There's no denying it: one of the biggest stories to emerge from last year's Drupa was that digital and packaging finally seemed serious bedfellows. But what may have surprised some, was the realisation that digital's relationship with label printing actually goes back much further than with, say, folding cartons. A decade and a half longer to be precise.
This, along with the fact that there are now around 2,100 digital label printers installed globally, according to the Labels and Labelling consultancy, may well pique the interest of both commercial digital printers and existing flexo or litho label printers, both keen not to be left out of such an apparently thriving sector.
But before either party rushes into digital label printing, careful assessment of why digital has been here longer than in any other packaging sector needs to be made. Once this is understood, the case for digital label printing, though strong for some, can be assessed in a slightly more cautious light.
The first potential confusion to clear up is that digital came to labels first as this was where demand for a short-run, personalised packaging option seemed most pronounced. Mike Fairley, founder of the Labels and Labelling consultancy, explains that, actually, it was more the case that the digital technology in place happened to suit to labels work and a few enterprising souls decided to test the market to see if a digital solution would sell.
"All the initial digital presses had to be narrow web because if you wanted to scale them up it got expensive," he explains. "So if you look at the packaging industry, up until Drupa, then the digital solutions were only really suitable for only a few pack printing applications, such as very short-run sleeves, sachets and, of course, labels."
Not so simple
Out of those, it was labels that seemed to really catch printers’ imaginations. From the outside, you would assume that would be because it was the market that was easiest to get into to try and drive customer demand. With digital label printing still apparently going strong 15 years later, that theory is given some weight, and yet Fairley says digital label printing is anything but simple for non-label experts to get into.
"If you’re printing labels you could be printing coated papers, uncoated papers, high-gloss papers, cast-coated papers, thermal paper," he says. "Plus you’re almost certainly going to have to be able to print on PVC, polyethylene, polypropylene and metalised materials."
That is a list of substrates not many commercial printers will currently be able to print on with existing digital machines. Indeed, the majority of printers looking at the digital labels market will have sheetfed or wide-format machines, and neither is particularly well-suited to label printing in other ways, too.
"You can print labels sheetfed or wide-format, but the issue is whether that suits the needs of the user," explains Marc Tinkler, senior business development manager at Epson. "People want to use reels of a certain size for automatic application, and so any label runs not printed in a reel or at the right web width will have to be applied by hand, and that limits you to very short runs."
Basically, what the market requires is a dedicated roll-to-roll digital label printerfrom the likes of HP, Xeikon, Epson, EFI or Domino. And yet for a commercial printer looking to produce labels on the side using the digital machine they use for commercial print work, buying a dedicated roll-to-roll machine is not what they had in mind.
If the demand warranted it, though, and the kit needed minimal investment, then their mind perhaps could be swayed. Unfortunately, say those in the sector already, digital label printing is very much an involved process.
"There are so many steps that are needed to embellish print and transform a substrate into a label, such as laminating, cutting, foiling and creasing," says Christian Menegon, HP Indigo business development manager. "So for a firm looking to break into this market, it’s a lot to take on."
Unsurprisingly, then, examples of commercial printers using digital roll-to-roll label printers are thin on the ground. Fairley reports that nearly all printers using digital label printers are dedicated label printing businesses.
Just because dedicated label printers are doing the bulk of the work, though, does not mean that an enterprising commercial printer with some financial clout could not muscle in on the market. Flexo and litho label printers too, may still see an opportunity, with much of the infrastructure already in place in their pressrooms.
But again caution is needed, and again it will be important for these printers to assess the exact size of this prospective digital labels market. And if they do look closely, the level of demand in the market is not what you would expect after 15 years of technological and market evolution. While it might be assumed that brands would be by now seeing every-one-different labels as a great way of easily personalising packaging and tracking products, this has not really taken off, reports HP’s Menegon.
"There are brands who want their product to be trackable or protected from counterfeiting, but I don’t think that kind of variable labelling covers more than 5% of all the label print that is out there today," he says. "The challenge is not necessarily the printing, it’s more how the brand tracks variable numbers – that’s a bottleneck at the moment."
Cause to pause
Not only will this lack of appetite for variable labelling make commercial printers question whether this really is the most lucrative packaging sector for them to use their digital know-how for, it should also give those already printing labels pause for thought.
Indeed there are those, such as Reflex Labels, who maintain that in the absence of demand for truly variable data labels, flexo equipment is more than capable of processing the short-run jobs coming the company’s way.
"Flexo is growing as a technology, it has found its feet where digital has found its feet: in ultra short-run, personalised sampling mock-ups, or niche markets," says Reflex’s Will Parker. "We spend a lot of time correcting misconceptions about digital, because people often say ‘digital’ when they mean ‘short-run.’ They assume short-run has to be digital, and it doesn’t."
Parker adds that the idea that owning a digital machine is essential in catering for last-minute, just-in-time work, can be a bit of a fallacy. "Some people have invested in digital and fallen into the trap of being lazy," he says. "When they forget to make a set of plates, they use the machine as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. That doesn’t add value, it just makes it easier to get the job out of the door when you’ve not been organised enough."
There are those who would counter, however, that their digital label machine’s raison d’etre isn’t just last-minute work or even particularly short runs. Adrian Steele, managing director at Mercian Labels, reports that people often request their job be placed on his Xeikon 3300 because they prefer the finish, and that in fact longish runs can be surprisingly cost-effective.
"Customers will often plump as a first port of call for digital, because the quality is amazing," he says. "The phrase that was bandied around Label Expo this time was ‘flexo is competing with digital’, whereas last year it was the other way round. There is no reason why the majority of jobs shouldn’t be on digital now because it is very cost-effective."
The latter suggests digital labels may just be a slow starter, then. With a 15-year head start on the other digital packaging options discussed elsewhere in this report, you would expect it to be further along than that, but it may be that only now is the technology, market and economics working together to make it viable. There may be a lesson there for those eyeing the fledgling digital carton market.
And yet Steele’s position is contentious. Others do not agree that digital labels have truly arrived just yet. Reflex’s Parker, for example, is happy to wait for his Landa machine to be delivered at the beginning of next year, as this he feels is the first digital machine really suitable for both short and long runs.
So while label printing and digital technology’s relatively long-running partnership might suggest label printing’s future will be particularly digitally oriented, there is cause for caution. Certainly, as the 2,100 printers already with this technology would agree, there is plenty of short-run demand out there. And some would point to digital’s increasing suitability for longer and longer run work.
But whether label printers are seeing demand for jobs so short-run, variable or on-demand that they can’t be processed on conventional label equipment, will depend on who their customers are and the sophistication of their non-digital kit, with many quite happy to make do without until digital really comes of age for long runs. Similarly, commercial printers will need to look to their customer-base to see whether demand for short-run labels is in fact soaring. Seeing as they’ll probably have to invest in dedicated digital packaging kit anyway, they might just as easily branch into another form of packaging such as folding cartons, if there is more demand for this from their clients.
So the key lesson for commercial and label printers to take from a close examination of why digital got to label printing first? Just because others are doing something, doesn’t mean you have to.