Label printing technologies have undergone a sea change after the onset of 21st century. In the beginning of new millennium, the flatbed and letterpress processes made way for the narrow web flexographic printing which eventually grew to become the most preferred print technology for labels. With technological advances in prepress and plate-making process, Flexo print quality became closer to offset. This was followed up by hybrid printing using flexo, screen, gravure and later also offset printing in a single pass. We have been seeing the convenience of desktop office printers, inkjet or laser but they remained that way for long and were not used for high quality labels in roll form. It is only in the second decade of the 21st century that digital label printing began evolving. By middle of the decade, it was growing substantially in the western part of the World, yet but in India it did not find many takers.

 

In May 2015, I reviewed and wrote about the indulgence of Indian label industry in Digital printing equipment, I interviewed leading label printing companies of that time in an article titled; “Label Printing in India, digital has to wait”, available at the link;   https://harveersahni.blogspot.com/2015/05/label-printing- in-india-digital-has-to.html

In the summation I wrote; I am quite amazed by the similarity of responses from most of the persons who responded. All of them had expressed that the cost per print in digital does not prove it to be a viable proposition, considering the prohibitive cost of the equipment and that of ink and consumables. The undercurrent in all expressions is that digital printing as things stand now will not be the mainstream technology. It will co-exist with existing technologies and will be used for specific demanding needs. As for the time frame before digital printing becomes largely visible and used in label printing in India, they said it varies between 3 to 5 years. So, for the time being, “It has to wait a while!”

 

Two years hence, on May 7th 2017 I did yet another survey and wrote my article titled, “Digital label printing in India, the journey has begun! Self Adhesive Labels Industry In India and The World: Digital label printing in India, the journey has begun! (harveersahni.blogspot.com)My estimation was as follows: By latest count, the population of leading brands of digital label presses in India had reached twenty-two in number. This was besides the low value small printers that some companies may have acquired. Now this was a fairly impressive figure when just until over a year back the industry felt that digital has to wait. Estimating the size of the digital label market, I calculated the total consumption in the industry for digitally printed labels to over 52 million square meters per annum, which translated into to almost 5% of the total self-adhesive labels in India to be printed digitally. This surely indicated that for digital label printing in India, the journey had begun!

 

 

European Label Industry Association Finat had revealed in a statement that European digital label press installations overtook conventional press sales for the first time in 2017. The journey that began, has now progressed to be on a growth path. In fact, repetitive purchase confirms that the technology is not only here to stay but also attain steady growth.

 

 

 

 
In the present private survey or research in respect of digital printing of labels in roll form, done personally by me, I have arrived at interesting results. The data being presented here is entirely my own estimation and I have not depended on any already published authenticated information. I have interacted with the following renowned brands to arrive at figures that I present in this article;

 

Domino

Durst

Epson

HP

Konica Minolta

Monotech

Screen

Xeikon

 

The number of digital roll label presses of leading brands in India has expanded from the 22 in 2017 to 51 in 2022 registering a CAGR (Compounded Annual Growth Rate) of 18% as regards the number of press installations. Out of these HP Indigo accounts for 16 presses  which include two 25K which find usage both for labels as well as for flexible packaging and one HP Indigo for Lamitubes, Konica Minolta 10, Monotech 8, Domino 3, Xeikon 2, Durst 4, Screen 2, Epson was 5 machines as assessment done in 2017 since they did not respond I believe there have been no additions thereafter. Two water-based  inkjet presses from Astronova are also in the tally of 51 presses. If we consider just the numbers, Hp has 32% share of the installations, Konica Minolta 20%, Monotech 16%, Durst 8%, Domino 6%, Epson, Screen and Astronova account for the balance . However, this is not a real indicator of the quantum of investment by label printing companies in digital printing technology. I have done the calculation on the approximate costs of these equipment, the total investment in digital roll label equipment is more than Rupees 215 Crores or about 28 million US Dollars.  HP being the most expensive equipment of the lot, accounts for a whopping 66% of the investment made in value  while all others remain less than 10%.

 

Considering the geographical spread in number of installations; 36% of the established brand installations are in the West of India, 36% in the North and 11% in South. However, in terms of value,   the West leads the way, followed by South. As for label materials consumed, in 2017 I had calculated that 52 million square meters of labelstock was converted by digital printing. The consumption with increased investments and faster speeds appears to have more than doubled to over 109 million square meters registering a CAGR of 16%. As indicated by the people I interviewed there are many more installations being planned that will ensure continuous growth in this segment of label printing and converting.

