Twenty years of label printing – A review regarding print technology and company organisation

The base of a two-colour press from Mark Andy manufactured in 1956, retrofitted in 2013 (Source: Mark Andy)

The digital revolution has caused major upheavals in the label industry. On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of NarrowWebTech a review of the last two decades shows how far we have come both in print technology and in company organisation.

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 Written by NarrowWebTech editor John Penhallow

Despite all these changes, it is surprising to discover how many label press manufacturers of twenty years ago are still market leaders today. Others (like Etipol, Kopack, Malbate or Webtron) have long since disappeared from the scene or (like Aquaflex or GiDue) have fallen victim to acquisitions.

Looking at the examples of three “survivors” can help us to understand how some label press manufacturers managed to weather all the storms of the past twenty years

[Editorial comment: this article was published on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of NarrowWebTech – more articles find in our extensive special edition “20 years NarrowWebTech – A history of label printing”]

A Viking in his narrow web drakkar

Today, every self-respecting start-up has to claim it was created in a garage. Not so Nilpeter, whose founders Christian Nielsen and Axel Petersen planned their business in a Danish pub. In the 1970s, the company developed one of the first rotary flexo printing presses for labels: the “Rotolabel” with six flexo, rotary or flat stamping units. The Danish manufacturer also offered a brand new “Letterflex” machine, UV flexo inks, a combination machine with screen and letterpress printing and inline hot stamping. In 1994, Nilpeter launched the “world’s first real platform press”, combining offset, flexo, gravure and screen printing.

The company was also a pioneer in the field of UV flexo development and offered its customers the choice of combining this technology with conventional flexo printing. In 1996, Nilpeter entered the digital printing arena through an alliance with Xeikon and launched the DL-3300 Direct Imaging System. This project was technically successful for Nilpeter, as was a later collaboration with Caslon, but in both cases market acceptance was weak.

A Nilpeter flexo printing press from 2000 (Source: Nilpeter)

In the first decade of this century, Nilpeter launched several innovations, including direct servo drives, cooling drums and advanced IT (all included in the MO-4 and FA series), and in 2015 developed the complete hybrid-digital PANORAMA solution.

German-Swiss cooperation

In the early 1990s the company F. Rüesch was already well established in the picturesque Swiss town of Sant Gallen. At that time, “Gallus” was just a brand name – which is what it has reverted to today as part of Heidelberg. At that time Ferdi Rüesch, owner of the company of the same name, was in negotiations with Arsoma, a German-based manufacturer of flexo presses. The canny Swiss saw the potential of the still young flexo technology being developed by Arsoma’s Dieter and Siegfried Arabin. In 1992, a partnership was established in the form of financial participation, which in 1998 led to the full takeover of Arsoma by the Swiss Group. Even after the takeover of their company by Gallus, the relationship and partnership between the brothers Arabin and Gallus remained close.

Siegfried Arabin, together with his brother who passed away in 2016, left their mark on the development of Gallus and of the label industry. The brothers’ influence can be seen in the modular Gallus EM 280 platform, as well as in the introduction of a highly automated and easy-to-use, fully servo-driven press, later marketed as the Gallus RCS series.

In the mid-1990s, the young Israeli company Indigo, in cooperation with Gallus, developed the DO330, described as a “digital offset press for the cost-effective production of colour labels in short runs of less than 100,000 pieces”. The machine may not have been reliable, or the market not yet ready. In any case, Gallus got its fingers burnt and waited almost twenty years before getting involved in digital printing again. Not until the Gallus Innovation Days in the autumn 2014 did the Swiss company, this time in collaboration with Fuji and Heidelberg, unveil another digital label press.

Mark Andy – same name, different owners

When Mark Andrews built his first printing machine in his cellar in the American state of Missouri in 1946, self-adhesive labels were little more than a crazy idea in the brain of R Stanton Avery. In the following decades, several label printing machines appeared under the Mark Andy brand. Exactly 25 years ago, the first “computer-integrated” Mark Andy press was launched. It had many software innovations, and even a touch screen, which caused a small sensation at the time. In 1995, the company, until then family-owned, was sold to Dover Corporation and over the years acquired Comco and Rotoflex. In 2006, the group again underwent a change of ownership when it was acquired by Morgenthaler.

In 2009, the Performance Series appeared. Later, new die-cutting units followed and in 2013 the LED drying system ProLED. In the same year, Mark Andy’s first hybrid (flexo/digital) press was launched. After another change of ownership in 2014, when the Indian PJ Desai acquired a majority holding, came the entry-level Digital One, a CMYK inkjet solution with toner technology from Konica Minolta and inline processing. At the same time Mark Andy launched the “Digital Series” with flexo, inkjet and finishing line, another leap forward in digital technology.

1998 – Things were different then

Flexo printing was already the most popular printing technology in 1998, although offset offered the best print quality and many label converters still worked with letterpress machines. UV curing was gaining popularity. LED drying and laser die-cutting were not even mentioned outside research centres. It is estimated that in 1998 the internet accounted for less than 10% of the world’s communications network (today it is 90%). The blue skies were void of cloud computing.

