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Finishing digital labels

Despite the advent of hybrid flexo-digital presses, the main configuration for digital labels is to print on a standalone press then finish off-line. This has led to the development of a wide range of machines based around registered die-cutting, slitting and rewinding. The press keeps printing jobs one after the other and the finished roll is delivered to the finishing unit (usually a ‘near line’ unit), where each job is separated, processed and rewound ready for delivery.

As digital presses have got faster and wider, however, there has been an increasing trend to place these same finishing systems in-line with the press in a configuration more like a traditional narrow web workflow. Our latest figures show roughly one quarter of all installations are of this kind. 

There are many ‘grey areas’ in digital press/ finishing configurations. For example, some finishing systems manufacturers have added digital print units, either mono or full color; this allows the units to double as late stage versioning for both digital and conventional presses. In some cases these digital imaging units are used to jet varnishes and 3D coatings, replacing a flexo varnish or screen module. 

In the benchtop digital printing world, finishing systems are more usually sold as part of a fully integrated digital print and finishing line. In this case the finishing units are not usually sold as stand-alone systems. 

This feature examines all these types of digital label finishing configurations. Hybrid flexo-digital presses will be covered in a later L&L feature on digital printing.

Main requirements 
What are the main requirements of a digital label finishing system? Clearly, the key feature is the ability to handle short runs efficiently with minimal waste and with rapid changeover of tools. This has led to the development of increasingly automated lines. For example most manufacturers now offer automated slitter knife positioning which saves valuable minutes over manual knife setting, and is more accurate and consistent on repeat jobs. 

Manufacturers are now looking to tie their finishing units into wider factory MIS workflows, so the finishing unit ‘knows’ what jobs to expect on a roll, and knife setting and laser die-cutter setting are driven from the pre-press end of the operation. 

Another major requirement of a digital label finishing system is to add value to the print by supplying the ‘missing’ decorative tooling stations found on a typical in-line narrow web press. Modules might include UV flexo coating, screen, hot foiling/embossing, cold foil, lamination and so on. 

The requirement to handle a large number of jobs with varying repeat sizes has led to the development of servo-driven semi-rotary modules able to adjust format size automatically. Die-cutting is an obvious example, but now we see the introduction of semi-rotary screen and even semi-rotary flexo units. 

Because the digital label finishing line runs relatively slowly compared to a conventional narrow web press line, flatbed tooling has made something of a comeback, particularly on hot foil stamping and screen modules. This allows converters to take advantage of lower tooling costs compared to rotary and uses the longer dwell times on an intermittently-driven web to achieve high levels of quality. 

Systems suppliers
AB Graphic
was one of the first converting systems manufacturers to build units dedicated to finishing digitally printed labels, and its Digicon series of machines is widely established. 

The latest iteration is the Digicon Series 3, which puts the emphasis on automating as many previously manual jobs as possible, including automated slitter knife positioning. 

ABGs latest automation offering is the SGTR AutoSet turret rewinder. This incorporates quick-change mandrels and a programmable print and apply label applicator to close the finished roll with a label. 

Other significant developments include the high speed Fast Track semi-rotary die-cutting unit – which allows the Digicon unit to keep up with higher speed in-line print processes up to 150m/min – and the addition of flatbed screen to Digicon embellishment options. 

Cartes offers the Gemini series of fully modular machines, which can be equipped with hot stamping/embossing, silkscreen printing, flexo varnishing, laser converting and semi-rotary or flatbed die-cutting. With a web width of 360mm, it runs at 180m/min at full rotary mode or 100m/min in semi-rotary. 

The Italian manufacturer’s GT 360 series is also a modular series with hot stamping/embossing, silkscreen printing, flexo varnishing, flatbed die-cutting, semi-rotary die-cutting and laser converting as options. With a web width of 360mm. 

The GT 360 series have built-in LPS and SHPS systems, which are even more precise thanks to a new automatic Multi Head Positioning System (MHPS) that corrects continuously on every printing unit and can detect possible gap irregularities on pre-printed materials. Each printing and die-cutting unit is automatically positioned to ensure a perfect centering to minimize waste material. This also reduces the time required for the initial set up and increases productivity. 