Digital printing means web to print; it is an exciting process as compared to the analogue or conventional printing, yet it brings with it, challenges that translate it into a not so simple process. A technology that was initially being promoted as a complementary technology to conventional printing has reached a stage of being referred to as a competitive one. With presses going wider and running at higher speed and consumables getting affordable, it will not be long before it becomes a contemporary mainstream technology . However, those who have had the success and have understood the nuances of digital printing, are looking at expanding further in this segment of printing. I sought comments from many who have invested into digital capabilities and their responses make interesting reading.

Denver Annunciation, Janus International:  Janus International are pioneers, they were the very first label manufacturing company who invested in an HP Indigo press at their Thane facility. The brothers Denver and Janus are very enterprising. They have offset, flexo and Digital printing capabilities, all of which are doing well for them. They are a company who are growing beyond the inflationary growth. Being  manufacturer of beer and liquor labels, they wanted to do something different, and they took the challenge of investing in digital label printing. Since HP was the only established supplier of digital presses at that time with a proper setup, it was natural for them to install an HP Indigo press. Denver says, “Digital helped us cater to smaller businesses and widen our customer base while our other capabilities drove in the volumes.”  According to him digital does provide opportunities for creativity but it is not a standalone equipment that will deliver. You need different prepress and post-press finishing setup. It also involves additional resources that add up to per unit cost like requirement of same amount of manpower for packing, delivering and invoicing smaller shipments. Despite this adds Denver, “it gives a fair return and we will definitely look at expanding our digital capabilities“. Referring to their experience with digital Denver says, “Initial challenges were there, it has been a long journey, but surely enjoyable”.

Anil Namugade, Trigon Digital: Trigon Digital has been in the news in recent years for their multiple investments and expansion in the state of art digital equipment. Anil Namugade Managing Director of Trigon while answering why he opted for digital says, “Good label finishing and converting for me is like oxygen to heart, blood and brain for creativity.” Trigon has invested in multiple digital equipment and the biggest of them an HP Indigo 25K, his second HP Indigo after the first 6900. He asserts that digital has helped them grow, as since their inception 14 years ago they have been using only digital technology. Their business has been growing. Anil expresses, “digital is a mindset, we need to have a bit different approach in understanding the customer’s requirements and our capabilities to serve them.”

Honey Vazirani, Leap Digiprint:  Honey and Vikram, both directors of Leap Digiprints, spent 25 years in labels and packaging industry working for Paper products Ltd. later renamed Huhtamaki PPL Limited after acquisition by multinational Huhtamaki Oyj, so packaging is what they knew best. Wanting to be more futuristic, ecofriendly and wishing to initiate a small boutique business of their own, they made the choice to setup their maiden startup venture in Noida NCR Delhi. Selecting a strong digital print partner that time, HP was the best choice. The technology has helped them grow, giving the desired results from producing variable and short run of labels. Says Honey,” The turnaround times, print runs of 100-200 meters, variable printing…all the capabilities that attracted us to digital are still clear advantages.” Further she  adds, “Overall it has been good experience. However, it is not as trouble free as one would expect it to be. Also, the costs and pricing need to be handled effectively but unfortunately the downstream conversion for labels (post digital printing) is not as well developed as it should be to support short runs”

Harish Gupta, Sai Digistik: Harish Gupta led Sai Digistik has invested in two digital label presses HP with liquid toner & Konica Minolta with dry toner technology. According to Harish, the dry toner technology has limitations of only CMYK printing, no white and printing on limited substrates, so we have both liquid toner and dry toner printing capabilities to have the best of both. Cost of digital printing is high, it was very good working with digital during pandemic phase-1 when manpower was short, and requirements were instant. Short runs are easy to handle, and we got focused to help startups for their smaller needs with our motto “Startup for Startups.” With no need of plates and make ready etc., the turnaround time is less, yet it is not a simple technology, one needs to study thoroughly before investing. Cost of producing labels is higher as compared to flexo, but it is felt that, as we grow in volumes the costs of consumables will reduce. However, as we see the trends globally, with manpower becoming a challenge and reducing length of jobs, digital is bound to grow and find preference.

