Label Printing: Big Business with Small Labels

Using a variety of machines to allow your shop to grab a share of the label printing market

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Although they are some of the smallest items that print shops will produce, labels are big business. And whether you use a dedicated label printer or use your wide-format printer to crank out hundreds of labels at a time, there are always ways to increase your productivity and minimize waste on your print jobs.

Label printing has advanced along with other printing technologies. Short-run jobs can be printed on wide-format digital printers or desktop models. Some machines are fully integrated print-and-cut machines, while others offer print or cut.

HP Inc. has two different print and cut machines that can be used for label printing: the Latex 315 printer and the Latex 335 printer. The big difference between the two machines is that one offers 54-inch-wide printing while the other offers 64-inch-wide printing.

They both print and cut but the printer and cutter are two separate units, says Tom Wittenberg, large format marketing manager, sign and décor, the Americas for HP.

“You can print, you can cut and run them at the same time or just the printer or just the cutter,” he says. “It depends on what the workload is and what your availability is.”

Both printers come with software that allows a shop to design its own labels, stickers, magnets, floor and window graphics in three easy steps. The software is integrated with the machine for a seamless workflow. That means “you don’t have to create it in one system and transfer it to another system. It is all in one workflow,” says Wittenberg.

On HP machines, every print job has a barcode associated with it so when the labels are placed on the cutter it will automatically recognize the project and know exactly what to cut.

Print and cut systems are a major time saver.

“You can almost cut your time in half to produce a job,” he says. “You can produce up to twice as fast and that allows you to respond more quickly to customer demands. You also have the capability to cut one job while printing another job, where with the integrateds [both printer and cutter in one system] you don’t have that option.”

These machines can be used for other types of jobs, including printing and cutting banners, backlits, vinyl and any number of other media. If the shop is in the label business, this machine would allow them to expand into other businesses, he says.

“Based on the market data we have, if you look at the entire printer market under 64 inches, the print and cut sales of equipment accounts for 33% of that market. It’s a good chunk,” Wittenberg says. “I think the preference in the past was for the integrated but primarily because that is what has been promoted out there vs. the bundles. It gives you a lot of options.”

He points out that there are presses that will print jobs that are in the hundreds of thousands of labels but those are a “whole different beast. They are a completely different deal. I don’t see small PSPs diving in for half a million plus.”

Mimaki USA, based in Atlanta, Ga., offers print and cut on every machine it manufactures.

The CJV150-75 is the perfect size for a label production shop, says Michael Maxwell, senior manager for Mimaki USA. That printer is 36 inches and offers capability with silver and white, which in some label environments works really well, he says.

What’s great about this printer is that it offers an inline workflow. That means you don’t have to put down a base layer and then go back and add in the colors. The white layer and the color layer go on in tandem in one workflow, Maxwell says.

The company’s raster image processor (RIP) software allows the machine to do those layers easily. Other software on the market allows you to do white or metallic layers or add some detail into the artwork you are trying to produce on the artwork itself.

Many label and packing people create very detailed pieces of art in Adobe Illustrator or other design programs. The RIP software can make it easy to jump from that design to digital production on Mimaki’s equipment.

“If you are doing short run stuff or prototyping to prepare for a longer piece of equipment, jumping from that artwork to the finished product can take a matter of minutes instead of a matter of days with some traditional processes,” Maxwell says.

Mimaki’s RIP has a plug-in for Illustrator which can quickly identify what is and isn’t a cut line. It makes it seamless for the end user, he adds.

“We’ll typically see the design and add an additional layer in Illustrator for all the cut lines they intend to use, that way they can turn the layer off when they are manipulating the print data. When you bring it to the RIP, the RIP will identify it and will come back and cut it after,” he says.

He explains that one popular label printing technique is to cut the labels first to prevent curling of the adhesive-backed vinyl.

UV cure technology works great for short print runs because it can run and cure ink in the same pass.

“It allows you to take it off the machine and hand it to the customer as soon as it comes off the machine in most cases. Solvent is able to be handled after, but it takes a while for a full cure to occur,” Maxwell says.

UV cure technology has come a long way in the past few years. It used to be used for screen printing and flat signage and the inks were more rigid. Mimaki has spent a lot of time making its inks more flexible. It is still in the process of determining the best combination of printer ink and material for labeling applications.

Mimaki’s UJF series of printers allow a shop to print directly to cylindrical objects like wine bottles.

“UV curing opens the possibility of skipping paper or plastic or whatever you are printing to and printing directly to the substrate. Some of the inks we make are ultra-flexible and can be used on film or membrane switches. There are different ways to approach the conversation with UV,” he adds.

Most shops still use more traditional printing processes for label printing, especially for short runs. Mimaki offers label printing with solvent, UV cure or latex inks. Each ink has its own unique set of characteristics. Solvent offers metallic with white. UV curable offers white and a slightly expanded color palette and latex offers an even broader palette with white.

