Techniques on trial
Digital printing versus conventional printing
When it comes to making a final decision on which printing process to choose for labels and packaging, the print service provider must take into consideration quality, substrate, volume, budget and schedule. These are the requirements that typically drive the choice of printing method.
by Geert De Proost
The two primary forms of printing labels and packaging are digital and conventional: digital on digital printing devices, conventional mainly using flexo and gravure as well as offset printing press. While digital and flexo have both undergone dramatic improvements throughout the years, some significant pros and cons for each of the two technologies remain.
Before making a decision, print service providers and converters have to weigh these advantages and disadvantages of each technology against what they need or expect to achieve with the print job.
Short-run drives digital printing
Printers and converters have to serve the customer and meet their specific requirements. One of the most prevalent trends over the past five to eight years is declining run lengths in print. This trend is caused by a vital change in customer behavior. Simply put, the end-user wants choice. For example, consumers want to see a salad dressing in several different custom flavors on shop shelves, not just one flavor.
When you think about that in terms what it means for printing labels and packaging, where you had one product in the past, there are now 23 product variations that have to be printed. This means that also the typical run length is divided by 23: instead of one million of labels, the print buyer will order 43.000 labels for each of the 23 product variations.
In addition, special marketing campaigns designed to attract consumer attention decrease the life span of a label or a packaging. There is an increasing volume of “limited editions” of a certain product or packaging that reflects a limited time offer. This also shortens run lengths and can also affect the amount of time the printer or converter has to deliver the packaging. Another reason the demand for short-runs is rising is the ability for brand owners and manufactures to ‘print-on-demand’. Due to the massive associated costs, nobody wants to keep large inventories.
Just-intime delivery, just enough to supply the demand, is the most costeffective approach. Finally, brand owners want to use realistic mockups in an early lifecycle stage of the product. This means a very low number of number of units needs to be produced to use in test marketing and approval processes. Only when the product is ready to go to market, larger volumes will be produced.
Automation removes bottlenecks
These trends will ultimately require an investment in one or more digital presses as additional printing devices to supplement existing conventionally- equipped pressrooms. However, printers should also consider the impact of the digital press on their overall business. Which new markets will these digital capabilities allow to tap into; what are the new opportunities they can bring? And how does the plant workflow cope with a ton of shortrun orders?
The truth is, without appropriate automation tools to efficiently handle shorter runs, these jobs can quickly become unprofitable. You might spend an hour in customer service and an hour in prepress, which can eat up most of the profit before you get to the pressroom. The bottleneck is caused by the limited administrative and prepress capacities that are not set up to handle an increased number of smaller jobs.
Administrative and prepress automation is the key to processing many more jobs and a necessity in order to increase and maximize capacity in general. Esko has been providing automation solutions to address these potential bottlenecks for a long time, for the obvious reasons of cost savings and increasing productivity. This applies to both digital and conventional printing methods. Implementing an MIS system can work wonders in removing administrative bottlenecks.
Automating the prepress department reduces errors and increases productivity by eliminating manual and repetitive tasks. Automating prepress and administration is critical to achieving maximum plant utilization.
Conventional print advantages, and challenges
The primary reason to use conventional printing is still long-run production for cost and productivity reasons, and sometimes quality. When producing additional units of a job that has already been printed, in almost all cases, the original printing technology is used for the reprints to ensure consistent quality from job to job. Conventional printing however requires more set-up as the color is refined during makeready and the equipment is properly calibrated to obtain the best results.
So job changeover time is among the biggest concerns when it comes to weighing whether to use conventional or digital press technologies, since there is virtually no changeover time between jobs on a digital press. Printers therefor also should be concerned about the total cost of operation, including unacceptable levels of waste of costly media as a by-product of the lengthy machine set-up.
One way to partially address these concerns is to use a fixed ink set with a fixed color palette. This helps to reduce change-over times, streamline production processes, and reduce ink room costs. Esko Equinox can be used to enable extended gamut printing and enhance quality and efficiency in conventional (flexo) printing. Extended gamut printing means that the packaging is not printed in CMYK and the necessary additional spot inks, but that the printing presses are standardized to a set of 5, 6 or 7 inks.
