Hybrid printing systems – is the future already here?
An existing familiarity with conventional production processes can make the concept of a hybrid system appealing to many label printers. However, the additional challenges associated with opting for a hybrid printing system need to be taken into account:
· Synchronising the requirements of digital elements (ideal for short runs) with those of conventional elements (ideal for long runs)
· Integrating the various digital and conventional workflows
· Defining the optimum job spectrum (best possible working point) for the system as a whole and thus the optimum use
· Understanding the complexity of operating combined processes and the different ideas behind their use
· Technical integration and optimisation of both processes (e.g. through automation)
· Appropriate training for operators / task profiles
· Calculation of production costs for labels, as label printing is possible with both digital and conventional methods
The following image illustrates the chronological development of the different stages involved in current printing systems for self-adhesive labels.
In the view of this author, hybrid printing systems have so far been an intermediate stage towards a fully integrated digital converting system. Even when combination of the processes is well thought-out, operating a hybrid system is very complex and the job spectrum for profitable use is limited.
The small but important difference that a fully integrated digital converting system brings is that the performance data for all conventional finishing processes is adapted to the characteristics of the primary digital print. As production speed plays a less significant role for shorter runs, it is particularly important to ensure efficient changeover between the individual jobs. The waste, setup times and tool costs of the conventional processes must therefore be minimised before integration takes place, so that the disadvantages of conventional printing do not outweigh the advantages of digital printing and therefore prevent the system as a whole from being worthwhile.
For instance, flexographic printing units should only be used for non-format applications such as primers, varnishes and special effects that cannot be produced digitally. A semi-rotary die-cutter with pre-setting is preferable to a rotary die-cutter. Similarly, cold foil embossing is preferable to hot foil due to the lower tool costs.
It is also highly important that the different processes are integrated intelligently to ensure maximum user-friendliness of this inherently complex digital converting system. A standardised user interface with a consistent operating concept is just as important as regular monitoring and management of the individual functions. Examples include having a central control desk for centralised management of all UV and LED dryers and centralised monitoring of all filling levels, or a central cockpit that monitors all the production processes required throughout the system.
Gallus DCS 340 – an exemplary integrated digital converting System.
Reference was made above to how difficult it is to gain an overview of the many suppliers of narrow-web digital printing systems for self-adhesive labels. The speed of innovation cycles means there will always be a digital printing system with unique selling points that match the current trends. Making a long-term investment in equipment calls for both a comparison of the technical (digital) specifications of the print system and consideration of even more wide-ranging issues regarding the business partner. The following sample questions can provide an initial framework for selecting a system:
· Do my business partner and system supplier understand my company’s work and the factors that are critical for success?
Well-founded application expertise needs to be in place so that the whole system can continue to be developed in the future for addressing new types of application efficiently. This is one of the key conditions for ensuring that the digital printing system selected can make a company’s label printing business more competitive.
· Will my business partner be able to provide me with comprehensive support throughout the entire service life of my digital converting system?
When acquiring a digital printing system to expand the range of solutions offered, it is important to have access to a high level of support at the start to ease the learning curve. System suppliers need to be of a size that enables quick-response support when training or servicing is required, so that the short processing times (48-72 hours) often demanded by print buyers can be complied with.
· Is my business partner capable of managing the complexity of the system as a whole? How many different sub-suppliers and system interfaces does the digital converting system in question involve?
Successful label printing requires optimum compatibility between the key components, conventional printing and finishing, digital printing, digital prepress processes, inks and toner. Having too many separate suppliers (with their own particular interests) can make problem-solving during servicing more complicated and place limitations on optimising the system as a whole.
Furthermore, a system integrator (as one among many) has only a very restricted means of influencing the other suppliers, who will in turn also have to be accountable to several other system integrators.
· Is the selected supplier’s digital printing system based on a consistent and future-focused business model?
In digital technology, innovation cycles are often relatively short. The capital-intensive development speed required can only be sustained by system suppliers if they also benefit from the consumables and use of the system. Furthermore, it is only this arrangement that can assure the printing system buyer that both partners are working to a common goal – i.e. that they both gain from the intensive use and high availability of the digital printing system.
· On a global scale, digital printing for self-adhesive labels is a niche application that is profitable and growing well.
· Label printers who want to support customers across all label life cycle phases and with the increasing use of variable data (e.g. coding for traceability) are strongly advised to consider the digital printing systems currently available.
· Even if all the general conditions for successful use of digital printing are in place, the difficulty of gaining an overview of suppliers complicates the process of choosing a digital printing system.
· Existing familiarity with conventional processes for inline production can make a hybrid system seem to be a sensible next step for developing a company’s production portfolio.
· However, as hybrid systems are only an intermediate step towards fully integrated digital printing systems, this step and the complex challenges associated with the system must be considered carefully.
· If a digital printing system is decided on, the performance of the business partner must also be taken into account, as this can have just as significant an impact on the long-term success of the investment as the label printer’s own business model.
As “Business Development Manager Digital”, Martin Leonhard (51) is responsible for building up digital operations at the Gallus Group. He has been a Business Development Manager for Gallus since 2007 and lives with his family near St. Gallen. Before that, he worked at Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG for eight years, an experience that has proved very important in ensuring smooth coordination of the market launch of the joint development project for the Gallus DCS 340.back