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Archive for the ‘Label and Sticker Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: Blow-Mold and Injection-Mold Labeling

Wednesday, July 14th, 2021

Photo purchased from …

Few things sell products like custom labels. Think about the confusion you’d experience if you walked into a grocery store, went to the hair products, and all the bottles just said “shampoo,” or “conditioner.”

Or, worse. What if every package in the store was just labeled “food”?

Labels do a lot of different things, not the least of which is identify the contents of a package and display the “brand.” That is, beyond the shampoo, you’re really buying all the intangibles, the feelings and values, which the logo, ink coloration, and imagery of the brand imply and promise.

This is why it’s smart to understand custom label printing if you’re a designer, print buyer, or commercial printing supplier. Labels have immense power.

In-Mold Labeling

When you get a moment, do what I just did. I just went into the bathroom and checked out some of the plastic bottles. Some had labels stuck to them. Others seemed to have clear shrink-sleeves covering the bottles, with both transparent areas and printed areas. Still others seemed to have durable printed labels burned right into the plastic. I’d initially assume they were samples of custom screen printing, but these labels seemed to be even more durable and scratch resistant.

So, my assumption now is that the in-mold labeling I had read about earlier in the week (because I had never seen the term before) pertains to the final sample noted above. Mark my words. You’ll be surprised if you dig around in your bathroom, or even under your kitchen sink, just to observe how companies are labeling their products these days.

How In-Mold Labels Are Made

With my interest piqued, I did some research. In-mold labels are positioned in the mold (the structure that gives form to the molten plastic from which shampoo and other bottles are made) before the molten plastic is added.

(Think about a fine-art sculptural mold, which is built around a wax or clay original sculpture. Once the outer mold has dried, the inner sculpture is removed, leaving a hole or cavity–or negative image of the art–within the mold. First you pour molten bronze into the cavity in the mold. Then, once the bronze has cooled and solidified, you can remove the mold, and you’ve got the bronze statue.)

If you shift your mindset a bit, you can envision molten plastic being introduced into a mold for a bottle of shampoo. It’s the same concept (although the inside of the bottle obviously won’t be solid plastic).

There are two ways to do this: blow-mold and injection-mold manufacturing. Keep in mind that the custom printed label is already in position in the mold, so all you really need to do is add the molten plastic for the bottle, which then fuses with the pre-printed film label, eliminating the need for additional labeling, streamlining the manufacturing process, and even facilitating waste and recycling—all while improving label durability. Once the in-mold-labeled bottle is empty, you can even grind it up, melt it, and turn it into a new bottle.

Blow molding involves introducing a lump of molten plastic or polypropylene into the bottle mold and then blowing air into the plastic until it conforms to the interior surface of the mold (i.e., up against the in-mold labeling). If you think back to your high school history class, you may remember seeing pictures of people blowing glass in Colonial Williamsburg, VA. Or, you may have seen the same thing done at the local Renaissance Faire.

This is essentially the same process, using plastic instead of glass and automating the process. Blow molding, which was the original intent for in-mold bottle labeling, is preferred for hollow bottles and other closed containers, especially those that are medium to large in size.

In contrast, injection molding is just what the name implies. Molten plastic is injected into the mold (without blowing air into the molten plastic). You might use this process for small bottles, or for open tubs that contain butter or ice cream.

Both of these options yield the following benefits. The in-mold labels are waterproof, scratch-proof, and resistant to chemicals. (Think about the aggravation that would ensue if all the labels in the damp bathroom started to come apart in your hands. In-mold labeling avoids this.)

Implications of Bottle Labeling

I did some research and found some more implications of bottling and bottle labeling. First of all, as a culture, we buy plastic bottles full of food, beauty products, and cleaning agents. When you include commercial products, you add a huge number of industrial items that also need containers and custom printed labels.

According to Wikipedia, packaging (which includes but goes beyond labeling) solves a lot of problems:

“Packaging contains, protects, preserves, transports, informs, and sells” (Wikipedia, Product Packaging).

