Move over flexo

Advertising campaign cycles are shrinking as marketers seek to hold fleeting attention spans and restless eyes. But the rapid-response approach to retaining aisle appeal has some upsides for printers that demonstrate the flexibility needed to sustain variety more than volume.

Today’s Australian retailing is a world of high segmentation, focused demographics and short shelf life. Label power has always been a blend of sassy graphic design and quality print and finish, but nowadays it is also about how ‘intelligent’ a label can be – we have moved through onboard labelling technologies from barcoding to Radio Frequency ID (RFID) to Quick Response (QR) coding and on to Near Field Communication (NFC); all printable comms technologies.

Chances are the print companies that can fill niches are doing it digitally, with the kind of micro-run label production that seems beyond the giant grasp and long-haul acumen of traditional label printing processes like film-based flexo.

Within the next five years, vendors expect all label producers will have some sort of digital capability. In 2009 around 30 per cent of all label presses sold were digital, whereas now the tables have turned, with 70 per cent now digital.

According to IT Strategies, digital label printing is primarily targeted at the Australian pressure sensitive market which as of 2013 converted approximately 18.5 billlion sqm of label stock. Of this market, digital presses converted about two per cent, and this is expected to grow to a seven per cent share by 2018.

As a proportion of total labels printed, digital is still tiny due to the huge run lengths of major brand goods and private label products. In Asia, wet-gum applied labels still outstrip self-adhesive. However, in dollar terms, digital labels printed in small batches command higher prices and its share of the approximately $80bn world label market is around 4-5 per cent, according to Mike Fairley of international label association Finat.


Rapid response

For Mike Ellis, managing director of Sydney general label print house Avonlea Labels, investing in Memjet technology from Rapid Machinery has been the latest chapter in a drive towards digital that began when the present owners acquired 50-year-old Avonlea 10 years ago.

Avonlea’s configuration – a Rapid X2 press with a D2 finisher – makes quick work of gloss stock in micro-runs down to single labels for proof purposes and up to around 5000, says Ellis. The D2 diecutter’s versatility allows the use of existing dies, so that dies from the company’s Alpha 250 five-colour flexo press can be used – cutting out the need for costly investment in extra dies. (The Alpha is used for single-to five-colour work in greater volumes, typically more than 3000 linear metres).

Ellis says: “When we looked at the Rapid, the 1600dpi, the faster speed and the entry-level cost attracted us to it, and it provided us with an introduction to semi-rotary diecutting.”

For digital label runs above the 5000 mark, mainly on matte stock, Avonlea’s HP Indigo WS4500 seven-colour press is the choice, handling CMYK plus two colours, and featuring digital white.

The two digital presses have added an extra dimension to the 12-staff operation located in new premises in Castle Hill (Avonlea shifted there recently from a smaller site in the same suburb). Ellis says new customers have come on board and the company has also been able to fulfil a wide range of orders for existing customers, with productivity high on smaller runs without the cost margin of plates.

Since Avonlea’s investment in the Rapid X2 and D2, the Australian manufacturer has rolled out its XL220, a semi-rotary line that configures printing and diecutting in one pass, but Ellis says the advantage of the separate X2 and D2 machines is wider choice – a roll can be sent to the D2 for a magnetic die, but also to a digital cutter.

Ellis is confident of strong growth in the intelligent labels sector. “We began printing barcodes in flexo, but the VDP aspect of digital label printing has enabled us to move into numbering and QR work, with RFID work also looking promising,” he says.


Digital core business

AC Labels in Wetherill Park, NSW started as a family business more than 40 years ago and is still successfully operating today. The company, now a part of the Hally Group, first installed digital technology back in 2004, and was one of the early entries into the world of digital and Indigo technology, according to managing director Frank Gavrilos.

Since then, AC has installed three HP Indigo presses in the past ten years, with a W6000 arriving two years ago. Today, AC has grown digital into a core business on its own, as well as leveraging the technology to complement higher-volume business still printed on its fleet of flexographic presses.

Gavrilos is an industry veteran with nearly 25 years in the self-adhesive industry globally, and the last 11 years at the helm of AC Labels. He is also a past president of the Label and Tag Makers Association (LATMA) and still serves on its board.

Speaking generally, Gavrilos says while it has come a long way, digital label printing still has challenges. Certain PMS colours are difficult to match with four-colour process, although more printers are using five and six colour matching to compensate. But he says those are minor issues and overall, in terms of quality, the WS6000 in particular continues to impress.

“Digital quality was an eye opener when it was first launched and was always pretty good, but today’s quality is no comparison – and the presses still continue to evolve,” he says. “Each version runs faster and better than previous versions. So our current 6000 was yet another step change from our earlier presses and works well for us in our markets – for now. But you can never stand still, so I wonder what’s next?”


What the vendors say

With the first Truepress Jet L350UV rolled out at the new Jet Technologies showroom in Sydney, the vendor staged an open house for the new arrival on July 25. Jet Technologies marketing manager Lisa Moussa tells ProPrint the inkjet press offers opportunities that are obvious in label printing as well as many outside of labels, making it an optimal choice for sheetfed contenders looking to broaden their services into vertical label markets.

