Need and innovation are driving digital printing.

New substrates, laser die-cutting, and the increasing trend toward short runs all bode well for the future of digital printing.

Peter Rigney, the publisher of Paper, Film & Foil CONVERTER and a 25-year veteran of the converting industry, was asked recently to give a speech at a TAPPI conference in Asia on the impact of new printing technologies on the converting industry. The speech hailed digital technology but acknowledged that, so far, its impact on the converting industry has been minimal.

Rigney emphatically added, however, that even though digital technology has not yet dramatically affected the industry, it certainly may in the future. In fact, he said, he'd be surprised if it didn't make a major impact, and soon.

Why? Because there's a lot of money to be made. Packaging alone is a $360 billion market. And purveyors of this form of on-demand printing are convinced that their products have much to offer a market in which runs keep getting shorter.

Conventional printing requires a second process, which means additional cost and time. Direct digital printing eliminates proofs, films, and plates, and it can dramatically shorten the time between one job and the next. Add to this the infinite possibilities for variability and repeatability, and it is clear that digital adds an exciting new dimension to the industry.

Some of the players and their systems include the electrographic Xeikon system utilizing dry dye-based toners; Indigo's digital offset system and its liquid pigment-based toner; Scitex ink jet with a liquid dye and pigment-based ink; and Heidelberg's GTO system.

All of these systems offer full-color direct digital printing, all are the result of enormous amounts of research and development dollars, and all are the subject of ongoing development. John Ickes, corporate VP and general manager worldwide printing, Indigo, reports that in the past two years the Indigo Omnius has been upgraded with 75 different improvements.

Substrates Make News

The big news right now in digital printing is substrates. This was evident during a tour of Labelexpo USA 96 this past September, where all of the major substrate suppliers, including Mobil, Fasson, and MACtac, displayed lines made specifically for digital systems.

Fasson now offers ten different pressure-sensitive label stocks, both film and paper, designed for the digital print market (but only for Xeikon and Indigo systems).

Says Lana Legett, manager of special projects for MACtac, "We are developing true partnerships with digital press manufacturers because of the uniqueness of their technologies. When we started working with Indigo, we did extensive testing to develop our own proprietary topcoats for superior ink adhesion and shelf life."

She adds, "Xeikon, for example, requires a 6-in. core rather than a typical 3-in. core. It's also roll- to sheet-fed, so layflat was an issue. MACtac develops and makes product to fit the on-demand systems of all major press manufacturers, and each one is unique to the system."

In-Line Die-Cutting

Other news from the digital printing front concerns the continued development of Comco's SD 330, the first commercial laser die-cutting system. Since Comco introduced the system at the DRUPA show a year ago, its engineers have doubled the speed from 250 to 500 in./min. This may not seem fast compared to the 300 fpm speeds common to more conventional printing technology, but it represents a major improvement for this specific technology.

The laser was a big attraction at Labelexpo, impressing viewers with its "light show" and precision movement. The die-cutting unit was displayed in-line with Indigo's Omnius press, creating what is said to be the first totally digital printing/converting system for packaging and labels.

The SD 330 uses a C[O.sub.2] laser working in conjunction with a series of accurate servo motors that move mirrors to focus the laser beam. Sophisticated software controls the laser/mirror system to direct the beam and control the depth of cut. Facestock can be perforated, score cut, or etched without damaging the liner.

Economy Models

One common complaint concerning digital printing technology has been the high cost for the equipment and consumables. But there are alternatives to the expensive high-end systems.

Gerber Scientific offers a fully digital, short-run label system that combines digital printing with programmable die-cutting. The SR 1500 system prints in process color and 30 spot colors, including metallic gold and silver. "The system is designed to produce completely waterproof, ultraviolet-stable, and weatherable products for anyone selling short-run labels on a wholesale basis," says Kathleen Stillman, business unit manager for Gerber Scientific. "It is also recommended for long-run converters who have a need for proofs and prototypes."

Fargo Electronics, a manufacturer of dye-sublimation color page printers, recently introduced the Impressa, a digital label and decal press. The unit is engineered to put a variety of full- and spot-color output on paper, polyester, and vinyl substrates at a cost claimed to be substantially less than that required for producing short-run jobs on a flexo or screen press. The Impressa can produce continuous-tone, photo-quality labels without dithering and with no screen patterns, reports Fargo. It includes Digital DieCut technology, which can cut any size and shape, including complicated contour cuts. This feature eliminates the need for rotary dies.

"Our research has shown that putting short runs on a traditional flexo press is inefficient and expensive," says Mark Strobel, Fargo's VP of sales and marketing. "Every company we spoke with said that they struggle to break even with short runs. However, they do them anyway in the hope that customers will come back with longer jobs."

Digital has come a long way in a relatively short time, with many players competing for that prize. "The Xerox Docu Tech system has displaced 150 billion pages of black and white offset printing per year, and that trend continues with more print on demand/distribute and print types of applications," says Gerber's Kathleen Stillman. "You'd be hard pressed to find a business in America without some kind of digital printing technology in it."

Wayland Hicks, president and CEO of Indigo sums it up: "We believe it [digital] has the capability to change the way work is done."

Supplier Information:

Xeikon, Mount Prospect, IL; ph: 800/374-6815; fax: 847/375-4673.

Indigo America, Woburn, MA; ph: 617/937-8800; fax: 617/937-8810.

Scitex Digital Printing Inc., Dayton, OH; ph: 513/259-3100; fax: 513/259-3385.

Heidelberg USA, Kennesaw, GA; ph: 770/419-6500; fax: 770/419-6625.

Mobil Co., Pittsford, NY; ph: 703/849-3609; fax: 703/849-6637.

Fasson, Painesville, OH; ph: 216/639-3000; fax: 216/354-7980.

MACtac, Stow, OH; ph: 330/688-1111; fax: 330/688-7949.

Comco International, Milford, OH; ph: 513/248-1600; fax: 513/248-8546.

Gerber Scientific Products Inc., Manchester, CT; ph: 800/222-7446; fax: 203/645-5645.

Fargo Electronics Inc., Eden Prairie, MN; ph: 612/941-9470; fax: 612/941-7836.

Xerox Corp., Rochester, NY; ph: 800/832-6979.


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