The vast majority of product labels you see on store shelves are still printed on the traditional mechanical presses that have been around for generations. The process is most often called "flexography" - or flexo for short - and it relies on flexible "printing plates" (one for each color) to apply the ink to the material. The inks themselves are kept in separate "stations" with each color being applied sequentially as the material moves through the press (which can result in "registration" issues if the successive colors don't align perfectly).
It's fair to recognize that this technology produces a fine product in many circumstances, but there are challenges associated with the approach. The plates themselves can be quite expensive (more colors means more plates), and any changes to the design or content will require new plates to be made at additional cost. Flexo presses also require significant setup time (often several hours) and substantial material wastage before the first production label can be printed - and these additional overheads often force customers to buy higher quantities to bring the unit cost down to an acceptable level. In some cases, particularly for high volumes, this is not a major concern ... but if you end up buying 50,000 labels when you only really need 500 or 1,000 for your first batch of product, then it's obvious that the financial model is being compromised by the technology.
Conversely, digital label printing presses do not use plates, and they also require much less setup time and waste - in many cases none at all. In simple terms, they operate more like a desktop laser printer (although very much bigger and way more expensive) - the artwork files are sent directly to the press and the various colors are printed simultaneously. No plates, no special ink stations, minimal waste and setup - all this translates into a much more flexible scenario for you the customer. In practical terms, the press operator can print as many (or as few) labels as you need at a time, and if you need to change the design or content then it's just a matter of changing the artwork and re-sending it to the press.
Benefits of Digital Label Printing
- Speed of Service. Traditional label companies can take anywhere from a week to many weeks to produce a label job, whereas digital companies can typically turn a job much more quickly. At Wizard Labels, our normal production time is 2 working days from the time we receive your approval to proceed.
- Quality. Constant improvements in the digital process have resulted in photo-like quality with unlimited colors, whereas traditional presses mostly rely on a single-plate-per-color model, adding extra cost for each additional color. Most customers are very pleasantly surprised when they see the beautiful results achievable from a digital press, and the absence of plates makes changes to the design a very simple and inexpensive option.
- Cost and Cash Flow. Depending on the quantity of labels printed, it's certainly possible that the traditional flexo approach can produce a lower unit cost per label - but shorter runs are almost always cheaper if produced digitally. Also, it's important to consider the overall cost of the traditional job - you could easily end up buying many more labels than you need immediately (affecting cash flow) or alternatively have to consign masses of unused labels to a landfill if something about your product changes. And we all know that regulatory requirements can change with minimal notice - thereby making your existing label stocks worthless.
- Flexible Quantities. With digital technology, it's as simple as telling the press how many labels are needed (similar in concept to telling your desktop printer you want 15 copies or 150 copies). If you need more in a month, we just repeat the process and tell the press how many you want this time. Given that the press needs minimal setup each time, you can print anywhere from very low quantities to very large quantities - there's no need to predict your needs months in advance.
- Versioning. This is a term that refers to the ability of digital label presses to print "similar but not identical" label designs simultaneously - something that's impractical in traditional presses due to the underlying reliance on "plates". On a digital press, we can print numerous variations of the same size at the same time - so you can combine multiple product needs in a single run. This approach is called "ganging" and it means you gain the benefit of cheaper prices and can even specify different quantities per version (e.g. 1000 Chocolate, 2500 Vanilla, and 1750 Raspberry), all in the same run - thereby getting a unit price based on the combined quantity of 5250 labels. And the colors and designs can be completely different too, so long as the labels are the same size and on the same material so they can be combined in the same run. Versioning also means you can be much more creative in your product offerings - the label cost should not be a consideration.
- Inventory Costs. When you print 50,000 or 100,000 labels for a single product on a traditional press, the quantity is often driven by the desire to get the unit price down (quite understandably). But if you don't use all those labels immediately they need to be stored somewhere - consuming valuable space and possibly warehousing costs. If you have many unique products, each of which has large stocks of labels waiting to be used, it's easy to imagine the impact on cash flow and storage - not to mention what happens if something suddenly changes (like an ingredient or legal requirement) and they all become obsolete. Many customers are now realizing that it makes perfect sense to buy their labels on an "as needed" basis rather than having to order (and pay for) an unreasonably large quantity up front.
- Variable Content. With digital presses, it's actually possible to have slightly different content on EACH individual label printed. A very common example is serial numbering (where each label has a different number), but this is just the beginning. Text content (names, addresses etc) can also be unique on each label - and we can even print different images as well. Imagine truly "personalized" products where each label is uniqely tailored to the recipient - variable content opens up a whole new world of product possibilities.
- Press Proofs. Digital printing offers the ability to print your proofs on the actual production press without all the setup associated with traditional printing presses. This is not a free service, but if you're particularly concerned about colors or quality before you go into production, we can make press proofs available at an extra charge - and there are associated delays involved. See here for more information.
- Prototyping. Have you ever considered trying out various label designs on your own customers, or maybe a focus group? Sure, you can hand them pretty designs on normal paper from a desktop printer, but how much more "real" would it be to show them finished products in multiple different ways? With our digital presses, you can gang as many designs as you like together, and only print a small number of each quite cheaply - something completely unachievable on traditional presses.
So, in summary it's accurate to say that the traditional flexo presses are still quite suitable for very long runs (i.e. large quantities of each individual label), but the modern digital presses are certainly a better bet for most shorter runs - or where there are multiple versions of the same product line. If you're currently faced with hefty up-front costs for labels and are concerned about obsolescence and waste, you owe it to yourself to explore the benefits of today's digital technology. Frankly, if your current label provider has not moved into digital label printing (and the vast majority have still not, due mainly to the expense involved), you're probably not getting the best deal possible.
Here's what the world's leading Digital Press for printing labels (the HP Indigo WS6600) looks like.
Our commitment to this technology is based on the simple fact that it produces the best quality results available on the market - bar none.