Digital printing makes inroads

Label Printing Goes Digital

In the wide-format world of signage and commercial graphics, very little attention is generally paid to the specialty of narrow-format label printing. The fact is that printing for the label market is a world unto itself. However, the label printing industry is undergoing a similar upheaval as that which has been occurring within the wide-format world. Digital printing methods are improving rapidly and are being integrated with and, in some cases, usurping traditional label printing techniques. 

The market for label printing is heating up as digital printing technologies improve. High-end prototype labels like this example can be easily created using printer/cutters such as Roland’s VersaUV-LEC-330.

What was once the exclusive domain of traditional offset, flexo, litho and screen printing is now tilting toward digital production. Flexo print houses now face a true technological shift in digital printing that promises to dramatically impact their business. Once viewed as a clumsy and slow process by comparison, digital printing has now infiltrated every segment of the label printing industry. Case in point: the 2010 Label Expo show, held last fall in Brussels, Germany—one of the largest events of its kind, with more than 24,000 visitors—included an entire exhibition hall devoted exclusively to digital systems and equipment. It was reportedly the high-energy focus of the entire event.

SAMPLE AND PROTOTYPE LABELS

Almost any wide-format inkjet printer can be employed to create samples of proposed label concepts. Once the printer has been calibrated to the production printer, accurate proofs can be made. But, for creating real-world label samples (and to fulfill short-run jobs) the image should be printed onto adhesive-backed material and then cut into its actual shape. This could be achieved via a digital printer followed by a plotter/cutter—or by using a good printer/cutter such as those made by Roland and Mimaki. 

Mimaki’s CJV-30 Series printer/cutter and Roland’s VersaCAMM series are often employed for just this purpose (as well as for short-run label jobs).

 

Flexographic printers designed for label printing, such as the X-FLEX press by OMET, has been a standard in the industry for decades. Digital technologies are creating a new paradigm for a growing number of printers. 

However, for high-end label prototypes that require special effects or special substrates, the prototype unit that is gaining the most label industry attention is the Roland VersaUV LEC printer series, which offers white ink capability as well as a clear ink channel and an LED-based cure lamp system enabling applications on a wide range of materials and the creation of special effects such as raised clear areas. 

TABLE-TOP LABEL PRINTERS

Although table-top digital label printers have been around for a number of years—with key players filling the space including OKI Data, Seiko, Brother, Zebra and DYMO—most typically offer good speed, but relatively low resolutions, and no finishing capabilities.

For example, OKI Data’s excellent direct thermal label printers for 4"-wide media include desktop models such as the T400DT series offering print resolution up to 305 dpi, and enterprise level units such as the LE810DT with printer speeds of up to 30 feet per minute. 

However, a growing demand for short-run full color, high resolution labels has brought some newer introductions and enhanced capabilities to the table-top scene. For example, Allen Datagraph Systems recently introduced the roll-to-roll iTech AXXIS digital four-color label printer, which features an Epson B-500DN inkjet print engine that is capable of printing up to 20 feet per minute with a resolution of 5,760 x 1,440 dpi. The unit can handle rolls from 4" to 8½" wide with a diameter of up to 11". The accompanying converting station, designed and manufactured by Allen Datagraph, provides overlamination, digital dieless cutting (via a knife), matrix stripping and rewinding.

In a similar vein, Primera Technologies has long offered its LX line of Lexmark-based laser desktop label printers, but has recently released the CX1200 laser inkjet label press that can also print onto an interesting array of materials including cork, fabrics, nonwovens and magnetic sheeting. Press speed of the CX1200 is a fixed 16 feet per minute, and the maximum roll diameter is 12". Primera also offers the FX1200 finishing system for the CX1200. The FX1200 laminates, cuts shapes, strips matrix, slits and rewinds into multiple rolls. The dieless cutter utilizes four knives to increase the finishing speed. 

The Roland VersaUV LEC printer series, because of its versatility, has become popular as a prototype printer for high-end labels. 

HIGH-PRODUCTION DIGITAL 

But it’s looking at the high-production part of the label printing industry where things get really interesting. The production-grade high-speed digital label printers being introduced to the market today are changing the rules and creating a new paradigm for a growing number of shops. With the exception of a handful of all-digital enterprises, most label converters today use a mix of conventional technologies such as flexo, letterpress, screen or offset and digital presses. And a growing number of shops have two or more digital presses in their lineup. The reason is the flexibility that digital affords, the low set-up times involved, the growing speeds and the on-demand capabilities inherent in digital technologies. Competition among high-production digital label presses is tightening as the technology improves and demand grows.

HP’s Indigo printers have been considered an industry leader in the digital high-production label printer sector. The Indigo ws6000, has a 36” repeat and can run at up to 200 feet per minute.

Hewlett-Packard’s HP Indigo printer series—first introduced in 1995—is considered the big gorilla in this market space. The Indigo ws4500 is considered Indigo’s flagship label printer, but the newest Indigo press—the ws6000 introduced in 2009—is becoming increasingly popular among converters. It has a 36" repeat and can run at up to 200 feet per minute. HP’s proprietary Indigo “Digital Offset” color printing process is a hybrid of digital and offset technologies and uses a special toner-like wet ink called ElectroInk.

(Left) Xeikon offers a line of high-resolution, high-speed label printers with in-line finishing capabilities. (Right) The Evolve UV label printer was co-developed with Triangle Digital INX and Summit UV and features single-pass UV-cure printing, an LED-based cure lamp, and speeds of up to 80 feet per minute.

Xeikon, which also has been in the digital label printer market since the 1990s, recently introduced a high-production toner-based unit, the Xeikon 3500. The unit offers a 20"-wide print area (a complement to the 13"-wide Xeikon 3300), offers resolutions of 1200 dpi, a print speed of 63 linear feet per minute, and an inline finishing system featuring a flood varnish and slitting and rewinding capabilities.

The Evolve UV is a narrow-web LED-based digital label printer employing UV-cure inkjet technology. It was co-developed with Triangle Digital INX and Summit UV, and was first introduced in 2008. The Evolve UV was the first roll-to-roll production-ready label printer to employ four-color single-pass UV-cure printing with an LED-based cure lamp. The unit uses Xaar printheads and delivers 80 feet per minute of output. 

(Left) The EFI Jetrion 4000 label press offers speeds of 120 feet per minute, grayscale printing capability and resolutions exceeding 1,000 dpi. (Right) Durst’s Tau 150 is a high-speed single-pass UV-curing inkjet label press with a width of 5.5”, and print speeds of up to 157 feet per minute.

EFI’s Jetrion four-color label printing system utilizes also uses single-pass UV-cure inkjet technologies and focuses on high-volume turnaround of “short-run” jobs up to 50,000 labels. The Jetrion 4000 (5.5"-wide ) and Jetrion 4830 (8.3" -wide) models offer speeds of 120 feet per minute, grayscale printing capability and resolutions exceeding 1,000 dpi. The system is gaining acceptance among converters despite the fact that it does not come with a finishing system. EFI also offers the Jetrion 4830LED which uses an LED-based cure lamp system.

Durst—more well known in sign industry circles for its line of high-speed wide-format UV-curing flatbed printers—has recently entered the label printing market with its Tau 150 UV-curing inkjet press that features single-pass printing at a width of 5.5", and print speeds of  up to 157 feet per minute. The unit and can economically handle short run jobs from a few hundred labels up to more than 40,000 labels, and is complimented by Durst’s Rotoworx line of converting and finishing equipment.