Digital labels sticking

The market for digital label printing is growing. Well-known companies such as the Nankervis family’s Southern Impact have moved into digital labels, in fact, that company has spun off a separate new business, OnPack, for its digital labels.
As Onpack’s managing director Michael Nankervis told ProPrint in May, the new enterprise has leapfrogged the fearsome set-up costs of traditional flexographic processes by going the digital route to open up a new revenue source from self-adhesive labels in the FMCG domain, as well as for industrial and chemical products.
Australian vendors have many digital label press offerings now, with HP, Epson, Screen, Mark Andy and EFI just some of the manufacturers in the game.
The benefits of on-demand, variable-data labels for brand owners are massive, and open up marketing opportunities for multiple versions of the same product. But what does it require to enter this lucrative sector?
Sticky Labels goes digital
At Sticky Labels in Melbourne, an expansion from flexographic into digital production has seen shorter runs being transferred to a new Screen TruePress Jet L350UV label press from Jet Technologies.
The 350mm narrow-web press, which relies on LED and conventional UV curing technologies, has made a significant impact at the 25-year-old, 15-staff Melbourne converting business, owned since one-and-a-half decades by brother and sister Mark and Justine McEwan, its co-directors.
Label Concepts, a sister company operating from the Braeside premises in Melbourne’s south east, was the first to adopt digital printing for its wide-format work, and vehicle wraps, and the time had come for Sticky Labels to embrace digital.
Sticky Labels production manager Grant Dennis tells ProPrint that long runs of labels for the FMCG markets have traditionally been produced on the company’s Nilpeter FB-3300 eight-colour narrow-web press, where screen and hot foiling is performed.
With the Nilpeter press, the emphasis is on volume production at speed (the FB-3300’s rated speed is 225m per minute). But shorter runs make a relative obstacle of the substantial makeready, which can take up to 90 minutes and includes cleaning the trays, removing waste and replacing inks, as well as the cost margins for replacing consumables. At 50m/min, the Truepress is a nimble alternative for short-haul work.
“A market for flexo will remain,” predicts Dennis. “But we find we can run jobs up to 2,000-3,000 linear metres on the Screen digital press in a far more cost effective way.”
A true-proofing feature for the customer is another great advantage, he says. Customers’ files go directly to the press without plate making and the first impressions are the same quality as the whole print run, so clients obtain an accurate preview of the job.
Sticky Labels is also migrating its shorter runs to the TruePress from its letterpress printing, which it is planning to phase out, says Dennis.
At the time of our interview, Sticky Labels was awaiting the arrival of a new Prati DigiFast One finishing unit from Heidelberg Australia. The Italian-built Prati will perform hot-foiling, spot varnishing and high builds, which Dennis says will further enhance Sticky Labels’ digital labels offering to its customers.
The DigiFast’s processing speeds of up to 80m/min and set-up time of just over eight minutes make short work out of finishing the output from digital label presses.
Dennis says that – an eye for colour aside – there is virtually no learning curve on the TruePress, and staff members from the flexo pressroom and the prepress department were trained to use the new machine in two days.
Another time and cost saving initiative at Sticky Labels has been installing a semi-turret rewind feature on its Nilpeter line, so that shorter runs can be finished inline, rather than fully unloading to an offline slitter-rewinder, which saves another person handling the job, he says.
Dennis predicts we will see a lot more of a new crop of flexo/digital hybrid press lines, with two or three flexo heads before and after a digital component, followed by finishing, with Heidelberg and Mark Andy already offering these.
What the vendors say
Digital label production finds its true niche with shorter run sizes, multiple SKUs, and customised labels, says industry stalwart Ian Guanaria, general manager of Aldus, which this year became part of the new Aldus-Tronics group. “Some of the key markets we are seeing growth with include craft beers and spirits, specialty regional goods, promotional products, and contract packaging. Mark Andy’s hybrid presses are certified to run industrial labels as well, which is a highly profitable market for converters.” 
