The label sector has embraced digital production methods far faster than other areas of the packaging business.
And growth is accelerating, not declining, according to the Tag and Labels Manufacturers Institute, which reckons that 10.2% of labels in North America were produced digitally in 2014 and predicts that this will rise to 22.7% by 2020.
This does not specify whether labels were for internal organisational purposes, produced on the spot for functional purposes, such as identifying chemicals, or labels used to market products on a supermarket shelf.
Similar surveys which point to more than half of US label printers having digital capacity should come with the caveat that this capacity may be of limited use: like a commercial printer claiming to have digital capacity with an entry level Xerox.
Growth rates across digital label presses is put at 17.5% a year. EFI reckons that the total addressable market for inkjet label presses is currently $500 million a year which with consumables become a $2.5 billion opportunity for inkjet, currently much the junior partner in terms of technology market share to electrophotographic printing.
Inkjet is less than 15% of the market, and could grow to 25% in the next five years, others estimate.
But the point remains, digital printing of labels is rising fast. “The market requirement for short run, on demand and personalised labels in full colour is growing fast,” says Duncan Ferguson, director of professional graphics at Epson. “Brands are investing more and more on on pack advertising which is driving the need for quality and flexibility from digital printing.”
Screen Europe managing director Brian Filler says inquiries for digital label presses are buoyant, likening this to the early days of CTP. “It doesn’t seem to matter which way we turn, there’s a label press inquiry. It’s a pleasure to be working in a market that’s got a bit of activity to it – unlike most of the commercial print sector. Every label printer I visit, whether in Europe, the Middle East or Africa, is very keen to move forwards and is interested in what digital printing can do for them.”
Epson is among the companies that have options at different points on the performance curve (it claims to be the only company active across the full range of labels from instore price tags using thermal inks to high end self adhesive labels) and which is among the companies that have entered the label sector with digital only machines to challenge the companies that have grown up in the market.
Following an initial, perhaps slightly sniffy, attitude towards the digital upstarts, the suppliers of conventional printing equipment have reacted. Almost all can now include fully digital presses or hybrid machines combining four-colour inkjet printing with flexo applied whites, metallics or spot colours.
At Labelexpo in Brussels at the end of September, there will be the chance to see new digital machines from the likes of Gallus, Mark Andy and Nilpeter, while digital-only machines, either electrophotographic or inkjet, will be everywhere.
Seven-colour printing covers the bases for most brand colours, and specials are available. It was no surprise that Indigos printed the labels for the Share a Coke campaign. There is also a white ink available, which because of the thin layer that the technology lays down is not as opaque as some with a single hit, but multiple hits achieve the required purpose.
“We started 20 years ago with the Omnius,” says HP Indigo labels and packaging marketing manager Marcelo Akierman. “It has taken us 10-12 years to reach critical mass. The factor that was missing, consumer behaviour, is now in place.”
In short consumers are more discerning. They look for innovation and products which appeal directly to them and their sense of self worth, all of which demands shorter production runs and a more responsive supply chain. In other words, this favours digital production.
Danone, he adds, used to have five standard flavours for yoghurt now there are 140 available through its website. The print aspect of decorating these is the tip of the iceberg compared to the complexities of management, stock control and so on that this proliferation of SKUs represents.
It means, Akierman explains, that digital is no longer used on the fringes of label production, but is core to it. All label printers need a digital option.
HP Indigo also addresses the cost issue, faced with the rise of inkjet perhaps, by enabling certain images to be printed using just three colours and eliminating the black and with it the time and cost taken for the extra colour.
Production speeds increase 33% as a result, though costs do not fall pro rata as black is the cheapest toner. “We are trying to get better and to improve within the label segment,” he says. “There is a still a lot we can do.”
This is its fastest press, running at 30m/min, with five-colour printing as standard, CMYK plus an extra colour to boost the colour gamut or white or now a silver metallic.
Two years ago Xeikon introduced ICE toner, fusing at lower temperatures to be able to print on polypropylene films, something that had been a notable gap for the Belgian supplier.
The development record underpins CEO Wim Maes’ assertion that “Xeikon is extremely focused on being part of the growth of the digital labels industry”. The company’s growth has come from the single sided machines, used for labels and for other types of packaging.
Revenues from presses are up 27% in the first half of this year compared to 2014 and overall revenues are up 25-30%. While there has been page volume growth in the publishing sector, the majority is down to label printing.
Comparing Q4 of the 2013 financial year with Q4 of 2014, Maes says that Xeikons posted a 49% increase in metres printed. “This accelerated growth is above our forecasts,” he says.
It is testament to the quality edge that toner seems to enjoy over inkjet, at least for the moment. Inkjet can have the advantage in terms of production speed, depending on the supplier of the print head technology.
Those machines with Kyocera print heads enjoy a speed advantage running at 75m/min; those with Xaar heads printing at 50m/min as a rule, though speed is dependent on choices over resolution and the number of print heads in an array.
There is the prospect of Kodak providing its Prosper inkjet heads to the label industry, indeed Toyo Kikai has announced a press with Prosper heads able to run at 150m/min and Uteco can personalise using black or spot colours over UV flexo printed labels at this sort of speed.