Surendra Shriyan, Maa Flexi-label: An offset printer who realised that volume-based production has decreased with more variables and short runs, in the given scenario digital is the future for good printability and  fast turnaround time. They opted for HP Indigo label press. Being new entrants, they are exploring exciting possibilities but feel pricing in digital is a challenge. After observing the changes in the western world regarding the digital label printing, even though they are convinced that it is futuristic, yet they say, “It is not all, a bed of roses.”

Nilesh Jain, Mahavir Impex: They opted for a Durst UV Inkjet label press for its print quality output without applying any primer on most substrates. Nilesh expresses that digital has helped to achieve desired results within minimal time and reduction of undesired wastages. They feel it will become the predominant technology , but the results from different digital print technologies (dry toner/liquid toner /UV Inkjet etc.) would not give a uniform and similar print result on various substrates. The advantage of digital for them is outstanding quality achieved at good speed and reduction of waste with no investment on plates and other expenses.

Manish Hansoti, S Kumar: Narrating his experience with digital label printing, Manish Hansoti says; “Looking to cater to demand of small quantity, variable printing multiple S K U’s and label on demand, we have invested in a Screen digital label printing press. We had assessed all technologies and found Screen ink jet printing technology was a better fit for us as we wanted to print labels with less ink coverage for specific customers. The cost of the ink in this process was found lower as against dry toner FASMA/click charges. We consider digital technology as part of customer service because in small volume there is no chance of making topline but can get customer satisfaction. The technology will grow if the capex goes down and ink price or click charges drop, then there will be big changes in global printing scenario. Short run or variable printing is profitable but there is limitation in getting many such orders, so we always have spare capacity. We do not see another investment in digital until costs of inputs come down.”

Priyank Vasa from Unick Fix A Form: “The Domino N610i digital label press was acquired by us in 2018. Wanting to free up our flexo capacity to improve turnaround time and job throughput, we started exploring options. We narrowed down to the Domino N610i because of Domino's strong presence in India and its service network.

Evaluating its media compatibility, color matching, accuracy of pantone reproduction, ink cost analysis, it looked the right press for us. The press was commissioned in the beginning of 2020. Dealing with a modern technology we knew there lies a learning curve ahead. In the present-day scenario, we have been able to take up new business both for flexo and digital. Digital has added to our sales where we are able to completely leverage the opportunity cost which could not happen in flexo. We do not limit use of the digital press to small runs. It has also opened new avenues for us in respect to products like IML, Shrink sleeves, Cartons and VDP.”

 

Vinod Vazhapuli, Skanem IndiaHaving run a very innovative campaign for the FMCG company Reckitt Benckiser(RB) Vinod Vazhapuli Managing Director of Skanem India is very optimistic about including more digital printing capabilities in his company’s expansion plans. Skanem  had been a part of Dettol’s unique packaging commemorating Covid warriors. Please see my blogpost titled Dettol Labels used to salute "Covid Warriors"! Skanem India, a part of Norway headquartered Skanem AS was one of the two approved vendor of RB who were roped in to execute this special campaign of Dettol customized labels. The deliberations for this campaign started when Reckitt approached Skanem in second week of May 2021 and discussed the possibility of creating one hundred variably printed unique labels. Having an HP Indigo press, the capability was there. They were given an order for two million labels. It was a gigantic task as there were one hundred artworks. RB wanted the right pantone shade of Dettol and the job had to be done in speed, so Skanem requested RB to give them the artworks also in CMYK because to match the green Dettol shade as close as possible to the required shade it is necessary to have the prepress right. The approvals were done online and the material delivered in time. That is the power of digital, the rest is history.

 

Rajeev Chhatwal, Kwality Offset: Rajeev sums it all well, he says he sees a good future for digital label converting. Printers need to look at this technology positively and separately without drawing a comparison with analogue or current capabilities even though it is a business that needs to run parallel with your current profile of business. One of the biggest advantage of digital is that it helps one to increase customer base. A larger customer base, if attended well, ensures continued growth. To find success in digital arena one needs to accept that there is a definite learning phase and one must provide for contingencies while planning and be prepared for them. Rajeev says, “It is a business that has a bright future in which the fittest, the one with guts and endurance, will survive and excel. It is a business that provides impetus to your present business and when you do short, variable and personalized run for a customer, you have a happy customer! In a young Indian population becoming spenders, ecommerce is looking up, does it not ensure positive growth of Digital which permits variable and personalized printing? Are we not looking at the numbers of startups on rise? My next investment, maybe a year down the line,  will be digital, I invested in a Xeikon with dry toner technology, which I am happy with, I will probably go for a UV Inkjet next to expand my capabilities”.

