The rise of hybrid label printing technology

With the continued growth of digital print production in the narrow web industry, flexo press manufacturers have wanted to tap into markets where a combination of printing technologies offers processors something different. But one company claims to offer a true hybrid solution that was developed in-house, allowing it to come from a single source. Nick Coombes recently met Phil Baldwin, Sales Director for Mark Andy in the UK and Ireland, to discuss the position and future of hybrid technology within the labeling industry.

NC: I guess the first thing we need to do is define what we mean by “hybrid”?

PB: Across the market, the term hybrid is generally accepted to refer to a combination of digital and analog printing technology, with online conversion capabilities. It was designed as a way to deliver the best in roll-to-roll digital printing with additional flexo printing and finishing units on a single platform for single-pass production.

NC: Was there a strong demand for this capacity?

PB: Initially, it was more of an exercise in what could be achieved technologically – like in the early days of commercial digital printing in the 90s, technical capacity preceded market demand. It seemed like a good idea to combine the best of both worlds, but without obvious and significant future demand, few manufacturers were willing to invest large sums of money in the required R&D.

NC: So how was the problem solved?

PB: Basically, by a flexo press manufacturer working in partnership with a digital press manufacturer to create a common brand hybrid solution, each adapting their own technology as needed. There are many examples in the market that are well known and high profile, and the demand has gradually increased as new products have been developed that require a combined solution. But essentially you still have two different products from different manufacturers that weren’t co-developed and whose compatibility relies on adaptation and modification as opposed to natural synergy.

NC: Do you take it that Mark Andy saw things differently from the start?

PB: Yes, very differently. From the outset, we conducted detailed market research on the likely demand for such technology and its performance parameters tailored to production costs and potential sales volumes. What became clear to us was that in order to have the best chance of convincing flexo or digital printers to invest in hybrid technology, we had to develop it from scratch internally so that we understood all aspects and can ensure full compatibility between different prints. and conversion functions.

NC: It seems expensive and time consuming …

PB: It was huge, and I’m not claiming that there weren’t times when we doubted the value of the effort and resources spent. But we have always believed in the value of the project and have remained determined to make it happen. As one of the pioneers of narrow grid technology, we knew we had the deep expertise to make it work, but it had to become a commercial product and not just a practical embodiment of our technical skills – it there is a big difference between the two if you want to be profitable!

NC: How did the market receive Mark Andy’s digital series?

PB: Initially with a certain suspicion because it was an unknown and unproven concept. Flexo had been established and developed for many years and digital had been around for two decades, but a combination of the two raised questions about how it could be used by converters and marketed to their customers. But, once we could demonstrate its capabilities in terms of quality and flexibility, and a faster run speed than a pure digital press, then its appeal became more evident and those of the narrow web sector with an eye on the future began to see a new opportunity.

One of the companies to have taken advantage of what the Digital Series hybrid has to offer is Mark Andy’s longtime user The Watershed Group, which is based in Ireland but also has production plants in Germany and Germany. Poland. Well known for its creativity and high quality labels for major brand owners, the company invested in a Mark Andy Digital Series hybrid line in 2018. I spoke with CEO Liz Waters about the company’s decision. to embark on this path and their experience in using hybrid technology in today’s highly competitive narrow web industry.

NC: Can you briefly describe your company’s experience with narrow web technology?

LW: The company was founded by my late husband in 1992 and started with a single production plant in Dublin. As we grew it became evident that we needed to rationalize our flexo capacity and chose Mark Andy as our preferred manufacturer. In the years that followed, we installed nearly 20 of their presses across the Group, which includes our subsidiaries Etiko in Poland and Römer Etikett in Germany.

NC: What was the idea behind the choice of Mark Andy as sole press supplier?

LW: Establishing close strategic partnerships has always been the key to our growth plan and we consider Mark Andy’s experience in narrow web flexo to be superior to that of other manufacturers. When they extended their expertise to designing and building their own digital / flexo hybrid, it was a simple decision to stick with them. As with all new technology, the learning curve has had its issues for both parties, but the result has been worth perseverance.

NC: Where do you see hybrid technology fit in the narrow web sector?

LW: We have always had a good reputation for innovation, and the ability to combine the quality of UV flexo with the flexibility of digital inkjet in one operation gives us the power to differentiate our customers’ products from those of their competitors. The print quality is excellent, and we have the option of running the line as a flexo or digital press if we don’t need its hybrid capability – so we have the best of both worlds!

NC: Have you thought about installing a stand-alone digital press?

LW: Yeah, we did. We took a close look at what the leading toner and inkjet press manufacturers had to offer, but felt that none of them offered anything special for our needs. It’s the combination of Mark Andy’s proven servo flexo platform and its own integrated inkjet motor that sets it apart. The extensive one-pass printing and converting capability is ideal for our portfolio of high-quality, top-brand products. The other advantage is that digital consumables like ink and toner, and the famous click-load, can all be mitigated by the hybrid’s combined flexo printing and in-line finishing capability.

NC: How do you see the future investment in printing technology at Watershed?

LW: We love the quality that inkjet gives us for high-end products at high prices, and the Mark Andy digital series has certainly opened new doors, but the hybrid concept is complex and the speed at which the technology is developing means that we will keep a mind on how we are going from here. It is important at Watershed that the technology we use is both innovative and commercial, and at the time, a hybrid press fulfilled this mandate.

Another label converter to invest in a digital hybrid from Mark Andy is Danish Randers-based FlexoPrint A / S. One of the country’s leading narrow web flexo companies, FlexoPrint installed a Mark Andy Digital Series press in March 2018. It is part of the growing Optimum group which now has manufacturing facilities in Salzbergen and Greven, Germany, and I spoke with the general manager, Lars Olé Nauta.

NC: Why did you choose the hybrid route for your first digital press?

LON: We have always been very proficient at narrow web flexo production and have a highly skilled workforce that provides excellent productivity on the type of labels we produce. One of the main advantages of flexo presses is the possibility of single pass production with value added processes and inline die cutting, so an inkjet hybrid was the best solution.

NC: What has been your experience with the press in day-to-day business operations?

LON: In a nutshell, “excellent”! This is a 1st generation press so we had some issues initially but these were fixed by the technicians at Mark Andy UK. It’s an easy-to-learn and easy-to-use press and gives us the one-pass production we need – we especially like the ability to lay a flexo blank before the digital engine and the fact that we can die-cut in-line.

NC: What effect has this had on your business?

LON: It exceeded our expectations and fits our type of work very well. We don’t print fine art here, we provide competitively priced quality labels with super fast turnaround times to match the growing number of references and declining prints. It is a very commercial tool and by removing the need for a reprographic service we can send 95% of the work directly from the client through our sales team to the press – we do not need to offer an adjustment internally to illustrations, so it saves time and money.

NC: What advice would you give to a label converter looking to invest in digital printing technology for the first time?

LON: In principle, I would say that you have to know your customers and their products and markets well because the different types of digital presses available are suitable for different types of jobs. The inkjet hybrid offers the flexibility and single pass capability of a flexo / digital hybrid. For us the Mark Andy digital series is a good choice and has been excellent value for money.

NC: The overwhelming impression that I have when discussing hybrid technology with manufacturers and users is that while it is not the answer to all prayers of all label converters, it is a highly skilled, versatile production tool that offers an unmatched degree of flexibility and combines the best of flexo and inkjet technology for single pass production. There are more Mark Andy hybrids in daily use around the world than any other brand – in fact perhaps more than all other brands combined. The message there, I believe, is that this is a label press.

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