Introduction Manufacturers of almost any type of product often find themselves in need of short-run, full-color customized product labels. The reasons are many: for use on prototype products, promotional campaigns, and perhaps most often, because the manufacturer has many different products that are all produced in smaller quantities.
In all of these cases, the printed quality and appearance of these labels are extremely important. Providing a professional appearance on packages can easily make the difference between a product selling well or simply sitting on the retail shelf. But finding a cost-effective and convenient way to produce high-quality, full-color labels has not been easy. Until now, your choices have been limited to: Flexographic (“flexo”) printing. This is the most common method of printing “primary” product labels – those that go onto the product itself. However, flexo technology is generally affordable only in larger production runs – usually 10,000 or more identical labels at a time.
Creativity can be compromised on flexo since you are generally limited to several hundred PMS (Pantone Matching System) spot colors. If photos are required on labels, a visible dot pattern becomes apparent and is generally equivalent to only about 200 to 300 dpi. Set-up costs for flexographic film, plates and “make-ready” (aligning four separate printing plates, mixing ink, etc.) are substantial, adding significantly to the cost when printing short-run jobs. Delivery usually takes about 3-4 weeks. Often, labels will need to be discarded when product information changes and the job needs to be reprinted.
Traditional offset printing. Like flexo printing, full-color offset printing is generally appropriate only for longer runs. Offset printing is also limited to sheet- © 2017 Primera Technology, Inc. 2 Producing Your Own Color Labels fed presses. Most end-users prefer rolls of labels because they can be used with automated applicators and are more compact to store on a warehouse shelf.
Digital offset printing. Offers many of the advantages of variable information and shorter runs. Presses are very expensive – typically $100,000 or more. Unless you can justify such a large equipment investment, these types of labels are usually sourced from an outside supplier. Delivery times are usually several days to a week. Print quality is better than flexo, but many digital offset presses require expensive lamination films to protect the inks from abrasion and handling. This is especially true of digital presses that use so-called liquid toner.
Color thermal transfer printing. Offers the advantages of printing variable information and short runs. The major disadvantage is that print resolution is very low – only 203 to 400 dpi. Machinery is also expensive ($20,000+). Does not produce a professional, offset-quality result, so thermal transfer is used mostly for industrial shipping and box labels. Full-Color, Photo-Quality Inkjet and Laser Label Printing Recently, two new short- to medium-run label printing technologies have become available: color inkjet and color laser label printing. Both provide high-resolution, durable labels that are ideal for primary label applications.
Inkjet technology has been in widespread use for many years in home, office and even professional photo and poster-printing applications. But because it had not been used extensively in the label industry, many people thought that it was not robust or waterproof enough to produce primary product labels. With today’s state-of-the-art inkjet technology, just the opposite is actually true. Color laser technology is often used in desktop applications on cut sheets of paper. Although well-suited for office use, it has generally not been a good choice for labels.
There are a number of challenges: (1) general-purpose laser printers are not continuousfeed and can’t handle rolls of paper, (2) substrates are quite limited – mostly just plain paper, and (3) lasers tend to require more maintenance when feeding materials with pressure-sensitive adhesives. Primera, a leading manufacturer of specialty color printers widely known for its CD/DVD and Blu-ray Disc Publishers and printers, has successfully developed short to medium-run solutions using both color inkjet and color laser technologies. Which one you choose depends upon your specific label production requirements. Color Inkjet: Short-Run Label Printing Primera’s LX-Series Color Label Printers utilize the latest in thermal inkjet technology to produce full-color product labels at up to 4800 dpi – about 240 times higher resolution than flexo – in up to 16.7 million colors. Color inkjet is typically better suited to short runs versus medium runs since ink capacities are lower and speeds are slower. However, print quality is not at all sacrificed. In fact, color inkjet printing is among the best available of any competing technology.