Short-Run Labels: An Alternative View

Today's marketplace for label printers is full of suppliers that offer a bewildering choice of technology, consumables, tools, and production cultures. This has changed the look and feel of the label industry and has provided a platform for complex demands from customers, a challenge to which a label printer must rise and distinguish itself by capability, not price.

The same holds true for press manufacturers, which have responded to the same challenges by developing new disciplines and learning to be fully engaged, not only in the business of print, but also in the personnel supporting it. High-end prepress now provides quality, together with repeatable data, for exact image carriers to print in a precise and consistent fashion. New ink formulations no longer are dependent on process or drying, opening the door for multi-process printing. Servo-driven presses have introduced solutions that assist workflow and cost control as well as putting down ink. Advances in materials, substrates, and tooling all add to the flavor of current production trends. Buzzwords such as “open platform,” “hybrid,” and “combination” now populate printers’ expectations.

These trends have provided technical answers many flexo printers need for their end-users, while keeping a sharp eye on cost control and production and allowing sensible margins on work, which are increasingly difficult to capture and demanding to retain.

Trends, however, can manifest a “Me Too,” attitude, when capital equipment and consumables/materials purchasers use the yardstick of a competitor because the perception is that it works. Without a full understanding of the technical refinements and operational subtleties of highly complex machines, this can be a costly burden that does not realize its potential. This applies especially when new disciplines are introduced, for example, a sheet-fed carton printer moving over to a flexo web, or conversely a flexo label printer adopting offset to achieve the added-value perception of higher quality.

In the label market, run lengths have decreased to where 65% of the North American market has run lengths of 35,000 ft or less, with the trend toward further decrease.

Several flexo presses have taken up the reins and are able to provide quicker changeovers, with less (and more controlled) waste, but the underlying overheads still exist due to the nature of the process and the infrastructure needed.

The leading flexo houses in Europe already have integrated offset into their flexo platforms and are starting to develop expertise in this arena. The value of each process can be made to shine in the hands of printers, who embrace all facets of print and understand that the correct tool produces the best results. This is magnified in the short-run sector, especially on expensive substrates.

The alternative to a rotary combination presses—namely a semi-rotary (intermittent) web press—has been widely accepted by short-run label printers in Europe for years, while remaining on the fringes in North America. The refinements of this technology and production philosophies are well known and documented in Europe, where run lengths are shorter and beleaguered with regionalization, as shown in the market for wine labels.

These presses allow for “ultra-fast” changeovers, as the same plate cylinder is used for the full print repeat range. All the converting is based on magnetic cylinders. Therefore, hard tooling is replaced with magnetic plates, including flexo, embossing, and die-cutting. Waste is typically under 5%.

Available processes are offset, letterpress, flexo, silkscreen, hot foil stamping, laminating, varnishing, embossing, and die-cutting, in any combination.

Semi-rotary presses now are available with anilox inking, which feed a form roller and echo an offset press in how the image is printed on the web. The advantage is a simplified roller train (without wearing rollers requiring periodic adjustment), resulting in a controlled process, which is precise and consistent.

On the lowest end of production runs, digital offers some of the answers that short-run printers are looking for, and it has been shown to be very effective for runs shorter than 1,000 ft, with simple converting.

In summary, the semi-rotary technology fits neatly between digital and flexo as a cost-effective platform in today’s quality conscious market and is starting to attract more attention as it is better understood and more machines are being installed at leaders of this industry in North America.

For more information, contact Chris Davis, sales manager, Matik North America, West Hartford, CT; 860-371-8816; cd@matik.com; www.matik.com.


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