The colour of labels

Now that this year’s label show is all done – and I’ve had a chance to write the stories that people actually pay me for – it’s time for a final appraisal of the show.

Industrial Inkjet launched this high speed single colour print unit, the MP500i.
Industrial Inkjet launched this high speed single colour print unit, the MP500i.

The organizers have reported record attendance figures of around 35,739 visitors. Certainly my impression was that this show was busier than the last one and all the vendors I spoke to said that they were busy from the get-go, which is not always the case at trade shows.

Clearly the main story was the extent that digital technology has penetrated the label sector with most vendors now accepting that there is a need for some form of short run label production. However, there was no sense that digital printing was going to replace conventional production – more that customers would need both long and short run capability. Some clearly feel that this is best achieved by adding digital heads to a conventional press, while others have opted for full-blown digital presses. But for me the most interesting part was the extent that digital printing, which relies on standardized colours, is starting to influence the conventional presses, which still use many spot colours.

It seems clear to me that any digital solution should plan on at least nine ink channels, though I don’t think that any of the current machines offer this. Instead, most vendors see CMYK as being the standard colours, though I don’t think that anyone has an inkset that can hit the full Pantone library.

Spot colours are very important to the label and packaging market, which means that for a digital press to make significant inroads it will have to be capable of reproducing most of the Pantone libraries, which in turn means a seven colour inkset – CMYK plus green, orange and violet. Most of the current digital presses can only manage two out of these three extended colours.

HP showed off a number of Indigo presses including this B2 Indigo 20000 for flexible films.
HP showed off a number of Indigo presses including this B2 Indigo 20000 for flexible films.

On top of this, you’ll also need an eighth channel for white. I’m going to add to this a ninth channel for a clear ink that can be used for varnishing – there’s not much evidence of any inkjet varnishing in the label market at the moment but considering how common this has become in other forms of inkjet printing – from wide format to commercial print – I think its inevitable. In fact I’ll go as far as to predict that in two years time we’ll see a lot of narrow format inkjet printers with eight colours plus a varnishing station at the end of the line because the vendors realised too late in the development cycle that they would need to include varnishing.

Actually, I don’t think enough attention has been paid to the finishing side, which probably accounts for the popularity of hybrid printing. But it was very noticeable that most of the inkjet printers were shown as part of a complete line. Finishing that can cope with variable data is clearly going to be essential if the market is going to adopt digital printing to any great extent. It’s a lesson that HP has clearly taken to heart, with an abundance of finishing kit from the likes of Tresu, Comexi and AB Graphics on show.

Domino also showed an interesting collaboration with GraphiMecc that used two of its inkjet heads on a foiling machine. The first head printed black ink, while the second jetted adhesive, which combined with the foiling for a really effective security solution.

There are Domino inkjet heads fitted to this Graphi Mecc foilng unit - one for black ink and one for adhesive for variable data foiling.
There are Domino inkjet heads fitted to this Graphi Mecc foilng unit – one for black ink and one for adhesive for variable data foiling.

And what of the future? Well, clearly I think that we’re going to see more inline finishing combined with more purely digital presses. I think that most of the current digital presses are too slow and too expensive. It seems to me that the market is polarising: on the one hand we’re seeing demand for cheaper machines where image quality needs to be good enough, speed is less important but price and running costs really matter; but the other end of the market needs image quality that’s at least as good as flexo, where speed and productivity matters more than cost.

Any improvements to these more expensive machines will be entirely dependent on a new generation of printheads, which we might see in two years time at the next Label Expo. But, given the rate of improvement in print heads over the last five years or so, I think it far more likely that we’ll see more entry-level models being announced.

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