The IGBT technology and the centralized management system that drives power supply allows the sharing of energy between the motors during the operation of the machine; the energy released by the motors during braking phase is reused or even returned to the power grid that results in energy saving from 30-40 percent, according to Cartes. 

The manufacturer has introduced a modular assembling concept that allows the user to invert, replace or even add new printing and die-cutting units to the original configuration of the machine. Both the Gemini and GT 360 series can be equipped with the Cartes laser converting unit, which features an unlimited lifetime and semi-sealed source that guarantees constant power and cutting quality. 

Thanks to the radio frequency laser power control and ‘cut on the fly’ software, the machine can process in a single cycle any shape die-cutting and cut through, micro-perforation, engraving, progressive and regressive numbering. All these jobs are digitally programmable. The laser technology is available in single or dual versions, at 350W, and is suitable for paper or film. It can be controlled by a management software which provides an option for automatic saving of production parameters. 

Cartes recently developed ILC – Invisible Laser Cutting – which allows the die-cutting of dark printed labels while avoiding the unsightly ‘white-edge’. With the ILC-system there are no limits in processing materials with extremely thin liners, including films, or even linerless materials such as in-mold labels. 

GM is another established player in the digitally printed label finishing sector. The latest development is the DC350, a semi-rotary machine available in web widths up to 350mm and operating at 72m/min (semi-rotary) and 90m/min (full-rotary). Varnish and die-cutting are standard and a wide range of options includes multilayer labels, laser die-cutter, automatic slitting and backscore stations, register lamination, semi-rotary flexo station and turret unwind. 

The DC330 operates on a smaller web width of 330mm and is designed for extensive job-automation. It can be configured to work with industry standard workflow automation software from the likes of Esko, Cerm and Label Traxx. Speeds are up to 50 m/min (semi-rotary) and 72 m/min (full-rotary) and modules include turret, Automatic Slitting Station and register lamination. 

The DC330Mini is a more compact version, measuring 2.8 x 1.4 x 2.2m. It shares web width and speed with the DC330 but adds a 65m/min semi-rotary productivity pack upgrade. Options include spot varnish and cold foil and the Automatic Slitting Station. Other more compact systems include the DC330Miniflex, with a 3.2 x 1.4 x 2.0m footprint and the most compact finishing unit, the DC330Nano. 

The DC330Hybrid variant adds a laser die-cutting module to flexo varnish, lamination, slitting and dual rewinds. It can also be combined with GM’s automatic knife system for fully automated production. 

Another specialist variant is the DC330FB, which combines a flatbed hot stamping/ embossing unit with flatbed screen. 

Moving up in web width is GM’s DC500, with a maximum web width of 500mm, speed of 32m/min (semi-rotary), 72m/min (full-rotary) and 45m/min semi-rotary with the productivity pack upgrade. GM’s turret, register lamination and automatic slitting stations are also available at this web width. 

The DC500Mini operates at 40m/min (semi-rotary), 72m/min (full-rotary) with modules including backscore, spot varnish and cold foil. 

Prati’s solution for finishing digitally printed labels is Digifast, which has a 90m/ min running in semi-rotary mode with registered die-cutting, all to a tolerance of ± 0.10mm. Explains Prati’s sales and marketing director Chiara Prati: ‘We’re not talking about semi-rotary die-cutting alone when we say it runs at 90m/min. We’re talking of a fully operational flexo semi-rotary print and die-cutting register mode, running at high speed.’ Options include a re-registration lamination unit for producing coupons and sandwich labels. 

Labeltech has entered the competitive digital label finishing market with the launch of its compact, modular Stelvio machine. It is available in web widths of 330mm (13in) or 430mm (17in). Full rotary speed is 140m/min and semi-rotary 50m/min. 

Processing modules include flexo varnish, full and semi-rotary die-cutting, and fast change rotary/razor slitter modules. The company has its own automated slitter positioning system called Lavaredo for both slitter types. 100 percent inspection is available with an inkjet marker for variable data front and back. Other options include a variable repeat rotary sheeter and conveyor belt, and the Vajolet semi-automatic turret rewinder.

Smag has launched the latest generation of its Digital Galaxie digital label finishing system. The third generation machine has a 330mm/13in web width and a maximum processing speed of 120m/ min in full rotary mode and 60m/min semi-rotary. 

