Talk of Golf Balls, Candles and Digital Printing's Future
One of the bright spots in digital printing these days—and into the future—is packaging. You can digitize a lot things and stream them through the air and over fiber and copper lines, but nearly all products we all buy every day will always need some kind of package, label or both. What's interesting is how well digital printing—like for golf balls and candles—fits this market.
This might not seem to make sense at first, because packaging is such a high volume, mass market app. Yet, if you really look at many of the consumer goods lining the aisles of your local Wally World, you see how labels and packaging are changing. Instead of there being a couple versions of a given brand of shampoo or deodorant, there are a dozen or more. The differences in the actual products may be more imagined than real, but a unique package or label—barcode and all—is required for each.
"What this does is reduce the run length required for each item," notes Mike Ring, president of Xeikon America. "There are more products, but that means shorter runs for any given label. And because products can also vary by market, digital printing is becoming a compelling choice for many labels and packaging applications."
Much of this work has traditionally been done with offset printing or flexography, which are geared to the longer runs required for most consumer goods. But as those runs shrink, digital presses begin to shine and can offer equal or better quality for many products.
Ring tells of how one customer's client wouldn't accept digital printing unless the label on the product was indistinguishable from the offset version. "Once the customer was able to demonstrate the labels printed on a Xeikon press looked the same as the conventional ones, the client was on board and now uses both technologies depending on delivery times and run lengths," he reports.
Golf Balls and Candles
Where digital dominates, though, is in the ability to customize labels. This would seem trivial, but it turns out to be a substantial chunk of business for companies like Acushnet Golf, manufacturer of Titleist and Pinnacle golf balls.
I travelled to Tulsa, OK, where Odyssey Printing uses a Xeikon 5000 to produce customized golf ball sleeves for dozens of country clubs, corporations and special events, such as tournaments and fund raisers. Odyssey has 100 templates for packaging that can be customized with logos and pictures and UV-varnished inline with the press, then diecut and shipped flat to Acushet, ready to receive the golf balls. Run lengths are under 1,000 and jobs can be turned around in just five days.
When you think about the number of country clubs out there, all of which have a pro shop that sells golf balls, the market for just this one form of custom packaging is a very attractive one. The folks at Odyssey and Xeikon gave me a sleeve of Titleist balls, which I brought home and gave to a kid I know on the local high school golf team. He was thrilled to get some Titleists, but was fascinated by the personalized packaging. It makes you think about the effect custom packaging can have.
Odyssey also does labels for Yankee Candle Co., one of the largest makers of decorative candles in the United States. Back in 2008, the company was seeking a way to produce short-run packages for sales samples, fill-in orders, and had its sights on developing a custom label program. Many of Yankee's labels are on clear film and require near photographic quality. Odyssey brought in a Xeikon 3300, the first installed in the U.S., to address Yankee's needs, and added a Xeikon 3500 in August 2010.
These machines let Odyssey handle the package and label mix of Yankee's orders and provide custom labels and packaging for fundraising activities and special events, such as thank you gifts for guests at weddings, anniversaries and the like. The 3300 and 3500 are teamed with a Xeikon UCoat finishing unit, a MGE/Zund I-cut system, a folder/gluer and a Preco 2024 optically-registered die press. Production time for labels is just 2-3 days, depending on capacity, availability and volume. Other Odyssey work includes a host of packaging, labeling and point-of-purchase materials and shelf strips for a wide range of household name companies.
It's industrial applications like these that Mike Ring sees as a key part of the printing business in the coming years—and a big part of Xeikon's future. He says the unique features of Xeikon's technology—roll-fed, a 20.5" print width, simultaneous duplexing, ability to add a fifth color, numerous inline finishing options, and speed—make it a good fit for many packaging and finishing tasks.
The speed is not a trivial matter. While some cut-sheet machines can be set up with coating and finishing options that work for some packaging applications, it is sheer speed, especially combined with the smooth workflow inherent with inline finishing, that's critical in achieving the throughput needed for a profitable operation.
The other side of printing, especially document production such as books, photobooks, marketing collateral and the like, is the other target for Xeikon. Ring thinks his company's machines also have an edge here because of their speed.
"There's a gap in the market between inkjet and toner," he explains. "The inkjet systems all run very fast and can do a good job, although the quality isn't quite as good as toner. But they are expensive to buy and require a lot of volume to be profitable. Cut-sheet toner machines have the quality, but are limited in speed, monthly capacity, and the cost per page can be too high. Continuous feed toner-based machines fill this gap, providing the speed, image quality, finishing options, versatility and competitive running cost."
When Ring said this, I thought about some of the questions I've been getting lately from print providers who need more speed, but worry that they can't make the numbers work for even the lower speed inkjet systems. It depends on the operation and applications, of course, but maybe they need to consider a different approach with toner.
Xeikon has always been a bit of a niche player in the digital printing game, but this niche has significantly broadened with the company's forays into labels and packaging. With this new focus, the company seems poised to reach out to new customers in a segment of the print industry that has gone largely untouched by digital print technology. It may well be that this focus on industrial is the Xeikon's chance to take a leading role in that segment and grab a share of one of the more promising markets for digital printing.