GAINING VIP STATUS IN THE LABELLING WORLD
Over a third of self adhesive labels carry some form of variable information printing and the volume increases annually.
Self-adhesive labels and non-adhesive tags are ideal carriers of sequential numbering and bar codes for batch codes, pricing detail, tracking goods and other identification data. Indeed, the variable information printing (VIP) sectors consistently show above-average growth of 15 per cent or more in most European markets.
Naturally, this follows the indispensability of industry-standard bar code symbologies in all branches of retailing, industry and commerce. They are now essential to production control, distribution, shipping, warehousing, point-of-purchase, transport ticketing and parts identification.
An interesting variant is two-dimensional symbology. It acts as a transportable data file in its own right and is a more versatile encoding method compared with linear bar codes. The Snowflake code, promoted by Episys, and the PDF 417 system from Symbol Technologies, Inc., are principle examples.
VIP technology ranges from sheet or roll-fed desktop printers (dot matrix, direct and thermal transfer, ink jet and laser) to fairly complex standalone or retrofit modules based on various toner-based imaging methods.
They all share a lack of intermediary films or plates and the facility to convert computer data into fixed or variable coded symbologies, text, numbering and personalised information. Professional-level Windows or Mac OS software from companies like Computalabel, MAP 80, Printmark and others allow reel or sheet-fed desktop users to originate bar codes and create label designs, with scanned-in logos and graphics.
Many types of VIP producers now download electronic data, supplied on various media, from their larger customers without operator input to further reduce lead times. The higher-volume in-line or off-line electronic systems also come with a variety of computerised solutions to origination and job entry. In both cases it is possible to download data supplied on disks or tapes.
Optimum printed label sizes, image quality and run lengths govern equipment buying decisions. Another consideration is the price of consumables and how long they last in relation to likely print volumes.
With so many variables involved, it is important to select the correct self adhesive laminate or tag material to ensure compatibility with chosen imaging units, also scanners and software. Major labelstock laminators like Fasson, Jackstädt, MACtac, Raflatac, Ritrama and Samuel Jones can advise on these points. They all include VIP-compatible coated and uncoated paper materials, filmics and non-paper synthetics in their ranges.
Incidentally, Raflatac offers useful handbooks on VIP technology, thermal transfer ribbons and thermal labelstocks. Like other suppliers, it also reports increasing interest in specific filmic grades, often top-coated to resist UV light, heat, moisture or chemicals. Computer-imprintable filmics, notably polyethylene and polyester, now range from 12 to 250 microns thick, supplied with clear, white, opaque, matt and metallised surfaces.
The technology’s on-demand and short-run nature has particularly boosted the desktop printer market. All types of companies use them to overprint blank or partially-printed die-cut labels, obtainable from trade houses or bureaux. They offer flexibility on label quantities, quick changes of data and adequate print resolutions and image densities for first-time bar code scans.
Several VIP bureaux are now geared to handle fast turnarounds, providing useful services to any company that cannot justify a desktop operation. Some trade houses also have electronic VIP operations for larger volumes and a few are distributors of thermal printers.
Impact printers were the first data-driven devices and helped to establish the idea of computer/EDP labelling, using blanks or partly-printed stock that was die cut and fan-folded. Today, there is still a market for serial or line-dot matrix printers, mainly for producing inexpensive labels in small quantities. The robust and simple construction of these printers makes them ideal for industrial applications.
The arrival of semi and non-impact printers in the 1980s offered users the superior quality of pixel-formed characters to meet more demanding bar code standards. Initially, direct thermal printers led the running – encouraged by price-weigh labelling needs – and they retain a sizeable market. Here, a computer activates dots on a heated printhead to create a darkened image on a ‘chemi-thermal’ substrate, which includes heat-sensitive dyes, sensitisers and developers.
Direct thermal printers have few moving parts, are moderately priced and are quiet. Today’s chemi-thermal materials offer both image stability and densities for tags and labels in weights from 50 to 250 gsm. The latest top-coated grades offer high levels of protection, such as from oils and solvents, while back coatings prevent adhesive penetration.
Besides self-adhesive labels, developments from paper processors like Arjo Wiggins Thermal, Fasson, Feron, Kanzaki, Raflatac, Renker, Smith & McLaurin and 3M have greatly extended direct thermal usage. Garment tags, luggage tagging, gaming tickets, receipts and parking tickets are a few examples. Long-term durability and colour stability is even possible with ion stearate heat-sensitive papers, as offered by Renker.
Thermal transfer printers also have fixed thermal printheads, but create data images through an intermediate ink transfer ribbon. These are formulated from wax, wax/resin, resin and ‘super’ resin compounds. They carry one or more fusible ink coatings on a polyester carrier with a protective back-coating.
