Label Expo part 2: the sweet spot for inkjet presses

In the first part of this story we looked at some of the hybrid label solutions. These also happened to be amongst the fastest, leading to the obvious question of what is the sweet spot in terms of speed and resolution. So for this story I’m going to look at some of the other inkjet presses that I saw in Brussels. 

I’ll start where the last story finished, with Domino, which as well as the new retrofittable inkjet module also brought along both its sixth and seventh generation inkjet label presses. The principal difference between the older N610 and the more recent N730i is the change of printhead technology from Kyocera heads producing 600dpi resolution to the new Brother Bitstar with its 1200 dpi. Many vendors, including Domino, believe that the direction of travel within the market is towards 1200 dpi image quality. However, many vendors,  also point out that 600dpi is perfectly adequate for the vast majority of applications and that most people can’t tell the difference. Label converters can definitely spot the difference, if not with the print quality, then certainly with the price since those machines that are capable of 1200 dpi resolution generally cost quite a lot more money. 

There are some benefits to printing with a native 1200 dpi image quality, mainly in terms of very fine text, vignettes and gradations. That said, for many applications a native 600dpi resolution combined with variable sized drops can come close enough for many applications, particularly around tints and gradations. 

The other difference of course is in the pricing with Domino listing the N730i fully configured for €950,000, while the N610i costs €550,000 for seven colours or €450,000 for five colours. Paul Bunyan, workflow solutions consultant for Domino, notes: “It’s cheaper to run the 1200dpi press than 600dpi because you are using smaller dots.” He adds: “We can cut down the amount of white ink by ink saving in the RIP and the mist extraction behind the other print bars.”

Domino has previously said that it found that customers preferred to keep the 1200 dpi image quality rather than sacrifice this for higher speed. However, I suspect that customers will need higher productivity to justify the costs associated with 1200 dpi presses and that Domino should be aiming to increase the print speed to 100mpm at 1200 dpi. That would put it in the same ball park as Bobst and Durst and is clearly where Gallus is also heading. 

Jed Hardcastle, business development director for Dantex

Dantex showed the second generation of its PicoJet, the PicoJet 1200 DRS. This is a 350mm wide UV inkjet press aimed at the labelling market though there is also a 254mm wide version. Dantex markets this as having 1700 -2400 dpi resolution which does raise an interesting question as to how we measure resolution and how high a resolution do people really need. The PicoJet uses Ricoh printheads but Dantex wouldn’t say which ones. However both Dantex and Ricoh have suggested to me that these heads have a native resolution of 600dpi so that the claimed resolution is really down to the apparent benefits of variable sized droplets. 

This claimed resolution has come from  modifications to the waveform, which has allowed the heads to produce multiple drop sizes – up from four drop sizes in the first generation to eight for the current model, ranging from 2.5pl to 21pl. Jed Hardcastle, business development director for Dantex, explained: “That means we have more latitude to our print because we can print a tonal range with small drops and flats and text with the larger drops so we can print anything without compromising our speed.”

Hardcastle says that the older machines can be upgraded to the same spec. The press can be configured with CMYK plus white, orange and violet. The press uses LED for pinning between the colours and then a final cure, also with LED. The PicoJet also includes a flexo unit for further converting  such as cold foiling or varnishing plus a semi rotary die cutter. Dantex is also working with Actega and will integrate its EcoLeaf metallic unit.

Epson has developed two separate label printing technologies, the 4000-series using water-based resin inks and the single pass 6000-series with UV-curable printing, both of which were shown at Label Expo. The company announced updates for both of these last May, which were presumably timed for last year’s Label Expo before that event was cancelled. The result is that Epson did not have anything new to show this year apart from a chance to see these updated versions.

Mark Tinckler, head of product marketing for Epson Europe’s professional printing.

Thus the Surepress L-4733AW gained a new AQ T4 inkset, which consists of CMYKOG plus white, as well as more automation. Marc Tinkler, head of Epson Europe’s product marketing for professional print,  says: “We have improved the automated cleaning and maintenance. We have updated the ink set which has improved the ink quality and the wettability on certain substrates so we can do with four passes what we used to do with six passes. There’s an air knife that moves across the platen as the heads move that helps with the speed.”

Epson has also improved the connectivity to make it easier for customers to integrate third party solutions such as an AVT inspection system. Tinckler explains: “We wanted to iron out the extra costs so that the customer could talk to other vendors easily.”

There’s an option for an inline spectrophotometer option, the AS400, which is based on Epson technology. Tinckler says that the presses are generally easy to use and that most customers are satisfied with the colour management in the Esko DFE that Epson uses, adding: “It’s really for people who want to do colour management across devices, either in the same or different locations. You can also use it to create colour profiles for different substrates. Or you could use it to mix custom colours.”

Epson also showed off the L-6543VW UV press. This runs CMYK plus white as well as a digital varnish. Last year Epson introduced the option to replace the varnish with orange to extend the colour gamut though the machine shown at Label Expo was configured with digital varnish which Tinckler says tends to be the most popular option. 

