How to raise your profile or make an impression

By Simon Eccles, Monday 23 January 2017

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Now that colour digital printing is ‘good enough’ for the sort of things most people want to do with it, attention is switching to the twiddly bits that catch the eye and add value to the print job.

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Embellishment is the fashionable term. This means what used to be called special effects, such as spot gloss (or matt), texturing, embossing, metallic and other exotic finishes. 

There has always been the option to add these with traditional analogue processes, but we’re now seeing more and more embellishment methods that share digital print’s advantages of no makeready and no plates or dies. This allows for economical short runs and even variable data applications. Some are being built into digital presses, others require dedicated stand-alone systems, but both are becoming more common and often more affordable. 

Extra colours

For on-press effects, it’s usually necessary to have at least one extra print unit on your digital press, beyond CMYK. 

HP Indigo liquid toner presses have had up to seven colours since the late 1990s, but other manufacturers were slower to follow and so far nothing else offers more than five units. Often the extra ‘colours’ are white, clear and metallic, but special gamut-extending and security inks are also sometimes available. HP remains the only digital press manufacturer to allow users to mix their own special coloured inks. These can be loaded to print in any order, in a way that emulates non-digital presses. 

Fifth colour units are growing more common on dry toner presses too (including Kodak NexPresses, Ricoh ProC7100X, Xerox iGen5 and Xeikon 3000 models). 

There’s a growing number of ‘neon’ (UV-fluorescing) inks available for large-format sign and textile inkjets, but so far the only dry toner equivalent seems to be the specialist CMYK neon-only A4/banner OKI Pro6410 NeonColor desktop model, at just £1,300. 

White 

Opaque white ink has been increasingly common on large-format and narrow-web UV inkjets for almost 10 years, though it’s still quite new to digital production presses. It is very useful for use with pre-coloured or clear media as the white can form a reflective undercoat that allows coloured inks to show with normal brightness. 

HP Indigos have had a white ink option since 2012, available on all current presses. Unlike most dry toner presses, the liquid ElectroInk works on metallised substrates such as Mirri board. Here a variable spot-foil effect can be made by printing an overall white and leaving ‘holes’ for the foil to show through. 

Digital white is available on a handful of toner presses, such as the five-unit Kodak NexPresses and the Ricoh Pro C7100X (sold by Heidelberg as the Versafire CV). Unlike Indigos, white must be last in the sequence, so a double pass is required for an undercoat (Kodak and Xerox next-generation machines will have interchangeable sequences). 

Xeikon can print white on its web-fed simplex 3000 presses for label work. OKI also offers white on its low-cost A4/banner Pro7411WT (about £2,000) and the older A3/banner Pro9420WT (about £3,500). 

Embossing

Embossing, the production of an impressed mark in paper, has been popular for centuries, originally using metal dies. Raised print to simulate embossing first appeared in digital presses with the Kodak NexPress SE series in 2009. Its Dimensional system uses a special clear dry toner that swells under the heat of a modified fuser unit to form a raised image up to 40 microns high. The height of the effect can be varied within the image (using greyscales to control it), to create textured surfaces. 

So far no other dry toner press maker has produced an equivalent to Dimensional. However, since 2012 HP Indigo liquid toner presses have been able to build up raised and textured images by re-passing the sheet through the press up to 20 times to build up multiple clear ink layers – it works but can be pricey as each pass counts as a chargeable click. A curious variation on this is a facility to pre-print raised images onto a liner paper on the impression cylinder. When the print sheet is sent through on top it creates a true embossed impression. 

Other embossing simulations use dedicated inkjets and UV-cured inks to build up raised images of very respectable heights. Scodix pioneered this, first appearing at Ipex 2010 with a B2 inkjet with an optically clear polymer ink which can register onto pre-printed sheets. It’s since expanded the range to six models in sizes from B3-plus to B1, and speeds up to 4,000sph.

France’s MGI Group introduced its B2 UV spot varnisher, JetVarnish, at Ipex 2010. Two years later at Drupa 2012 it introduced JetVarnish 3D, with similar raised imaging effects to Scodix (though not with the same maximum thickness). 

