Straight and narrow

Short run labels and flexible packaging

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In the past couple of years, narrow-web single-pass inkjet printers have been popping up all over the place at a surprising rate. At the recent drupa show in Germany they were present in profusion, which perhaps led to confusion — the capabilities, formats and projected prices very wildly.
Most of them are presented as single-sided printers for short run label and/or flexible packaging work, thanks to their UV-curing inks and lamps that let them print on plastic and other difficult substrates. However some of them are not particularly narrow, so while they’ll accept narrow label reels, they can also take wider media to print A4 pages or even A3 spreads landscape.

This means you could in principle put two printers in line with a turner mechanism between them, and print double-sided spreads and gatefold sections onto paper with a cheaper aqueous ink. For example France-based Impika, with a 474 mm wide print technology which uses aqueous inks rather than UV from the start, has already built a custom system to print French car registration documents onto paper

Before these newcomers cropped up, digital label printing was largely confined to a handful of reel-fed digital colour presses with relatively wide print widths. Various web-fed HP Indigos have been sold into this market over the years. The ink and process works with virtually any substrates used in labelling (or flexible packaging) and the machines offer up to seven colours on any label width up to around 33 cm. Xeikon’s toner-based machines are also able to print onto paper, plastic, or PET and PP label materials. The original 330 model was replaced by the 3300 at Drupa, offering high speed (19.2 metres per minute) and 1,200 dpi on reels between 200 and 330 mm wide. Xeikon says its machines are profitable for run lengths up to but not restricted to 2,000 meters, which represent about 65 per cent of label jobs worldwide.

Both HP and Xeikon offer full label production systems in-line to their own or third party systems. For instance Xeikon offers in-line UV-varnish, high gloss or lamination, semi and full rotary die cutting, slitting, matrix stripping and dual rewind, with options for spot varnish, hot and cold foil, plus a second die cut and/or varnish station. Agfa’s Dotrix 4-colour inkjet has been aimed at labels in the past, though the company is presently targeting short-run flexible packaging.

What seems to have happened is that it’s now relatively easy to build narrow single-pass inkjets, provided you have access to enough expertise and finance. You can buy an array of reliable inkjet heads off the shelf and build them into a print unit comprising a full-width array, with ink feed and electronics. FFEI for instance builds Xaar heads into its own JetBar, which can be bolted onto practically anything with a moving substrate feed. It uses the JetBar in the Caslon printer it developed with Nilpeter, but also offers it to third party integrators.

If you mount an inkjet module above a standard reel-fed paper transport chassis, such as already exists for flexographic label presses, then you’ve got a single-pass inkjet printer with the potential for adding conventional print units in-line.

Agfa was the first to do this with its wider-format Dotrix Modular UV inkjet introduced in 2006, which mounts one or two of its 630 mm wide SPICE 4-colour inkjet heads above a flexographic press chassis made by UK-based Edale, running at up to 24 meters a minute. Prior to that US label press maker Mark Andy mounted the Dotrix SPICE head onto one of its own flexo presses to make a variable-data hybrid.

There’s a growing choice of suitable inkjet print head systems, from companies including Fujifilm Dimatix (better known under its former brand name Spectra), Xaar, Konica Minolta, Toshiba Tec, Brother etc. Epson used to be a little shy about admitting that other people licensed its heads, but at drupa08 it announced an industrial head project that will develop arrays for multi-pass and single-pass production printers and sell these to third parties.

The main issue for the print head is reliability, both in terms of longevity (many millions of firings are required before a nozzle wears out) and resistance to blocking. On a single-pass printer a blocked jet carries the danger of leaving pale stripes until the line is stopped and the heads cleaned. Most single-pass printers have multiple heads for back-up redundancy, with blockage detectors that allow the printer to compensate with the spare heads, allowing production to continue with several blockages. This is expensive, which is one reason why Xaar’s 1001 appears in so many of these new printers: its innovative new HSS TF (hybrid side-shooter through-flow) technology is claimed to be highly resistant to blockages, so you don’t need so much expensive redundancy.

Last year’s LabelExpo exhibition in Belgium was a significant launch pad for this new class of narrow-reel inkjet machines. On show were the EFI Jetrion 4000, Epson’s prototype label printer, the FFEI-Nilpeter Caslon and the Sun SolarJet. These all reappeared this year at the more widely focused Drupa show, together with a crop of newcomers.

The EFI Jetrion 4000 UV Inkjet System is a narrow-web inkjet printer primarily intended for label work in runs up to 50,000. Speeds are up to 30.5 metres a minute on reel widths up to 13.9 centimetres. It’s based on a Xaar 1001 greyscale print head and can achieve 1,000 dpi, EFI says. Naturally, it’s driven by an EFI Fiery front end.

Sun Chemical’s SolarJet UV inkjet has been jointly developed with Imaging Technology International for the short run labels market. It uses Xaar 760 greyscale printheads and a special highly pigmented inkset, SolarDot. It prints at up to 25 metres a minute.

FFEI is a British company that was formed as a management buyout from FujiFilm. It developed the fast Caslon label printer as a joint venture with Nilpeter, based on Xaar 1001 print heads. Print speeds are up to 507 metres a minute at 180 x 360 dpi with eight greyscale levels, or rather more slowly at 360 x 360 dpi. This doesn’t sound much, but Xaar reckons that the 8-level greyscale of its heads means that 360 x 360 dpi is the same quality equivalent as 1,000 dpi with a conventional 1-bit inkjet. There’s a choice of two web widths: 420 or 340 mm. As a modular unit mounted on a standard Nilpeter FA-Platform, Caslon can be configured as a standalone printer with web unwind and rewind. Alternatively, it can be integrated in an FA-Line UV-flexo press.

