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The digital connection

May 1, 2011 12:00 AM


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While run lengths decrease and the overall number of label jobs is growing, Jack Willemsz, founder of label printer W&R Etiketten (Tilburg, The Netherlands), has seen pressure building on the high end of the market. To increase his company's flexibility and competitiveness, he implemented a management information system (MIS) and recently invested in the company's first digital label press, the Xeikon 3300. W&R's current fleet of equipment, software and services enables Willemsz to run a sleek, JDF automated operation — a showcase for label printers everywhere. “We have nothing to hide,” he emphasized at W&R's April 2011 open house.

Cultivating rewards

Willemsz was a print worker who decided he could do the job better than his boss. He and business partner Leo van Rooy founded the W&R Etiketten label printing company in 1992, running two flatbed machines. In 1994, W&R moved to new premises and invested in its first label press, then added UV flexo technology in 1999. Today, the 6.4-million-euro business has 40 employees running several presses in one shift.

Willemsz brings a strong focus on employee development to the company. He is dedicated to fostering a positive work experience as a method to both build business and enable his employees to advance. “With the best press, if the operator isn't motivated, the quality won't be there,” he says, adding that happy workers produce higher quality print.

Five years ago, W&R added a pre-press studio, bolstering the in-house services the company can offer its clients. Willemsz has kept the company's focus on small quantity work. “Short runs spread our risk,” he says. “We don't want to be dependent on one or two large customers.” W&R has more than 1,000 clients ranging from small businesses to major national and global brands.

Agility in challenging times

Upon the advent of digital label printing in the 1990s, Willemsz decided to wait and see what would happen with the technology. Meanwhile, rising raw material costs and overcapacity in the industry put increasing pressure on his company. He explains that especially during the global recession, his customers have needed shorter runs (less warehoused product), shorter lead times and higher quality, as well as lower prices. Their products' life cycles have been shrinking, creating a need for more transparency in the market in general as well as the print operation.

The challenge for Willemsz was to adapt and develop the company for the future, differentiate from its competitors, manage the growing flow of short-run orders and achieve profitability goals.

“Margins were not working anymore [on flexo equipment] due to price pressure, as runs trended shorter,” says Willemsz. He lowered prices to compete and brought in digital technology to increase flexibility and agility on short runs.

First, he implemented an MIS from CERM (www.cerm.net). It optimized order processing from estimating to purchasing, planning, warehousing and delivery, as well as finance. Job specifications are transferred with the artwork, winding information and customer identification. W&R staff can print all of a job's metadata on the fly or at the end of a run, including information such as finishing instructions.

“It's that kind of automation that is becoming crucial to track and trace your job,” notes Xeikon's Filip Weymans, global marketing and business development manager for industrial printing.

Willemsz says his discussions with customers are helped greatly by the ability to share information online via the MIS. He is able to determine which customers enable his company to make money, and which don't, then collaboratively build relationships and the quality of work coming into the shop.

Bringing it all together

After his MIS was up and running, Willemsz observed the subsequent collaboration between CERM, prepress solutions provider Esko-Artwork (www.esko.com) and Xeikon (www.xeikon.com) on a total solution for label applications, enabled by the XML-based Job Definition Format (JDF) (see www.cip4.org). The toner-based, 380 sq. m/hr. Xeikon 3300, launched in 2008, received a 2009 Intertech Technology Award from Printing Industries of America.

“It was only when Xeikon re-entered the label market and offered a serious alternative to existing systems that we saw real possibilities to reinvent our business,” says Willemsz.

Like many conventional printers who enter the digital print market for the first time, Willemsz was looking for a solution that would provide not only quality but cost competitiveness. “I hate the system of click costs,” he says. “The market can't be differentiated anymore based on quality.” He cites price as the main driver, emphasizing the flexibility Xeikon affords his company. “A lot of labels we produce have just a small logo on them, and I don't have to pay for toner we don't use.” He adds that the margins are larger on digital jobs, so he is able to make more money on those that fit with the equipment's capabilities.

Digital is a new technology for W&R, which maintains its foundation of several flexo machines. Its Xeikon 3300 — Xeikon's most sold model for label applications — is housed in an enclosed area adjacent to the main shop floor. It prints four colors plus white, which can be swapped out for a spot color, and accepts roll media up to 13 inches wide (27-lb. text to 122-lb. cover). It prints at 1,200 × 3,600 dpi with variable dot density.

The modular Xeikon X-800 digital front end is integrated with W&R's CERM MIS and EskoArtwork's BackStage workflow server to achieve full JDF automation. This March, Xeikon launched version 2.5 of the X-800 front end with the latest Adobe PDF Print Engine. The RIP provides PDF-native rendering to ensure that the latest transparency effects and other complex design elements can be reproduced on press quickly and reliably.