Surprisingly, around twenty ribbon manufacturers serve the European market, each with half a dozen or more grades to complement particular paper, board or filmic label materials. For example, wax ribbons do not offer scratch resistance on coated, non-absorbent materials. Ribbon selection is also decided by the type of printhead: either a conventional type or one of the latest near-edge or corner-edge variants, which offer higher speeds and resolutions.
Some ribbons have several pigment layers for multiple usage. Colour ribbons are available for solid colours, such as in pallet coding. There are also colour ribbons for the new generation of full-colour printers that also produce Pantone combinations.
Buyers of direct or thermal transfer printers have a bewildering choice for all applications, including wider, heavy-duty models for pallet and drum labelling. Most are badged OEM versions sold with proprietary software and font options. Some printers feature automatic devices to extend ribbon life or have integral web drive rollers that allow the printhead to skip over pre-printed areas. It is also possible to rig-up some models, such as those from Sato and TEC, to run with label applicators and other continuously-fed machines.
Roll-to-roll laser imaging offers an alternative to both thermal methods. Episys, among the first companies in this field, offers the EPiTAG range, with widths of 120mm and 240mm and 300 dpi resolutions. The company claims its laser printers are more economical to run compared with thermal transfer printers. Laser imaging helped spark the huge growth in usage of die-cut A4 sheet labels on computer-output printers. However, with the demand for affordable ‘good-enough’ colour, the market is seeing a strong trend towards inexpensive four-colour ink jet technology using dedicated substrates.
Dawson Smith, marketing services manager of Avery Dennison’s Business System Division, confirms this: ‘We now find plain or customised die-cut sheets for sheet-fed printers make up most of our sheet/roll production. Finished blanks, especially for ink jet colour printers, are doing particularly well.’
Nevertheless, it appears the demand for process-colour label printing on desktop printers is some way short of expectations. This is particularly true regarding multi-colour thermal printers, proving again that new developments and market demand do not necessarily march together. Under-standably, many users find it hard to justify process-colour labels – at this level of usage – when faced with considerably higher capital and consumable costs. Perhaps printer makers should place more marketing stress on their products’ abilities to offer superbly-printed colour-coded product or pallet labels. This market has a huge untapped potential.
Doubtless UBI (itself a maker of thermal printers) felt its ColorCoder 901 could fill the gap and cost-effectively meet the needs of colour-conscious end-users. The roll-fed compact printer, which has appeared under several OEM badges, uses Canon’s proven bubble-jet technology to print on a dedicated stock. Significantly, its newly-appointed UK distributor, Mallet Machinery, sells the machine at a reduced price of £8,500. The latest version electronically ‘dithers’ the image, to give improved image quality.
An interesting sheet-fed development is Fargo Electronics’ Impressa, digital label and decal process-colour printer. As a high-quality dye sublimation machine it is unique in having an integral cutting function that also handles complex contour cuts. By avoiding the added expense of rotary dies, users could compete with multi-colour flexo presses in specific short-run markets. The Impressa runs with FargoPrint PC-based software, which allows trade users to download customers’ files.
More longstanding approaches to full-colour printing include Markem Systems offers a different approach with the LP8410, a standalone foil printer that allows users to create on-demand labels using DTP text and graphics software. The machine prints from four coloured foils to a size of 240 x 375mm, with integral cutting.
Newfoil Machinery has taken another approach by linking a four-colour TEC thermal printer with its RD2000 hot-foil, laminator and die-cutting machine. But as Derek Evans admits, although introduced to meet perceived North America interest, take-up has been slow.
Of course, the different digital imaging technologies offered by Indigo and Xeikon – covered extensively in past issues – place another perspective on on-demand colour printing, as do the RIP-driven copier/-printers from companies like Scitex, Canon, Kodak and Minolta. While the VIP element is strong with certain systems, they collectively make up a different market.
More relevant to this article are the high-volume toner-based systems. In simple terms, a ‘laser’ beam cartridge generates a charged printing ‘forme’ onto a revolving light-sensitive cylinder that attracts toner powder from a roller. Exposure to the toner develops he image, which is variously fused by hot, cold or pressure methods after transfer to the substrate. The main methods are electron beam (sometimes called ion deposition), electrophotographic laser imaging, magnetography and LED (Light Emitting Diodes). Each will completely re-image the cylinder after every impression.
Integrated within an existing or new press line, a module functions as another nip,with optical mark sensors maintaining registration with pre-printed stock. Actual usage or space limitations dictate their physical location. Alternatively, some systems function as standalone unts with their own unwind/rewinds. Laser imagers require either a varnish, UV curing or lamination to bond overprinted toner to the substrate.