Guanaria notes that converters are always looking for ways to be more productive and profitable, he says, “With digital, this commonly comes in the form of plate cost elimination when compared to flexo processes. Digital also provides time savings with fast makereadies, which supports the increase in demand for shorter lead times and lower volume orders from brand owners.”
Commenting on the trend to short, boutique-type product lines, he sees consumers wanting products, “Tailored to their own tastes and lifestyles, which means the demand for labels and packaging are no longer one-size-fits-all.” He finds that the flexibility provided by digital hybrid technology allows for these high-mix, low volume production runs to be profitable. Digital also allows variable-data print (VDP) capabilities needed to create personalised and versioned output that the market now frequently requires. 
Asked what advice he would share with prospective new entrants to digital label printing, Guanaria reflects: “I would share that the days of digital printing being inaccessible are long gone. There are entry-level standalone units, such as the Mark Andy Digital One, offering affordable entry into digital label production. These more affordable options eliminate the need to invest in additional converting processes and make it possible to print and convert in a single pass.
“It is also important to run an ROI on any new investment. Understanding costs – consumables, labour, waste, and so on – and job mix, and taking into consideration any jobs that may have been previously declined or outsourced based on capability, could offer a better ROI than expected,” he says. “Finally, converters should carefully evaluate the company with whom they are partnering. A digital press is more than just a technology – it is a complete workflow, business ideology and growth path. Make sure you select a company that truly understands your needs, job mix, and plans for growth.”
Mark Daws, general manager, ANZ, labels & packaging division at Currie Group, finds that almost all market segments have seen significant growth in digitally printed labels. The ANZ market is now mature and geared towards a faster turnaround and more agile supply chain. He sees FMCG as by far be the largest area, followed by healthcare and pharmaceuticals, wine and beverage. 
“Brand owners are seeking new ways to enhance the packaging rather than the contents. They need new avenues to appeal to the consumer, particularly the millennials who are fast becoming the largest group of consumers. 
“Fundamentally, brands need the ability to refresh content, launch new SKUs to market and reduce the impact of obsolescence. Products need to be smarter and more relevant to the consumer and digital is the ideal platform to facilitate these needs,” he explains.
Analysing the trend towards specialty product lines, Daws refers to research that has found consumers are exposed to an average of 50,000 SKUs in a typical grocery store and this number continues to increase. “Shoppers have learnt to cope with this and seek out smarter, more relevant packaging that appeals to them. Sustainability also plays a big role in decision making, particularly for the millennials. New brands coming to market need the ability to produce small test runs and to scale accordingly, based on product shift. Manufacturers don’t like the idea of minimum order quantities for labels – and digital printing can help to drive just-in-time print runs as required.” 
“Digital printing for labels in particular continues to grow year on year. The sheer number of product SKUs and proliferation is driving this, as is the need for speed to market and zero inventory holdings. The average run length of jobs continues to decline, which again plays into the digital arena from a cost-to-produce perspective. The average run length in New Zealand is around 1,500 metres, for instance. 
“Of course, there is still a need for conventional printing presses and digital still has a way to go before it can completely replace conventional forms of printing, but digital stakes its place as a tool in the toolbox, allowing users to drive new ideas and innovation to their own customers at the right price. Flexible packaging is the next industry to embrace digital printing and we now see several businesses producing these applications on HP Indigo presses.”
But new digital label printers should consider their options carefully, cautions Daws. The ANZ label industry is highly quality-driven, he argues, and the small size of the market means that, for the most part, converters are addressing multiple verticals (FMCG, healthcare, wines, and so on) so they do need to consider printing technology that can address all of these markets – from a quality perspective, substrate compatibility and so on. The majority of converters do not have the luxury of addressing a single application and therefore they are forced to be all things to their customers.
Daws identifies the HP Indigo WS6800 as the entry product of choice for digital print in labels and packaging applications. “Having evolved from the earlier Indigo WS6000 press, the current platform offers the flexibility to run media from 12 micron to 450 micron, allowing our customers to branch into new verticals such as shrink sleeves, IML, flexible packaging and cartons on top of pressure sensitive. Coming with an inline priming module (ILP) it means that any off-the-shelf material can be used on the press. 