 

The author is grateful to the people without whose help and inputs this compilation may not have been possible. Those whose support I got, include Umesh Kagade and entire team of HP, Shayak Mukherjee of Konica Minolta, Ajay RaoRane of Domino Printech, Vikram Saxena of Xeikon, Jimit Mittal of Monotech and Ajay Agarwal of Insight Print Communication for Screen and Venkatesh Selveraj of Printronics for Durst.

Note: Printing magazine and portals can republish the above ONLY after giving credit to the author Harveer Sahni and mentioning blog https://harveersahni.blogspot.com 

 

Written by Harveer Sahni Chairman Weldon Celloplast Limited New Delhi India April 2022

In my early years when I worked for my parental company Weldon Sales Corporation established in 1939, manufacturing stationary products like Weldon Fountain pen inks and office glues besides a range of stationary products, I remember that we used to affix paper labels on glass bottles using water-based adhesives. Initially these were solutions of gum Arabic and later we switched over to starch based adhesives produced by us captively. These worked well on glass bottles or paper-based packaging, the only challenge was that we had to wait for the adhesive to dry before putting these into secondary or tertiary packs as the labels would shift if packed wet compromising the appearance of the product. The same issue was encountered by the beer industry which continues to face it, at least for some brands that still rely on adhesives that do not address this problem. Since glass packaging was heavy and was susceptible to breakages in transit the introduction of plastic HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) bottles came as a big relief at that time. HDPE that was invented in 1953, started being initially imported and later produced in India by Polyolefin Industries Ltd. a Mafatlal Group Company under license from Hoechst Germany, in the late 1960s. HDPE plastic bottles came as a big innovative development for the liquid packaging industry. When we at Weldon started using outsourced Plastic bottles, later manufacturing them in-house, labeling them brought fresh problems.

The labels affixed with water-based adhesives, on drying would fall off in transit or get wrinkled. This was because of the reason that HDPE is a low-energy polymer and for normal water-based adhesives to form a permanent bond is a problem.  For some round bottles, we started using wrap-around labels as then the label would come around and get pasted paper to paper. It was during this period after 1965 that the earliest self-adhesive labels started being produced in India and in the 1970s their usage in the packaging of products started to increase. These labels would bond instantly, would not need drying and would not shift in packaging , also aiding the aesthetics so their usage spread quickly and widely. It was that time we at Weldon also shifted to self-adhesive labels or pressure-sensitive labels. The rest of the evolution of Self-Adhesive labels is history and is still an ongoing process.

Adhesives: Pressure-sensitive adhesive(PSA) labels is now one of the fastest growing segments in a world of diverse labeling technologies. It provides accuracy of clean labeling and options to use a variety of adhesives for  application on different surfaces in most environments, including temperature, humidity, exposure to UV, etc. Advancements in products and their packaging require labels to perform in extreme and demanding parameters.

Some food and pharma products require the labels to perform at very low temperatures, typical are for ice cream, pharma and vaccines that require extremely low temperature for storage. Synthetic adhesives that are in use nowadays harden at very low temperatures and tend to fall off so must be formulated to withstand the application and storage conditions. These adhesive soften at high temperatures therefore signages and labels that must be used for outdoor in diverse environments, withstand UV light and heat build up due continuous exposure to sun also need adhesives specially formulated to perform for the duration of their lifetime. Direct PSA labels application on food products like fresh fruits and vegetables is now in use and labels must be certified safe for direct food contact and that they should not have adhesive or inks from which plasticizer may migrate into the product. Coming to labeling on low energy surfaces like HDPE bottles mentioned above, though the label sticks well but in these days of increased incidence of anti-counterfeiting, pilferage and tampering, the label with standard general purpose adhesive can be pulled off cleanly by an experienced hacker or counterfeiter. So, the adhesives are an important and integral part of evolving trends in self-adhesive labels. A lot of development has been done on these lines and continue to be taken up to produce special formulations that conform to the specific requirements.

Substrates and embellishments: As customers grow in numbers, segments, literacy, urbanisation and geographical spread, the packaging development managers are attempting to create innovations in partnership with label printers to woo the consumers, increase the shelf appeal of products and increase brand recalls.