Mutoh America offers a free ValueCut plotter with the purchase of most ValueJet printer models. The plotters come in 24-inch, 54-inch or 72-inch widths. Mutoh likes having the stand-alone plotter rather than printers with built in cutters because the built-ins can cause bottlenecks in work flow and put extra stress on the mechanics of the print head, says Dave Conrad, marketing manager for Mutoh America.

“The Mutoh ValueJet cutting plotters can kiss cut, contour cut, pounce cut and more all while being able to maintain registration on those long cut jobs because the registration marks are printed and checked throughout the length of the cut job, not just at the beginning and end like most other cutters,” he says. “This makes cutting printed labels on vinyl fast and easy.”

Mutoh also has two UV-LED printers that work well for the specialty market, promotional items and industrial labels or stickers. The VJ426UF has a bed size of 19″ x 13″ and can print on objects up to 2 ¾” thick, while the VJ626UF has a slightly larger bed of 23.9″ x 19″ and can print on objects up to 5.9″ thick. Mutoh also manufactures a 64″ hybrid UV-LED printer capable of printing on multiple rigid substrates up to ½” thick. It can print on roll material and works well for industrial applications, trade show design and packaging prototypes.

Mutoh’s UV-LED printers, using Mutoh UV-LED ink with no VOC, print on multiple substrates for industrial packaging. They will print directly to metal and glass and with the varnish ink it can apply layers to create an embossed effect, which works well for labels.

Primera Technology, based in Plymouth, Minn., offers dedicated desktop color label printing. Its maximum print width is 8.5 inches on its widest printer.

“That covers literally 99% of all labels produced, and where we’re different from wide format is that we print the labels in a row as they are used,” says Mark Strobel, vice president of sales and marketing for Primera Technology.

Wide format printing is good for really short runs of 50 to 100 labels, he says, but “our average is 500 labels our customers print at one time.”

On wide format, the labels have to be cut into smaller sheets.

Primera’s printers are small enough and affordable enough that companies that print a lot of labels could afford to buy one themselves instead of hiring someone else to print their labels for them, he says. But most of the company’s printers are sold to service bureaus like sign shops, label houses and offset printers.

The LX500 Color Label Printer is the company’s smallest short-run printer, which prints up to 4″ wide. Its LX2000 Color Label Printer does full color labels from .75″ to 8.37″ wide and has a built-in cutter. It uses pigment ink. The company’s CX1200 Color Label Press prints up to 8.5″ wide and uses toner. The FX1200 Digital Finishing System does digital label finishing, laminating, digital die-cutting, waste matrix removal, slitting and rewinding to finished rolls.

Strobel says that some of the company’s printers use dye-based inks, which “give you the most natural colors and highest color gamut. So, if you want bright labels that pop at retail, labels that don’t have to last particularly long, that is when you use dye-based ink.”

Pigment inks have a limited color gamut but they are still full color with millions of color combinations but they are a bit muted. The reason many customers like pigment ink is that it is UV- and water- resistant. It is good for outdoor applications like hang tags and garden tags in the horticulture market.

“We use pigment inks because they last outdoors. They can withstand wet scratching,” he says. Other customers that prefer pigment are people who sell their products at outdoor farmers markets that spend most of their day out in the sun. Pigments won’t fade, but dye-based inks will fade over time if they are left out in the sun.

All of Primera’s desktop label printers have either a tear bar, guillotine or pizza wheel cutter attached. If a customer wants to cut shapes, they can use the CX or FX digital presses, which can cut any size or shape of label.

“We have a patent on it for multiple cutters across the web, XY cutting plotters. It allows you to cut X number of labels across the web all at the same time,” Strobel says. “Other printer cutters do have XY plotter cutters but we have up to four knives and they only have one. That is unique to Primera.”

It is very important in label printing to make sure the correct ink is matched with the correct substrate. Primera printers support a variety of substrates from paper to high-end polyester and vinyl.

One interesting trick is to use aqueous ink on microporous gloss paper.

“When the aqueous-based ink hits the surface of the microporous substrate, it goes into the micro pores in the coating and the coating is aqueous-based itself. When it gets wet from the ink, it melts and seals over the top of the dye-based ink so you have a very highly water-resistant label,” Strobel says. This technology can be used for wine bottles that will go into an ice bucket.

“You wouldn’t think an inkjet-printed label would survive that,” he says.

It is also important to match the adhesive to the label’s end use. Many people want wine labels that will pull cleanly from the bottle.

“We have an entire department all they do all day is talk to people in our service bureaus or end users on how to match this all up properly depending on what they are expecting the label to do for them,” he says.

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Paula Aven Gladych

Paula Aven Gladych is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colo. She can be reached at pgladych@gmail.com.

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