Mark Brown, who has taken up the mantle of product marketing manager, Industrial Print, at Konica Minolta, sees shorter-run digital label printing as particularly suited to Australian markets. “The Australian market has a small population and unless a brand is exporting, they don’t have the need for very long label print runs. There are always exceptions of course.  The trend is of course for shorter runs with more frequency and variability. 
“The benefit for the brand is less working capital held in stock and more JIT manufacturing. The opportunity for companies printing labels is to combine this to do one-to-one marketing with more emphasis on catering for the individual – some food brands do this for Christmas promotions, and Nutella is an excellent case of one-on-one marketing. There are also great opportunities for more personalisation in branding, where digital comes into its own,” he explains.
Konica Minolta’s entry in the digital label press stable is its bizhub Press C71cf, a 330mm web-width toner-based label printer. Brown sees its key benefits as the small footprint, speed, great colour gamut and colour consistency and service response times. “This is our key differential – the ability to service within two hours to most metro locations. We can only do this due to our national service footprint, an ongoing investment which Konica Minolta makes.”
What technological and business advice does Brown have for Australian print businesses seeking to enter the digital label printing market – for existing label printers looking at a digital production channel but also for other types of printers looking at digital labels as an additional source of revenue?
“Any reputable vendor should be able tell you where the crossover points are between your current products, be they analogue or digital, and the latest range of digital products. From there it is a simple financial decision based on volume of jobs suitable for the digital press and the savings you make on each job to give an ROI.”
Looking to the future, Brown says: “All global research connected to print show the trend of increasing volume in labels being printed digitally, so if you’re not in it already, it would be a place to review investment in.”
Peter Scott, managing director of Screen GP Australia, sees the market segments expanding from short-run, fast turnaround labels into the lower echelons of volume flexo/offset/gravure production. In his view, the food and beverage, packaged goods, cosmetics and pharma sectors are prime clients for digitally printed and finished labels. “But there is really no limit to the markets that can be addressed. If extra embellishing is required, this can be incorporated into the finishing line, thus hot/cold foiling, embossing, varnishing and flexo stations can feature along with unwind, die cutting, matrix stripping, slitting and rewinding.”
Scott talks about micro-breweries, boutique coffees, Mum and Dad home businesses, and even major brand houses. All these and more are seeking to capitalise on the boutique boom and they are significant drivers for digitally-printed labels. He says, “The more complex and versioned a label run is, the better digital is suited to it because of the elimination of the prepress plate making stage and direct-to-press nature of the workflow. Also, the ease of producing professional looking labels is elevating small-batch production to compete with major established brands.
“Along with wide-format signage, POP and display, it is the hottest sector in the graphic arts for the foreseeable future. Whatever happens in commercial print, people will still be buying packaged, labelled goods; marketers and brand managers will still be looking for exclulsive ideas to boost sales. Add to this the emerging shift from flexo and offset production, still small but accelerating enormously.”
Scott classes Screen’s Truepress Jet L250AQ as an ideal starting point for CMYK labels, where no white ink is required. It has a 250mm wide web, aqueous inks and fine resolution, printing at nine or 18 linear m/min. With proper rewinding built in, reels of printed labels are ready for finishing straight off the press. He says, “We like to think that L250 customers will graduate up to the L350AQ with its highly advanced features and much higher productivity.”
His words for new punters? “The business model is out there – demand for high-quality self-adhesive labels is on the increase. The best advice I can give is to choose your entry-level strategy; either at the low-end with desktop solutions, mid-end with something like our L250AQ or higher end with the L350UV, which will give you a 350mm wide web, 50m/min production, white ink and UV curing. Whatever starting point a printer chooses in digital labels, it is a low-risk investment. You could even start with a wide-format print and cut printer for light production, but slitting and winding is an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Craig Heckenberg, Epson Australia’s general manager, sales & marketing, sees a growing demand for desktop label printers: in sectors such as manufacturing,, service providers, and logistics companies from all verticals looking to reduce turnaround times and introduce efficiencies by investing in print-on-demand solutions. And he sees production label presses increasingly being acquired by label converters aiming to meet demand for short-run, multiple kinds, and variable-data printed labels.
