The rise of digital label production is decades in the making, with an onslaught of technologies available to the label and packaging industry.
Anything from tabletop solutions, to traditional digital machines, to flexography-integrated equipment has experienced massive increases in user adoption year over year.
Driving the increased demand for digital printing technology are consumer applications that converters historically report being less profitable or unattainable on traditional printing equipment, such as flexographic or gravure solutions. Shorter run lengths and variable data printing are just two examples of such trends propelling the industry toward digital technology.
But as OEMs across the board continue to advance and push the envelope in regards to the quality and capabilities of digital print engines, digital embellishment continues to remain a point of contention for a portion of label and packaging shops:
- Those early to invest in technology may find themselves pigeonholed into a multi-solution workflow that cuts into the efficiency typically correlated with a digital press
- Some simply forgo the potential of higher-margin offerings
- Others cannibalize their flexographic equipment for the finishing and converting of their digital products
- More and more converters are investing in single-pass digital hybrid technology
Traditionally thought of as competing technologies, the industry is converging in agreement that flexographic and digital print processes are instead quite complementary to each other. Nearly all mainstay label and packaging OEMs have recognized the value in investing in hybrid technology and are either producing their own single-sourced hybrid equipment or forming partnerships with other OEMs to produce a multi-sourced hybrid machine.
Digital hybrid is, of course, a printing method that leverages the advantages of digital printing with the proven capabilities of flexography in a single piece of equipment. It pairs what is traditional to flexographic printing, such as inline decoration and converting, with established digital workflows and the benefits of digital printing. This translates to highly productive and responsive platforms.
A hybrid production unit combines traditional flexographic elements of embellishment and inline converting with digital printing into a single solution. In the past, all 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 needs of customers.
Efficiency by Integration
The irony in boasting the efficiency flexographic components provided in a label and packaging workflow is not lost, with digital printing recognized industry-wide as the go-to-choice for efficiency. However, with the end-user market pushing the accelerated adoption of embellished products, flexographic technology has found a renewed purpose in the form of digital hybrid labeling equipment, enabling the single-pass workflow with inline finishing and converting.
And in that single-pass workflow is where much of the efficiency can be unearthed when comparing digital hybrid to a traditional printing workflow. Waste reduction in the form of material and time are the two flagship savings continuously reported by converters that have adopted a hybrid production process. By streamlining the workflow and eliminating secondary converting and/or finishing processes, print shops are removing the bottlenecks often associated with those offline workflows.
An increased number of unknown variables are unavoidable in offline finishing workflows. Therefore, converters operating in these environments must account for a higher rate of defects. And with a higher rate of defects comes a higher quantity of production, which creates both a waste of material and time. Both inefficiencies are eliminated in a digital hybrid workflow. Other unnecessary steps in the offline workflow process that create unavoidable inefficiencies are the transportation of materials from machine to machine; this waste is tangible in the sense of time spent and also material that can become defective in transport.
Another lens to consider when it comes to efficiencies is this: Does your production process add value for your customers? Before any OEM gets the greenlight to begin the engineering of these incredibly complex pieces of equipment, there has to be a rock-solid need for it in the market. And similarly, when converters are evaluating new technology, there are a few things they should be asking themselves:
- “Will this machine decrease my lead times?”
- “Are my waste costs going to be improved?”
- “Is there a workforce out there for this equipment?”
- “Can I increase my margins through differentiation effectively?”
Expectations from end-users are driving many consideration factors to be classified as “value add” or “non-value add,” and in today’s landscape, converters do not have the leeway to stay competitive by passing through the non-value-add cost associated with an offline finishing process, which is non-value add by nature.
Evolution of Digital
All of the aforementioned factors have not only contributed to the shift from flexography to digital label production, but have also provided a pathway to a complete evolution of the digital technology landscape over the last decade itself.
In its initial heyday, digital reduced the cost of short-run business—a necessary and straightforward benefit. Inline converting and embellishing processes from flexography were simply not fast enough to support those shorter runs. But the same could be said from a multi-equipment workflow. However, advances in technology allowed inline embellishing to match the requirements of short runs, thus sparking the wave of the first-ever hybrids. Today, thanks to critical innovations in inkjet and, more recently, toner technologies, hybrid printing has been proven to be extremely profitable in short and medium runs.
As that technology continues to become more and more efficient over time, converters will be quickly integrating a hybrid production workflow into mid-length and long-run jobs—allowing them to be run long or short, based on the needs of the customer.
When it comes to digital hybrid performance, there are a few specific press components that enable high-quality results. Superior web transport is a non-negotiable for successful flexography/digital integration. Add to that fast-change converting solutions as well as easy-to-use flexographic print stations, and we have arrived at modern day hybrid label solutions.
Value + Differentiation
Closely aligned with the efficiency of digital hybrid technology is the ability for printers to offer a streamlined option for embellished labels. Whether affording a converter the resource needed to simply add a laminate or varnish, or utilize inline flexographic functionality, such as tapping into the rail system with cold foil or a screen cassette, businesses are turning more and more to the hybrid technology that provides the best of both worlds—the efficiency and variation afforded by digital printing and the endless option and configurability for which flexography is known.
With the two printing methods working in tandem, converters are able to either expand their offerings—by adding digital capabilities, such as variable data printing—or by “leaning” an existing book of business through operating in a more efficient manner.
Even by adding one flexographic station to a digital press, converters open up doors for printing on specialty substrates such as clear, dark and metallic media with the help of pre-digital flexographic white. This is a must-have capability in the lucrative beverage world. Having this functionality inline through hybrid technology keeps each asset open for the appropriate jobs to remain at the most profitable capacity achievable.
Benefits of Adoption
With shrinking runs and increased demand for product differentiation through decoration, it’s clear a large portion of the label manufacturing industry would be a target market for some form of digital hybrid technology. And the wide breadth of available machinery throughout the industry supports nearly every investment level.
From production-level hybrid inkjet solutions to dry-toner presses with an integrated print station and even modular devices that can be affixed to flexographic assets, there’s truly a solution for any business.
But with margins reducing at the same rate as run lengths, some converters have no choice but to invest in digital hybrid. Whether that means bringing outsourcing in-house, freeing up valuable flexographic press time or tackling new markets, converters are increasingly convinced that a decision to not invest in digital means a decision to get left behind.
And there is an alternate segment of converters that were early digital adopters, wrought with experience, now driving the growth of the hybrid market. They’re demanding a need for one or more of the following: higher levels of production, increased quality and increased differentiation.
Hybrid technology may exist because of these envelope-pushing industry players, but thankfully every converter has the capability to benefit from these flexible and versatile label presses.
About the Author
Mark Andy, a pioneer of the graphic arts and printing industry, is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of narrow and mid web printing equipment. With more than 250 digital hybrid installations globally, the total solutions partner provides the most profitable paths forward in single-pass, inline workflows.