Epson’s label printer shown at drupa08 was still officially a concept, though it has progressed somewhat since the earlier version at LabelExpo. It was running reel-to-reel, but the reels were then fed through a GTM label finishing line with foiling and stripping — evidently it wouldn’t be hard to build a complete in-line system.

At drupa08 Chinese pre-press pioneer Beijing Founder showed its new EagleJet L1000 digital label printer for the first time in Europe. This is a narrow-web reel-to-reel printer based on Xaar 1001 greyscale print heads. It can take reels from 150 to 250 mm wide with a maximum print width of 210 mm and prints at up to 25 metres a minute.
The drupa demonstrator had 4-colours (CMYK) but there are plans for a 6-colour version with white and one extra colour (light cyan or magenta) and eventually eight colours, possibly including spots. Founder also launched EagleJet H300, an inkjet overprinter intended to be built into conventional flexo label lines.

Impika, a French manufacturer, demonstrated its new 474 mm wide iPress 600 single-pass inkjet running at 75 metres a minute. This is intended for label and flexible packaging work, but is wide enough for some types of commercial print. Unlike many similar machines it uses water-based inks, not UV, for economy and ecological reasons. The inks can be used with flexible packaging film that’s been given a primer coating. The drupa08 machine had Fujifilm Dimatix heads and printed six colours, but four are optional.

Worldwide sales will start in 2009 at around 1 million Euro (INR 65,000,000) for the 4-colour machine. Before that the French government printer, Imprimerie Nationale, will use Impika’s technology in a turnkey solution for the printing and customisation of new car registration licenses (cartes grises). This is part of France’s new system for car registration, called Systeme d’Immatriculation des véhicules or SIV.

Impika adapted its system to the Imprimerie’s need for double-sided printing and customisation. The printing line includes a new set of modules specifically designed for the project, to handle varnishing, embossing and folding. The licenses are initially pre-printed by the Imprimerie Nationale, after which the Impika print line manages the printing and control of the variable data and the finishing process with the deposit of a protective varnish layer, then the folding of the licenses ready to be mailed. The line will run at 75 metres a minute.

UK based flexo machinery builder JF Machines showed PicoColour 70, a narrow web 4-colour UV inkjet printing at 24 metres a minute on reels up to 70 mm wide — a 140 mm version will also be offered. This is based on the company’s own label winder/rewinder mechanism, fitted with Xaar 1001 greyscale print heads. It was first shown at the Interpack show in April and was demonstrated on the Xaar stand at drupa. It’s now going into production at what managing director John Furley says will be an affordable price — “I can’t see smaller users being able to justify the high costs of some of these new machines just to do work that’s too short-run for flexo,” he says.

Olympus, best known for cameras, lenses and scientific optical gear was a surprise exhibitor at drupa with a pair of reel-fed single-pass inkjets. The OP-1cd is a full-colour 316 mm wide model that can be run with two engines for duplex work. It can run roll-to-roll or with an integral sheet-cutter and the company says it can be run in-line with a saddle-stitcher. It’s currently in Beta in Japan with shipment planned for October at around £150,000 (INR 12,000,000).
Also on the stand was a high-speed mono model, OP-1bd, described as a reference model, or technology demonstrator. This can run between 40 and 80 metres a minute (390 to 780 A4 impressions) depending on quality level.

Mimaki, best known for its wide format solvent inkjets, is moving into new areas. It showed a new narrow-format single-pass label printer, IPH-300-L. This is a single-pass 4-colour UV curable printer with a print width of 30 cm. Its standard resolution is 600 x 600 dpi, though it can run at 600 x 1,200 dpi for higher quality. It will be available with or without variable dot printing capabilities (four different sizes). While the drupa08 machine was printing reel-to-reel, Mimaki says it is a modular design that can be integrated into other production lines to add variable data to pre-printed materials. The price is likely to be “less than £800,000 (INR 64,000,000).”

British industrial inkjet developer Xennia’s XenJet subsidiary introduced X-plore 8000, a CMYK narrow web printer operating at 24 metres a minute across a 280 mm width. It uses Xaar 1001 greyscale heads. This is designed for integration into third party reel-fed print production lines.

Screen seems to be developing inkjet printers at all levels. It has gone into production with wide format flatbed (Truepress Jet2500UV), medium format single-pass aqueous (Truepress Jet 520), sheet-fed A2 (Truepress JetSX) and small format high res flatbed for industrial uses such as instrument panels (Truepress Jet65UV). That’s in addition to its ownership of UK-based high-speed flatbed maker Inca Digital.
At Drupa, Screen also showed a prototype narrow format reel-fed printer, with UV inks and greyscale heads (it wouldn’t say whose), printing portrait pages on 318 mm wide paper. It merely labelled this a “roll-to-roll concept press” and Screen wouldn’t confirm that it will reach production, but was producing real print at convincing speeds of 30 metres a minute, though the outer casing was obviously thrown together in a bit of a hurry.

The Swiss manufacturer Graph-Tech normally develops inkjet overprinting units, based on Spectra heads and sells them via OEMs including Domino, Solex and EFI Jetrion. However at drupa it demonstrated a standalone machine, the 600 dpi GT-Jetweb DP-600 with a 648 mm web width, which isn’t exactly narrow – it says would be relevant for short-run on-demand newsletters or magazine/brochures. This has been developed in co-operation with Swiss paper handling specialist Hunkeler, which provided the reel-to-reel transport.

It’s clear that some of the narrow-web digital printers introduced lately are serious label printers, particularly where they have already been integrated into label production lines. Others are less clear-cut, and seem more like technology demonstrators in search of a clear market, or perhaps, a licensee that will take them on and do the integration. Whether there is a market demand for so many models from such a range of manufacturers will remain to be seen.