“Brands are starting to become multi-faceted and even more targeted with their marketing, hence labels with multiple variations for the same or similar products. Medicines are a good example. Print volume continues to grow and label converters and commercial printers will continue to invest in the technology. 
“Technology has introduced this demand and Epson is an innovator and at the forefront of this disrupting technology, with its SurePress and ColorWorks digital label solutions,” he says. “Epson has solutions from desktop to short and medium run length production presses. Our presses deliver world-class quality and print directly onto off-the-shelf material without pre-treatment. Epson’s label presses are designed and manufactured by Epson and all incorporate their patented PrecisionCore thin-film micro-piezo print head technology. They are easy to operate and cost efficient.”
“There is no digital press that can print every label,” he advises. “Match the technology which best matches your business and customer needs and keep in mind to allow for future markets currently not being serviced. Ensure the correct front-end software and finishing solutions match your needs.”
Andy Yarrow, EFI’s director of sales, APAC, finds the seachange in Australian retail patterns from traditional department store and supermarket shopping to convenience driven multiple-trip browsing is driving change in the labelling markets. He finds that brand owners in such varied industries as food, beverages, pharmaceuticals, electronics and FMCG, all want to add more value to the retail experience and drive greater long-term consumer loyalty.
“You can see this in the prevalence of campaigns using smarter interconnected packaging solutions targeted at specific consumer groups, with such inbuilt digital marketing devices as personalisation, regionalisation and QR codes. This is opening up multiple opportunities for our Jetrion partners in providing pack and product personalisation, customisation and premiumisation. Combine this with ongoing time-to-market pressures which are impacting lead times, and we find our partners are focusing more and more on workflow improvements in line with technology investment to get ahead of these pressures.”
Yarrow sees a lot of growth coming from print providers discovering they can produce four-colour process labels with virtually no setup, and with no tooling cost for die cutting. “Those factors drive out a lot of the cost that made short-run labels unaffordable in the past. Jetrion customers confirm, on average, their profits more than double on the work they move from flexo or screen to a Jetrion digital press. For example the typical uptime of a narrow-web flexo press is just 40 per cent, with the downtime coming from work involved in changeovers.”
His advice to printers: “Before you invest, make sure you ask important questions of your technology partner — how much does the company reinvest in R&D? What is required to upgrade the printer as technology improves? Is the printing system modular? Does the system provide for inline finishing? What is the real cost per printed label? Can you print on lower-cost media that does not require coatings or primers? Who manufactures the ink and whom do you purchase the ink from?”
EFI offers its Jetrion narrow-web inkjet range for the short-run, variable-print digital label market. Its Jetrion 4950LX provides label production at a rated speed of 48 m/min in a 330mm format, while the 4900M-330 has the 330mm web width at a 24 m/min speed, the 4900M provides a 210mm web at 24 m/min and the 4900ML prints on a 229m web at 24 m/min. White ink is included on the 4900ML and optional on the other models.
Yarrow says EFI produces a fully integrated platform with all the aspects of the production solution, including printer, ink and software coming from EFI. Some of the advantages are direct print to a broad range of materials using inks that are durable, flexible and with industry-leading white, and no need to post-treat labels with a varnish or laminate. “Beyond quick-turnaround printing in short runs, EFI Jetrion technology offers the opportunity to expand into niche markets such as sequentially numbered and barcoded label work for specialty applications.”
Steve Ford, general manager, production sales & marketing, Fuji Xerox Asia, lists hot new markets for digital label presses, such as industrial (paint, automotive, chemical, household and electronics); food and beverage; pharmaceutical; body care; alu-printing (blister packs), cardboard blister and multi-layered laminate tube printing. These sectors are utilising a growing range of services from digital label providers, that include short-to mid run lengths, a growing SKU manifest, versioning, localisation, pilot marketing, variable image or data (to add value) and on-demand turnarounds (to reduce the ratio of obsolete stocks).