The technology that has most affected these 20 years from 1998 to 2018 is clearly digital printing. Benny Landa unveiled its E-Print 1000 at the 1993 IPEX trade show. A four-colour liquid toner printer and a computer-to-print system without printing plates, it all seemed like magic! In the following years, Landa was active in many areas, including the label industry, and in collaboration with Gallus, exhibited the very first digital label press at Labelexpo. “A monster, cost a fortune, no one took this new technology seriously,” recalls a visitor.

Only Landa believed in the so-called electro-offset technology, developed it further, and sold his company to Hewlett Packard (for a tidy USD 830 million) in 2002. By that time the Xeikon DCP-1 and the Agfa Chromapress had appeared. Xeikon and Agfa followed a different path from Landa: their colours were not liquid, but in powder form. In the late 1990s, Indigo and Xeikon were in the process of opening up new narrow web markets.

[Editorial comment: this article was published on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of NarrowWebTech – more articles find in our extensive special edition “20 years NarrowWebTech – A history of label printing”]

Inkjet – new on the market

Then inkjet technology broke onto the scene with devastating force. Since the 1960s, printers and technicians had been playing around with this technology, but had not been able to achieve satisfactory print quality at an affordable price. The breakthrough for the label industry was the development of the drop-on-demand (DOD) piezo technology (piezo printers use the so-called “inverse piezoelectric effect” to press the drops through a fine nozzle the size of which is controlled by an electrical impulse).

The Japan-based giant Epson was a pioneer in the label area, but very soon inkjet presses appeared in large numbers from several manufacturers. At Labelexpo Europe 2013, there were over thirty, and two years later as many as forty models. And were the manufacturers of these systems high-flying experts in the field of printing technology? Far from it! The technical know-how was embedded in the print head, and here there were (and are still) not forty but at most five manufacturers worldwide.

With a customized print head, (almost) anyone could now put together a label press in his garage. The first print heads were quite capricious: the inks tended to dry, the nozzles had to be cleaned regularly, many colours were not light-fast and would only print on special, approved substrates. Today the heads are still delicate beasts, but to a lesser extent. Continuous ink circulation and ever finer nozzles are now leading to higher print quality and reduced maintenance. In addition to Epson, Domino, Durst, Konica Minolta and Mouvent (part of Bobst) are among the leading manufacturers of inkjet presses in the label market.

Hybrids

Originally, this meant cross-bred animals like the mule, then cars like the Tesla, and finally presses with both conventional and digital print units. The first attempts to combine these two technologies were, at best, only moderately successful. Too slow, too complicated, too bizarre… It was not until 2015 that the first truly practical hybrid presses came onto the market such as Omet with the X-Flex X6, Nilpeter with the Panorama and Gallus with the ECS 340 (now renamed “Labelfire”).

Workflow, prepress and productivity

Workflow management has now become an everyday term for label converters, thanks to the digital revolution. The concept itself is not new (it dates back to Henry Ford’s Model T) but it was only by the digitization of the entire production process that it became possible to control all the printing and converting processes in real time.

20 years ago, prepress automation existed, but was still in its infancy. As early as the mid-90s the Belgian company Barco, a forerunner of Esko, was offering a “solution for combining electronic designs with high-resolution images for the production of labels, covering the stages up to the printing plate/ cylinder output”.

Today, even for “conventional” printing technologies, computer-aided workflow management has become indispensable. The processing of flexo printing plates, which used to involve environmentally harmful solvents and drying times of several hours, has totally changed. The entire plate processing function is ecologically clean and done in less than thirty minutes!

Die-cutting – always a delicate operation

Today four German companies are among the leading manufacturers of die-cutting equipment: Kocher + Beck, Wink, Electro Optic and Spilker. And 20 years ago the same four companies were leaders in the market. Die-cutting self-adhesive labelstock must be precisely controlled and the die-cutting unit, magnetic cylinder and die must be precisely adjusted.

Over the last 20 years, die-cutting specialists have made significant progress, in accuracy and in the hardness and durability of the dies. But today an intruder has arrived on the scene: laser die-cutting technology. About ten years ago, companies such as Applied Laser Engineering, SEI Laser and Spartanics began to market digitally controlled laser die cutters “the complement to digital printing”.

The advantages of laser punching were – and are – to be found in the workflow. Short runs? No problem: With laser die-cutting, you can jump from one order to the next with zero set-up time and zero substrate wastage, just as you can with digital printing. The disadvantage of laser punching is still that it is not fast enough. The new generation of laser die cutters is faster but still much slower than a mechanical die.

Conclusion

Many press manufacturers who were market leaders 20 years ago are still leading today. However, the digital revolution has caused major upheavals. In terms of print quality and machine speed, digital printing is approaching conventional printing technologies. The productivity of label converters has increased enormously since 1998, and both personnel and management need to acquire new skills.

More comments regarding the 20th anniversary of Narrow WebTech and thus, twenty years of label printing, please find in our overview of “20 years NarrowWebTech” with all published articles – click here!

1 Comment for this article

  1. Very good article – don’t forget the UK – Focus Label Machinery started out in 1981 and now have UV/LED on press in our showroom, on our digital Hybrid press and all presses are modular and flexible

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