Moving from simple label substrates like uncoated maplitho or uncoated woodfree paper, now the selection of substrate is as per the imagination or creative ideas of the label developers. The label face materials can be selected from a wide range of options available like semigloss paper, metallised papers or films, textured paper, various clear or opaque films, fabric, cork, lenticular films, holographic paper or films and anything that emanates out of a creative designer’s mind. As for embellishments, there was a time when either using a cast coated paper or a good varnish were the only options, but now a whole world of new ways to embellish labels has erupted. Using multiple printing technologies to get the best of every printing process, adding value to win customers and beat competition is becoming a necessity for printers. Today we see labels being made in-line in a single pass employing a combination of flexographic printing for spot colours or pantones, offset to create vignettes or skin tones, screen for higher deposition of ink, rotogravure to get the best results of metallic inks, cold foil, hot foil, using a variety of varnishes to create effects like textures, high gloss, matt, silk finish or just spot varnish, embossing and debossing to bring amazing results in the finished labels. We see printers create labels with raised effects like dew drops, print that seems to give the look and feel of wood and fruits with pulp, giving a natural effect. Adding further to the capabilities, now printers are employing digital printing either in combination as mentioned or as repass to do variable printing and or personalization. The options are getting to be limitless.

Security Labelling: Increasing number of instances of duplication, counterfeiting and pilferage has created a need for security to be made an important part of labeling.

Counterfeiting products is a problem not only limited to pharmaceuticals industry, but it also affects 5 to 7 percent of global trade. It has impacted other industries as well, such as electronics, automotive parts, spirits, consumer products and high-end cosmetics. Earlier security labels were only with security cuts incorporated at the time of die cutting, then specialized stocks with overt and covert features like the Void labels started being used followed by destructible labels. Holograms also have been largely employed and is now hologram production is a large segment of label industry. With development in pre-press and printing technologies printers use micro printing which is not visible to naked human eyes and other such printing methods used in printing currency to inbuild security in labels. Barcodes are also being largely employed to play an important role in security in labels besides aiding variable statutory information, track n trace information, inventory and logistical data. A very important development in recent times has been Intelligent labels that include near field communication (NFC) or radio frequency identification (RFID) to perform a wide variety of tasks. Integrating these capabilities with traditional labels is one of the most dramatic development in labeling.

Printing Equipment: The narrow web self-adhesive label manufacturing commenced in India in the first half of 1970s on small, about 4-5inches label presses imported from far eastern countries mostly from Japan at that time. These small narrow web presses that did block printing were extremely slow about 5 meters per minute but still did the printing and die cutting inline in a single pass, that was its USP.

It may appear strange to the younger printers of today that there were no drying arrangements in these presses. Printers would print and then hang the printed rolls of labels on a clothesline for drying before rerolling them on a core and sending to customers. Shop floors of narrow web label printers would look like washing yards referred to in India as “Dhobhi ghat”. The printing technologies with time went through continuous changes. The flatbed block printing made way for semi-rotary intermittent letterpress using polymer plates. With improvement in Flexo ink and plate technology, rotary label presses with central impression drum (CI Label Presses) found their way into print shops. These provided faster speeds at increased widths of 7 inches(180mm)-10inches(250mm) and as the buyers became more demanding on colours, speeds and performance, together with further evolution of prepress, advancements in plate making and registration controls, the CI narrow web label presses moved out making way for modular presses using water-based inks with hot air dryers. However, CI presses continued to be used for other applications like lami-tubes and mid-web flexible packaging. Label presses have over the years evolved to print wider web widths of 330mm, 430mm, 530mm and at last Labelexpo presses over 650mm were displayed. Printing speeds have also escalated to over 200meters per minute. In an evolving scenario of rising demands for perfection in print and printers facing challenges in reproducibility, colour variations due to viscosity changes in ink trays and set up wastage, were releived when UV inks, UV lamps for drying and short web path became a standard part of presses. The UV printing also enabled printing and converting filmic labels after addition of corona treaters inline to enhance print adhesion. Some label companies have of now reverted to include a combination of hot air and UV as some food products have witnessed migration of photo initiators in UV inks migrating into the food causing contamination, so the option to print with water-based inks comes in handy to service such requirements. LED UV also is being seen as replacement as there is energy cost saving and better as regards migration issues. Ideal solution maybe Electron Beam curing which is costly but that has still to be accepted by Indian label industry. There is hardly any installation with EB curing for production of narrow web labels in India.