“Like traditional or commercial printing, there’s a trend towards shorter run lengths for labels. While there is no question the very long-run jobs fulfilled on flexographic or gravure presses remain the standard, the amount of labels that fit the new profile is rising. The demand for a fully digitised label, allowing the user or end-customer to run ultra-short run lengths – say, less than 500 labels to 100,000 – is definitely there, and on the increase. This is not to suggest that the number of labels being printed is reducing, quite the opposite, in fact, with a large increase in the number of jobs being experienced,” he reports.
Durst’s UV inkjet press, the Tau 330UV – supplied by Fuji Xerox – includes rapid printing onto a range of substrates, which makes it ideal for label work. Durst’s one-pass system, using dual printheads, allows a speed of 37m/min at an optimal 1260dpi resolution, says Ford. The Durst digital line-up comprises the Tau 330UV and an entry-level 330E, as well as an optional inline laser finishing system, the 330. PacPrint visitors saw samples of the Tau 330’s output.
Configurations include hybrid options with large unwinders, flexo and embellishing units, and with an insetter function that enables the integration of conventional labels with digital overprinting. For sensitive food or pharmaceutical applications, there are low-migration inks and inert gas options. 
For unsupported films and substrates, the Tau has a chiller option that takes the substrate range from 20 micron to 500 micron. An optional laser finishing system can dynamically die cut labels, down to a minimum quantity of one, by firing a 450w laser against suitable substrates. “The result is a business with a ‘roll-in and finished-labels-out’ scenario,” explains Ford.
“Fuji Xerox Australia has partnered with Durst to exclusively distribute and service the Tau 330UV. With a variety of colour, web-width and RIP configurations to suit needs and existing workflow, this device is highly acclaimed and has been installed in hundreds of converters around the world who have experienced excellent results. The product is flexible enough to be able to work with most pre-or post-finishing equipment that a business might already have installed, and should these lines be suitable, can even run inline to reduce any touch points, minimising operational costs.”
Ford’s advice to anticipating label printers: “Consider the future of your business and the nature of the customer you might soon be dealing with. The investment into your current equipment will service you well for many years to come, but what might appear to be a niche today might be the keystone of your success sooner than you think.”
Xeikon, now part of the Flint Group, has entered the digital label market with its 3000 series, most notably its CX-3 or Cheetah press, a 330mm-web width, 30m/min toner machine. Xeikon Asia-Pacific managing director Bent Serritslev points out noteworthy features in the new contender, such as single-pass opaque white, food-safe toners, 1200×3600 dpi resolution, and full rotary printing. And Xeikon’s ANZ sales manager Trevor Crowley underscores the important role digital label presses are now playing in tandem with higher-volume flexo presses. 
Xeikon released its new Panther PX3000 UV inkjet digital label press at its Xeikon Café Innovations expo.
This new press is based on Xeikon’s Panther UV inkjet technology complementing the Xeikon 3000 series and Xeikon CX3 label presses based on dry toner technology. Xeikon says the new press is bolstering the extensive range of digital printing solutions for the label market.
Xeikon developed the PX3000 response to the growing need of new technologies in digital label printing, to drive new applications and produce them in the most efficient way. Xeikon says, speed, durability, and cost-effectiveness for digital runs are the primary strengths of the Xeikon PX3000.
The new press features a web width of 330mm and a maximum speed of 50m/min. Colour configuration is CMYK plus white, with a print quality of 600x600dpi. Substrates can range from self-adhesive media with facestocks including paper, PVC, PP, PET and PE.
Trevor Crowley, Xeikon ANZ sales general manager says, “Finding the right solution for every label or packaging project is crucial for businesses today. The Xeikon solutions allow operations to handle workloads efficiently and in a way that would allow their business to grow. They also complement longer flexo runs supporting competitiveness in a range of fields.”  PP

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