flexo plates, modern digital presses are far more versatile.
“We continue to see the adoption of digital grow, and it’s not just a solution for short runs anymore,” explains Taylor Buckthorpe, director of sales and marketing, Colordyne Technologies. “With lower consumable costs and the options for single-pass hybrid printing, converters can now optimize their medium and long run business. This allows for more flexible and cost-effective narrow web production. We see continued interest in digital in the narrow web label and packaging space, as the technology has improved greatly over the last 10 years. More and more companies now recognize they need this type of production technology in their portfolio.”
The interest extends beyond digital printing, too. Manufacturers have responded to customer demand with a wide range of hybrid solutions to satisfy the need for quality, speed and efficiency.
“Mark Andy has seen more and more customers interested in hybrid digital printing,” remarks Dave Medlar, vice president of Mark Andy’s Digital Business Unit. “The feedback we get from label printers is that they need a combination of digital, flexo and converting features in one fully integrated press so that they can produce the label in the most cost-effective, most productive manner possible.”
Digital printing is also well suited for sustainability. “The latest digital presses are designed to waste little substrate, are easy to use, support unattended operation during production, and have added value functions like digital embellishment capabilities,” says Pruitt. “All-in-one digital printing solutions that can deliver digital varnish labels cost-effectively are suitable for brand owners considering cost, quality and flexible run lengths. The technology available today allows converters and commercial printers to bring an added value solution to their customers.”
“With digital printing – and specifically hybrid digital printing – you are going to see a reduction in material waste during the label run,” adds Medlar. “With the material supply chain challenges of the last few years, reducing material waste and optimizing productivity are obviously very important.”
Even though the adoption of digital printing has grown substantially, the technology still works in tandem with flexo – and will continue to do so. “Digital printing is a very important part of our industry. Ideally every label converter needs to be able to have the proper printing options available to them so that they can produce each job efficiently,” explains Medlar. “This means a converter should have both flexo and digital printing presses in their production facility so they can optimize their workflow.”
Supply and (digital) demand
The ongoing supply chain challenges are intertwined with the digital printing market. Converters have long prioritized creating value for their clients and themselves. With a lack of available media and supplies, printing on-demand has become more advantageous than ever.
“With converters and PSPs having issues getting substrates and ink, it’s important to be able to use materials on-hand and get the greatest value from the resources available,” says Epson’s Pruitt. “Digital solutions that can print on almost all flexo substrates without a primer, as well as on unsupported films, such as candy wrappers, shrink, IML, and coffee/cosmetic web, are ideal for those looking to get the most out of raw material. Digital is the answer to the shorter run, to more frequent orders with faster turnaround times, and to the larger variety of print applications.”
In a recent video from Domino, numerous industry experts shared their thoughts on the advantages of going digital, especially when dealing with supply chain challenges. Kirit Naik, director, digital printing technologies, global, UPM Raflatac, says, “If you think that we should be in a digital printing business, if you are a conventional printer and you think that you should be printing digitally, you are already late. Digital printing allows you to print only what you need. It helps you minimize the inventory and waste that you generate from conventional printing. So, when you have a supply chain crisis, digital printing becomes more of the choice than conventional printing.”
Paul Lender, business development manager, digital materials, Avery Dennison Label and Packaging Materials, says, “Digital print allows for much more efficient use of material. The jobs can be loaded quicker and you don’t have to worry about registration. And color matching happens very quickly. So, you can use limited material to maximize the label output.”
The rise of digital printing started long before the most recent industrial challenges. In fact, the last economic crisis put a premium on short runs and quick turnarounds.
“Ever since the financial crisis of 2009, the shift toward digital inkjet took on new momentum,” explains Dantex’s Garza. “Following the pandemic, on-demand, fast turnaround manufacturing has become even more important. And now with supply chain challenges, the polyvalent nature of digital print has become critical to the narrow web industry. Digital gives the converter the ability to adapt to these new challenges.”
Century Printing & Packaging goes digital with Mark Andy, Domino
Century Printing & Packaging (CP&P), a family-owned label converting company located in Greer, SC, USA, has invested in one of the newly launched Mark Andy Digital Series iQ digital hybrid presses. The Digital Series iQ combines the servo platform and technology from Mark Andy’s Evolution Series with the Domino N610i UV inkjet engine.
The press is targeted at the middle section of the label market, where it offers a blend of speed, print quality and cost-effectiveness.
Established by Neil, Ben, and Don Waldrop in 1997, CP&P started with a Comco Cadet producing 2- and 3-color flexo work. Don and Ben were originally in a textile related business together, and Neil joined after working at the PrintCon Center at Clemson University. From these humble beginnings, CP&P has grown into a leading converter of quality labels for a range of markets, including newspapers, nutraceuticals, chemicals, and the food and beverage sectors.
