Hybrid printing systems – is the future already here? (Part 1)

According to the IT Strategies consulting house (http://www.it-strategies.com/), digital printing of self-adhesive labels is the fastest-growing technology in the label printing industry.

Making up just 3% of total print volumes in 2013, the market for digitally printed labels is still relatively small. However, it is growing fast (by some 15-20% per year), and with a total production value of around 9%, it already offers highly attractive margins. IT Strategies predicts that digital printing is set to be a particularly important alternative to flexographic printing, with 10% of all of today’s flexographic jobs being produced digitally in the medium term. For label printers aiming to provide customers with the full spectrum of applications over the entire product life cycle of a particular label, it will therefore be necessary to consider offering digital solutions for short runs and processing industrially variable data (barcodes, QR codes, serial numbers, etc.).

Given that less than 15% of all label printers worldwide have a digital printing system, many companies are still deliberating over which to invest in. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that it is so difficult to gain an overview of this market – at Labelexpo 2013, some 30 manufacturers exhibited over 55 new printing systems.

As readers may already be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of different conventional printing and finishing methods, we will restrict the current discussion to just three aspects useful for further consideration of digital printing systems.

Currently, the main advantages of using digital rather than conventional printing systems are:

• Shorter throughput times for short runs (200 - 1,500 metres)
• Lower tool costs, less waste and shorter setup times
• Lower stock levels and lower storage costs (cf. tools and products)
• New applications (e.g. variable data for traceability or versioning)
• Shorter job pre-processing and processing times. This is an advantage for label buyers and can make higher prices more acceptable.
• Higher average margins per job. The increased flexibility also brings label buyers further benefits (lower stock levels, no need to dispose of old stock, reduced outlay required for quality and reliability, event marketing, etc.).

However, there are still significant disadvantages of using digital instead of conventional printing systems:

• Print quality (physical resolution, dot size and colour space) – there are limitations on gradations down to zero, small fonts, symbols (below 4pt) and fine lines.
• Register accuracy – this is critical for covering as large a Pantone colour space as possible with the available CMYK process colours and GOV colour space enlargement colours.
• Production speed (as independent of resolution and colour space as possible)
• System availability due to high maintenance needs, additional automated calibration and cleaning cycles and insufficient system stability
• Choice of substrates (e.g. shrink sleeves, inmold, textured paper)
• Inks and toner properties (adhesion & abrasion, low migration, light-fastness, etc.)
• There are currently very few integrated inline solutions that make it possible to progress from substrate to finished label in a single production run

The successful use of digital rather than conventional printing systems depends on the following conditions being met – because a digital system is not “just another printing press”:

• In-house prepress expertise (measuring substrates, colour management, optimisation of prepress data for the digital printing method chosen) is absolutely essential – otherwise it is not possible to ensure print quality and flexibility for last-minute changes.
• Efficient processes for bringing in, preparing, producing and delivering the small print jobs (200-1500m) that are also needed.
• Openness towards new business models – webshop sales, delivery to filling line, offering additional logistics services to label buyers...
• Good financial position so that the initial difficulties and learning curves associated with introducing new technology can be properly addressed (in cooperation with system supplier).

Most suppliers have failed to satisfactorily fulfil their responsibility to support users with the introduction of digital technology.

Making the right decision can be difficult – which printing system is the right one for a particular label printer to choose? There are several options available:

• Digital printing system with offline converting solution
• Combination of conventional printing press and digital (offline) imprinting
• Digital printing system and use of existing conventional inline printing press for finishing and converting
• Conventional printing press with an integrated digital printing unit, currently known as a hybrid printing System

The term “hybrid printing system” does not yet have a fixed definition, but is used to describe the combined use of digital and analogue production processes within one printing system.

The term hybrid is often used in technology to refer to a system made up of elements that each offer a particular solution already. Bringing these elements together can produce new properties. Hybrid therefore means that double or multiple solutions with different internal structures are used for the same function.

• The first hybrid vehicles were probably steamships with sails (coal / wood used for water wheel / propeller and wind for sails).
• A hybrid electric vehicle has two storage and drive systems, one of which powers an electric motor.
The hybrid vehicles sold in Europe usually have a petrol engine and an electric Motor

Summary: A hybrid system is created by combining different processes / systems designed for the same purpose, so that whichever is most suitable in a particular instance can be used. This combination inevitably requires complex interfaces, complicated optimisations and often compromises, as the system as a whole is not guided by one primary intended purpose.

The author:

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.