The InfoTrends data and the reflections of Bobst, Esko, Luxoro-Kurz, Kodak, Koenig & Bauer Flexotecnica, Omet, Uteco on a construction philosophy that wins through in labeling and now, with more doubts than certainties, faces onto other applicative horizons.
In this Converting Special we deal with hybrid printing: a phenomenon that is talked about a lot (last Labelexpo Europe was the confirmation) and which sees practically all the great players of flexo and digital committed, with a growing swell in finishing. However, given the quantity and variety of proposals in the field, it is not easy to understand what it is about and above all to evaluate when and why to invest in this type of technology. Therefore we asked a group of companies active in Italy, which provide state-of-the-art technologies for prepress, printing and finishing-ennobling, to help us define the phenomenon by identifying salient characteristics, strengths and limitations, as well as market prospects. And an authoritative market research firm to delimit and quantify the same.
Who prints hybrid (and what type)
In 2019, hybrid machines for label printing in the EMEA area represented 8% of the installed fleet of 1280 printers, compared to 92% of “standalone” machines. This is the data provided by Bob Leahey (Director Color Digital Label and Packaging at Keypoint Intelligence, InfoTrends Divison), extrapolated from the InfoTrends “Color Digital Label Printer Forecast 2018-2023” study, and it says many things. As Bob Leahey – speaking of hybrid label printing – explains, « the EMEA area is currently 85-90% western Europe. To avoid misleading approximations, we have only considered machines that combine flexo stations with color inkjet as hybrid. We have not included other configurations on the market, such as digital printers that integrate lamination and die cutting, due to the lack of sufficient and sufficiently clear data ». The choice to focus the study on the label makers, however, was practically obligatory: hybrid printing machines are practically only found here. «In packaging, for example – Leahey considers – a great variety of substrates with peculiar difficulties (flexible films, for example) come into play; moreover, the finishing of 3-dimensional packaging (cartons etc.) is slower than printing, at least for now, effectively limiting hybridization.
Hybrid or hybridized?
Hybrid machines offer specific advantages but also, of course, specific limits, including their considerable cost. So all today’s OEMs have hybrid machines in their catalogue (as well as already installed) and, alongside the names mentioned in the following pages, one need mention actors such as Gallus, Mark Andy, MPS, Nilpeter – but also FFEI (UK) or Canon, Leahey suggests. «The same companies – emphasizes the expert – are often also large suppliers of flexo machines, with hundreds of customers working in analogue and that therefore represent a significant potential outlet for the hybrid. At the same time, another – so to speak – “parallel” and certainly important phenomenon should be mentioned: the “hybridization” of existing lines by retrofitting CMYK inkjet modules (and not only those, Ed.)». But that’s another story.
“Hybrid printing”: everyone talks about it, but what is it?
If we want to talk about hybrid printing by sticking to objective data, typically that relating to installed machinery (as Infotrends suggests in the introduction), we must only consider machines that combine flexo and digital printing technologies in-line. since – as Bob Leahey considers – we don’t have enough information and figures for the others types of hybridization. However, gathering analyses and testimonies of the machines, equipment, consumables and software manufacturers that contribute to forming multiprocess digitalized platforms – as experts believe it is more correct to call the phenomenon – a more complex picture takes shape. Which sees all the other printing technologies (screen printing, gravure and even offset printing) and various other complementary processes with all the pros and cons, added together alongside the classic flexo-digital combination.
