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Surf's Up! The Digital Wave Has Broken Firmly on the Conventional Beach

While digital printing has been around for over 20 years – desktop printers, wide format equipment, etc. – relatively speaking, it has only recently taken off in the narrow format arena. Now that it’s caught on, more and more end users are demanding the use of its capabilities. The evidence? Sales of digital label presses surpassed that of conventional for the first time in 2014, and new digital press installations are projected to grow at 11.9% per year until 2020, when it’s estimated by LPC, Inc., that three out of every four presses sold will be digital. Furthermore, sales of UV inkjet presses are now catching up with those of electrophotographic (EP) presses, and are expected to overtake EP by 2018.
Surfer in tunnel

Digital capabilities are desired.

Interestingly, only five percent of labels are currently being printed digitally, according to an article published by packagePRINTING in June of 2016, leaving a lot of room for converters with digital presses to get into the game. Furthermore, according to LPC, brands are seeking out converters with digital capabilities more and more, even if their packaging is currently being printed conventionally, leading to the belief that brands are thinking ahead to the jobs that may require digital technology in the future.

Brands are driving demand.

The demand from consumer product brands for short run, customizable labels and packaging is driving the shift from conventional to digital due to the efficiency in job changeover allowed by digital. According to a 2015 survey performed by LPC, Inc., a flexo printer can run an average of three to five jobs per shift, whereas a digital printer can run an average 13 jobs per shift. This means that the run size needed for a job to be profitable comes down significantly with digital from the average 2,400 linear feet required for flexo.

Targeting specific markets.

Undoubtedly, current trends show that brands are starting to take full advantage of the capabilities of digital to create packaging that speaks to a variety of audiences. They’re segmenting their markets by any number of criteria, such as region, age or gender. Where they would previously have produced just one package to cover all markets, brands are now utilizing their printers’ digital print capabilities to instead produce several, shorter runs of variably-printed labels to target specific demographics. The option to print digitally has made this tactic affordable without sacrificing quality.

Where conventional printing comes in.

With the vast majority of label jobs still being run conventionally, conventional label printing will be around for a very long time. However, having digital capabilities on your production floor can enable you to take advantage of opportunities for which you can’t be competitive with conventional alone - the shorter run, custom jobs that require a high-end result similar to the quality of flexo or screen. These include labeling applications for consumables, such as seasonal health and beauty products and small craft beer brands, as well as durable goods applications with variable serial numbers and barcodes. Should you choose to purchase a UV inkjet unit, the need for an overlaminate may only be required for harsh environment applications, saving you even more time and allowing you to be more competitive on price.

Capitalize on the digital trend.

This leaves conventional printers in a quandary – how to service the needs of their customers while remaining profitable? It can be especially disconcerting if you own a small shop for which purchasing a half-a-million-dollar commercial UV inkjet unit may be at the worst, prohibitive, or at the very least, a major undertaking that could cause many sleepless nights trying to figure out how best to approach it and which piece(s) of equipment to buy. While equipment manufacturers have begun to offer more economical options at lower price points, the shear multitude of options can be overwhelming. Different printers offer different features, such as the number of colors, where color pinning happens and cure method. Most also offer optional features that can really drive up the price, so based on the types of jobs you run or want to run, you need to figure out which ones are the true musts. Finally, there are now a variety of modular hybrid units consisting of a conventional flexo setup followed by UV inkjet.

Your choice comes down to the types of jobs your clients are asking for.

The beauty of UV inkjet, of course, is the combination of durable inks with the easy setup of digital. Hybrid solutions are quickly increasing in popularity as well. They allow for the best of both worlds, so to speak. Static imagery or a flood coat of white can be run economically via flexo, and variable imagery can go down via UV inkjet, all inline. Add to that inline over-lamination and finishing, and you can run several jobs in succession with just a few clicks of the mouse. Furthermore, a digital press can provide operational relief for your conventional units from the small jobs and free them up for running the jobs they do best.

One caveat to keep in mind...

An increased number of jobs with quicker turnaround translates into more order entry, more scheduling and more billing. The increased volume in these areas will require some amount of process automation to avoid bottlenecks on the administrative side of things. For more on this topic, read Label and Labeling’s article, Automate to Survive.

Like it or not, the labeling industry is once again reinventing itself, and digital label printing is growing rapidly, creating a wide range of opportunities for those ready to ride the wave of innovation. And FLEXcon will be right there with you, ready to hang ten when your perfect wave comes along.

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