Other evolutions that happened include label presses designed for quick change overs to enable a large number of jobs per day, servo drives to eliminate gears coupled with advanced vision camera systems to achieve perfect registrations in both machine and cross direction without human intervention, better matrix removal, web cleaners to eliminate pinholes and print aberrations, web turn bars to print both sides of the web along with the delam-relam function for enabling printing on back or the adhesive coated side of the web. Movable lamination stations and embellishing stations like foiling add value to the printed labels. Multiple die-stations to enable functions like embossing, debossing, slitting besides simple die cutting or sheeting have become a standard function demanded by high-end printing companies. Change of heavy magnetic cylinders was a cumbersome and time-consuming job requiring manpower and lifting arrangements. Now in a couple of minutes one can slide-out and slide-in a magnetic cylinder.

The pandemic that surfaced in end of 2019 and drastically impacted the whole world and made businesses suffer for all of 2020 and when we are hoping for it to taper off in 2021 providing relief to mankind, it has started to resurface. It has prompted the industry to re-engineer their working. The aim now is to work with less. Workflow management, increased automation, clean room manufacturing, inventory controls, effective management systems, etc.  are the buzzwords that even smaller entrepreneurs understand and are making efforts to implement them.  Automatic butt slicers/reel changing systems to achieve continuous 24X7 production when needed, waste management equipment sucking waste matrix right from the die cutting stage and shredding and inline inspection/colour management systems to reduce rejections which were earlier a preference of only a selected few, but these are now a part of standard equipment configurations envisaged commonly by Label printing  companies planning expansion or planning new setup. The evolution and shifting of trends in self-adhesive labels have been an ongoing process and printers need to adapt the changes as they originate to stay fit, competitive and innovative.

Author’s footnote: Each parameter listed above and many other parameter’s like inks, special adhesives, coatings and machine design are subjects that are to lengthy to be accommodated into one article and need separate coverage. 

Written by Harveer Sahni, Chairman Weldon Celloplast Limited, New Delhi-India April 2021

Change is the only constant in life.” This is an age old saying and it is so true! As we look back in time that has gone by, the evolution in technologies that impact our life is amazing and for the new generations it is difficult to imagine the path traversed by elders.

For example, look at the development in telephony and communications; there was a time when, to get a telephone we had to make a lengthy application with documents plus a hefty deposit and then wait for 3 years to get a telephone. For dialing national or international numbers one had to book a call and experience endless wait to be connected for a 3 minute call. Those who did not have telephone connections had to visit a post office to call relatives in other cities, book a call and wait for their turn until the operator tried to connect them for a call that they had to pre-declare the duration as 3 minutes or 6 minutes. Mobiles have transformed life and we have instant voice and video communication capabilities 24X7 with multiple phones in our pockets. The mobile is perhaps the most impactful technology experienced by us in life so far. In a somewhat similar manner, printing technologies have evolved over hundreds of years to bring changes enabling perfection and colourful meaning to all printed products. A technology that began with carving stone blocks, apply colours and transferring images, evolved to using wooden blocks, metal type sets, letterpress printing, screen Printing to offset printing, a technology that was widely adopted and spread across the world as the most preferred print process. Also evolved flexographic and rotogravure printing. All these technologies had a costly pre-press and make-ready process as also the cost of artworks, plates, print cylinders, etc.

The 1970s saw the beginning of an era that would continue to impact the print industry in a totally different tangent, the digital printing! The technology enabled printing with a command from a computer with press of a button without much of processes that were needed in conventional printing.

It is so much like the changes in mobile phone technology coming about. By 1993 the digital printing technology developed such that the first commercial digital printing press named “Indigo” was produced by Benny Landa in his company with the same name. This transformed the printing world; one could now print personalized short run jobs straight from computer. In 2000-2001, the company Indigo was acquired by Hewlett Packard (HP) and at the time of acquisition Landa had said, “Our vision has always been to lead the printing industry into the digital era and to see Indigo technology pervade the commercial market. Now, a part of HP, that goal is in sight.” Rightly so, the market of digital printing has been registering robust growth. Digital printing technology has been developed by various press manufacturers and is being widely adopted with innovative indulgence.  Label manufacturing is an integral part of print and has also been witnessing growth both in terms of total market as well as in Digital printing of labels. The global market for label printing has been growing steadily in recent times, valuing at $36.98 billion in 2017. As per Smithers Pira the total market of labels is likely to cross 49.9 Billion USD by 2024. According to Finat; 2017 was the first year that, with nearly 300 digital press installations, the volume of newly added digital label presses surpassed that of new conventional label press installed volumes.

