Small-format kit options that offer big advantages

By Barney Cox, Monday 29 September 2014

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Digital printing per se is not new in the label market. However, evolving market requirements and production technologies are leading to some big changes.


One important change actually involves things getting smaller, or rather the launch by several manufacturers of digital label printers that are smaller and less expensive than those previously on offer.

Historically digital label printing has been primarily used to overprint batch, serial number, use-by dates, barcodes and other alphanumeric and product identification details, often onto pre-printed labels. This simple, mostly single-colour work tends to be done close to the label’s application. 

Colour digital label presses from manufacturers such as HP Indigo and Xeikon, and more recently the slew of UV inkjet machines from the likes of Domino, Epson and SPG have made it possible to produce shorter runs of the graphic labels than was possible using flexo, and to add customisation or personalisation. However, while these machines have enabled shorter runs than traditional presses, their relatively high acquisition costs – typically upwards of £250,000 – and high throughput rates – from 19m/min – has limited the number of label printers who will invest in them.

“For a typical label printer with sales of £500,000-£1m currently using flexo, investing in a production press, such as a Xeikon or an HP Indigo, is scary as they need to secure a large volume of business to make it economic,” says Infotrends associate director Bob Leahey, a label and packaging sector analyst.

And yet demand for short-run labels is growing, which means vendors have spotted an opportunity to offer a new, less sophisticated, class of short-run digital label printers.

Before considering the available technology it’s worth understanding what the applications are and where the demand is coming from. Behind that demand are a number of factors including economic, commercial and regulatory issues.

“The recent economic instability has led to a lot of cottage industries offering products like jams and cosmetics, so there’s a new need for short-run labels,” adds RTI European director Peter Barton.

“Trends include an increase in private labelling as firms look to differentiate their products to protect their margin,” says Intec business development director Mark Baker-Homes. “Huge regulatory changes are coming piecemeal in the next couple of years, which heightens pressure to have low inventory and produce on demand to ensure you’re not left with lots of non-compliant labels.”

Global regulation

One of those regulatory changes is the new requirement for chemical labelling and packaging (CLP). In Europe it is covered by EC regulation 1272/2008. This covers changes in the way ‘hazchem’ information is conveyed on labels and packaging, including changes in the size of labels and the pictograms used. This regulation is part of a broader global standardisation led by the UN and known as GHS, which stands for Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals and Mixtures. 

The new slew of machines geared towards this demand are either toner or inkjet. Typical running speeds for roll-fed systems are 9-15m/min. Toner printers tend to use a modified desktop printer, typically an OKI machine. This contrasts with the dedicated imaging systems of the HP Indigo and Xeikon presses. Inkjet printers typically run water-based dye ink, often using the Memjet single-pass Waterfall technology, rather than the industrial-strength UV inks and printheads, typically from Xaar, used in the inkjet label presses. 

The target markets for these small-format devices are label printers looking to add digital capabilities, and general printers and end-users looking to bring label production in-house. How sales are split between these markets varies, depending on who you talk to, which could be down to geography or technology.

According to Allen Datagraph (ADSI), whose Axxis and Centra products are sold in the UK by SSE Label Printer, the split of sales is 60% traditional label converters; 25% end-users and small brand owners; and 15% commercial printers. 

Intec expected a similar picture for its Edge 850 and LP215 printers but its experience has been quite different. 

“When we started we assumed the bulk of our business would be selling to existing label printers,” says Baker-Homes. “In fact they are the smallest sector of our customer base – about 20%. The biggest market – 45% – is end-users looking to bring label printing in house, which was surprising. 35% are printers in other markets looking to add digital label production.”

Traditional label printers’ low uptake of low-volume digital may be part of the reason why customers are choosing to bring production in-house themselves. “They’ve chosen not to put the work out as they don’t want to get stung on price after being offered high prices and slow turnaround for low volumes by flexo printers,” says Baker-Homes.

That low uptake by label printers’ may be a reflection of their unfamiliarity with digital and short runs because their benchmark is flexo.

“Traditional firms tend to just look at the production cost of digital and see how unfavourable it is compared with flexo,” he says. “That may be why we see more interest from printers in other sectors – they’ve already been through the pain of digital and can see the bigger picture.”

Printing is only part of the process of course. It’s also important to consider how labels are shaped and applied, which determine the substrates, printer and any ancillary equipment. The cost of the label production is also only one factor for the customer, how the labels fit into their workflow and the cost implications of that are also crucial.

“It’s important to consider the client’s set-up and their costs,” says Baker-Homes. “If they have a label applicator then the labels need to be on a roll. They may have invested in a label applicator as it is cheaper for them than having someone sticking labels on by hand.”

Whether labels are applied by hand or using an applicator is the critical factor in choosing to use a roll-fed or sheetfed printer. For manual application a sheetfed printer using pre-cut label stocks will be a lower cost option at around £5,000. However, even if the run length is only a couple of hundred, if they will be used in an applicator then they need to be supplied on a roll. Printing on a roll is more challenging and the systems cost more. Memjet-based inkjet systems such as RTI’s Vortex 850R start at £7,000 while toner machines, such as Intec’s Edge 850 start at £12,000. 

There are different sorts of rolls too, and picking the right sort depends on the type of user and the applications. For in-house production, pre-cut and possibly pre-stripped label stocks are usually preferred. Whereas for a commercial or label printer, either an integrated printer/cutter or standalone printer and digital cutter may be better. 

“Shape has become very important as a way to differentiate products on the shelf and labels follow that trend,” says Infotrends’ Leahey. “That means pre-cut labels are a limitation. A label firm getting into digital will typically get a finishing line – they won’t want to use existing finishing kit for digital labels.”

Costly cutters

For in-house operations with only a couple of different sizes and shapes pre-cut may be preferable as it saves the added cost and complexity of running a cutter – which can easily exceed the cost of the printer. Intec’s LCF 215 cutter, for example, is £18,000, more than the cost of the printer it would be paired with. 

How the label will be used will determine the material it is made from and what printing technology is most appropriate. 

“GHS, the forthcoming label legislation, is having an impact; and demand for resistance to water and chemicals plays to the strengths of toner,” says Andrew Hall, marketing manager for OKI Systems UK.

LED imaging, as used in OKI’s machines, has a low fuser temperature, which opens up a range of synthetic substrates. Although they can’t print onto polypropylene, they can print onto polyester and many standard label films and foils. 

Inkjet machines need a specially coated, and therefore more expensive, material even on paper, which can negate inkjet’s lower hardware and ink costs. For applications demanding more robustness and water fastness, inkjet needs laminating, adding the cost of the laminate and the process of applying it.

While low-cost digital label printers address a previously untapped market, they have limitations, which means that some firms will need a more expensive digital label press. White ink and special colours are also a challenge. 

The latest OKI sheetfed machines can print white, however the way the machines are configured means they can’t be adapted for roll-fed printing. Water-based inkjet, especially the Memjet technology, is unlikely to crack white either. 

So for the most demanding applications and for higher volumes – anything above 10,000 labels per day – digital label presses still win out. But it’s not an either/or situation. There are firms which run both label printers and label presses side-by-side having recognised they are each better suited to particular jobs, so are complementary rather than competitive.  

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