From a staff of eight in 2001 the company has grown to employ 26 and now has five Mark Andy flexo presses: three 10" 2200 models and a 13" Performance Series P5, in addition to the new Digital Series IQ. All the flexo presses are 8-color and use water-based technology with UV on the last station for lacquer. “We prefer to work with water-based inks because of the labels we produce for the food industry – and our products are now supplied to 34 states in the US, as well as exported to Canada and Australia,” Neil explains.
The new Digital Series iQ is CP&P’s second Mark Andy digital press, with the company having installed a Digital One toner-based line back in 2019. The Digital Series iQ can be configured with up to seven UV inkjet colors (CMYKOV+WW) and converting components integrated to meet each customer’s specific requirements. Print stations, semi-rotary vertical diecutting, cold foil, and inline slitting are common options.
The CP&P press has 4-color digital capability with three flexo units and Mark Andy’s award-winning QCDC diecutting unit. It has a production speed up to 230 fpm (70 m/m) in high-speed mode and 164 fpm (50 m/m) in high-quality mode, while print resolution is 600 x 600 dpi across its 13" (330mm) web.
According to Neil, one of the company’s assets has always been an open-minded approach. “We had no previous print industry experience to draw on so had no pre-conceived ideas. We just kept investing in the latest and best technology we could afford, and the Digital One and Digital Series iQ are the latest examples of that.”
Speaking for Mark Andy, John Baer, sales manager, explains the logic behind CP&P’s investment in the Digital Series iQ. “Basically, we focused their attention on the cost to print/job estimation data that we had on file and made available to them. In simple terms, we took their book of business from the previous year and compared all the jobs they ran on their flexo presses with the same jobs costed on a Digital Series iQ. Long story short, running most of the jobs on the Digital Series iQ proved to be more profitable than traditional flexo – even on a Mark Andy flexo press.”
The decision to consider digital capability was based on CP&P’s assessment of a market that was showing clear signs of a shift in demand. Shorter run lengths, JIT delivery, faster turnarounds, consistent quality, and more added value were among the pressures the company was feeling from its customer base, which is diverse in both size and number. “We invested in the Mark Andy Digital Series iQ press to give us a more competitive space where digital printing is becoming a requirement. It allows us to combine our flexo knowledge with the new technology of inkjet to get vibrant colors with UV inks that provide a high level of consistency and durability,” says Neil.
While the Digital One offered a single-pass inline process, the Digital Series iQ takes that a few stages further, and CP&P views the hybrid concept as the most cost-effective way forward in a market where a mix of flexo and digital print will continue to be in high demand. The new press offers a wider range of substrate capabilities and the possibility of grouping jobs together, whether short or long, to give more scheduling flexibility. This has been a key part of CP&P’s strategy to deal with the supply chain challenges facing converters.
“We have made a significant investment in this press to position ourselves for growth and to meet customer expectations with the highest technology available in the industry. After four weeks of setup and tremendous support from Mark Andy’s technical team, our press operators were very comfortable with the new technology. In addition, our production and prepress departments have made it a seamless effort to deliver consistent quality and results for our customers,” Neil adds.
So, you’ve decided to invest in your first digital asset. There are a number of considerations to keep in mind, including the type of digital – inkjet or toner – tabletop or full production press, retrofits and more.
First and foremost, converters need to find the right partner for their digital journey. “There are a lot of digital presses in the marketplace,” explains Domino’s Myers. “Yes, the capabilities of the press are important, but what’s important for converters to know extends beyond the machine. Choose a company that you trust, one that is a trusted brand. Choose a company that is there for you, not just to be a vendor but to be your business partner, to help you win and make more money. Choose a company that has the financial resources and backing of a global organization but provides local service and support. Choose a company that provides choice of press configuration, such as roll-to-roll standalone, roll-to-inline/nearline or hybrid, and works with a wide variety of OEM partners.”
Converters should then analyze which digital asset makes the most sense for their business. Their target markets and desired quality can impact which press best meets those needs.
“Print quality and feature sets should be top-of-mind considerations when evaluating and investing in digital label presses,” remarks Epson’s Pruitt. “Also, I think it’s important to look at the stability of the manufacturer, press automation capabilities, the variety of standard flexo substrates supported by the press, and the service network. In addition to ensuring the technology is suitable, businesses also want to know that they are making the right choice with whom they are partnering.
“Some of the considerations we see often are centered around reliability, color consistency and automation functionality to balance human resources,” adds Pruitt. “Printers and converters want to know that a press can deliver when it comes to color gamut, accurate spot colors and gradients required for brand-quality color prime labels and packaging.”
While these presses are quite effective for short run, converters’ goals should be long term. A digital press must satisfy a business owner’s needs today, as well as into the future.
“Look for a solution that will not only address today’s requirements but also carry you into new markets in the following years,” says Dantex’s Garza. “The functionality and ability to upgrade as the years go on will be critical to achieving longevity in the investment. Also, look for a manufacturer that integrates and supports the entire press from unwind to rewind. You don’t want to deal with multiple companies when dealing with issues.”