While label printers in the western world have been early investors in digital label printing presses yet the Indian printers have been skeptical about the need for this investment in the Indian label production scenario.

The different types of technologies available leave the printers in a confusion as to what is the most appropriate technology that they should invest in. Unlike other conventional printing processes evolution of digital printing has moved into different technical ways of achieving the same goal which is computer to print.
Largely available technologies offered by various manufacturers of digital equipment are as follows;
1.       Dry toner based

2.       Liquid toner based

3.       Inkjet

4.       UV Inkjet

While looking at the selection of digital print process one also needs to decide the finishing of the labels whether they wish to do this inline or offline. Every different short run job maybe of varying shape requiring frequent stops and change of cutting dies.

This substantially reduces press running time and impacts profitability adversely. In such a case it is advisable to finish the labels offline, one offline equipment can free up printing time of multiple presses. Laser die cutting is another option whereby it can handle multiple and frequent job changes without the need for additional dies and machine stoppages, but this calls for a much higher investment in the finishing equipment.  Additionally, one needs to decide with digital, what dpi resolution to go for; does the work need a white ink in one of the printing heads; does the press have an extended color gamut. Press running speeds of all the digital label press technologies vary quite considerably. The printing speed with many short-run job changes is also an important factor for consideration.
Dry Toner based process:

This process is an evolution of the earliest photocopying process known as Xerography invented by Chester Carlson founder of Xerox and converted as Laser printer by Gary Keith Starkweather in 1970s which transformed to digital printing with laser printers also called electrostatic digital printing as we have seen in our offices.

In a laser printer a laser beam runs over an electrically charged drum preparing an electrical image carrying charged areas.  The drum is a cylinder coated with a material that becomes conductive when exposed to light or laser beam. Areas that are not exposed have a high resistance which allows these areas to hold the electrostatic charge necessary for the process. The image then collects the toner and transfers the image to a paper or substrate that is then heated to fuse the image on to it. In traditional xerography the image is formed by reflecting light off an existing document onto the exposed drum which then picks up the toner and transfers the image. Dry toners consist of pigments embedded inside polymer beads. The fusing phase of the electrophotographic process melts the polymer beads to the surface of the paper. These can print on both coated and noncoated papers. Image quality is a complex issue, determined by a combination of hardware, software, consumables and processes. Dry toner is not absorbed by the substrate, it always achieves an optimal optical density as all the ink transferred is adhering on surface. The particle size of the toner has been reduced over the years to achieve fine print results and most equipment are offering prints of 1200 DPI for solids and blends with good color depth and subtle contrasts, ideal to reproduce vibrant images.
Major brands offering dry toner based digital label presses are Xeikon and Konica Minolta.
Liquid Toner based process

Liquid toners also use pigments in polymer beads, but they are dispersed in oil that evaporates during fusing process. Liquid toners are used in digital presses that are typically used for commercial printing on a wide range of coated papers.

Benny Landa an Israeli inventor mentioned above, having to his credit 800 patents produced the first Indigo digital printing press in the early 1990s using liquid toners in a process that was called liquid electrophotography or LEP in his company established in 1977. Landa came to be known as the father of digital printing. The liquid toner used by HP came to be known as ElectroInk, that combines the advantages of electronic printing with the qualities of liquid ink. ElectroInk contains charged pigmented particles in a liquid carrier. The image is created with electrophotographic process on the drum directly from digital data, avoiding the use of any analogue intermediate media. It starts with digitally created pages or print elements containing text, layouts or images. HP Indigo uses a blanket in between to transfer ink from the drum to media. The blanket is heated, melting and blending the ElectroInk particles into a smooth film. This produces an image that is completely defined on the blanket and transferred to the substrate by direct contact. For this reason, it is also referred to as offset digital printing.

Major brand using liquid toner based digital printing process: HP
Inkjet Printing
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Inkjet printing is the oldest of technologies in non-contact printing evolving into digital colour printing commercially. Existing together there are two main inkjet technologies i.e. Continuous Inkjet (CIJ) and drop-on-demand (DOD).

