How is label printing changing? A historical outline relating to digital printing by Domino
It is amazing to think that in 1454 Gutenberg invented the first conventional printing press, and yet only during the last 20 or 25 years this method of printing, that many of us have grown up with, has had its uninterrupted year on year growth challenged. Now for multiple applications we are seeing the demise of conventional printing. Digital technology is disrupting the long-standing evolution and growth of conventional printing.
A personal review by Philip Easton, director digital printing solutions at Domino.
The largest impact on the printing industry from this digital revolution has been for forms of printed media used for communication purposes. Media channels used for mass communication 25 years ago were largely television, radio and printed matter such as newspapers and magazines. New entrants today include digital printing but even more significantly, digital electronic communication such as social media and the internet. Advertising revenue, that largely funds this sector, is now shared with the new digital media formats, and printing is in what seems like terminal decline.
A changing printing world
However conventional printing for labels (and more recently packaging) have also experienced the competitive influence of digital printing technology. True, we have also seen the move from letterpress to offset and flexo and now increasingly the adoption of high definition (HD) flexo printing. HD flexo, driven mostly from improved repro and plate technology has seen it challenge for work that has traditionally been printed offset.
Ink technology has also changed from largely water-based printing onto mostly paper labels with high levels of maintenance and longer make-ready times to UV-curable inks and an increasing number of polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE) plastic labels. The use of UV-curable inks has reduced labour requirements and improved operational efficiency both for start-up and during job changes. Plastic labels offer high durability and often improved print results when using UV-curable inks.
The drive for efficiency improvement with flexo printing has gained greater momentum during the last five years, sleeve technology for plates allowing fast replacement, servo control for registration, and automatic registration controls are all examples designed to reduce set up times, material waste and labour hours to run production. These developments are geared to improving the attractiveness competing against alternative digital technology where the cost of a production make-ready is minimal.
The very beginning
Digital print technology appeared on the scene in the 1990’s, and for a period of time was seen as niche. However, after the first digital toner machines, improvements have been made, higher levels of productivity and improving reliability and consistency of print results have been achieved. The main influence was over the cost of a job change or the production make-ready, replacing a function that may take hours to often less than 10 minutes.
Suddenly, there was a new choice for brand owners: a high initial charge for flexo printing including the printing plates and the set-up time but a low unit cost and high print speeds, or digital with almost no job change costs or set up time set against a higher unit cost (most click charges) per label and lower production running speeds. Therefore, less time doing make-ready but slower printing speeds.
In the last five years we have seen the birth and rapid development of digital inkjet technology. Multiple vendors have entered this market (including Domino Printing Sciences) and we have seen the technology develop very rapidly, print resolution has doubled and now is doubling yet again. Speeds have increased to 70m/m, far ahead of the average toner technology and now approaching what is typically achieved in production by conventional printing but without the make-ready time.
At the same time the typically higher cost for toner/ink associated with digital production has been steadily reducing. Adding to the continual reduction in run lengths as brand owners increasingly understand they do not need to purchase many months’ supply of labels in advance anymore. The net effect is that more production is becoming cost competitive using digital inkjet technology. Also a wider range of applications is now possible with the advent of conventional / digital hybrid presses such as the MPS EF Symjet combining inkjet with flexo printing and inline finishing allowing jobs with special spot colour requirements and other embellishments to be produced.
The environmental case is also becoming an increasing influence towards more digital production. Flexo printing generates waste material during the make-ready process, for short runs this can be as much as is sent to the brand owner. However, the economics with high make-ready costs also drives customers to purchase more labels than they will necessarily need. The labels become stock with the risk of obsolescence and never ever get used on a final product. Conversely digital printing often has negligible waste material at make-ready and the economics promote regular production runs to meet customer requirements as a when they need labels for production (JIT). This reduces the risk of waste material associated with labels becoming obsolete.
Only this year we have seen users of inkjet describing it as the future for label printing. Are these the first signs of a major change in the way we print labels? Ultimately, the market will always decide … those that prosper will embrace these changes, those that don’t will fail to survive.