This hybrid carton press at Zumbiel Digital in Hebron, Kentucky, is being used to print high volume beverage cartons and multi-packs for beer and soft drinks


As inkjet improves in quality and reliability it is growing in many label and packaging applications currently dominated by flexo, but the high cost of ink is still an issue in medium to longer runs. Could hybrid printing be the answer? By Sean Smyth.

While some inkjet equipment suppliers are claiming their technology is a major disruptor, in actual fact the march of inkjet into packaging has been relatively slow, although of major significance. In talking to converters and brands it is apparent that a major brake on the uptake of inkjet is the high cost of inks when compared with their flexo alternatives. In labels for low migration UV curing systems prices around the £80 per litre remain common, against a UV flexo price in the £10-15 region. A similar ratio is happening in higher volume carton and flexibles with water-based inks. The high premium for ink makes many medium to longer runs out of the price range of inkjet, where the flexibility benefit and saving on plates does not result in a lower price. Combining inkjet with flexo could deliver low cost flexo static design with variable inkjet images and text.

The rationale behind the concept is obvious, to gain the benefits of flexibility of short runs in continuous tones and text, for multiple versions and including variable content if needed, while printing constant spot colour areas, and importantly white, which do not change using the low-cost flexo inks. Several narrow web press suppliers are offering hybrid systems. 

Joining together

Philip Easton, director, Digital Printing Solutions at Domino, commented, ‘Domino has supplied narrow web hybrid solutions in conjunction with AB Graphic International, Converting Equipment International (CEI), MPS, OMET and Lombardi with 16 systems sold. We launched the N610i integration module designed for hybrid solutions in 2015 and it has opened up new market opportunities for us. The hybrid format is especially suited for applications where there are multiple SKUs per production job. 

Hybrid 2

The CEI BossJet powered by Domino

‘One customer used to spend days on printing a job with 60 SKUs, but with the N610i hybrid solution, it takes just hours to complete. The broader print capability of a hybrid solution is an excellent way to remove a high proportion of smaller and medium sized production jobs away from flexo presses, significantly improving a label printer’s productivity.’

The EF Symjet combines the automated MPS EF flexo platform and the Domino N610i seven-colour UV inkjet press, offering extreme flexibility and very short turnaround times. The first sale was to German label printer Optikett in 2015. Meyers, a Minneapolis based label, card, signage and display company bought the first MPS EF Symjet in North America in early 2017, allowing Meyers to deliver a larger variety of premium print at lower costs. MPS expects strong growth in the hybrid market as the need increases to bridge the gap between digital and flexographic printing. 

In June All4Labels (the powerhouse label group formed from the merger of Baumgarten, Rako and X-label) ordered three Nilpeter Panorama systems, with five-colour inkjet engines in combination with flexo, hotfoil/embossing, and quick-change die-cutting. Torsten Wietholz, corporate director of All4Labels said, ‘The Panorama hybrids follow our strategy to set new industry standards of flexibility, customisation and supply chain excellence. We have followed the market trend towards customisation for a long time, and with this investment we will reach the next level. We chose Nilpeter’s Panorama because it combines the strength of the different technologies in a perfect way.’ The first Panorama system in Africa was ordered by long-time Nilpeter customer Rebsons Labels in Johannesburg, responding to the continuing demand for shorter run-lengths, more variable data and shorter delivery times. Rebsons’ owner Benny Friedmann commented, ‘We assessed the digital market over two to three years, and decided the stand-alone Panorama was by far the best solution for us. An immediate benefit is in replacing production of generic labels with variable data for a large supermarket chain, the Panorama allows us to reduce production time and stockholding of variants, letting us print on demand and improve cash flow.’

Not just labels

Kodak is reporting considerable interest in placing its food-safe water-based inkjet technology into medium web flexo press lines, for cartons and flexible packaging. The first carton press is at Zumbiel Digital in Hebron, Kentucky in the USA, where the impressive press line is being used to print high volume beverage cartons and multi-packs for beer and soft drinks. Ohio based GSS (Graphic Systems Service) is handling the integration of the system with slick Android tablets controlling the system for the press operators. The line is configured with unwind, two flexo units, the four-colour Prosper 6000S inkjet units, another five flexo units including water-based and UV coating, into flatbed die-cutting to deliver final blanks for gluing at speeds the equivalent of 12,000xB1 sheets per hour, linear speed of 200m/min. The flexo units are bespoke designs, branded Z-Digital. 

Company president Ed Zumbiel is very positive about the possibilities, with many examples of totally new versioning campaigns for the very cost-conscious US drinks companies. He said, ‘Beverage packaging is the biggest sector of cartons in North America, and they are very cost conscious. The hybrid solution increases cost by an acceptable premium for most customers but offers totally new capabilities. This investment is not aimed at providing lower cost short runs, it is for major brands requiring high volumes, the output is multiple trucks per week for nationwide campaigns. For this to work the digital cartons are ideally no more than 1.5 times the cost of traditionally produced output, and certainly not more than twice the cost. For long runs [into the millions] other digital systems did not deliver these costs, the Kodak/flexo hybrid system does.’ 

This is real industrial scale variable printing, inkjet giving results in the mid-to-high range of graphic quality, ‘MBTF’ (much better than flexo), according to Mr Zumbiel anyway. The press installation fits into existing workflows, and will provide totally new capabilities for brands to use packaging as a marketing and engagement tool for high volume items. As Mr Zumbiel commented, ‘We think we can help brands make paperboard into a new social media node, there are several fantastic campaigns and possibilities that their innovation teams are really excited by. We are looking forward to see what we can invent.’ There is an order for a second machine on the table, and the company is patenting innovations to improve the efficiency of the converting processes. The introduction of a high-volume hybrid press into the heartland of high volume and low cost cartons is a significant step, with the vision far more than just printing in a new way. It is to provide a new level of service and new capabilities to brands demanding innovation. Kodak Stream technology was also shown on a medium web Uteco press at drupa in 2016, with a maximum width of 750mm available in a hybrid configuration with first installations planned for late 2017. 

So, the promise of getting the best from both worlds is being realised, allowing converters to provide the flexibility of digital printing while gaining the benefit of lower cost flexo production for heavy coverages of solid colours and white. If your customers are demanding ever-greater agility, hybrid flexo/inkjet printing could be the answer.

Read the full September issue of FlexoTech here. Subscribe to the magazine for free – register your details here.