The CIJ method has been in use for ages in which a high-pressure pump directs liquid ink from a reservoir through a gun body and a microscopic nozzle, creating a continuous stream of ink droplets. These droplets are subjected to a varying electrostatic field and then these charged droplets pass through another electrostatic field to deflect them and form characters. The process can be understood by the image reproduced from Wikipedia. The Drop-on-demand (DOD) is divided into thermal DOD and piezoelectric DOD. Most commercial printers use the DOD to print. The large format ones use solvent or water-based inks depending on the equipment and the product. The inks used in digital inkjet label printing presses are water based and formulated with either dyes or pigments. Aqueous inks provide the broadest color gamut and most vivid colors. The water-based inks are inexpensive and may ultimately spell out as the lowest cost print, but some substrates may require specialized coatings as there is an imperative need for the ink droplet to sink straight in and not to smudge or smear. With growing volumes, increased environmental and consumer friendly nature of inks the coated stock prices are likely to become largely affordable making this technology to watch as wider acceptance is envisaged. Such inkjet printers can achieve high resolution of 1600 DPI. Since the start of a new millennium another water-based inkjet technology called Memjet has been evolving. Memjet is used in high speed, full colour printers to give a high-quality print at a very low cost. It uses a fixed print head unlike conventional inkjet printers where the cartridges or head moves back and forth during printing. The Memjet print head is fixed and is of the width of the material it’s printing on enabling edge to edge printing. This way it’s only the material that moves underneath the head as it’s printed.
Major brands using water based digital inkjet printing: Trojan from Astronova, Afina, Colordyne
UV Inkjet Printing

UV inkjet Digital printing is an extension of the inkjet printing that uses ultra-violet light to dry or cure ink. The inks consist mainly of acrylic monomers together with a photo initiator and after printing when exposed to strong UV lamps or in case of specially formulated inks to LED-UV light, the ink is cured by crosslinking.

The ink due to this chemical reaction becomes instantly dried leading to increased printing speeds. The curing process with high power UV exposure for short periods of time (microseconds) allows printing on thermally sensitive substrates like BOPP and PE. Since the ink sits on top of the substrates and neither is dried by evaporation nor by absorption resulting a robust image on a wide range of uncoated substrates. It is the fastest growing sector of digital inkjet printing and more sustainable than conventional printing.
Major brand using digital UV inkjet printing: Canon, Domino, Durst, Epson, Screen, Xeikon

Selecting digital printing equipment for label printing is a complex task depending on the printer’s customer portfolio. It varies on many parameters, like the equipment price, ink price, media cost, media to be printed, consumables cost, speed of machine, resolution required, space and finishing required.

Time is not far when printers will invest in multiple technologies to attain the best of each process and to service a wide array of customers. However to start with the print on demand feature is so very attractive and for short runs it seems to be becoming an absolute necessary at least in case of established printers whose large investments in high end flexo or combination presses gets held up doing shorter runs and taking away valuable production time. Since short run demands from brand owners continue to swell along with need for variable data, it becomes necessary to opt for an offline finishing equipment which does not slow down their printing capabilities.

Most of the leading label press manufacturers have started offering Hybrid machines with combination of Digital and flexo printing capabilities along with decorating and finishing inline. It is not a simple decision to opt for the hybrids.

As mentioned earlier here, it all depends on the portfolio and requirements of individual label printers. It is interesting to note that all hybrid presses with digital capabilities displayed at Labelexpo Europe in September 2019 were fitted with UV inkjet digital presses. Leading press manufacturer who are offering Hybrids of flexo, digital and inline finishing include Gallus, Omet, Mark Andy, Nilpeter and MPS. With environmental concerns, migration of inks and other food or Pharma safety needs, non-waterbased inkjet systems may see more development in future. As of now due to the speed and versatility offered by UV Inkjet coupled with the ability to add additional white and other colours, UV inkjet is the predominantly used technology however investment is high. Therefore, selection of the best suited technology for digital in labels must be as per individual printer’s need and that of their diverse customer mix. It is a competitive time and cost of equipment, cost of consumables and the nature of output is very important to ponder over before finally selecting the first entry into digital.
Written by Harveer Sahni Chairman Weldon Celloplast Limited New Delhi November 2019