More specifically:

  1. Packaging protects the contents of a bottle or other container from heat or cold, physical shock, and vibration.
  2. It keeps out moisture, dust, oxygen, and other contaminants. (This is called “barrier protection” in the packaging trade.) It is especially important for foods and pharmaceuticals. In some cases the packaging can even control the temperature of the contents and thus preserve its longevity and usefulness—i.e., keep it “clean, fresh, sterile, and safe” (Wikipedia, Product Packaging)–throughout the product’s intended shelf life.
  3. Packaging “contains.” That is, if you’re buying a bottle of laundry soap powder, it keeps the granules together and off the floor. Moreover, packaging can group together a number of similar items (like when you buy a box of fruit-and-nut power bars at the gym), and it can even group a number of cases of the same power bars on a wrapped pallet in a warehouse. In all of these cases, access to information (what’s on the skid) and branding (which company owns the skid) are paramount.
  4. Packaging displays vital information. If your product is aspirin, you will probably need a lot of room on the label for information regarding what to take, dosage amount and time, what the ingredients are, etc. Labels can include all of this as well as expiration dates, lot numbers, sourcing information, and government-required data for anything from food to medicine to chemicals.
  5. Packages (and their labels) can help to ensure safety. For instance, if tamper resistant devices have been added (either physical barriers or notations with security ink), you will know whether to discard medicine or food that may have become compromised. Security inks used for custom printing can also indicate that the items in a package are authentic and not counterfeit (a specific medication, for example).
  6. Portion control. Packaging helps you contain a specific amount of a product: something as simple as a packet of salt or sugar, for instance. Or, more critically, packaging can contain a precise, single dose of a medication.
  7. Marketing and branding. With all of the images that accost us on a daily basis, it has become essential for companies to set themselves (and their products) apart from all competitors. Labels, shrink-sleeves, flexible packaging, corrugated board, and folding cartons, to name a few, all sell not only the product but also the manufacturer. Using color and type, a manufacturer has to inspire your confidence that you’re buying the exact product you want and need. Plus, you have to trust that the contents are safe and timely: exactly as you expect them to be. For a bottle and custom label, that’s awe-inspiring power.

Commercial Printing: Epson’s Label Printing Presses

Monday, July 2nd, 2018

I receive a lot of promotional mail from Epson, the maker of inkjet printers. Over the years I have consistently checked the box on the return mailer asking for samples. I can’t tell you how much I have learned from studying these samples close up with my loupe as well as reading the accompanying sales literature.

Yesterday I received two boxes of samples and data sheets, so I was in heaven. This is what I learned about the state of inkjet label printing from one vendor: Epson.

Points of Information (Noted in Epson’s Literature)

    1. One of the brochures referenced the Sure Press L-6034VW and L-6034V. These are Epson inkjet label presses that use LED UV-curing ink. What this means is that exposure to UV light “dries” the ink on the substrate instantly.


    1. Being able to dry ink instantly—instead of through evaporation, absorption, or oxidation—means printers can print on almost any substrate. The base material does not have to be porous because the cured ink will adhere completely to the surface of the substrate (rather than seep into the fibers).


    1. For label printing, it is therefore possible to print on clear and metallic films. Prior to the use of UV inks for labeling, a printer would use a flexographic press to print on such thin films (such as shrink sleeves or the plastic packaging in which loaves of bread are wrapped). Flexography is a relief printing process that uses rubber plates with raised type and images to print directly on labels and other packaging materials. Now, digital commercial printing via inkjet technology is a viable alternative for shorter or versioned press runs.


    1. Since Epson’s process uses LED UV light to cure the ink, the bulbs produce significantly less heat than conventional UV curing lamps. This means the UV curing bulbs last longer, and they don’t require extra air conditioning to compensate for the excessive heat that prior generations of UV curing bulbs generated.


    1. Instant curing of the inkjet inks means that no VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are released into the atmosphere.


    1. Because these inkjet label presses use LED-curing inks, the paper substrate does not need to be precoated (as with many other inkjet presses). This also means that off-the-shelf papers and films can be used (rather than substrates specifically created for inkjet commercial printing). This opens up the range of printable label surfaces considerably. It also allows for custom printing on heat-sensitive films and metallics.


    1. Epson’s proprietary inkjet technology reduces the spread, or scatter, of the ink particles. This allows for more precise placement of inkjet dots and therefore for crisper type, thin lines, and precise barcodes, even at smaller sizes.


    1. Epson has added a background white ink treatment to the inkset, which helps make the barcodes and small type especially legible, even on clear film labels.


    1. In addition to the white ink, Epson includes the usual process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink). Moreover, Epson also includes both matte and gloss spot varnishes. Strategic placement of these gloss and matte coatings can create interesting contrasts and also highlight specific type or imagery.


    1. Epson’s LED UV inks have a strong surface when cured, and this increases their rub resistance. It also makes them durable when exposed to weather or chemicals. Therefore, labels printed on Epson’s label presses are ideal for outdoor use.


