Digital printing has been a popular topic of discussion for labels and packaging over the last decade. Historically an industry dominated by offset and flexography, the narrow web label market is realizing a shift toward new production methods, those being digital and digital hybrid workflows. According to a study by LPC Inc, 50 percent of label presses sold in 2016 were digital devices and it is predicted that by 2020, three out of every four units sold will be digital.
One of the main drivers of digital growth is new requirements by converters’ customers—the brand owners. Brands are investing more time and energy into their labels and packaging in hopes of connecting with product consumers on a deeper level. As shelves become more crowded, standing out is critical to maintain sales revenue. In fact, the Food Marketing Institute reports SKU growth is more rapid than ever before, with an average of 39,500 SKUs in the typical North American grocery store. This equates to a 400 percent increase in the number of goods available for purchase in the last 30 years.
SKU proliferation is everywhere, which in turn reduces run length or units per job. Seasonal goods and sophisticated customization, such as variable data printing (VDP) and versioned graphics, are also preferred by the end user, pushing low-volume label orders and an even bigger need for digital technology.
Where Does Hybrid Printing Fit?
The need for shorter runs also comes with the need to differentiate. That’s where hybrid comes into play versus conventional digital process. Digital hybrid is a printing method that leverages the advantages of digital printing with the proven capabilities of flexo in a single pass.
A hybrid production unit combines traditional flexo embellishment, inline converting and digital printing into a single solution. In the past, all of these necessary label production steps would need to be done using several processes and pieces of equipment. Offering a profitable solution for label converters, hybrid technologies maximize the long-lasting success achieved with flexographic capabilities while providing printers with the opportunity to stay current with market trends and meet the straining demands from their customers.
The Many Faces of Hybrid Printing
In recent years, many OEMs have brought hybrid digital solutions to market. That said, hybrid comes in many forms: semi-, modular and true. Semi-hybrid devices use nearline finishing methods and consist of multi-company integrations. For these types of presses, two or more companies buddy-up to support digital printing and finishing components of the label production process.
Modular hybrid solutions are digital retrofits for flexographic equipment. Offered through programs like Mark Andy’s Digital Plus Program, solutions of this nature aim to allow converters to enhance existing assets with the benefit of digital without having to invest in a new, standalone piece of equipment. This type of solution is well-suited for the converter with a specific application need, such as VDP or marking. Additionally, modular hybrid solutions are great for companies facing capital constraints or those wishing to make better use of an underutilized legacy press.
The last and arguably most efficient classification of hybrid is true. True hybrid provides single-source production platforms with web handling, digital print, converting and finishing in one pass. As of early 2018, there were more than 80 pieces of true hybrid equipment in production, ranging from approachable entry-level units to high-output devices. Data shows true hybrid brings two shifts of flexo work down to one and reduces ink and substrate costs by up to 20 percent.
The Power of the Platform
Many converters are making the shift to true hybrid due to the advantages of the process. Inline converting is the standout differentiator. Blank rolls of material put on the press are transformed into expertly crafted labels and packaging ready to be sent to customers, all in a single pass of production. Substantial time and waste savings are achieved; Mark Andy digital hybrid customers are reporting 50 percent and 20 percent savings, respectively.
True hybrid also reigns king when evaluating the ability to differentiate through decoration. This is especially important in craft industries, where highly embellished output is the standard. True hybrid presses enable the same degree of customization flexo provides. A printer can utilize cold foil, varnishes, laminates, digital special effects and intricate die cuts in a single pass. With semi-hybrid solutions, this is only achievable with ancillary equipment or secondary decoration processes, leading to more downtime.
Another clear advantage of true hybrid solutions is the single source nature of the product. Adopters of true hybrid are clear who to reach out to with any questions, as opposed to with semi- or modular hybrid solutions. If there are questions about new application development or substrate compatibility, the OEM is always available and knowledgeable. One company stands behind your business, your equipment and your success.
The same concept rings true when addressing upgradability of true hybrid. Unlike semi- or modular solutions, true hybrid enables a clear upgrade path with a longstanding partner.
Where Hybrid Printing Is Headed
There is no denying flexography has a stable place in package printing, but the future of flexo isn’t the humble tape press from the industry’s infancy; rather, the intuitive digital hybrids engineered in the last few years. Hybrid comes in many shapes and sizes, and every converter’s need is different. With inline converting and decoration, a clear upgrade path and rock-solid support, true hybrid provides a future-proof platform with the flexibility to change as individual business needs and the market require.
About the Author: Industrial markets are often underappreciated by the modern marketer, making it Chandler Davis’ mission to supply a spark of life to technical material in the narrow web print industry. Currently working as a marketing specialist for Mark Andy, she specializes in the company’s digital hybrid portfolio. Chandler is a University of Missouri graduate with expertise in social media, flexo consumables and all things labels.
Mark Andy provides solutions for every converter at every stage of the digital spectrum, with a press to get started, such as Digital One, or a full-production solution such as Digital Series to fine tune expertise and dominate the digital label market.