“Everything is connected and will be more connected in the future,” says Willemsz. Supplies are tracked with barcodes, and the company employs just-in-time stocking principles.

Xeikon is an important partner in this area. Lode Deprez, vice president of Xeikon's consumables and process group, says he has spent a lot of time in the weeks since Japan's March 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster ensuring the manufacturing and supply chain is in good order. “Our manufacturing suppliers are south of Tokyo, and I have been reassuring customers that radioactivity is not affecting our supply,” he says.

‘It's all in the toner’

The name “Xeikon” is based on the Greek “xeros” (dry) and “ikon” (icon). Deprez explains Xeikon's choice to work with dry toner: “It's a very reliable printing process for production environments. It makes no use of any liquid (water or solvent), so no evaporation or drying has to take place during the printing process. Dry toner uses some heat energy to create the right adhesion on different substrates, but this amount of energy is not more than what, e.g., water requires to be evaporated when printing at a page coverage of more than 50%.”

Deprez notes deinkability for paper recycling is not a problem with dry toner, whereas inkjet faces some hurdles in that area. Xeikon's dry toner also is volatile organic compound (VOC) free.

Last year, Xeikon launched its QA-I toner, developed specifically for label printing. Manufactured at its 100% renewable energy powered plant in Heultje, Belgium, the new toner meets all FDA guidelines for indirect and direct food packaging.

“Xeikon has spent a lot of R&D effort on creating high performance dry toner,” says Deprez. The company's Form Adapted (FA) toner launched in 2006. It is produced by processing pulverized toner through a “jetting” step in which the 40 to 50-micron particles break down further and are blended with additives to have a smooth, more consistent shape. “The more surface area you have, the more adhesion,” he adds.

Deprez says QA-toner, the successor to FA toner, “extends the shape modification to a core-and-shell structure in which the color forming aspects of the toner particle are somewhat separated from the charging and transfer properties. While it is made of the same ingredients, they are configured differently to enhance print performance.” While QA-I toner is engineered for labeling and packaging, QA-P is for document printing.

“For the label and packaging market this means better printing performance, more or increased opaque white toner, improved light fastness and expanded food safety specifications,” says Deprez. “On the ecology side, it means less waste and a polyester resin produced without the use of organic tin compounds.”

QA-I toner enables one-pass opaque white capability, so label converters can create the “no-label” look on transparent labels with much higher productivity on the Xeikon 3000 presses.

Ramping up

Digital is a key growth area for W&R Etiketten. “Digital is going to be more and more important,” says Willemsz, who is planning to add a second Xeikon. He notes that speed is key to the value of running digital. “Faster delivery, higher price,” he says, “and keeping the machine busy — increasing production — increases the profit per product.”

A typical digital job for W&R is 50,000 2 × 4-inch labels. “That sounds like a lot, but it's nothing,” says Willemsz. Production volume averages 4 million sq.m/month.

The Xeikon 3300 at W&R runs mostly polyacrylate and paper. Color matching is controlled in prepress. “We don't want the operator adjusting on press, but rather via the workflow,” says Willemsz. Calibration takes place every morning. “Every day, we start at zero,” he explains, “as well as every time they change the paper or substrate, and between different jobs.” He stresses the importance of maintenance to ensure the press is able to perform at its peak. An internal densitometer on the Xeikon provides data to manage calibration based on profiles.

The central prepress station automatically processes the data for digital and conventional jobs. The staff's job handling varies based on the technology used for output (digital or flexo). In both cases, a proof is e-mailed to the customer for approval before production.

Willemsz says the Xeikon press responds to his customers' demands for shorter runs, Esko optimizes the prepress workflow and CERM benefits ordering by reducing multiple job data entries. Since implementing online ordering, he has seen a 20% increase in orders, though he notes many of these are smaller in quantity than the company's typical jobs, early on.

While the company's legacy flexo equipment requires less washup time between jobs, Willemsz is enthusiastic about the opaque white and spot color capabilities on the toner press. The fifth color is applied without a slowdown, and spot colors enable him to offer more design options to clients.

Continuous development

Willemsz has brought his business to the leading edge of automation. He keeps a close watch over new technological developments in the industry while being careful to implement only those that fit well with his market. “Although we are careful not to be the very first to invest in new technology, we are never far behind and we certainly avoid being too late,” he says.