  1. The drum used in these Epson printers feeds the paper or film with a high degree of precision, maintaining the evenness of the color and also holding the dimensional stability of the substrate. (That is, the paper or film does not stretch, expand, or shrink, so conventional flexographic substrates can be used for the labels.)

But What Does All of This Mean?

First of all, these are just synopses of specs for two of Epson’s label printers. There were four more of these spec sheets in the two packages I received. Epson is putting a lot of resources into this specific printing arena.

Why? Based on my reading elsewhere, it seems that labels, folding cartons, flexible packaging, corrugated cartons, fabric printing, and large format print signage are some of the hottest venues within the commercial printing arena. And with more and more products on retail shelves, labels are of increasing importance to marketing.

Moreover, with a focus in the marketplace on quick turn-arounds, smaller press runs, versioning, and personalization, digital commercial printing is ideal for contemporary marketers who need labels. And being able to offer an alternative to flexography for these shorter runs is ideal, particularly since flexographic substrates can be used on the digital equipment.

All of this would not be relevant if the quality of the custom printing were not spectacular. Today’s versions of this technology can even surpass the color gamut of traditional offset lithography, particularly with the use of expanded ink sets. I was particularly impressed with the samples Epson sent me. The colors were brilliant, and the imagery was crisp. I was particularly pleased to see this level of quality produced on substrates ranging from clear film to paper.

How This Relates to You

If you design printed products (as opposed to websites), it behooves you to know where to find more work. As noted before, people who can design labels, folding cartons, flexible packaging, corrugated cartons, fabric printing art, and large format print signage are in demand. Understanding the relevant technology will help you immeasurably.

Also, this is a particularly good arena in which to express your commitment to the health of the environment, since the technology has a much lower environmental impact than traditional commercial printing methods. After all, none of the chemicals used in offset lithography and flexography are needed, and the new LED UV-curing lamps use very little energy.

If you’re not a designer, this is still a good area for you to consider, for everything from copywriting to sales to commercial printing and finishing work. In short, label printing is vital to commerce. That’s why Epson has established such a strong foothold.

Commercial Printing: Digitally Textured Label Printing

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

I just read an article on about textured inks used for package printing. I thought about the times I had picked up books at thrift stores and had been initially attracted not to their content but to the feel of the cover (or more specifically the texture of the coating). I’m especially fond of artfully printed and bound, dull film laminated books. I like the matte feel.

So when I read the article on entitled “Tactile Labels Use Textured Inks to Put Consumers in Direct Touch with Packaging” (by Rick Lingle in Labels, 10/03/16), I was pleased to see that other people also considered the texture of packaging to be a powerful selling point.

Adding Texture Digitally

According to Lingle’s article, “Consumers don’t just use their eyes when making purchasing decisions—they use the sense of touch as well. Research has shown that a brand’s impact increases by 30% when more than one sense is engaged in the packaging design.”

I found this both enlightening and also exciting, since I know that custom labels/packaging is one of the fastest growing sectors of the commercial printing industry.

“Tactile Labels Use Textured Inks to Put Consumers in Direct Touch with Packaging” then goes on to describe a roll-to-roll digital label press manufactured by Domino called the N610i digital UV inkjet label press. Lingle notes that “Textures by Domino,” a unique inkjet capability of the Domino N610i digital UV inkjet label press, allows label printers to produce visually striking, digitally textured labels that enhance shelf presence and make brand owners’ products stand out from the crowd.”

Lingle then goes on to suggest that such a press is particularly well suited to labels for wine and beer, as well as cosmetics and other beauty items because textured labels provide “high visual and ‘feel appeal’ that also help to maximize customer engagement.”

This is powerful stuff. The most relevant part is the assertion (and supporting research) that targeting multiple senses with marketing materials (including custom labels and other packaging) will increase sales.

Lingle’s article notes that “The textured-printed labels not only capture consumer attention, but more importantly encourage them to take the product off the shelf.” Why? Because it feels good in the buyer’s hands.

Moreover, this process is economical. Because the Domino press is printing textured inks onto labels, printers don’t need to stock expensive, textured press sheets.

For instance, as Lingle says, you could create a grainy-feeling label for a beer bottle that suggests the earthy qualities of the product, or you could simulate expensive textured papers digitally when producing high-end wine labels, thus appealing to a premium market.