Smag historically comes from the flatbed silkscreen industry, and this technology has been upgraded to operate at speeds up to 25m/ min. This is combined with flatbed hotfoil and embossing – operating at speeds up to 45m/min – and either full rotary or semi-rotary UV flexo coating units. The line can accommodate unwind rolls up to 800mm diameter. 

Smag has also developed its own semi-rotary die-cutting and a slitting module offering razor, shear, crush knives and automatic knife positioning. Rewind options include semi-automatic turret, non-stop rewinder and sheeter. 

Orthotec is another company which had adapted its ‘conventional’ press technology into the digital finishing space. The company has a long history manufacturing letterpress, offset and screen presses. 

The SRFD3030 is a multi-function servo-driven flatbed converting machine. It has a web width of 340mm and speed of 25m/min. Processing modules include screen printing, flatbed hot stamping, semi-rotary flexo varnish, semi-rotary and full rotary die-cutting and slitter. 

The screen station uses dual sliding shafts to achieve its faster speeds while maintaining stable squeegee pressure. The units also feature automated pressure and frame position adjustment. 

The DGCON350 is a servo-driven converting system with web width of 340mm and speeds up to 50m/min. Processing modules include flexo varnish, cold stamp and lamination, semi and full rotary die-cutting, slitter and sheeter. 

Delta ModTech’s Spectrum Finishing System offers the flexibility to die-cut and coat digitally printed webs in-line with any digital printer or near-line as a stand-alone finishing system. 

Key features include tight tolerance cuts, quick changeover, and a modular platform. 

The Delta ModTech machines incorporate the Intelli-Mod control system which speeds up job set-up and changeover and maintains counts of pieces produced. 

Processing modules available include auto-set slitting, inspection, flexo print/coat station, semi/full rotary die-cutting, sheeter, ability to run in-line/off-line with digital press, laser die-cutting, embossing, hot/cold foil stamping, embossing, winding/rewinding, steering and conveyors. 

Maximum web width is 13in (330.2mm) and web speeds up to 350ft/min (106m/min). 

Newfoil has leveraged its long experience in hot foil technology with two models dedicated to digital label finishing. 

The servo-driven ‘NM’ range incorporates flatbed embossing, hot stamping and die-cutting. 

The company says flatbed tooling increases quality and is easier to control than rotary, as well as being cost-effective compared to rotary tooling for short batch work. A screen printing unit is available as a standard option and both UV and hot air drying options are offered. 

The NM data management system allows the machine to interface with inkjet barcoding and serialization options.

A system for hot stamping holograms in register – with foil-saving facilities as standard – is available along with the Quick Set embossing kit, which makes initial setting of complicated labels a quick and simple operation. 

Other modules include scissor slitting, back slitting, inspection, laminating, sheeting and hole-punching. 

The NM3534 and NM5534 have standard 340mm (13in) web widths and speeds up to 75m/ in (250ft/min). 

Rotatek also comes from the ‘heavy metal’ conventional press sector, and has adapted its semi-rotary offset expertise to develop the Digitalis, which combines semi-rotary and rotary systems on the same machine. Print width is up to 350mm and configuration options include hot stamping/embossing and screen printing. 

Mark Andy company Rotoflex has launched Vericut3, the latest generation of its off-line finishing platform for digitally printed webs. The servo-driven machine features motorized roll lift, Rotoflex’s URC 2.0 proprietary control system incorporating the Report Management System (RMS), and biometric login. Additional process modules include lamination, hot and cold foil, screen and flexo coating. 

Indian company Monotech Systems has meanwhile launched its Jetsci VSRI system which focuses on short run modular finishing. It is available in web widths up to 450mm operating at speeds up to 150m/min. Processing modules include in-line corona treatment, VDP camera inspection, flexo printing station, dual waste rewind, optional rotary die-cutting and rotary scissor or razor slitting. 

Gallus markets its established ECS-C digital label converting machine. Based on the ‘technical granite’ frame of the ECS 340 flexo press, the converter unit is fully modular, from a basic configuration of flexo coating and semi-rotary die-cutter to a multi-color configuration with surface decoration. Features include front loading, a sleeve system, chambered doctor blade, presetting and a short web path. Web width is 340mm and processing speed up to 60m/min (197ft/min).