But linear production speed is not the issue. Digital label printing is for short runs, fast response and personalisation if required.
“At the time we were trying to convince customers that they don’t need to hold volumes of stock because we were printing digitally. Customers were worried about this at the time. Now their confidence has grown and our business has grown.
“Customers now understand where it fits a lot more in terms of fast turnarounds, the reduction in the need to hold stock and the ability to change promotions on a regular basis.”
The company has recently installed its second Screen Truepress Jet350UV inkjet label press and replaced an older Indigo with the latest WS6800. “There are advantages to both and it’s nice to be able to offer customers that level of flexibility,” he says.
The analogue press might have eight or more print stations to register and then inline foiling, die cutting and so on. It is a set up suited to long runs. Most digital label presses will run with separate offline finishing to preserve the speed of set up.
EFI offers a single or twin laser die cutting system to produce finished labels inline without the start up times and complexities of offline finishing with its Jetrion inkjet presses.
EFI is the dominant player to date in inkjet labels, by virtue of being the first and only production level press supplier for many years. With the array of companies now offering inkjet presses, it will find it hard to hang on to this dominance even with the growth rates in the industry.
A key advantage that EFI has is in supply of both the machine and the UV ink to accompany it. As with all inkjet technologies, the ink is a vital and specific part of the solution.
Most are now running with UV cured inks, which as UV has been used extensively in label printing on flexo and letterpress machines for many years, is not the leap that commercial printers moving to UV might experience.
However, an understanding of ink and its performance on different materials is crucial and the cost of ink can be significant. Durst has declared a partnership with SunJet for an ink which delivers the same pigment impact for 30% less ink and similar deals must follow.
The same combination of press and ink supplier has developed a low migration UV ink for the Durst Tau 330 press. It opens up opportunities to print on yoghurt lids, blister packs and others where contamination is a concern.
For Maidenhead printer Label-Form the quality of the ink, particularly the high opacity was a key part of the decision to buy a Durst Tau 330.
“Many customers come to us because of the colour density and white we normally offer with screen printing,” sales director Stewart Serls explains. “The colours and white produced by the Durst are absolutely fantastic, one of the main reasons why we opted for the Tau 330.”
The company has chosen the extra resolution possible with the HD version of the press and to have a front end capable of delivering variable data, a feature that its flexo, letterpress and screen printing presses cannot approach.
UV curing also provides greater flexibility of substrate. Some technologies at the lower cost end of the market can only work with certain paper materials or with substrates that are not heat sensitive. And press performance comes at a price. Not all users require this sort of speed.
The first Epson SurePress 4033, for example, operates at a relatively stately 8m/min, printing on a static section of web with a shuttle carriage much like a large format machine. The big advantage is that this system can compensate for any blocked nozzles in the next pass of the head, and that with a static substrate, quality of droplet placement can be better than with a moving web.
There are more than 150 users worldwide of this press, among them UK printers like Superfast Labels and Bristol Labels. This has been the first digital press for Bristol Labels and allows it to keep digital work in house.
Managing director Paul Stokes explains: “We will be able to do it ourselves and control it more personally. We want to remain a family business, working as a partner to our customers.”
Average order sizes have fallen, from 10,000-20,000 at a time to 3,000-5,000, from run lengths that were in the sweet spot of its Nilpeters to something that suits digital production. The company is also winning work from new customers, including some of the artisan breweries that are in the vanguard of a new style of food production.
“We have seen the growth of digital printing and believe that inkjet is the way forward. We bought a small Memjet. but this needs special media and to be laminated. Then in 2013 we launched our first website and last year we started to talk to Epson about what we needed,” he says.
“We can get jobs onto the inkjet SurePress in less than half the time it takes to prepare jobs for the analogue press, so it gives us considerable flexibility. If we had a 3,000 run job it could take an hour or more to set up on the analogue press and there would be 150 metres of waste. On the Epson this will take 15-20 minutes to produce.”
Superfast Labels has been one of the printers offering a digital outsourcing service. It has now bought its second SurePress 4033WA.
Managing director Andrew Miller says it had been outsourcing digital label printing before deciding to invest in its own press. It has changed the business. “It was difficult to control quality when we were outsourcing,” he says.
“The arguments for digital are different. We are only putting ink into the machine; there are no plates on the one hand and no fuser on the other to buy and maintenance takes 15 minutes a day.
“We can receive an order at 10.00am for a customer who needs the job delivered for 10.00am the next day. The courier will arrive to pick up the jobs at 4.15pm each afternoon and then we can turn the press off and go home at 4.30pm if we want to.”
If there were concerns about consistency across the two machines, these have been allayed. Having to specify one machine to a customer’s work would not have worked, he explains. That might not have happened with a previous generation of equipment.
Epson is now starting to push the single-pass SP6034 press. The first has been shipped to a French printer as an extended trial set up with general availability coming at Labelexpo this year. This press includes inline varnishing with LED curing able to adjust the finish on the varnish to give different reflectance values and tangible effects.
Digital printing of labels is growing up.