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Converters talk digital

Examples of digitally printed cartons

HP Indigo’s annual VIP event brought together converters, end users and partner suppliers from across the world. Of particular interest were a number of converter-focused discussions covering a wide range of topics showing how digital is being used to develop new profit streams and enhance existing ones.

Digital cartons 
Cartons is not an arena historically covered by L&L in depth, but digital printing is opening up new opportunities to disrupt the standard offset model. Nosco is one converter which has seized these opportunities, as John McKeough, senior VP operations, explained.

Nosco describes itself as a medium-sized converting group with six plants in the US and a $120m USD turnover. Labels, cartons and inserts each represent around one third of the company’s total output and key markets include pharma, nutraceuticals and health and beauty.

Nosco has been a strong development partner for HP Indigo in the US, beta-testing both the WS6000 in 2008 then the HP 30000 in 2013. Nosco was also a partner in HP Indigo’s network for the Share-a-Coke campaign in the US. By 2018 the company had installed five WS6800 and two HP 30000 digital presses. The presses are run very efficiently, with an average 10 mins makeready and under 10 percent machine downtime. 

Labels was the first production segment to be digitally transformed at Nosco. ‘There were two big things we could do with digital – first exponentially change the delivery time for our customers, which used to be six weeks and then 5-10 days, and is now three days,’ said McKeough. ‘Serialization was the other big driver to more profit.’ The 6000-series presses have also started absorbing more of Nosco’s longer run work.

Why move to the 30000? ‘We did do some cartons on the 6000 presses but it’s really a label machine. We were running the 6000-series at the edge of what it could handle and we had no downstream equipment for die-cutting. But we got our foot in the door and got our customers excited about what could be done with serialization and digital color on cartons, and that pushed us to the 30000.’

Among carton customers used to offset standards there was ‘lots of trepidation’ about digital color. ‘We had to put them at ease, so we ran with the G7 color management system. This meant we could put their jobs on whatever format was good for us without worrying about the color consistency of the HP 30000 versus a Komori press. G7 is the key to that. 

‘Clients were also used to spot color, but we now have the bulk of our customers in the OTC and nutraceuticals markets used to 4-color – or 3-color is possible – which simulates spot color well. We made our own 6000-series pantone book so customers can see exactly the look they would get. That has served us well.’

Nosco’s digital presses are located at a greenfield start-up operation just outside Philadelphia called the On-demand Solutions Center, usefully located close to key customers. ‘The big selling point of the 30000 is that we could blow away the service model for many customers, moving from 4-week delivery time to on-demand. That was a great change for them.’

In terms of finishing, ABG is Nosco’s partner for labels and Kama for cartons with its half-size die-cutter, along with a conventional folder-gluer. 

Nosco has taken full advantage of HP Indigo’s special ink developments. Invisible inks were an early success on labels, and Nosco has now trialed these on cartons on the 30000. Nosco also supplies the readers. ‘This all helps get us out of the price conversation,’ said McKeough. ‘We have used HP’s Silver on the labels side and this has been a nice win. Premium White we also use a lot. Many customers take serialization in-house but with this white we can show that the uptime on their lines is better if they let the experts do it for them.’ 

Indeed, ‘advisory selling’ has been key to Nosco’s success. ‘We have a better understanding of what causes downtime on a customer’s line. For example we pre-attach medical inserts to cartons which speeds their line up and reduces waste and inventory – and ensures they buy their products from us. We call our sales people packaging advisors. It is a team sell – engineer, ops person and packaging advisor.’

Concluding, McKeough said digital has been ‘a wonderful thing’ for Nosco. ‘And HP has been a great partner.’ 

Label converter panel 
A label converter panel session saw the following leaders brought together: Jim Voltoline, operations manager at Consolidated Label; Adi Levy, CEO of Peer Print; Anil Namugade, director at Trigon Digital; Barry Halliday, managing director of Harkwell Labels; and Rob Daniels, president of Quality Tape & Label. 

Consolidated Label is a medium-sized converter operating across a wide range of end use sectors and employing 240 people. Along with 17 conventional presses its digital complement includes two HP Indigo WS6800 presses and one 8000. 

