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Sunday, September 12, 2010

DIGITAL INKJET PRINTING - A QUESTION OF INTEGRATION

Since its introduction at LabelExpo Europe 2007, Nilpeter's inline CASLON system and digital front-end have undergone steady improvements. Typically, the system comprises a CMYK InkJet print engine with Xaar's Type 1001 greyscale print heads integrated with Nilpeter FA-Line flexo printing units and converting functions. It offers several process and special-colour options, including opaque white, using UV-curable InkJet and flexo inks. Commercial acceptance has begun to take off: Over the past few months Nilpeter's Italian distributor has sold two complete CASLON lines, and the US and UK subsidiary companies have each sold a system.

This level of success reflects the global acceptance of digital InkJet printing for key applications within the labelling and packaging industry. It also raises an inescapable question: How do you integrate a digital solution with conventional printing methods? This was a key subject discussed at the second Digital Label Summit, held recently in Barcelona. One of the sessions covered the experience of Labelco A/S, the first company to install a CASLON system. Mrs. Birthe Kjærholm, production manager and co-founder, explained how the Danish converter integrated CASLON into its plant in Hinnerup, near Aarhus, Denmark. Mr. Jesper Jørgensen, Nilpeter's global sales manager, posed the questions.

Labelco was formed in 1991 by Birthe Kjærholm and her partner Mr. Erik Mikkelsen. It now has 33 employees and occupies modern premises with 4,000 sq/m of space. The primary markets are food and beverage labels, with a focus on quality. Production is based on six 8-colour UV-flexo presses. 'We always invest in the latest technology and try to be at the frontier of product knowledge', Birthe explained. 'We were a pioneer user of UV-cured inks and varnishes in Denmark and the first company anywhere to install a CASLON system'.

The company's motivation to adopt digital printing followed a decade of assessing technical developments. 'We preferred the CASLON approach because it allowed us to adopt CMYK InkJet printing within a complete production line. This gave us all the benefits of 4-colour digital printing, with no ink and plate changes, plus we could combine it with the possibilities offered by flexo. It meant, that there were no bottlenecks in the production workflow.

'However, installing an InkJet press meant starting all over again. We began by conducting printing tests involving different types of film and paper labelstocks. We had done similar tests when we first used UV-flexo. Our aim was to treat the CASLON line as being just another new machine that supplemented our existing presses. That meant building up our knowledge before planning any production.

'Most of our customers are not really worried how their job is printed. But we can sell label buyers the fact that they do not have to buy for stock. This is especially important with frequent copy changes. Inline production also gives us easier product planning. For example, an increase of run length of one of our jobs meant switching from digital to flexo on the same press, but there were no discernible differences in the printing quality. We also found to our surprise, that when printing on thermal paper we could lay down an opaque white base ink.'

In a presentation of five case studies involving food label jobs, Birthe Kjærholm showed the type of quality that inline InkJet/flexo production is capable of, while explaining how it effected production planning procedures and met end-users' demands.

The examples prompted her to conclude that the CASLON system had opened up exciting possibilities, although initially there had been a long learning curve. Its strengths were in allowing the company to produce 'exclusive' labels in short runs. The cost of InkJet printing was not necessarily more expensive than using flexo, but as a plateless process it gave the company better margins compared with conventional printing. Furthermore, the company used its existing prepress system for both conventional and digital jobs. Job planning was treated the same for both methods. Staff training, however, required a careful approach, especially as any digital approach required changing the attitudes of the sales team.

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