By Melissa Donovan
Part 1 of 2
The latest advancements in high-speed, production-level corrugated board digital printers range from ink sets to media handling. In any scenario, the need for automation is essential. Everything from board loading and unloading to fulfillment requires advanced software. Package printers, converters, and manufacturers considering bringing digital printing in house for corrugated board work should understand the sweet spot for this technology as well as its limitations.
The latest advancements on high-speed, production-level corrugated board printers propel their usage into new areas. This includes the ability to print in a single pass, the introduction of water-based inks, and significant updates to media handling.
Updates to the print engine make single-pass printing a possibility. “Utilizing print systems/modules that are built for long life should significantly reduce operating cost both short and long term. Single-pass printers are expected to be at or near lithographic quality so your print system must be consistent and always in top operating condition,” share Ben Ginesi, European sales manager, and Lloyd Kent, senior sales manager, North America – corrugated, Domino Printing Services.
Beyond single- or one-pass, other integral updates in this space center on ink. “The use of water-based inks is a development created by the need for food-based packaging in the corrugated segment. UV inks just don’t pass the necessary safety tests, especially for primary food packaging. More specific enhancements in this product area are five and six colors like orange and violet for extended color gamut,” explains Larry D’Amico, sales director, North America, Durst Image Technology US.
“It is important to note that generally speaking, water-based inks require a lower cost to produce than UV inks, therefore corrugated converters should see cost reductions in consumables. This will promote more work moving from flexography to digital, both high graphic and general flexographic replacement,” agree Ginesi and Kent.
Media handling is a common challenge that is addressed in the latest developments. For example, Pedro Silva, sales director, MTEX NS, discusses that two components in its MTEX NS Multi+ device focus on media—a web cleaner and a new encoder system.
“Through the web cleaner’s ionizing bar that, through electrical discharges, allows cleaning the media greatly enhancing the quality of the printing, saves time in maintenance processes, and enlarges the lifetime of the unit. And we have improved the technology that supports our encoder, which allows the type of media accepted to expand and consequently new markets opening,” says Silva.
Sheet feed and transport systems are essential to digital’s success int he corrugate space. As Ginesi and Kent note, most of the corrugated sheets running through single-pass digital printers are the same ones run on analog machines. In all instances, the machine must be capable of handling highly warped or even damaged sheets. Domino incorporates servo-driven technology to ensure proper media handling.
“Being servo driven enables the feeder to be in time with the transport belt, allowing for precise placement on the belt to best utilize the vacuum used to hold down the sheet. This ensures the vacuum is able to do its job and at the same time minimize the turbulence within the print module, which if not accounted for can have a negative impact on dot placement and ultimately print quality,” continue Ginesi and Kent.
Many advancements involve what Sebastien Stabel, market segment manager corrugated, Xeikon, refers to as “the golden triangle.” “This means the integration of your chemistry stack, the printhead integration, and board handling. Many vendors are working on it. OEMs are undergoing a steep learning curve and are continuously delivering printing solutions with higher productivities, higher reliability, and a wider substrate range application.”
Need that Software
Addressing manufacturing and business management software for a digital device might not be something every potential buyer considers at the onset, but most industry insiders agree that it is wise to purchase this software at the same time as the printer.
Software of this nature greatly contributes to the overall efficiency of a single-pass, high-speed digital press, so Ginesi and Kent believe that it isn’t an option to leave it out when purchasing the hardware. Through beta testing, Domino discovered the average number of print variation through a run has risen from 1.2 up to 4.5, which translates to a CRM system handling 3.75 times the amount of artwork in addition to specification data process. Without a well-integrated digital workflow, the chance of making mistakes rises by the same amount.
“If you have a press that can print close to 100,000 square feet in an hour, you better have the front-end system to support that back end capability. Like any production process, the systems need to match and workflow software is a critical element to ensure that you are fully optimizing your print capability,” advises D’Amico.
Stabel believes it depends on the business/marketing plan of the converter and the work they produce. Manufacturing and business management software can be implemented at any time the business owner requires.
If the business plan calls for short-run packaging—which many who have implemented or plan to implement this type of technology have focused on—the need for workflow software is even more evident, according to D’Amico. “If you are not set up to minimize the human touches required to produce a job you will be unable to sufficiently address this market opportunity.”
Familiarize with Digital
Compared to analog technologies, package printers or converters as well as manufacturers might not know what to expect in terms of digitally printing corrugated board and the subsequent technology. They should familiarize themselves with things like ink laydown and color management prior to purchasing and implementing a high-speed, production-level corrugated printer.
D’Amico admits this question is often overlooked in the overall process of purchasing a single-pass corrugated board printer. In response, he suggests the following. “Digital tends to be categorized as flexographic or offset replacement. In reality, it is neither and creates a new and different quality level depending on the technology. This needs to be fully vetted since a new quality expectation must be created with end users.”
Another potentially unfamiliiar aspect of the process involves four-color images and ink. According to D’Amico, package design graphics traditionally feature a lot of full flat color fields. “In digital, you want to adjust your designs away from flat fields and more towards four-color images. Flat fields require the maximum amount of ink usage. With analog technologies ink is an insignificant cost to the total job, and that is not true with digital inkjet systems. It can be extremely beneficial to the overall cost of the job to modify graphics so that large flat fields are replaced with design elements that require less ink.”
“The issues related to color enter a new dimension since you can ‘abuse’ the use of color easily in digital,” agrees Silva.
Beyond the physical machine elements, Ginesi and Kent say that overall business workflow including file preparation and color management should be considered. Many corrugated converters have limited expertise in these areas and it can be overwhelming. In addition, educating the sales team is important.
“Ensure the sales team is capable and has the desire to promote digital as a potential solution and alternative to existing equipment offerings. They need to be fully trained on how to maximize the value that digital brings to both the manufacturer and the customer, and how this is different to the economic cost model that exists today,” they continue.
Stabel suggests exploring the value the technology brings to both you and the end customer. “Figure out together with the equipment supplier what part of the existing business you can run in a consistent way on the press and how it can simplify the internal process including cost, waste, and time optimization. Get this in place, get familiar with digital, and then build your way towards the customer.”
A high-speed, production-level corrugated printer is a consideration for anyone looking to print with digital, the question then becomes when is the right time to buy? A large deciding factor is run length, but shouldn’t be limited by just this.
If there is a need for high graphic printing, Ginesi and Kent believe digital just makes sense. “Having three- to four-color work with many shorter runs makes digital print a no-brainer but it is important to note with lower consumable costs we are seeing that even large runs can be efficiently run on digital and still make you money.”
Stabel explains that today’s current install base represents a variety of applications and run sizes, so it isn’t easy to determine a common breakeven point.
“Short runs that don’t repeat should have the greatest return using digital, but even on job runs of 5,000 to 10,000 you can have a real opportunity to make money printing digitally,” note Ginesi and Kent.
And a straight replacement return on investment isn’t something to expect either, says D’Amico. “It is misleading to think this is the only cost justification for this type of purchase. The most successful companies are the ones that fully understand the advantage of digital and position this aspect with their customers. It’s about adding value through digital beyond cost reduction.”
High-speed digital corrugated printing is made possible thanks to advancements in printing technology surrounding the hardware, ink sets, and media handling systems. Combined, all three create efficient technology that makes for an attractive option for any package converter, printer, or manufacturer.
The second article in this series provides information on high-speed digital corrugated printers currently available.
Jun2021, Industrial Print Magazine