“Narrow-web packaging is growing dramatically – areas such as shrink sleeves, printing onto aluminium and so forth are interesting fields to consider. The L350UV can do all of that and we are seeing very strong interest from sheetfed printers looking for opportunities,” she says.

Screen’s Peter Scott describes the Truepress Jet L350UV as “the fastest digital label press currently installed in Australia.”

“At almost 1000sqm of finished labels per hour, it is a very productive solution. Being inkjet, it differs from the liquid and powder toner models that have been around for many years,” he says. “It is also a UV curing press, with a white ink option that opens up many wider applications.”

The newly released HP Indigo WS6800 rollfed narrow-web press generates labels in faster turnarounds, using automated colour management, a wide frame and new inking, making it available for a broader range of applications. HP claims the press delivers the industry’s highest crossover point in narrow-web production versus analogue for the vast majority of pressure-sensitive label work.

At the muscle end of label printing, the HP Indigo 20000 is the manufacturer’s latest contribution to wide format, packaging and label production, traditionally the preserve of flexography. The 20000 is a 30-inch wide, roll-to-roll solution, with an unwinder and water-based inline primer, and produces diverse digital applications, including flexible packaging, labels, and shrink sleeves on film or paper from 0.4 to 10pt. With seven on-press ink stations, the company claims the results are of gravure-like quality, enabling converters to meet stringent corporate branding briefs.

In a fine example of Australian genius, local manufacturer Rapid Machinery has integrated Memjet, a technology that uses Systems (MEMS). Each 1600dpi printhead generates millions of ink droplets a second at speeds as high as 18 metres a minute.

“Rapid was the first true digital label press to use inkjet effectively,” Rapid general manager Nigel Mansell says. “In 2010 when we launched at Ipex, virtually 100 percent of the digital market was toner-based. Liquid and powder toner still holds the lion’s share of the market because these processes have been around for much longer, but inkjet is the big gainer. Memjet print engine technology and inks remain the highest resolution available, at up to 1600×1600 dpi and 1.2 picolitre droplet size. Our big advantage is 35 years in manufacturing web handling and converting equipment and the evidence of this can be found in the latest Rapid XL220.”

Grish Rewal, director of Xeikon agency Absolute Electronics, sees the Xeikon label press as competitive in digitally produced labels. “Certainly with quality and cheapest cost of print but also flexibility of substrates and the fact that our customers can use the same stock as their conventional press without a need to prime most substrates, making it one of the most productive digital press on the market,” he says.

“Xeikon, with their field upgradable presses, also have an excellent entry point for customers wishing to enter the digital market at a lower price point and upgrading the same machine in speed or width of their press as the business growth demands the productivity.”

Epson Australia marketing manager Jennifer Soros says its SurePress L-40033A inkjet digital label press enables exceptional colour matching and the ability to print on a diversity of standard labels stocks using Epson’s aqueous six-colour ink set. “Aside from the quality and cost efficiencies it brings, the SurePress also presents itself as the ideal platform for existing label converters or any printer wishing to enter the label market, and who are looking for a platform that can print labels of a standard that is industry leading but at a lower capital and consumable cost,” she says.

“We have seen examples of traditional sheetfed printers either using analogue or digital sheetfed presses looking at the label space as an excellent opportunity to broaden their business and add another revenue stream. The label sector continues to be one of the strongest growing areas of the print industry. The choice for many of these commercial printers is made easier as they may very well already service accounts that have a need for labels.”


Deciding on digital

LabelForce, a five-year-old 22-staff operation in Bassendean, Western Australia, adding a digital channel to its flexographic label printing abilities is currently under active consideration.

The company offers offset, flexographic and Screen printing, hot foil stamping, cold foil, embossing, and texturing. With these processes, LabelForce can produce anything from the most complex wine label to the most basic one-colour identification label, managing director Ernie Cooley says.

But as Cooley tells ProPrint, the decision on whether and how to go digital will be made carefully. “If we commit roughly a million dollars to invest in an HP Indigo machine, we believe we would have to write it off sooner in our books than we possibly could at the moment, in order to get it on what could be the next phase of digital label production, so we’re hesitating on digital,” he says.

Cooley, who has had two decades in label printing, initially partnering with an ex-ad agency owner, says LabelForce, which counts Coles among its major customers, prints mainly for food-and-beverage, but also has a 20 per cent sideline in wines.

Starting strongly out of the gate, LabelForce won two WA Picas for its rollfed work in 2010, reflecting its first year of operation. It prints most of its labels in a 24-hour operation on its two Mark Andy rotary presses. C

According to Cooley runs are typically around 300,000, a fraction of east coast volumes more in the area of five million. “But when you have runs of say 300,000, in five varieties, the bigger presses can’t compete with us,” he says.

The company is keen to find a machine that can fulfil stopgap orders without piling these onto its main label converting lines and jamming workflow with long makereadies.

It has been researching how digital technology could help the company, with an eye to inkjet. “Obviously not having plates is a big saving, as are digital set-up times” Cooley says. “But then on the other hand, how much calibrating do you have to do if you’re running, say, 30,000 labels where a background or corporate colour is paramount? Can you run the whole job through or do you have to stop at 10,000 or 20,000 to make sure of the colour? These are the things we need to know.”

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