Some Benefits of the Process

Here are my thoughts on some of the benefits provided by the “Textures by Domino” process on the Domino N610i digital UV inkjet label press:

  1. First of all, labels and packaging are serious growth engines for the commercial printing industry at the present moment. So the manufacturer’s commitment to textural enhancements that drive sales is noteworthy. It underlines the fact that custom labels are effective sales tools and are therefore highly in demand.
  2. Anything that can be simulated digitally (like the digital foiling of Scodix or digital die cutting) can avoid costly and time consuming metal die making. In addition, marketers are finding short, targeted print runs to be quite effective, particularly if they allow for personalization. For short to medium runs, this approach can be very cost effective. It can also get a product to market more quickly, because you don’t have to wait for the dies to be made. In the realm of custom labels, if texture sells and if texture can be digitally simulated, the equipment that can do this task will be in great demand.
  3. The Domino N610i digital UV inkjet label press uses UV inks, by its very design. Although the article does not tout this benefit (except to say that you can print on synthetics), UV curing can allow for inkjet printing on a variety of non-porous substrates (like clear plastic labels, for instance). Furthermore, since the process uses UV light to cure the inks, no drying time is needed. UV ink drying (or curing) is instantaneous, so all subsequent finishing steps can occur without delay.
  4. For beauty product packaging this can be particularly useful and economical. Instead of using foil stamping to add various textures to the base substrate (playing one texture off another), the Domino N610i digital UV inkjet label press can simulate the textures right on the labels (and, as noted above, without the time or expense of die making).
  5. Since the process is digital, the Domino N610i digital UV inkjet label press can immediately change from creating one textured surface for a set of labels to creating an entirely different textured effect for another set of labels—presumably ad infinitum.

Commercial Printing: How CD Labels Are Printed

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

I just bought a CD at a thrift store, and I was struck by the beautiful artwork printed on the face of the disk. So I wondered how it had been printed. Then I pulled out a number of my CDs and noticed that some were printed differently from others. Unsure of what the options were, I went online and did some research. This is what I found.

Screen Printed CDs

CDs decorated with custom screen printing have a thick surface of ink. The ink has texture and gives an opulent sense to the product. Unfortunately, the surface of a CD has a number of different sections. Printing even the thick silkscreen inks directly over these three distinct portions (the regular surface, mirror band, and stacking ring of the CD) would produce an image with visible shifts from section to section. Therefore, laying down an initial background of white ink is preferable. The white is opaque, so it evens out the differences in the various “rings” of the CD.

In addition, the white ink also lightens colors printed over this background (since some custom screen printing inks are translucent). This avoids any dulling effect that might otherwise occur, since the unprinted, mirrored surface of the CD has a bit of a grayish tone (i.e., it is not pure white).

Halftones can be printed on CDs along with type and solid areas of ink. Many custom screen printing shops use lower frequency screens due to the thickness of the screen printing inks (such as a 100 lpi halftone screen). Because of this, fine detail in halftones can be lost. Therefore, it is wise to consider this limitation when choosing images for a CD label.

Some print shops, however, can print up to 200 lpi screens, which are more suited to the detail of full-color CMYK images.

Another thing to consider is the range of tones that can be captured on a screen printed CD. Unlike offset printing on paper, which may be able to hold detail from a 2 percent dot in the highlights to 90 percent dot in the shadows, a screen printed image may only have a tonal range of 15 percent to 85 percent. (Below 15 percent, the image would not print; above 85 percent, it would be solid ink.)

Finally, it’s wise to avoid gradations (also known as blends, which transition gradually from a lower to higher ink percentage). Since gradations are produced with halftone dots, since dot gain is a problem in custom screen printing, and since the photographic transfer of a gradation from film to the printing screen is not precise, there can be visible tonal jumps that show up as banding in screen printed gradations.

Even with all these caveats, screen printing is still ideal for longer runs of CD labels. The set up charge is higher than with digital printing (inkjet), but a long run will yield a much lower per-unit cost than will digital printing. In addition, the ink is thick and lush. I personally prefer the look. However, it does require forethought and the avoidance of certain problematic design elements.

Inkjet Printed Labels Affixed to CDs

I have seen labels that can be printed on inkjet printers, then peeled off a backing sheet (like a Crack’N Peel label) and affixed to the CD surface. This looks like an easy solution, but the labels do peel off the CDs occasionally and may damage the CD player (or computer optical drive). The main benefit I can see in adhesive labels for CDs, though, is the white background. As with screen printed CDs that have a white layer laid down beneath the colored ink, the white background of the paper CD labels does provide a bright, even ground for the inkjet inks.