Typically the press will be standardized to CMYK + 2 or 3 extra inks (e.g., orange/green/blue). By adding extra colors to traditional CMYK, printers can achieve better color with fewer inks, fewer plates, less makeready time and improved productivity. At the same time, quality and consistency improved – fulfilling exactly the needs of brand owners looking for reduced costs with no compromise in color fidelity. This process can even deliver improved print quality in many cases.
In addition to Equinox, Esko Full HD Flexo enables printers and converters to use conventional flexo for label and package printing by raising its quality to the level of offset and gravure, which has been the Holy Grail for flexo. Esko Full HD Flexo is a new process for making digital flexo plates and raises the industry standard. The improved plates are higher quality, with vibrant colors and print more consistently than standard digital flexo plates, also on lower cost substrates.
Support for all printing methods
The bottom line is that the choice between conventional and digital printing comes down to the ability of the respective print technology to meet customer needs. That implies having efficient end-to-end business and production workflows in place that can ensure a smooth, efficient and profitable flow of work through the plant, regardless of the printing technique used.
We have included a few examples of technology solutions in this article, but there are many more strategies that can be employed to optimize a printing or converting operation to meet the realities of today’s dynamic marketplace.
For example, software solutions for collection of management data from devices for use in streamlining both business and production processes. The deployment of digital devices (CTP, digital presses, inspection systems, color systems, digital finishing devices…) is a key component to achieving this.
Another way to reduce costs and save time – irrespective of the printing method – is to use virtual 3D visualization tools, like Esko Studio and Store Visualizer, which allow to view product designs in 3D, with various finishing techniques, and in a variety of ambient lighting conditions. These solutions can even show what the product will look like on the shop shelf as compared to competitive products.
It is also important to consider that production operations today typically have a blend of hardware and software from a variety of different vendors. In a fast-paced, short-run environment, it is critical that all of these systems can work together in an integrated fashion. That has been one of the key objectives of Esko in bringing products to market – today’s business conditions require unparalleled workflow automation with solid quality control, and this is the goal that printing and converting operations must be working toward.
Profitability: digital versus conventional
Digital printing is still substantially more expensive than conventional printing when examined on a pure cost-per-unit basis. This is especially true for digital printing inks as compared to conventional inks. The cost of ink is an important parameter in determining where the cross-over point is between digital and conventional printing.
The cost per copy is much higher in digital but of course the cost of setting up is much lower in digital. These famous two total cost per unit-lines cross each other at some point and that is where it becomes more economical to move to conventional print.
It is also important to consider waste due to inventory obsolescence and the advantages that digital printing can bring to the print-on-demand model. In other words, when considering a choice between digital and conventional printing technology, the total life cycle cost must be considered – not just the unit cost off the back of the press.
Today, the average crossover point is in the area of 1.500 to 2.500 linear meters, this can change of course based on the variables like web width, inks, speed and quality requirements we have been discussing in this article.
One other trend we haven’t yet discussed is the growing need for variable data on labels and packaging. This typically is in the form of variable barcodes and numbering. Digital printing is often the best option for these types of projects since it can apply the variable data in a single pass as opposed to running variable on labels that will be applied to the packaging as a separate – and error prone/time consuming – process.
Because of the benefits digital printing can offer – shorter runs, less inventory waste, improved cycle time, in-line variable data, and minimal job changeover – digitally printed jobs can often be sold at a premium price. Many printers see the digital press as just another press and don’t think their sales approach or pricing model needs to be different. There is definitely added value associated with digitally printed material as we have talked about throughout this article.
When the sales process and pricing model take this into account and move digitally printed materials out of the commodity zone that conventional printing often falls into, digital press profitability is sure to increase.
The bigger picture
At Esko, we are working hard to bring solutions to the market that enhance both digital and conventional printing for labels and packaging; and to educate printers, converters and brand owners about new and improved technologies and solutions that can streamline the entire labels and packaging supply chain, bringing time, cost and quality benefits to all stakeholders.
Automation, collaboration, visualization and customization are the key words – today and in the future – for all printing technologies. This requires an efficient, flexible operation using state-of-the-art technology, enabling the entire supply chain to be involved and connecting all of the players involved in a project in an effective and efficient manner.
This article was first published in Flexo & Gravure Global 1-2015