Des King asks whether increasing requirements in on-pack information might pave the way towards a greater acceptance in digital print

An estimated 900M m2 of labels will have been printed throughout Europe this year. While the rest of the package print sector is finding it relatively hard going – sales in value down by 16% between 1995-2000 and predicted to slip by a further 8% up to 2005 – label production stands out in sharp contrast as bucking the trend.

Sales in the UK are set to rise by 4% over the next three years to be worth around £493M and 75% of total output will be in self-adhesive labels.

With increasingly stringent EU directives imposing the need for evermore on-pack content information in a multiplicity of languages and formats, labelling is becoming a complex exercise in mass customisation.

Factor in the inevitable differentiation in specific market requirements, and the labelling manufacturer has to preserve margins over quantities that might range from 100 to a million off.

Digital print has been referred to as a technology in search of an application. With 35% of label jobs already for run-lengths of less than 2000 linear metres, indications are that it’s hit the target in a growth market.

The technology’s highest-profile champion Benny Landa of HP Indigo is claiming that 40% of all labels will be produced digitally by 2005.

It’s a typically enthusiastic prediction and one that the flexo sector, perhaps at its peril, might well dismiss as outlandish. As running speeds accelerate, consumable costs fall and an understanding of what constitutes a cost-effective short-run is redefined, it’s not wholly beyond the realms of possibility.

Pira’s John Birkenshaw hypothetically compared flexo 150mm web, UV drying and in-line die cutting with a digital 300mm web, in-line die cutting and UV varnish. He fully expects the unit cost/run length break-even point of a standard 145x40mm four-colour plus varnish label job to improve from 40 000 off at current rates to 400 000 off by 2005.

Just five years ago, 3000 off would have been considered the norm. That’s an indication of how rapidly this technology is evolving. Pira’s own prediction for digitally printed labels is a more conservative 20% market share over the next two years.

Clearly, there’s room for both con-ventional flexo and digital print and the reality is that digital will account for somewhere between those two estimates. What seems to be quite remarkable is the comparatively slow take-up of the technology. Of the 200 plus Indigo users within the UK, those targeting the packaging industry can be counted on two hands.

Notable among these is Fort Dearborn that estimates that about 25% of current total output is undertaken digitally. Today Fort Dearborn employs its proprietary HiColour six-colour process that can match over 90% of Pantone PMS hues.

This is more than twice as many as can be made with the traditional four-colour set and are able to achieve 1.6M different colours to ensure total consistency between its conventional Nilpeter and Indigo systems on mix ‘n match jobs.

The process currently enables Fort Dearborn to incorporate an accurate colour chip within the on-pack labelling for International Paints, with production allocated to both systems according to specific quantity requirements.

With 1800 different paint product requirements to manage, Fort Dearborn can be called upon to generate label stock for upwards of 300 individual variants in any given week, ranging in quantities from 5- 20 000.

According to Steve Nix, Fort Dearborn print manager UK, the International Paints project has been running for 2.5 years, with the principal focus of producing strictly on-demand.

Regardless of production process, costing is fixed on a ‘one-price fits-all’ basis. HP Indigo has recently unveiled its new ws4000 seven-colour label press designed to cost-effectively produce short and medium runs of high-quality labels on demand, and capable of print speeds of 52.5ft/min for full colour labels or 105ft/min for two-colour labels.

First adopter of the ws4000 is Dutch based Altrif Label – one of the largest manufacturers of self-adhesive labels throughout Europe – which has acquired two systems to complement a dozen already-installed Ko-Pack presses to handle shorter print runs.

Going head to head with HP Indigo is Xeikon’s powder-based digital technology currently available as the MAN Roland Dicopack 320 engine.

First UK adopter was the Edinburgh- based Simpson Label Company, whose sales director Tom Cannon has guided its usage from a convenient and low-cost means of generating small quantity presentation packs and WYSIWYG prototypes to becoming the only practical cost-effective solution to mass customisation issues.

Mr Cannon cites work done last year for Grampian Country Foods who were asked to supply a range of individually wrapped seasonal barbecue chicken products for M&S. The major problem confronting the retailer was unpredictability of consumer demand on a weekly basis until the last minute.

In contrast to the accepted practice of printing in quantity in advance and accepting the inevitable levels of wastage, Simpson’s digital solution enabled M&S to gear weekly orders directly to customer-buying patterns.

“In reality, the plates alone would have cost more than all the labels that were actually used,” notes Tom Cannon, in addition to pointing out that label information was also being adjusted over the selling-period to instantly counter competition from other multiples.

The toner-based print engines have to date borne the brunt and gained the rewards of developing the digital print market between them. Now industrial inkjet is poised to enter the fray, not least through an integrated label digital print solution developed by narrow web press manufacturer Mark Andy in conjunction with ex-Barco buyout dotrix.the factory.

The dotrix Spice digital print unit is positioned in between the press’s flexographic print units. The inkjet heads remain stationary, allowing the web to pass through the line without stopping.

Industrial inkjet still has considerable ground to make up on its toner-based competition. Faster running speeds and a predicted greater choice of substrate materials look certain, upping the ante once adoption takes hold.

This is particularly applicable to flexi-ble packaging applications for which a whole host of systems integrators are eyeing up Xaar’s emerging greyscale capabilities with positive enthusiasm.

In the meantime, digital print tech-nology is already demonstrating its capabilities outside of labelling applications.

Pharmaceuticals and healthcare sector specialist Medica Packaging has responded to a general trend for smaller volume requirements by complementing its litho-based operation with a digital option.

It regularly uses its HP Indigo Omnius system to produce finished cartons – non-glued for short-run orders, reverse tucked in neck and end, and interior and exterior printed.

About 50% of all orders processed by Medica are below 15 000 off, and managing director John Beardmore estimates that 4% of revenue is now generated by digital print, with the facility currently being offered to 30 pharmaceuticals manufacturers.