Specialist Column

Benefits of Digitalization of Label Printing

Takashi Ono

Takashi Ono
Label Shimbun Corporation, Editor

The first issue of Label Shimbun was published in 1969 as the only newspaper specializing in the label industry in Japan. Today, it covers self-adhesive labels such as stickers and decals, non-adhesive labels such as shrink, in-mold, and wrap-around, and smart labels utilizing RFID*1 and NFC*2 technologies, and delivers useful news, including technologies, materials, processing materials and equipment, products, peripherals, systems, and markets to all those involved in the label business.
The author Ono focuses on the digital printing field. He is active in the field of digital printing, and also visits overseas exhibitions.

Although the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has lifted its priority measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic (at the time of this writing), these days still do not feel very normal as we cannot enjoy cherry blossom viewing and accompanying banquets as much as we would like due to the on-going infection control measures. Nevertheless, some companies have started new businesses to take advantage of the new year.

In North America, where the emergence of startup companies and small businesses is prominent, the COVID-19 pandemic is changing lifestyles and work styles, and numerous businesses selling goods such as originally designed goods, T-shirts, and stickers are thriving as examples of how digital printing is being used by designers and other creative people. Similarly in Japan, mail-order printing services that allow customers to produce original goods in small lots are gradually penetrating the market, and inquiries from both corporations and individuals are on the rise. We expect this type of low-risk services, which utilizes on-demand printing to sell from small lots without carrying inventory, to continue to grow as a new step forward in this era of uncertainty.

The Current State of Digitalization in the Label Industry

The desire from consumers, brand owners, and designers for personalization of printed materials specifically for certain individuals and for on-demand production systems that can print only what they need, when they need it, is increasing every year. To meet these needs, label converters are now introducing equipment for digital printing. One out of every three label converters in Japan is equipped with digital presses, and the percentage of digital press shipments is increasing every year. In 2021, digital label printing presses as roll-to-roll production machines accounted for about 15% of the approximately 200 label printing presses shipped in Japan. In terms of the number of printing presses installed, digital presses made up only about 3% of the approximately 11,000 presses installed but are growing rapidly in popularity.

While digital printing is highly convenient for label users, including full variable printing and small-lot production of a wide variety of products, converters responsible for volume production can also benefit in a wide range of additional ways. Unlike conventional printing, digital printing is plate-less, which reduces the cost of plate production and storage, and also reduces the amount of residual spot color inks used in label printing. DTP operators can also serve as digital press operators, which has become a particular challenge in recent years. In most cases, the period from installation of digital label printing presses to operator training and the start of operations is shorter than that of conventional presses, and the immediate effect of concentrating long-run jobs on conventional presses, improving profit margins by reducing material loss, and strengthening flexible manufacturing systems is also highly regarded.

In addition to the rise of high-speed production presses in terms of printing speed, a survey of label converters conducted by Label Shimbun revealed that the setup time for a four-color or faster press was 41 minutes for flatbed letter presses, compared to 18 minutes for digital presses, indicating that digital presses are capable of quickly developing a wide variety of products.

From a larger perspective, digital printing is also expected to reduce environmental impact. While conventional printing methods rely heavily on the skills of individual operators to produce the same quality at multiple locations, digital printing presses can standardize quality to a certain degree by standardizing printing data at multiple locations. By taking advantage of these features of digital printing to manufacture product and labels in locations close to where they are consumed, it is possible to guarantee print quality and reduce transportation costs and environmental impact compared to mass production at a single location and transportation to different locations. We are also taking extensive measures to standardize quality through the operation of various certification systems, such as "Japan Color" and "G7" in the ISO 12647 series of international standards for printing. In the commercial printing field as well, direct mail used as a marketing tool can be printed by a printing company that is close to the recipient, enabling sales promotion at the optimum time and reducing transportation costs and environmental impact.

The Future of Digital Printing

Now that we have read that digital printing is expanding in terms of market and printing company needs and shipment data, let us consider the future of digital printing in terms of its utilization. Products that take advantage of the characteristics of digital printing can be found all around us. When Japan's new era began, beverages and confectionery products with "REIWA design" labels were printed, processed, applied to products, and distributed throughout the city just hours after the new era was announced, which was surprising to many. Digital printing is also indispensable for fully variable, one-of-a-kind event labels all with different designs, campaign sticker numbering, and 2-D codes.

The introduction of inkjet printers and desktop industrial label printers that can be installed in sales offices and storefronts is also a growing trend. In some cases, original labels are printed immediately at the point-of-sale in conjunction with services that allow customers to customize drinks and condiments with their own original flavors. The COVID-19 pandemic has also seen a positive response, such as the small turnaround time of the digital printing presses being used to pack alcoholic beverages into small bottles for sale to the general public, as shipments to restaurants have been declining. Overseas, we have also heard stories of multiple wineries jointly purchasing a single industrial label printer to produce labels for limited editions and prototypes in very small lots to develop their products.

Digital printing is not only a replacement for conventional presses such as letterpress and offset, but also a production facility that demonstrates flexibility and instantaneous response and contributes to the expansion of printed material usage scenarios. We expect to see more and more unique examples of its adoption in the future.

I am looking forward to label converters creating that new label demand while viewing cherry blossoms alone with a customized, original label drink.

*1 ^Abbreviation for Radio-Frequency Identification: a type of automatic identification technology that uses radio waves to identify and manage various objects using small chips called tags. (Reference: weblio dictionary)
*2 ^Abbreviation for Near Field Communication: a technology for wireless communication over a short distance of up to a few centimeters. (Reference: IT Dictionary)

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