There are other considerations, too, adds Garza. “Today’s digital presses now have the print speeds, tight registration, quick changeovers, and consistent color,” she says. “These points alone have moved the cross-over points where flexo and digital meet. Make-ready time and plate costs are not the only considerations when justifying run lengths for digital while considering the number of copy changes and the time the press is down. Registration, color management, in addition to inline finishing on your digital press, enhances the efficiencies of doing longer print runs for digital.”
Converters must also verify that the advertised advantages are accurate for their production needs. “There are a lot of options now for converters considering digital, and some of the available options are very new and not yet proven in a production environment. It is important to ensure that published speeds are real and that standard materials can run without additional steps like priming or the need for digital-only material,” explains Durst’s Lynn. “Ensure any potential digital partner is able to show their digital options running at full speed with the required level of quality required to convert from existing print technologies. Converters should also look beyond the equipment and ensure that ink, service and workflow/software support are readily available from a well-experienced digital supplier.”
Domino has also simplified the process of getting into digital printing. By offering an in-house leasing program, converters are not required to make a large cash outlay. There are no personal guarantees required and no banks or third-party leasing companies involved. Plus, this service includes a Ramp-Up Program with deferred payments.
“We offer a bundled package with service, maintenance, training, printheads, and Digital Solutions programs,” adds Myers. “Not having a large cash outlay allows the converter to use that money for other areas of their business.”
There are also several common misperceptions with digital printing that need to be dispelled. “The short-run misconception is a big one,” says Colordyne’s Buckthorpe. “I have customers shutting off traditional analog production and switching to a 100% digital workflow. It’s all about total cost of production and if the technology fits the application. If you can get those two things correct, digital can dominate.”
“We are now seeing heavy adoption of digital printing,” adds Lynn. “Digital used to be limited to short run and variable data because of speed limitations and higher consumable costs. Now that speeds can rival traditional flexo with shorter setup times, reduced material waste, reduced operating costs on consumables and easy operation, it is possible to consider digital for levels of production. This is very attractive to the label and narrow web market, which is faced with material supply and staffing challenges.”
Digital printing technology has improved by leaps and bounds over the past decade. The digital presses of the future will be marked by continued innovation – with an emphasis on automation.
“Automation will be front and center,” comments Epson’s Pruitt. “Converters can reduce operator and shop burden by using modern label presses that leverage robotics to provide automation capabilities. Automation can help save time and reduce waste, and digital label presses should use robotics to provide precise control of mechanical and electronic components to ensure consistent and reliable operation. From calibrating more quickly and allowing for greater stability, automation can equate to less waste and increased available operator time, allowing shops to focus on efficiency and productivity, maximizing revenue per label.”
Digital printing has also proved advantageous for numerous applications, from flexible packaging to shrink sleeves. As the quality and speed grows, so too will adoption.
“We expect digital label printing will continue to grow and become the standard technology for label production,” says Durst’s Lynn. “In a relatively short period of time, we have seen the technology improve in terms of speed, quality and cost to a point where it can now rival flexo. As we continue to develop inkjet options for applications like shrink and IML, we will see more and more converters convert to high-speed digital.”
“I expect our industry to grow, become more efficient and more environmentally friendly,” adds Mark Andy’s Medlar. “Over time, every label converter will have some digital printing machines in their facility. We are very excited to be a part of this growth.”
Mark Andy unleashes Digital Pro MAX
Mark Andy was proud to present – for the first time at a global exhibition, Labelexpo Americas – its newest toner-based solution: Digital Pro MAX. The press is a result of the company’s long-term experience in digital and feedback from users of the company’s Digital Pro 3 model.
“We have listened to converters about their expectations: faster throughput, lower cost to print, white toner application, and flexibility to modify and upgrade the system as needs change,” the company says. “Digital Pro MAX, offering a speed up to 160 fpm, ties all these things together in one, integrated, future-proof, and fully upgradeable machine. The converter can start with a roll-to-roll version and then – as the need grows to include flexo spot color printing – can add up to three flexo stations in any combination before or after the digital engine.”
If inline embellishment is needed, cold foil and lamination stations can be added at any time to the new press. If there are customers that need printing on the back of the liner, the press can be equipped with a turn bar at any time, as well as upgraded with Mark Andy’s advanced semi-rotary vertical diecut unit. Adding white toner enables the application of transparent and metalized substrates without the need for a flexo station. Moreover, printers can start with Mark Andy’s Digital Pro3 and move up to the Digital Pro MAX as their needs expand.
“Our new press brings completely new opportunities in short-run label production,” the company adds. “It offers reduced waste and lower consumable costs, as well as extended work cycles, resulting in higher savings and improved overall efficiency.
“We have noticed a great deal of interest in this solution during Labelexpo, which convinced us that this is the right path to our customers’ expectations and needs.”