But it is growing, and last month international label association Finat reported that European digital label press installations outstripped conventional press sales for the first time in 2017.
300 digital presses were installed across the continent last year, the organisation’s Finat Radar report found, and the trend looks set to continue, with 45% of Finat printer/converter members surveyed indicating they are looking to purchase a digital press over the next 18 months.
And it is not only low-cost entry-level digital presses bumping up the figures – the report found that nearly 60% of digital presses sold into the European marketplace in 2017 were in the price range of €250,000 (£223,000) to €750,000. Only 10% were priced below €250,000 and 8% were more than €1m.
But despite the large outlay on digital presses, a separate Finat study published last year that represented 2016 found that digital represented 9.7% of the European printed label industry’s total market value, which at the time stood at more than €16bn.
The same study found that toner-based systems still accounted for as much as 76% of European digital press installations while inkjet/hybrid systems made up the remaining 24%. But it noted the growth curve to 2022 highlighted inkjet press installation growth expanding at a higher year-over-year rate than toner-based systems.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that an increasing number of major players have started to take their first steps into inkjet in recent times. Canon announced in June that it would enter the market with the Océ LabelStream 4000 while long-time toner exponent Xeikon unveiled its first inkjet press – the Xeikon PX3000 – in March 2017.
Xeikon corporate communications manager Danny Mertens says inkjet and toner both fit different types of applications but feels there are a number of reasons that toner is still dominant.
“One aspect is print quality – it all depends on the type of application and the end use segment, but at the moment we still see most requests coming for the dry toner solutions.
“Many of our customers are into specific applications related to food, and food safety is an important aspect. Dry toner is the only technology that is able to respond to that in this situation.”
On the digital vs conventional debate, Mertens says “both were really made to go hand in hand” but he expects digital to continue to grow as brand owners begin to adopt the product diversification opportunities that it offers.
Reflex Group operates both digital and conventional label presses but chief executive Ian Kendall says the firm’s near-term machinery investments will be on conventional machinery.
“Digital is part of the mix but it’s not everything. It’s certainly not for the hardcore volume FMCG market.
“And conventional is still improving – the front-end, the speed to press – the latest conventional machines we’ve invested in make ready in a fraction of the time that the older ones do.”
Kendall believes part of digital’s attraction is its accessibility, singling out HP’s label presses, which he calls “very reliable and serviceable”.
“A lot of smaller companies that don’t have reprographics skills have bought these machines and all of a sudden out of the box they have a machine they can put a file into and it produces beautiful labels.”
Heidelberg UK product executive for labels Chris Jackson, who oversees the manufacturer’s Gallus brand, says the key thing with digital is to understand its place in the market and what it can do for your customers.
“It’s about producing the best labels and finding what the best way to do that is for each specific job.
“In our experience, digital is not necessarily replacing conventional label equipment but is complementing it. One trend is that people want to order less of their products and not keep a high value of stock on shelves. Run lengths have come down and variable data has become an important offering, so digital can fit that.”
While digital installs may have overtaken conventional label press sales, at least in Europe, and the technology promises increasing innovation and countless opportunities to add value, conventional ultimately remains dominant in market value terms.
“As things stand, mass production is currently more cost-effective to do in the conventional manner with the cost of inks and ink coverage,” says Jackson.
“But there’s space for both technologies and it’s down to customers’ individual requirements.”