The Czech manufacturer Komfi appeared at Ipex 2014 with a B2 variable-data spot varnisher called Spotmatic 54, available (together with an older B1 model) via UK agent Friedheim. This can produce modestly raised effects by multiple passes. It costs about £160,000, compared to about £250,000 for a B2 MGI JetVarnish 3D (or nearer £700,000 for the B1 Evolution) and anything from £250,000 to £1.2m for the various Scodix models. 

Large-format UV inkjets offer a lower cost, though much slower route to raised effects. Roland DG was the first to announce this as a standard feature with its LEC range of roll-fed LED-UV inkjets in 2008, but similar effects can now be achieved with other UV inkjets from manufacturers such as Mimaki and Mutoh. 

Metallics and foils

Metallic finishes are among the most eye-catching effects you can incorporate in print. Achieving them digitally is steadily becoming easier and more accessible. 

Metallic ink or toner is one way to do it. Large-format inkjet makers Mimaki, Mutoh and Roland DG all have metallic eco-solvent inks in their range. It’s much the same story for dry toners. Kodak has been selling a gold toner for NexPress fifth units since 2013 and Xerox introduced gold and silver for its Colour 800i/1000i presses a couple of years ago.

While these inks and toners really are metallic, they are fairly dull by comparison with metallised papers or foil blocking. They can be eye-catching though and seem to work best if used sparingly as highlights. 

Foils remain the gold standard in metallics, so to speak, and digital application techniques have advanced rapidly in the past few years. The major advantage is they don’t need metal dies, so very short runs and personalisation are possible. 

The original method has been around for a couple of decades: dry toner (or HP Indigo) print can be heated up to the point where it activates the adhesive on hot foil, which is pressed onto it with the waste peeled off. Black works best. You can print the toner on top of other pre-printed materials such as offset and inkjet. 

Caslon has sold US-built FoilTech machines based on this process for years: these start at about £2,000 for a 340mm-wide manual- feed model but go up to £4,360 for an auto-feed machine. More recently the Japanese company Uchida has been selling U-Coater foilers that work slightly differently and include a burnisher. Prices range from £3,500 to about £11,000.  

Now the toner-foiling process is increasingly being adopted for larger formats and higher capacities by laminating machinery makers. The Korean manufacturer GMP added foiling to its laminating machines as a process it calls ‘Sleeking’. This is available with GMP Exceltopic-380 and Q-Topic laminators, priced from around £6,000 and £9,250. Intec sells own-label versions of these as the ColorFlare range. Vivid has also been selling add-on foil units for its Matrix thermal laminators (aimed at small offset and digital press users) for a couple of years. Both GMP and Vivid say they can also work with black toner printed onto a protective overlaminate. 

MGI offers an optional toner-based foiler inline with its latest Meteor digital dry toner presses. It calls this Unlimited Colours, pointing out that foil can be spot colours and diffraction effects as well as pure metallics. 

Cold foil can also be applied to part-cured (so sticky) UV varnish or special adhesive primers. The Scodix and MGI raised-image UV inkjet varnishers have been adapted with inline foilers, giving a raised foil blocking effect that’s very convincing. 

Laminator maker Autobond makes flat inkjet UV varnishing units called SUV for sizes from B3 to B1, that can run inline or as a standalone system. It has likewise adapted these to run cold foil applicators for about £15,000 extra. Alternatively a hot foil-toner option can be added to a standard £43,000 Micro B3 laminator for about £7,500. 

Leonhard Kurz, the German foil maker, offers a toner-foiler called DM Liner, costing about £115,000 for B3 and £144,000 for B2. At Drupa 2016 it introduced a dedicated spot UV inkjet foiler called DM-Liner UV Ink: it’s B2 format, runs 3,600sph and costs about £330,000. 

Cold foil can also be applied to prints from some of the Mimaki UJF series small (A3 to B2-plus) UV flatbeds and the much larger 2.5m JFX200 flatbed. The Digi-Foil system has been developed by i-Sub Digital and comprises either a modified Vivid Matrix laminator with cold foil applicator, or (for JFX200) a hand-held applicator for spot effects. 

Inevitably, there’s Landa too. At last year’s Drupa it showed a brand new process called Nano-Metallography. This applies minute metallic particles to a spot varnish, giving a mirror finish. It says the first machines will be add-on heads for third-party digital label presses and will ship this year. 

Embellishment lets you move beyond utilitarian CMYK for digital print and adds capabilities that were never possible in the past. As ever the main challenge will be to explain the potential to customers. 

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