Electronic systems have either separate or integrated computer-aided controllers. The third element is the PC-based work-station, using proprietary menu-driven software for independent job set-ups. All systems allow on-screen previewing and links with desktop proofer/printers. Users can download a variety of customers’ variable data from disk, tape or other computer. A graphics controller translates the fonts and formats into a continuous signal to the print engine, which generates variable images at press speed.
Delphax was the first company to offer retrofit electron beam modules. I supplies the medium-volume 820. The print width is 208mm on a web of 280mm. Resolution for numbering and encoding is 300 dpi (12 dots/mm) at speeds up to 76 m/minute. The larger 1440 model images to a 200-dpi resolution up to 365mm wide at speeds up 91m/minute.
The same print engines also appear under OEM arrangements with other suppliers. One such system is the Digital Print DigiPress 300XE. Its runs at up to 70m/minute on narrow-web presses, giving a print width up to 215mmmm with user-selectable resolutions of 240 or 300 dpi.
Rotapress of Alsbach in Germany also offers a retrofit module based on similar electrons beam technology for in-line narrow-web production. Again, it uses a pre-press workstation for originating variable data jobs, with on-screen checking or proofing on an ink jet or laser printer.
One recent development in this area is the formation of Vikon Imaging Inc, which combines the imaging operations of NBS Southern Inc and AFK Inc, also based in based in Largo, Florida.
Vikon now manufactures the Vision II line of electron beam imaging and develops the related software: around 40 systems are installed worldwide. The UK distributor is Mallet Machinery, while Matti Technology looks after the German-speaking countries. Model 1200 has a single print engine producing a print width of 215mm, positioned laterally at any location across the web. Model 2400 supports two synchronised engines to produce either an extended 431mm print width, or two 215mm independently-positioned images. Vikon has developed a new approach to toner-based VIP technology, called Direct Change Imaging. The first product the Model 3411, is currently undergoing beta testing for a midsummer launch.
Magnetography became established as an imaging method when GMC Digital was selling the PrintRobot and SpeedRobot stand-alone units. GMC now concentrates on dedicated VIP software packages, while Nipson (owned by Groupe Bull the developer of the process) carries the flag with its Varypress magnetographic printers. The technology uses an array of selectively-charged electro-magnetics to write latent images to a chromed photoconductive drum.
Nipson’s range includes the compact Varypress M11O, an entry-level model for small-to-medium label and forms operations. Nipson also offers the 240-dpi Varypress 700 and Model 7000, mainly for forms and publication printing. Both handle tensioned webs up to 520mm wide and flash fusion allows a choice of substrates. Its machines run either off-line with web handling ancillaries, or integrated within a press line using various software platforms.
Kimball Systems, a division of Esselte Meto, produces high-volume off-line flash fusion printers with continuous-feed. The LIS-1120 has a 279-mm web width, while the LIS-1520A has a width of 393mm. They also form the basis for Esselte Meto’s global network of electronically-linked VIP print bureaux serving the shoe and garment industry.
Printronix also supplies electronic laser printers. Its latest 406-mm wide module uses high-intensity light to fuse the toner to the substrate, which allows the overprinting of filmic labelstocks.
Ink jet printing has made huge strides in recent years over several product coding, identification and related VIP fronts. Unlike toner systems, it requires no heat or pressure: the printhead sprays electronically-charged ink drops onto the substrate. Progress has come from using thermo-chromatic and water-based inks to achieve near-instant drying on most substrates. This has supported developments in the latest continuous, binary-array techniques, offering improved multi-line capabilities and programmable controllers. The process now offers acceptable imaging levels for graphics and bar coding at higher production speeds. An example is Videojet’s SR25B/50B, which image bands of 25mm and 3 metres/second. Besides bar codes and numbering, fine-line text, user-generated graphics and logos are possible.
Atlantic Zeiser sells an OEM-badged version, called the Alpha 50, under an OEM agreement. Bar code labelling is one of its applications: users can print standard bar codes up to 50mm high in lengths up to 130cm. One option is to pre-print a bar code’s non-consecutive segment with the same 100 x 200 resolution and add the variable portion between or next to it.
Over the years, several major acquisitions have left Scitex Digital Printing as a leading and innovative ink jet developer. Its work in combining good-quality monochrome and multi-colour printing with fast-moving webs is mainly associated with the high-volume forms and mailer personalising market. However, this Dayton-based company is known to have several interesting developments up its sleeve: a more concerted move into the electronics VIP label market cannot be rulet out.
And that is an abiding thing about all forms of VIP technology: continual market demand will fuel further development in equipment, substrates and consumables. Cynics may add ‘whether the market is ready for it or not’, but that’s progress.