Coming more from the digital (inkjet) side of the business is MGI, which has launched the JETvarnish 3D Web Color+ machine. The core of the unit is inkjet-based spot and tactile effects including digital varnish and foiling, inline semi-rotary die-cutting, slitting and rewinding. 

In addition, users can add a printing unit which, via a re-register system, allows overprinting of foil with CMYK toner to create a wide range of tints and hues, as well as precise spot coats to match colors generated from previous digital printing operations. 

The JETvarnish 3D Web Color+ is available in 330mm/13in web widths with in-line printing, and 420 mm/16.5in without the 4-color toner unit. Production speed for 4-color varnish and foil is between 10-20m/min, and, for just varnish and foil, up to 42m/min. A UV flexo module is optionally available. 

A new entrant to the European converting machinery market is Chinese manufacturer Rhyguan, which is making a major push into the market with a range of converting machines including systems suitable for converting digitally printed labels. Options available include laser die-cutting, flatbed foil and flatbed silkscreen. A full review of the company’s machines will appear in a future edition of L&L

Print and cut
Systems designed to print and finish as part of a seamless benchtop-style system are increasingly popular among end users and for label converter bureau operations. 

Allen Datagraph has built on its existing technical expertise in this sector to launch the iTech Talon digital label finisher, an all-in-one finishing system that laminates, digital die-cuts, strips, slits (optional) and re-winds labels. The iTech Talon utilizes the proven plotting technology developed by ADSI to die-cut labels on-demand. 

Print to cut registration is accomplished via the company’s established SmartMark optical registration system. Multiple registration marks can be scanned to automatically adjust the cut file, compensating for any skew or scale issues caused by the output device or material. 

Finishing speeds are up to 10ft/min (3m/min) on a web width of 4-8.5in (101-215mm). 

Allen Datagraph’s established systems include the iTech Centra HS which can laminate, digital die-cut, strip and slit custom labels in one production pass. Web width is up to 14in (355mm) and operating speed up to 30ft/min (9.14m/min). 

The iTech Axxis XL Plus digitally cuts, slits, and rewinds. Additional features include continuous cutting to provide a smooth slit before the rewind and larger 12in input and output roll capabilities. Automatic tensioning further reduces operator intervention. 

The Afinia Label DLF Series includes all-in-one systems that unwind, knife cut, remove waste, slit, and rewind in one process. The DLF-220L and DLF-350L add lamination capabilities. 

All systems use plotter cutting technology and a cutter management tool and camera black-mark registration system. 

Maximum web width is 225mm (8.86in) for the DLF-220 and 220L and 355mm (14in) for the DLF 350L. Maximum cutting speed is up to 24in/s (600mm/s) in all directions. 

Graphtec’s DLC1000 digital label finishing system enables users to laminate, cut, removal waste, slit, and rewind in a single production pass. 

The stylus digital cutting system is fitted with the company’s ARMS (Advanced Registration Mark Sensing system), which uses sensors to detect registration marks and automatically aligns the cutting axis. Cutting force, speed, blade offset, and cutting position are configured at the machine’s front end. 

The DLC1000 operates with the DLP1000 digital printer, which can control up to eight DLC1000 units simultaneously from its operator interface. 

DPR has launched its Virgo compact desktop finishing system, incorporating digital (plotter) die-cutting, a lamination option, waste stripping and slitting. Web width is up to 140mm and speed up to 10m/ min (32ft/min). 

Lemorau has launched its Digi EBR+ print and convert system available in web widths of 260, 330 and 400mm (10, 13, 17in). 

Finishing speeds are up to 40m/min semi-rotary (131ft/min)) and 120m/min (394ft/min) full rotary. 

Processing modules include die-cutting, slitting, inspection, flexo station, corona treatment, semi-/full rotary screen station, sheeter, web cleaner, lamination, razor slitting, back scorer; anti-static bar; anvil roll with adjustable gap and turret rewind. 

To conclude, we are seeing a great deal of innovation around the finishing of digitally printed labels. A key trend going forward will be how these machines are integrated into Industry 4.0 automation systems, which should greatly enhance the value of digital printing by removing more barriers to productivity at the converting end.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy Thomas is strategic director of Labels & Labeling.

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