Competitive ink

15 September 2004 (Last Updated September 15th, 2004 18:30)

Keri Allen examines the ways in which ink manufacturers are addressing the demands made upon printers for high definition and shorter run times.

As print quality for packages continues to improve, manufacturers are constantly looking for the latest technology to enhance the quality of the products they produce.

With regard to ink technologies, a wide variety of companies involved in different stages of the printing process are now offering new products. The options to improve ink quality, update printing machines and improve inspection systems are seemingly endless.

Several trends have become apparent in the development of ink technology, most of which lend themselves to adding market value to printed products. 'For one, you have invisible ink, where you rub it and it appears,' notes Shane Vaughn, president of KDV Labels.

'There are also scratch and sniff inks, thermochromic inks, photochromic inks and even glitter inks.' KDV Labels is currently working with ink suppliers to make some of these products viable for flexo printing, so that customers are given added value and choice. The latest inks launched by KDV Labels are the rub-and-reveal ink and the scratch-off ink. The company is also finding that UV-Flexo continues to be popular. 'It has strong colour consistency, is easy to run and gives positive fade resistance,' Vaughn explains.

In-house mixing and matching is another trend that KDV Labels is following. It is becoming ever more common for companies to create their own types of ink, be it for film, paper, plastic or cartonboard. These developments keep inventories low and options high. This allows a company to create special match colours, and also to create denser inks. With darker inks, there is no need for complex layering of colours; this inevitably lowers print costs.

Texture and tactility

Another trend that is proving popular is to offer a raised, 3D, tactile feature which also has the potential to be used as Braille for people with sight impairments. 'A key feature of rotary screen printing is its ability to print thick deposits,' says Arno Vonk, communications manager at Stork Prints. 'This is achieved by an adjustment of the thickness of the stencil, which acts as a negative over the screen.'

'Thick deposits are useful for creating a 3D effect and for varnish application,' adds Vonk. 'This is an important technique for packaging substrates that require applications beyond labelling. The raised feature has a functional purpose as well as a decorative one.

For a blind person, Braille is the essential communication link between brand and consumer, providing a product description and vital information, such as expiry data.' Stork's rotary screen printing machines can also facilitate further marketing opportunities for packaging.

Take 'scratch-off' applications, for example. Rotary screen printing is ideal for these because of its potential to print thick metallic deposits. 'Many marketing managers see promotional campaigns and competitions as a tactical means of boosting sales. Thick deposits are important for obvious reasons: what is the use of creating a competition where the customer can see through the pack to the answers?' asks Vonk.

Brilliant varnish

Stork's machines also offer high-quality varnish effects. Some effects are best created off-line, yet can be completed in a single pass. One is the reticulating or 'wrinkle' varnish effect, where a coarse feature offers high visual impact as it stands out from its smooth surroundings.

Larger ink particles are used for this effect to create the texture. The varnish offers high visual impact, as it contrasts sharply with its smooth surroundings. The reticulating effect occurs when the ink is cured by ultra high-frequency UV-A light. Finally, the ink is cured and polymerised with a standard UV lamp.

'Asia-Pacific countries have shown the way, with highly appealing varnish effects - such as the wrinkle effect - contributing to the pack construction, especially for cigarette boxes,' Vonk notes. 'In this region, there is intense competition for shelf space, and raised consumer expectations of how a package should communicate the quality attributes of the product compared with Western consumer perceptions. As a result, the package has to work much harder to grab the buyer's attention. Varnishes which add extra gloss for enhanced brilliance are frequently employed.'

Added value is of great importance, and the companies that will best succeed are those that offer something above the ordinary. 'Printers and packaging companies are looking for added value, whether that be special effects or brand protection,' says Andreas Rascher, product manager at Zeller and Gmelin. 'Conductive inks are in demand for the industrial print sector, to embellish printed batteries and the like.'

Customer service

Rascher also highlights the fact that companies need to offer strong customer service skills, as well as added value, because as industry changes take place, costs need to be reduced and facilities moved to cheaper areas. Zeller and Gmelin, a high-quality ink producer, prides itself on technical service, press operator training and problem-solving abilities.

The company believes that service-based specialisation is the only way for European ink makers to survive. Regardless of global market forces, customers may find that European ink makers are the most customer-friendly companies to use.

