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  • 22 May 2017

Digital label printing in India, the journey has begun

In May 2015, I wrote that the verdict from the Indian label industry was ‘digital for labels has to wait’, concluding, ‘the time frame before digital printing becomes largely visible and used in label printing in India varies between three to five years.’

Amar Chhajed of Huhtamaki PPL-Webtech labels said, at that time, that digital printing in labels will become evident in 2-3 years and as we enter the third year since then some big investments are being made in digital printing in labels. Digital printing in labels has been registering continuous growth in Europe and North America. Around the time of the last drupa, Adrian Tippenhauer, managing director of Rako Etiketten in Germany, said the last 36 label presses acquired by the company out of the 100s they have are all digital presses.

If Labelexpo Europe and drupa are indicators, the visitors to these shows can very well imagine the way forward. Digital was the most predominantly exhibited technology at these events. HP became the biggest exhibitor at drupa in 2016, while other suppliers of digital label presses were all there.

The writing was on the wall that it would not be long before the trend starts to flourish in India. Indian label printers have been very cautious towards investing in digital printing of labels. However, as they say, you cannot stop an idea whose time has come. When I researched and estimated the size of the digital label market in India, the findings became interesting. By latest count the population of leading brands of digital label presses in India has reached 22. This is besides the small low value small printers that some companies may have acquired. This is a fairly impressive figure when just a year back we had the industry largely saying that digital has to wait.

Estimating the size of the digital label market, I made some assumptions. The average width of the press was taken as 330mm, printing speed is calculated at an average of 30 running meters per minute and working hours assumed at 12 hours per day. This amounts to a total consumption in the industry for digitally printed labels of over 52 million sqm in a year. In October 2016, I estimated the total Indian self-adhesive label industry size (mostly conventional) at almost 900 million sqm a year. This translates into to almost 5.8 percent of the total self-adhesive labels in India to be printed digitally; this surely indicates that for digital label printing in India, the journey has begun.

In the last edition of LMAI’s magazine Label Legacy, Gautham Pai, managing director of Manipal Technologies wrote: ‘Digital printing offers a plethora of opportunities for both the suppliers and the clients. With the Indian market trending towards more customized products, a large number of brands, shorter turnaround times and more ecologically sustainable solutions, digital printing would prove to be one hallmark technology for the Label Industry.’ Manipal Technologies has an HP Indigo installed at its subsidiary UPSL in Chennai.

The deterrent so far for the label industry to invest in digital printing equipment has been the high cost of consumables and the end price to consumer including margins, as not being acceptable. However, with the evolving retail selling patterns and consumables becoming more affordable, the technology is now more relevant. As run lengths continue to shrink, short runs being more in demand and customization or personalization needs becoming imperative to modern day marketing, printers are being driven to think digital. Added requirement for variable data on the labels that helps companies to track and trace their products brings about the compelling need to complement analog printing with digital printing. In words of Narendra Paruchuri of Pragati Pack Hyderabad, which has installed an HP Indigo 6800: ‘One of things that all of us must understand and appreciate is that both digital and analog will co-exist. Digital’s greatest advantage is variable data printing. Short runs are cheaper. So the areas are clearly ear marked.’

Digital printing of packaging and labels is growing at an enormous pace in the western world. We have touched the tip of an iceberg; it will not be long before the trend picks up in India as well.

The ease of use and consistency in print reached in this technology makes it interesting for established printers to indulge. Pravin Savla of J P Printers Mumbai is ecstatic that he has invested in an Epson SurePress, and said: ‘I can print good quality on a variety of substrates using the computer to print capability.’

Another Epson customer, Arvind Shekhar of Sai Packaging Bangalore, said: ‘We have had good experience for short run jobs defined as less than 20,000 labels for bigger size and 50,000 for smaller pharma labels and we have never had color consistency issues with Epson.

‘I don’t see it as a standalone ROI. When you see increased sales on flexo plus plate costs saved, then the ROI makes sense.’

Denver Annunciation from Janus International, one of the first label printers to install an HP Indigo label press said: ‘Yes the technology has evolved a lot and we are seeing the crossover point shift higher.’

While calculating the number of digital label presses in India, I have not taken into account the presses that are not operational. Out of the 22 presses, the bulk of the share goes to HP Indigo, 13, with five Epson SurePress L-4033AW presses, two Xeikon machines, and one each from Durst and EFI.

Electrophotography and inkjet are both improving in quality and speed, and their evolution and further developments are challenging the dominance of other printing processes like offset, wide web flexo and gravure.

On further evaluation of data compiled by myself, nine out of 20 of the companies who have indulged in digital label printing are either multinationals or corporates, and the rest are family-owned businesses. It is interesting to note that at least seven of these have the next generation either in command or actively involved in day-to-day affairs of the company. Evidently it is the corporate mindset or the youth that is driving the march into digital printing of labels in India.