Peer Print employs 50 staff. The converter prints digitally with two WS6600s and one wide format digital press, and conventionally with a new sheet-fed Komori offset press. The company specializes in wine labels and cartons. ‘In the sheet-fed business competition is higher, because commercial printers are starting to go into cartons and labels,’ noted Adi Levy. Trigon is a digital-only house with 95 employees housing an HP Indigo 6900, four Kodak Approvals and an Epson SurePress. Anil Namugade stresses that digital is ‘both a technology and a mindset’, which means focusing on the unique value digital can create, such as personalization. Harkwell Labels is another digital-only house, employing 22 people and running two HP Indigo 6900s and an 8000. Quality Tape and Label is a 38-strong company with a majority of digital over conventional presses including one WS6800, a 6900 and a 20000. ‘Runs are getting shorter and SKUs increasing, and this year 90 percent of our work has been digital,’ said Rob Daniels. ‘We use our flexo press for varnishing shrink sleeves which come off the 20000.’ Adi Levy stressed the importance of working with HP Indigo’s business development team, sharing case studies of what sells. ‘Every time I need marketing help I get help from Indigo. We bought our first Indigo press in 2012 when we had a Gallus offset, but runs were becoming shorter and makeready was taking a lot of time. We didn’t even tell customers we had replaced it with a digital press.’

Anil Namugade explained that Trigon started life specializing in prototyping/mocks up using its Epson equipment. ‘We then wanted to bridge the gap between this and higher numbers of mock-ups, trying to supply a value in the customer’s supply chain. Indigo helped us to go to these longer runs but we are still working as a smart innovation company. We have partners with conventional equipment for longer runs.’

For Barry Halliday the challenge for digital is to understand what the customer needs. It is not a price conversation, because price per label is the same for shorter as longer runs. So, for example, we can offer five lots of 20,000 labels and not 100,000 labels which greatly reduces or eliminates inventory holding.’

Rob Daniels said one of QT+L’s models is to give brands an annual label price, but deliver labels as they are needed. ‘We did not tell people their labels were digital to begin with, but just showing them such a quick turnaround was the key. Our customers were throwing inventory away. You have to get to the marketing and brand managers and they will make the purchasing agent buy from us because that’s helps them move new products into the market. You have to find ways to get in front of customers. I once took a label off one product and put a shrink label onto the bottle and left it on the customer’s desk.’

Session moderator Christian Menegon asked what internal changes these converters had made to accommodate digital.

Jim Voltoline said Consolidated Label made big changes to its workflow and approach. ‘We did not have to find highly skilled people – just people who did well on our tests. Today we have four ABGs because we do a lot of decorative finishing and in prepress we have two artists dedicated to digital – that’s all they do – and nine on flexo.’

Adi Levy said the company’s workflow ‘changed completely. It took a lot of heaviness off our operators.’

Barry Halliday said digital had prompted a complete reorganization of Harkwell’s artwork system. ‘Cerm and Esko are now integrated from quote through factory to DFE, so we have a fully automated workflow and we want to move this to finishing as well. 

‘This really is needed. The number of jobs and levels of sophistication are increasing. Customers now realize they can change label designs between jobs and are not afraid to do that, taking full advantage of different design elements. This would be a nightmare on flexo. Our digital operators are in their mid-20s with social media backgrounds and do not have to know about print at all. We have two apprentices in the factory and in customer services.’

Rob Daniels explained how his company has reinvented its workflow after the installation of a LabelTraxx MIS. ‘We now have four graphic artists. We’re receiving 30 orders a day and with five SKUs per order this means 150 pieces of art each a day. We’ve now added a Hybrid Software system which is a game changer, especially for proofing. Now we can fully track when artwork is approved.’

How do these converters handle color management, particularly when running a hybrid digital/conventional press room? The consensus was that clients are happy to accept 4-7 color simulations of spot color on the digital press, and because actual samples can be sent there is no room for mis-communication about color.

‘We used to have color management issues and now we don’t,’ said Barry Halliday. ‘We use Esko color management software and X-Rite (color measurement) and with seven colors we can hit most pantones. We show that print sample to the customer and if they don’t like it we can tweak it.’

At Quality Tape + Label the standard color target when simulating pantones is delta2, and again an X-Rite measurement system is used on press. ‘This stops the operator having to make curves on the press. Now if changes have to be made the job goes back to prepress who make color for the press.’

For all the panelists digital embellishment is of great interest, and a clear future trend.



Andy Thomas is strategic director of Labels & Labeling.

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