Digital Print Engines Flood the Label Market

Posted on by Dave Erlandson | No Comments »

It used to be easier to select a digital print engine for label production.  The first manufacturers in the field were HP Indigo and Xeikon with their electrophotographic presses (ElectroInk for HP and toner for Xeikon).  Then along came the Jetrion (now EFI) inkjet presses.  It wasn’t too hard to pick from one of the three main vendors.    HP did very well in this environment, capturing over half of the market.   Recently the number of choices has expanded dramatically.

As of Labelexpo in Brussels at the end of September 2013, there were roughly 60 digital label printers from 39 manufacturers on the market (or coming to market within a year).  Products range from desktop units to high speed production.   Approximately two thirds of the print engines are inkjet.  And two thirds of the inkjet presses use UV inks, while the other third uses aqueous inks.

EP is certainly not dead. The market leaders (HP and Xeikon) are staying with their technologies.  The other EP printers are primarily desktop or slower speed printers for in-house label production.  This includes products from Primera and OKI Data.  It is interesting to note that a new press from Canon Océ that is designed for folding cartons will use EP with liquid ink technology.  And this new Canon Océ press is very fast and highly productive.

Inkjet is definitely getting attention as a number of the big names in the printing business are jumping in to the label market with inkjet presses.  In addition to EFI, companies such as Colordyne, Epson, Durst, Domino, Inx, Stork, Heidelberg, Fujifilm, Miyakoshi, and Screen all had digital inkjet presses at Labelexpo.

To make matters more complicated there are additional configurations that combine digital inkjet printing and flexographic printing into a printing solution.  So how do you choose?

There are many factors to consider when choosing a digital press for labels.  I have grouped them into seven categories:

  1. Image quality.  This is always the top criterion because if your customer doesn’t accept the quality the rest of the features don’t matter.  As one looks at the specifications for digital label presses you the figures quoted in dpi.  Unfortunately that doesn’t really mean much.  You need to print samples of your customer’s work and look at them to determine if the image quality is good enough.  Of course image quality includes being able to hold colors throughout a run and from job to job.
  2. Applications.  Can you run work you have now?  Since Pantone colors are not readily available for most  jobs (unless you have really high volumes) you need to look at what colors your customers are requiring and find out if a new press can hit the colors. Some presses are 4-color only, while some have white, and some have 6 or 7 colors.  And you need to be able to run the appropriate substrates. Are you running food applications that require meeting certain standards?
  3. Finishing/Converting.  Printing the label is just part of the job, you have to die cut or laser cut the labels, varnish, stamp, laminate, slit and rewind.  Most digital presses have offline converting, but more and more in-line options are available.
  4. Productivity.  Not only do you need to be able to print with great image quality you need to get the work out in a timely manner.  By combining speed and web width you can calculate label production capacity.  Often the temptation is to “future proof” your operation by buying more capacity than you need today.
  5. Workflow.  Processing print files for digital is different than for flexo.  And digital typically means a large number of shorter runs.  Workflow software that automates make-ready is essential.
  6. Reliability/Service.  Presses breakdown and need repair. Some more than others.  Service response times and service expertise are critical.
  7. Total Cost of Operation.  When calculating the cost of digital print solution you need to figure more than the cost of the press.  You need to add-in the cost of consumables (ink or toner), service, substrates, pre-coating (if needed), coatings, dies or laser die cutting, finishing equipment, press operator and finishing labor, make-ready, workflow software, and energy.  TCO calculations can be further complicated when jobs are ganged together to optimize substrate usage and press time.

As a start, I’ve loaded a PDF that lists the products and key specifications (http://tinyurl.com/mv5tfzc). Also included in the PDF are links to the websites for these products, where you can get more detailed information. Hopefully this will allow you to quickly survey the field.

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