A label phenomenon
Hybrid printing, given by all in progressive development, is therefore redefined by our experts as «multiprocess printing on machines of various types (platforms, fixed and mobile units, etc.), to which is added the digital printing unit for the reproduction of variable data» (d’Annunzio). «Today we talk about hybrid as a new phenomenon – adds the manager and “inventor”(Senior Innovation Advisor and Hybrid Program Manager is one of his qualifications in Bobst) – but in reality it has always been done on labels. Gallus, for example, in 1980 presented a machine equipped with silkscreen printing and hot foil gold stamping». Kodak agrees and specifies: today hybrid printing means a process that not only integrates a digital solution inline that can add quality and speed to conventional equipment, but constitutes a 100% customized system, capable of generating new value to an existing machine yard without major financial investments. With this in mind, the harmonization of analogue and digital technologies does not only concern printing but also finishing. We do not know if OEMs would literally subscribe to this claim, since in the catalogue of all manufacturers contains at least one brand new “hybrid machine” (which requires an ad hoc investment). However, all of them also include complementary and post-printing processes in the idea of hybridization. In Bobst, Matteo Cardinotti (Head of narrow & midweb as well as multi-process & converting Product Line and Managing Director of Bobst Firenze) testifies, one speaks of a hybrid machine when the digital is accompanied by a part of printing/converting that is not limited to the mere die or flexo varnishing unit and can also include finishing functions. Enrico Rimini, Chief of Uteco‘s Digital Printing Business Unit, states that «the hybrid machine integrates different technologies to exploit the strengths of one of them and, through the others, to add value or complement weak points» and he details: digital, flexography, rotogravure, offset, but also finishing, converting, lamination, cutting… Marco Panzeri, Omet Product Manager, adds a precious practical notation: the type and quantity of technologies integrated in the hybrid machine is a function of the final result to be obtained. But even if we wanted to limit ourselves to the classic flexo + digital combination – the manager recalls – flexographic units can also be used for finishing and varnishing applications and therefore their presence is enough to extend the range of a hybrid machine to post printing. Maria Costantino, Sales & Marketing Manager at Koenig & Bauer Flexotecnica, in turn offers an original starting point, proposing to also classify machines capable of processing both solvent and water-based inks as “hybrids”, with all that this entails in terms of ad hoc inking and drying. The demands for sustainability expressed by the market are so significant as to justify the development of “amphibious” systems, capable of printing with both technologies, stresses the manager.
Why it came into being (in response to what needs and application sectors), when and by whose work? Who are the main industrial players today? How has the demand evolved? And the technology?
Bobst: The need to use hybrid machines came into being to optimize costs according to the length of the print runs. Thinking about the synthesis of conventional and digital, Domino stands out as a forerunner; Gallus, Mark Andy and Bobst subsequently developed proprietary digital technology while other manufacturers continued to offer products made in partnership with digital companies (Mps with Domino, Omet with Durst, NilPeter with Screen …). The technology is always inkjet Drop on Demand but the type of head changes, with the Fuji Samba used by Bobst, Gallus and Durst which today represents the state of the art in terms of speed and resolution.
Kodak: Hybrid printing was created to respond to needs expressed in all areas of printing (commercial, editorial, packaging, labels …), namely speed, customization, job complexity, reduction of print runs and increase of small orders, not to mention quality. With this approach, printers can make flexibility a strength and a distinguishing feature, also knowing that they can count on an extraordinary advancement in technology.
Koenig & Bauer Flexotecnica: The radically modular design of the new generation, fully automatic, flexo Cl allows the combination in line of different product printing and finishing as well as converting modules – incorporating special applications and complementary printing techniques such as rotogravure, offset or digital. Modern flexographic machines allow coatings to be carried out, in a single pass, before printing (primer), either continuously or registered, as well as gloss and protective lacquering, on the front or back of the substrate, after printing, as required by the complex graphic structure of some packaging. This is the horizon towards which the supply chain R&D is working.
Omet: Each technology has its own specific advantages and limitations and hybrid printing aims to combine the benefits or compensate for the limits of the techniques involved, to broaden the possibilities of the printers. Omet was one of the first companies to believe in hybrid and tailor-made configurations. The first digital + flexo projects date back to more than 10 years ago and even before that we started working on “home-made” offset and web units to be integrated in to flexographic platforms that today are the flagship of the Omet range, especially in the medium range. With striking cases such as the Varyflex for Lottery scratch cards produced in 2010 specifically for the Chinese market, with flexo, offset and digital units in hybrid configuration for a length of 54 m.
Uteco: Customers have been asking for customization of the printing line for many years to increase its effectiveness, efficiency and added value according to its internal flow and, if a date of creation or a first author cannot be pinpointed, it is nevertheless a growing trend. The main industrial players are those who historically have know-how in multiple technologies, or who collaborate with other synergistic companies – as we in Uteco did. Our percentage of hybrid machines made on demand is growing but we also have hybrid-born lines in our catalogue. The digital machines (such as our Sapphire EVO) and the flexographic ones (typically CI flexo with gravure downstream) are the most suitable for a hybridization process, but hybrid offsets already exist and in Uteco we have also created hybrid gravure machines, for example for security applications.
How do you see the future of hybridization of technologies in the printing and converting of flexible packaging, paper&board products and labels?
