Digital-on-demand offset color printing has been highly touted in recent years. And with good reason. The process permits graphics to be printed directly onto a label or package, without the need for film or negative ouput, or the plate preparation that's common to more traditional printing methods. It has allowed press manufacturers to wow visitors at both converting and packaging trade shows. Today, the technology is employed primarily for short-run printing of flexible substrates. These materials may be used to decorate bags, cans, bottles, cartons, cases, etc. The equipment can produce a single label that can be affixed to a container to permit customers to make important packaging and graphics decisions. Once this sample is approved, commercial volumes are typically printed on traditional flexographic, gravure or offset presses designed for longer runs. Digital printing has helped St. Louis, MO-based converter Watson Label Products enter the packaging market, according to vice president Doug Watson. "We added a second digital-on-demand machine at the end of 1996 to enable our business to branch out from just being a bar-code label house to a more diversified company involved in packaging, which was virgin territory to us at the time." Before that, he notes, "our primary business was producing bar-coded identification labels for things like circuit boards, car air bags, MRI scanners, and so forth. Many of these labels had to survive harsh conditions, including rugged outdoor environments, frozen conditions, or shipment across the ocean." Those labels are still produced, but by a much more efficient process. Both of the Omnius(TM) "One-Shot Color" machines employed by Watson Label at its 30ꯠ sq' facility are supplied by Indigo America (Woburn, MA). The equipment, designed and built in Israel, made its packaging debut in the U.S. in mid-1995. Watson saw an Indigo system at a printing show. Alliance delivers business Watson tells Packaging World that its packaging-related volume is growing in large part from an informal business alliance with a major flexible packaging converter, Printpack (Atlanta, GA). "They send us customers that need short-run packaging where prototypes or sales samples are required, sometimes in several varieties," explains Watson of the Printpack relationship. "They're set up for longer runs, so when an extremely short run is necessary, they refer them to us because they don't want to turn away a client." Printpack's size gives Watson a lot of credibility in the packaging market. "We've worked with them on projects for Coca-Cola, Hershey and Nestlé, to name a few. The alliance is working well for us, and we're gaining a larger part of our business from it," Watson notes. First user Printpack helped Watson find the first packaging customer that ordered samples produced on the digital press. It was a high-profile job for Sunline Business Units, part of Nestlé's Sunmark Division. Dan Ries, Sunline's product manager, explains: "Nestlé has a licensing agreement for a certain time period to promote products that are tied into some Walt Disney movies. We worked with Watson Label and Printpack to develop a promotional package for our SweeTARTS® candy with the movie, 101 Dalmatians. "We did this in two stages," he points out. "Watson printed samples that we filled and ran through a hand heat-sealer so that our sales people could visit our retail accounts and present them with an actual printed package. The Indigo-printed material helped sell these accounts. We then had the packaging gravure-printed in six colors by Printpack." Ries tells Packaging World that Printpack produced two million impressions for a 3-oz pack containing Dalmatian-shaped SweeTarts candies that were sold nationwide. "The movie was a big hit and our product sold through in about two months," he states. Poised for packaging "We purchased our first Indigo in September '95," Watson says. "We converted our harsh environment business from flexographic printing to fully digital, and I believe we became the first digital label house in the U.S., maybe in the world. With this equipment we offered our customers color for the first time; before that we just printed in black." Earlier, all these labels were produced "on the four fastest typesetting machines available," Watson says. "They used cathode ray tubes and we took resin-coated paper or polyester film and developed it in a darkroom, then die-cut the film that became the labels. This process has been replaced by the Indigo machines. In one shift, an Indigo can produce the output of the four typesetting machines, with capacity to spare." Originally, Watson planned that the second Indigo press would run only packaging and "specialty" products. But as the family owned company continues to build its package converting business, a more flexible approach yields higher press uptime. "We can run basically any job on either Omnius machine, depending on which is available," he contends. "Both can print in six colors with great registration for short runs, so we no longer view the situation as having one Indigo for certain jobs, another for packaging work." The two presses now produce virtually all of Watson Label's output. Digital process Watson Label is unusual because it did not replace conventional printing with the new presses. Arthur Kliman, Indigo's product technical manager for North America, believes Watson Label may have been the first label converter to use two digital presses at the same site. Like traditional printing, the Omnius accepts input from digital prepress systems. But the Omnius eliminates the need for film or printing plates. Instead, digital prepress information is "written" into one photosensitive photo-imaging plate (PIP) cylinder by a laser. Just beneath the PIP cylinder is a blanket cylinder. An impression cylinder is positioned below that. The substrate passes between the impression and blanket cylinders, just like a "classic offset press," Kliman says. Indigo's electrically charged ElectroInks(TM) are drawn from containers positioned in a cabinet beneath the printing cylinders. The paste-like ink is drawn from the container into a "sump" where it's mixed with mineral oil. The oil and density of the liquid is closely monitored for proper viscosity. The liquid ink is then pumped through tubing into what Indigo refers to as "slit injectors." Each slit injector disperses ink onto the PIP, one color at a time. The electrically charged inks and photosensitive PIP cylinder create differences in electrical charges that determine where the ink will be attracted to the PIP (and be a part of the image), and where it will be repelled and recirculated to the ink reservoir. With each revolution, the PIP cylinder transfers a single color to the blanket cylinder in the Indigo One-Shot(TM) process. While the Omnius prints in up to six colors, it allows "double-hitting" of each color so that it's possible to apply as many as 12 separate layers of ink to the blanket roller. Once all colors that make up the desired image are on the blanket cylinder, they are transferred to the impression cylinder. This final cylinder transfers the image to the moving web in register. The Omnius systems print a maximum image area of 12.1" W x 17.2" L. Watson primarily uses polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride substrates from various suppliers. Drive rollers deliver the film from the unwind to the rewind. Rolls are subsequently slit on custom-built, servo-controlled equipment developed by Watson. Registration accuracy is a major feature of the printing equipment. The converter developed a control system to enhance the digital registration capability of the two presses. Control components added to the machines include a drive roller system, computer, electric eye blanket and cable assembly. The servo-controlled system is designed to provide greater print accuracy than the previous stepper motor-driven system. Customer confirmations Another Nestlé/Walt Disney project involved last year's movie, Hercules. The customer was Mikaflex, an Amherst, NY-based converter, and its customer Nestlé USA's Nestlé Foods Div., Solon, OH. Last summer, the Foods Division wanted printed graphics for a frozen novelty product/package promoting the movie. "We already had a Hercules package out when Mikaflex showed us how good the labels could look if we did them this way," recalls DeLynne Ano, materials manager for the Nestlé division. "They were absolutely beautiful." Unfortunately, the movie lacked the muscle of its title character. The Hercules samples from Mikaflex were never produced in volume, Ano notes. "But we have a product scheduled for next year where we'll probably approach Watson for samples, [produced digitally]," she says. Mikaflex converts PVC shrink film sold to customers in food, beverage and industrial applications. "Using Watson's digital-on-demand printing is very beneficial for us," says Jim Freeburg, a Mikaflex sales representative. "It provides us with a beautiful print, and quick turnarounds. They once produced a job overnight for us. You can't do that with flexographic printing," he believes. "We can show a customer a prototype of its artwork on a label, with as few as five or ten samples," says Freeburg. "For a few hundred dollars, a customer quickly receives samples that might cost them up to $10ꯠ to flexo-print." Economic advantages Two more Watson Label customers praise the Indigo machinery for its economic and customer service advantages. Uniflex, based in Anaheim Hills, CA, gravure-prints PVC shrink film primarily for use as beverage labels. "We began working with Watson less than a year ago, and they provide high-quality printed samples at reasonable prices," notes Melanie Kronemann, manager of the converter's graphic art department. "We work in high volumes. In order to print samples for a customer, we're talking thousands of dollars. For a lot less, customers can see their label on a bottle before they order in quantity from us," she says. Kronemann won't divulge customer names or specific products, but does say Watson's digital labels have been used as samples to entice customers marketing beer, juice and soup products. "Watson provides us with a good sample tool for our customers. They can show their package sample to a retailer like a wholesale club." Another converter that works with Watson is Sharp Packaging Systems. The Sussex, WI, company extrudes resin into film, prints the film and produces bags. "Most of our runs are ten thousand or better, so when we need small runs under 1ꯠ for customer sales samples we turn to Watson." So says Jack Schafer, the company's management and information systems representative. "That way, we don't have to prepare plates, set up the press and inks and gear up for a run that would tie up our equipment," he says. That saves Sharp the makeready costs and, in turn, saves Sharp's customers. Watson wins! Of course, when Watson Label's customers benefit from the Indigo equipment, it helps build the St. Louis converter's business. And that's what Doug Watson counted on at the time Watson Label was making a decision to purchase digital-on-demand printing equipment. "We looked at costs, providing color printing, and the ability to produce on a variety of substrates," he says. "We looked at our future and saw that the Indigo equipment would enable our business to branch out into packaging. The first machine was paid off in about two years, with our harsh environment labeling jobs. "With the second press," he continues, "the justification is more speculative because we've diversified our business, going after the packaging market." Watson tells PW that with the press the company is also producing security labels where each impression on a roll can have its own "license plate." Variable information for blood bags is another job Watson does with the Omnius. "The digital offset equipment is equipped to run these types of jobs better than any other printing method out there," he believes. Today, both machines run on two daily shifts. "Had we not added the second machine, we could have stayed with being primarily a bar-code label printer," he says. "But we wanted to be a pioneer in digital printing and be able to go straight from the computer to a printed label. With the Indigo equipment, we're there."