Finding the Right Label Printer: Flexo, Digital or Hybrid

If you’re a flexo-based label printer converter, you may be wondering if it’s the right time to get started with digital. You may be wondering when to use flexo and when to use digital. And if you’re already using digital, you may be thinking, “Do I have the right digital technology to compete, be successful and grow my business?” And what about hybrid?

There are lots of questions, so let’s take a closer look to help get the answers.

The CEI BossJet hybrid press, powered by Domino

Brand Owner Demands

Historically, analog printing such as flexo, screen, gravure and offset lithographic technologies have dominated package printing, and it was not uncommon for label printer/converters to be growing at double-digital rates. Brand owners and packaging buyers were very loyal to their label providers. However, over the past few years, brand owner demands and the label printing landscape have changed.

We don’t have to look any further than a visit to the grocery store to see it in action. Manufacturers of foods, beverages and consumer goods products are continually generating new flavors, colors, scents, varieties and sizes. The number of unique SKU numbers for a typical supermarket has increased over the last decade to tens of thousands of items, as the demand for innovative ways to differentiate products by their packaging and labels continues to grow in importance. Quite simply, more versions of labels are being printed. Why?

Consumers have more choices today than ever before, and grabbing and retaining consumer mindshare is critical to the success of any brand. Each brand owner wants to make certain you buy—and keep buying—its products, so all are doing everything they can to grab and hold your attention. And what do you notice most about any brand while strolling the aisles of the grocery store? You notice the packaging, and more specifically, the labels.

In parallel to this, brands and packaging buyers are adopting lean manufacturing and just-in-time (JIT) processes. They want quicker turnaround, reduced inventory and reduced waste. In order to accomplish this, the production of those products and everything associated with those products (packaging, labels, and—yes—the printing of those labels) has to be in sync. This adds pressure to the label printer/converter to deliver what its customers want, when they want it. Less than that, and the brand owner may look to find a new label provider.

So, label printers/converters need to take a look at their books of work, as well as new business they want to capture, and ask themselves if they have the right internal “tools” to make it happen—people, products and processes. And specifically, do they have the right printing technologies for their business to succeed and grow?

When is Flexo Appropriate for the Label Printer?

Flexography is a printing technology that has been around for decades. It has long been referred to as the “de facto standard” for printing labels, and involves highly skilled and trained operators who monitor the press to ensure labels are printed to the exact specification intended.

Flexographic label printing is an ideal choice for longer runs with a minimal number of SKUs. Why? Since flexo uses printing plates and inks that must be

Flexo and digital have long been thought of as competing technologies, but in reality, they should be thought of as complementary technologies—whether the flexo and digital label presses are physically separated across the room, or integrated together as a hybrid.

changed for each specific job requirement, it’s best to have the press running continuously for as long as possible. When one SKU or version of a label is printed and completed, it then takes additional time and labor to complete the setup, or makeready, of the next job to print—changing colors, plates, etc. And during that makeready downtime, when the press is not running, the label printer/converter is not making money. So longer runs with minimal changes are best for flexo. In addition, flexo allows for embellishments to be added to labels, and printing and finishing is combined in a single process.

Jennifer Dochstader and David Walsh of LPC, a market research and technical PR firm working with brand owners, suppliers and converters, reported that in 2016, conventionally printed labels made up 90 percent of a $13 billion North American label printing market, and there were between 90 and 100 conventional presses sold. LPC believes the growth of the conventionally printed throughput industry will be 2 percent year-on-year over the next five years. LPC estimates that by the year 2020, one of every four presses sold will be conventional.

When Digital?

Digital printing is an ideal choice for short run work, jobs that require multiple SKUs, multiple versions, frequent graphic changes or when variable data is required. Digital printing provides consistency in production with computerized color management, so label to label, job to job, the colors are consistent and repeatable with no variation between operators. Makeready time, cost, inventory, waste and material are minimized, and digital printing provides an efficient way to handle shorter to moderate run lengths, while providing the flexibility to finish inline or near-line. From an efficiency standpoint, many label printer/converters are looking at digital to complement their flexo label printing business.

The MPS EF SYMJET 7-color digital UV inkjet hybrid label press

“Flexo or conventional presses are not going away. People are still printing what they’re printing,” says David. And Jennifer agrees. “That’s a really important point. We want to make clear that when we talk about the future of digital, it’s not like we’re going to see a bunch of conventional presses end up on the trash heap. Not at all. These presses don’t have obsolete buttons. They last a long, long time. But we are seeing more and more work passed over to digital and it opens up and frees up more capacity on conventional presses,” she adds.

An example of this is given by Mark Turk, president and CEO of International Label & Printing in Elk Grove Village, IL. He says that after a year of having a digital press, “we thought the flexo business would drastically decline… we were taking jobs off those presses.” Instead, the exact opposite has happened. “We’ve never been busier, flexo-wise, since we’ve gotten the digital. So, it has really opened up a lot of business for us on the flexo side.”

Label printer/converters are learning that having digital in their arsenal is not just complementing their flexo business from a capacity standpoint, but also providing other benefits as well. Kevin Hayes, executive vice president at Outlook Group in Neenah, WI, said that when his company first added digital, “We used it to take some of the short run business off of our long-run presses.” Today, Outlook is using digital “across multiple industries, really learning more and more about what we can do with the technology.”

“One of the things that digital printing is allowing us to do, is to address a broader group of clients. With shorter run equipment and the higher speeds that [digital] provides, we are able to play in new markets and attract new customers, and we marry that up under a G7 Master Printer environment, so it all looks and feels the same,” Kevin adds. “It also allowed us to address lead time issues with our customers… we can just move over there quickly and print, and within hours have the product on its way to the customer.”

LPC reported that in 2016, 10 percent of labels printed in North America were printed digitally, and there were 130-140 digital presses sold (these are digital production presses—not desktop or tabletop machines). LPC projects electrophotography (dry and wet toner) market growth over the next five years will be 10 percent, while digital inkjet/hybrid market growth will be leading the pack with 13 percent to 14 percent growth. LPC estimates that by the year 2020, three of every four presses sold will be digital.