Bobst: If we take the label and consider the cost, it is more convenient to print in pure digital and carry out the conversion operations offline in the case of “ultra-micro” runs; in turn print the “micro short” runs with the hybrid machine, also according to the required finishing; use conventional printing for short (also here depending on the finishing), medium and long runs. This is why I believe that hybrid printing will take away a slice of the market from both pure digital and flexo – while it is too early to say to what extent this will happen.
Koenig & Bauer Flexotecnica: To improve the functionality and performance of their own systems, printers – not only of labels, but also of flexible packaging and much more (electronic boards, biomedical, textiles …) – are looking for increasingly versatile processes capable of converting the most diverse substrates and consumables, even new and difficult ones such as eco-compatible plastics. It is an objective that requires the commitment and collaboration of the entire supply chain, with which we create a system by working both on individual units and on optimizing the process.
Kodak: With hybrid systems, packaging and label manufacturers can increase their production flexibility by optimizing the advantages of both traditional and digital technologies. Thanks to automation, the two integrated techniques reduce costs and improve productivity; they also increase the efficiency in prepress and optimize the capacity of the line as a whole allowing you to do more in less time and with fewer errors, reducing start-up times, execution times and, yet again, the related costs.
Omet: There are those who appreciate and focus a lot on the all-in-one concept – that is, a machine that integrates different technologies to create a final product in one run – and those who are not yet convinced. Probably in the field of labels the first path will be the one to follow, while in flexible packaging and paper converting, other factors guide technological development, to the point that digital technology has not yet established itself here.
Uteco agrees but with different accents. In flexible packaging – Enrico Rimini assesses – the trend towards hybridization will continue, albeit without reaching exaggerated peaks due to the delicate balance of advantages and disadvantages in managing integrated or separate lines. Uteco has in fact always invested in multiple technologies in the awareness that there is no single answer to all needs but that one must be able to offer each user the most suitable machine as the case has it.
The offer fielded (state of the art and construction philosophies)
Bobst: The Master DM5 was presented at Labelexpo Europe 2019 as the most automated machine on the market, with the highest productivity and print quality. It combines the exclusive Bobst automation solutions in the flexo sector (automatic change of cylinders and die plate) with MouventTM Ink-Jet digital technology ensuring optimal flexibility for the production of labels with high added value, with extremely fast setups and a quick return on investment.
Koenig & Bauer Flexotecnica: has long been manufacturing 8 or 10 color central drum flexo machines, with in-line coating or roto varnishing elements, for cold seal, PVC coating, tactile varnishes or full-bottom internal printing. The recipients are the printers of flexible packaging, beverage bags, stick packs, or labels, for which they create added value in terms of print quality, reduction of waste and ink consumption. The philosophy is to identify the “right” configurations for each application, with the automatisms that minimize process times and waste and maximize the profitability of the system, this for the large user as for the SME looking for competitive advantages.
Kodak: There are over 1,500 Kodak Prosper S series printing solutions (with Kodak Stream Continuous Inkjet-CIJ technology) installed in all fields all over the world. Kodak also recently announced the introduction of Kodak Prosper Plus Imprinting for the packaging sector. They include four new printing components (for narrow and large formats) with speeds up to 260 and 600 mpm), inks and pre-coatings. A successful example in folding cases? That of Zumbiel Digital, converter of cardboard packaging, which has focused on customization on an industrial scale.
Omet: The custom orientation explains the frequent integration of different printing technologies on the same machine, such as the X6, typically for labeling, capable of integrating flexo-, finishing and converting with offset, digital up to 8 colors and rotogravure units, while in packaging Varyflex offers the most versatile platform. Omet has sold more than 100 lines with a confidentiality agreement and presented two new developments at Labelexpo: The flexo-digital hybrid XJET in collaboration with Durst and the new X7 in the 670 range with newly designed high performance flexo and roto units.
Uteco estimates that 25-30% of their approximately 3,500 current installations are classifiable as hybrids. The fields of application? All of them: flexible and rigid packaging; industrial bags, pouches, sacks; shrink wrap, labels; special security applications and more. Many the interesting ranges starting with the Sapphire EVO digital. In the flexo sector Onyx, Crystal, Diamond and the other Uteco lines can be integrated with gravure, digital, laminating, cutting and embossing units; and with the due changes, the same goes for the rotogravure printing presses such as Next and NXS.