The L-6543VW uses Epson’s PrecisionCore printhead with 1200 x 600 dpi resolution. It is relatively slow now at 50mpm, where most competing vendors have managed to increase their productivity. Tinckler says that this is because most vendors arrange their printheads in a cambered arch whereas Epson uses a drum, noting: “With the drum we achieve very high colour registration accuracy. That’s not so easy with a camber platen.” He adds: “We find that 50mpm is a sweet spot for us. We are selling it on the quality and consistency and I think that does pay off. A lot of vendors are trying to displace work from a flexo press but that’s not necessarily where we are aiming. We are trying to achieve high quality digital work so it’s not a flexo killer. It’s trying to be the best quality short to medium run digital label press.”

Epson demonstrated this with a lenticular print, an application that requires fairly precise drop placement to build up the lenses. 

Tinkler notes that as well as converters and commercial printers, internet entrepreneurs are also buying digital presses for online fulfilment, adding: “Also since the pandemic many brands have brought label production in-house, perhaps because of supply chain issues but also to make savings.”

Sei Laser has built this prototype KyoJet, which combines an inkjet print unit with laser cutting.

Sei Laser, which mainly develops laser cutting systems, showed off a new inkjet label press, the KyoJet 3500 press, which naturally came complete with a laser cutting system. As such it reminded me a lot of some of the early EFI Jetrion inkjet presses, which also incorporated a laser die cutter. 

This is a 330mm wide label printer that specifically targets label printing and not packaging. It uses Epson S3200 printheads for 600 x 1200 dpi resolution. It can be fitted with up to nine print bars in total. The basic model uses CMYK but users can add orange, green and violet to this, plus two channels for white. There’s also a digital varnish being developed that should be available next year. 

The laser die cutting unit can run at up to 110mpm though the press will only print at 55mpm, which drops to 35mpm when printing white. The UV-curable ink comes from INX. 

Monotech showed off the Korlorsmart inkjet press. From left: Gurvinder Singh, director of sales, Neeraj Thappa, vice president of Sales, Tez Prakash Jain, managing director, Jimit Mittal, president of Jetsci Global

The Indian manufacturer Monotech showed off a couple of inkjet machines. This included the Kolorsmart printer, which offers a choice of four, five or six colours. There’s a choice of two print widths of 216mm and 324mm. Managing director Tej Prakash Jain says that it can be upgraded to the wider version in the field just by changing the print bars. It uses Kyocera KJ4 heads with LED curing between each colour followed by a conventional UV lamp for a full cure. It’s possible to add a flexo unit with UV curing before the digital heads that could be used for priming. It can handle most flexo substrates and runs at 50mpm.

The second machine, the D.Spark is for digital embellishments. This uses Konica Minolta 1024i printheads and has a print width of 350mm. It runs at 35mpm. Jain says that both machines can be run inline together. 

He adds: “Our main market is still India but we have installations in 23 countries and are in the process of expanding our network.”

Aside from the label devices, Monotech also distributes a range of other equipment including large format and 3D printing as well as prepress and postpress kit.

Flora has developed this J-450 inkjet label press.

There were a number of Chinese digital presses on show but I didn’t have time to see them all. However, I did see Flora’s J450. It’s a UV inkjet press using Epson S3200 printheads with 1200 dpi resolution and maximum speed of 60mpm. The standard machine is CMYK but it can be configured with up to eight colours, including white plus orange, green and violet. Flora is also now offering a varnish as well. There’s pinning between the colours followed by full curing from a Mercury UV lamp. There ink comes from an unnamed European supplier. 

This is available in two sizes with a standard 330mm, which costs $350,000 and the newly launched 450mm that was shown in Brussels and costs $450,000. There’s also a Pro option to add flexo units. These are fairly competitive prices, but the mood on the stand suggested that Europeans expected much lower prices from Chinese suppliers. This may have more to do with the current geopolitical situation rather than the capability of the press itself. 

Dilli showed off a new UV inkjet label press, the Neo Picasso Pro. The version shown in Brussels was 330mm wide but there are also two further models at 110mm and 220mm widths. This uses Kyocera printheads with resolution up to 1200 x 1200 dpi at 50mpm (up from 600 x 1200dpi for the standard Neo Picasso model).  There are up to eight print bars, allowing for CMYK plus two whites and two further colours out of a choice of orange, green or violet. It will print to coated and uncoated paper stocks as well as PP, PE, PVC and aluminium foil. The software is from GIS.

Dilli has shown off this Neo Picasso inkjet label press.

Otherwise, perhaps the most noticeable element in terms of inkjet presses was what was missing. Almost all of the inkjet machines still print with UV-curable inks with no single pass water-based inkjets though several vendors are working on this. Bobst, for example, has previously shown a prototype LB702 with aqueous inks, and Canon, which was not at the show, has just announced a new LabelStream LS2000 that will use water-based inks. 

Instead most inkjet vendors announced new versions of their UV inks to eliminate TPO-based photo initiators in response to legislation. TPO, or to give it its full name, (2,4,6-Trimethylbenzoyl)diphenylPhosphine Oxide, is a type 1 photo initiator. This means that it can trigger a photopolymer reaction without needing help from any other molecules as is the case with type II photo initiators. However, new research indicates that TPO is more toxic to reproduction than previously believed, leading the European Chemicals Agency to reclassify it. This is expected to be officially ratified by the end of 2023 at which point it will be added to the European Printing Ink Manufacturers’ Association (EuPIA) exclusion list. TPO has already been listed as a Substance of Very High Concern (SVHC) by European REACH regulation (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals), so that it will have to be declared accordingly in the Safety Data Sheets.

In the next part I’ll look at the toner printers as well as the issue of packaging. 



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