'Commodity inks like sheet-fed offset and heatset web offset are constantly reducing in price, so print quality will ultimately suffer,' Rascher notes. 'Conventional print jobs are moving to cheaper locations in the Far East, and the ink supply will follow. For smaller European companies, service-based specialisation is the only way to ensure prosperity and longevity.

This is the route chosen by Zeller and Gmelin, and its UK subsidiary Intercolor. It is our philosophy to try and solve printing problems in collaboration with our customers, so that we don't end up just focusing on our inks,' he adds.

Along with its competitors, Zeller and Gmelin has kept track of the latest trends in the industry. These currently include the continued development of radiation curing technologies, shrink sleeves, UV-Inkjet, thermochromic and photochromic systems. With this in mind, and in line with companies such as KDV labels, Zeller and Gmelin is currently offering a new range of products to satisfy these fresh demands. 'We're offering UV-Inkjet printing, thin film RFID, free radical shrink sleeve inks, along with other security and brand protection technologies,' says Rascher.

Quality and speed

One distinct trend is the move towards shorter, higher-quality runs. Scitex Vision, a developer, manufacturer and service provider of digital printing presses, recently released a machine that will help customers to shorten runs and widen their range of printing abilities.

'There is ongoing pressure for ever shorter runs to be produced by printers, and the demand is coming from the brand owners and the end-users,' says Ronen Zioni, sales director of packaging and displays at Scitex Vision.

Bearing in mind the shift from volume to value (coupled with the need for added flexibility), Scitex Vision is now offering a new machine: the Scitex Vision CORjet. This machine allows users to offer a wider range of products with high digital quality.

Smaller runs are now easier to take on, and the Scitex Vision CORjet also allows printers to offer services in different mediums, such as point of purchase (POP) displays, giving companies the opportunity to increase profits.

'The print workload is becoming more and more demanding,' adds Zioni. 'Customers want to produce more products, with smaller runs in the same delivery times. We recognised these trends two or three years ago, followed them closely and came to the market with a digital solution. Our machine gives printers the opportunity to launch themselves in new markets and provide more flexible products and services. Previously, they were only doing very long, low-margin runs, but now they can provide their customers with positive answers, rather than only doing jobs that are over a specific size.'

Automatic inspection

Once a printer has installed a new system, the next step is to set up an inspection system that ensures that the printing quality is up to standard. Futec Europe supplies and services automatic inspection systems, and is now providing two new systems to deal with the importance of brand colour and fault-free production for packaging customers.

'In the past, a company using a fairly high-speed machine couldn't see what was being printed,' explains Ray Scragg, managing director at Futec Europe. 'This allowed room for error. The big brands like Mars and Proctor and Gamble will not tolerate material arriving in their plants with any faults or defects, so they have been putting more and more pressure on printing companies to provide absolutely faultless production. It's all about replacing manual with automatic inspection.'

The issue of international standardisation of brand colour is becoming increasingly important, so Futec has brought out two completely new systems: the KaleidoEye and the EasyMax Neo. These systems allow customers to have complete control of their brand colours.

Precise colour verification

KaleidoEye is a system that rapidly verifies colour values in repeat work. It takes colour information from a previously printed master, and compares these values with the colours being achieved in the new rendition. This supply of colour information during the make-ready process enables a significant reduction in production times. Colour verification continues throughout the whole job, warning operators of any deviations.

EasyMax Neo is designed to maximise production speeds, while eliminating customer returns. This is achieved by a 100 per cent automatic inspection system for sheet-fed applications. It captures defect images for display, storage and reporting, and separates defect tolerances for background colours and regions of interest. The automatic sheet alignment compensation facility also enables a finer level of inspection.

Client control

'If you've got a Mars bar in the UK, it has got to be the same colour brown as a Mars bar in China, even though the packaging is produced by different machines, in different countries, with different processes,' Scragg says. 'The brands still demand a standardised look and feel for their products, so the inks have to appear exactly the same,' Scragg says. 'This is why we are producing new systems which are able to help our customers to control their colours. For example, the KaleidoEye will be able to tell a customer whether the latest run is exactly the same as the last one. If there are any deviations or changes, the system will alert the operator immediately.'

'The move towards shorter runs means that printers will be more likely to succeed if they are able to take on a wider variety of work,' notes Zioni. 'The ability to be flexible is one of the main qualities that end-users want to see.' Customers can only benefit from the wide range of new technologies now available, and with research underway, companies look set to offer even more applications and solutions in the future.