Since equipping W&R with JDF automation and a digital press, Willemsz has seen improvements in both the quantity and the quality of orders, as well as streamlined internal processes. “For example, now each machine has its own terminal where the operator enters activites. This enables management to analyze the data and determine [how to improve performance],” he explains. “It took time to implement data collection and analysis, and this is an ongoing development.”

Willemsz is working on leveraging that data to add value for his customers. Online purchasing enables W&R customers to enter different job size and frequency parameters to see the variance in cost estimates. “The larger the order, the lower the price,” he says, noting that the order might be a large job that is produced in short runs on a monthly basis. “[The online ordering portal] enables customers to keep their stock as low as possible, ordering on demand based on their business needs.”

As Willemsz and his staff continue to develop this more collaborative relationship with their customers, W&R Etiketten is poised for growth and has the flexibility to evolve with the label market.

Expanding product line

While the Xeikon 8000, 6000 and 5000+ product lines target the direct marketing, book and transactional/transpromotional markets, the recently expanded Xeikon 3000 line has more than 200 installations worldwide for industrial label production. Xeikon reports the 3000 series print volume has tripled since its launch in early 2009.

In 2010, Xeikon introduced the flagship, wider format (20.3 inch) Xeikon 3500 press, and debuted the Xeikon 3030 and 3050 at Labelexpo Chicago. These two entry-level, 1,200 × 3,600-dpi digital press models offer a fifth color (including white toner) and a wider range of film substrates.

Diecutting and sheeting equipment — the Dcoat, Ucoat and miniDCoat — can be configured to run inline or offline with Xeikon presses.

Punched up

Punch Intl. has reinvested in Punch Graphix following its divestiture of other businesses. Punch Graphix now is 95% of the overall parent company. It encompasses digital printing division Xeikon, a prepress division that is the exclusive OEM to Agfa in the newspaper market, and computer-to-plate (CTP) equipment manufacturer baysysprint.

At Xeikon's April 2011 “VIP Press Event” in Lier, Belgium, Punch Graphix CEO Wim Maes provided an overview of the company's sales growth and return to profitability in 2010. Sales of equipment and consumables rose 18% in 2010 (20% in America), resulting in a net profit of 4.6 million euros vs. its net loss of 15.9 million euros in 2009. Along with cost management measures, this represents an operational cash flow (EBITDA) increase from 18 million to 31.3 million euros.

Maes reports that digital label printing represented the largest volume growth area for Xeikon in 2010. “[Label printers] had to change their ways of doing business in the recession,” he says. “Digital is an enabler for better customer service, and it offers the flexibility to find new types of work.”

Xeikon's Aura partner program, launched this February, brings all Xeikon partners together under a central umbrella of tested and approved solutions for Xeikon equipment. Xeikon Aura encompasses prepress workflow, variable data authoring tools, management information systems (MIS), finishing hardware and paper.

Regarding installations such as W&R Etiketten's automated all-in-one solution, Maes says, “We believe integration will be the key to the success and growth of our customers.”

See www.xeikon.com/about-xeikon/xeikon-aura-partner-network.

Label business development

Xeikon has forged new partnerships to offer objective business development and assessment/ROI services to label printers in North America.

InfoTrends will provide onsite workshops to new label customers, offering insight and market strategies on digital printing opportunities. The workshops will include a thorough business review, marketing and promotional strategies as well as messaging and positioning.

A separate partnership with Karstedt Partners, LLC, will provide consulting and ROI tools to North American label printers. The intent is to help printers evaluate their digital printing options, understand the differences in technology, and assess how those translate into cost, print quality and converting considerations.

“Our aim is to enable label printers to fully capitalize on the potential of digital printing,” says Michael V. Ring, president, Xeikon America Inc.

See www.xeikon.com.

Digital opens doors

Karstedt Associates (www.karstedt.com) has released a report on the the market for digital label printing. “The Commercialization Assessment for the Narrow Web Label Printer/Converter” offers insight related to the technology, its position in the market, where and how it might be used, its reception by prospective users, and a model of how it might progress into mainstream use. It provides a “tool kit” for printers to determine their business future with or without digital label printing.

The report notes that commercial printers could take market share from conventional label shops through the use of digital equipment: “When a strong pull exists for the finished product from a disruptive technology and the incumbent supply chain is slow to respond, the disruptive technology frequently finds a path around the incumbent supplier. The arrival of digital copiers gave rise to digital print specialists such as Kinko's. … Specialty sign shops have been created to meet the needs of the graphics community. The risk for this happening in the labels industry is acute through commercial printers, specialty digital printers, or brand owners handling their own printing in the future.”

Denise Kapel is managing editor, AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at denise.kapel@penton.com.