Unlike screen printed CD labels, which require so much set-up work as to only be practical for very long runs, an adhesive label printed via inkjet technology can have a press run of a single CD label, and you can do the printing at home on your own inkjet printer.

Inkjet Printed CDs (Direct to CD)

Fortunately, inkjet printing has evolved over the years, and a number of inkjet printers now can print directly on the surface of a CD. The benefit of this process is that the label cannot peel up and damage the CD player or computer optical drive. The overall effect is also more aesthetically pleasing than a separate inkjet label (i.e., it avoids having a second layer).

If you look online, you will see images of inkjet printers with CD trays that can hold one, or even six or eight (or more) CDs in position for inkjet printing. These trays can be fed through small tabletop inkjet printers or larger commercial inkjet presses. In this way the CDs can be held in place and protected during the custom printing process.

Based on my research, it looks like the pretreated CDs for direct imaging have a layer of white (like gesso on a primed canvas board or stretched canvas). As noted in the description of the custom screen printing process, this white ground will both brighten the resulting inkjet image and also make it appear more consistent across the surface of the CD.

Unfortunately, due to the thinner consistency of inkjet inks, the printed image will not have the same thick, tactile feel as a screen printed product. However, it will allow you to print only a few (or a short run of) CDs with labels, since digital inkjet printing requires only minimal set-up time compared to custom screen printing.

Holograms vs. Lenticular Prints: Labels, Stickers, Decals, and Pressure Sensitive Products

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

What is a hologram and what is a lenticular print? How can you distinguish between the two, and when is it appropriate to print one vs. the other?


Holograms are produced with special lasers. They are also best seen under special lighting conditions. Without illumination with lasers or precisely directed lights, they can appear a bit colorless. However, under the proper conditions, they can be dramatic, presenting on a two-dimensional surface a precise rendition of a three-dimensional scene (without the need for special 3D glasses). As you move around and look at holograms from different directions, you can see the objects within the images from different perspectives, as though you were actually walking around physical objects.

Interestingly enough, if you tear a hologram into ten or twenty pieces, you will still have a complete image within each fragment of the original hologram.

Holograms Used in Printing

I have actually seen holograms used in labels, stickers, decals, and pressure sensitive products. However, if you look at your driver’s license or your credit cards, you may also see what looks like transparent foil reflecting a rainbow of colors. My driver’s license, for instance, has “MVA” (Maryland Vehicle Association) printed across the front of the license numerous times. You can only see it under bright light, and then it takes on a multicolored appearance.

These holograms are specifically used to thwart forgery and tampering (or at least to make any tampering or alteration evident). They’re also used on software packages, banknotes, passports, stock certificates, and anywhere else that identity theft or the theft of intellectual or financial property might occur. In recent years traditional offset, as well as flexographic and even digital, printers have become versed in this custom printing technology.

And, of course, holographic printing can be used in the production of labels, stickers, decals, and pressure sensitive products as well.

Lenticular Printing

Perhaps a more appropriate method for reproducing moving images is lenticular printing, which may also be used in printing labels, stickers, decals, and pressure sensitive products.

In lenticular printing, digital files are specially prepared and printed onto lens material (plastic composed of “lenticules” or special lenses). Essentially your commercial printing vendor prints a different image (of a series of two or three images) in an interlaced pattern on the lens material such that when you move the plastic, you will see movement or depth (i.e., background, middleground, and foreground) within the image.

If your lenticular print will be displayed on a wall (as a poster or back-lit image), the lenticules will be printed such that a side to side movement will show the moving image. This way, when you walk past the sign, you will see the image change. In contrast, if your lenticular print will be hand held (attached to a postcard or brochure), the movement will be triggered with an up and down motion (rather than a side to side movement) of the lenticular print.

Think of a lenticular print as a high-tech “flip book”: that is, a series of similar drawings on consecutive sheets of paper. When the edge of the pages are flipped, the image seems to move. The more images in the book, the more dramatic the movement will be. So by including a series of progressive images reflecting small increments of movement, you can actually simulate motion within the lenticular print.

Lenticular prints are produced on a traditional four-color offset press and are therefore ideally suited to printing postcards and labels, stickers, decals, and pressure sensitive products. They are also quite durable. You can even send a lenticular postcard through the mail (i.e., without an envelope) and not damage the image.

Similarities and Differences Between Holograms and Lenticular Printing

So, in short, both holograms and lenticular prints can show movement and depth. Holograms need special lighting to be perceived in all their glorious detail and color. However, they’re great for security documents to prevent forgery or tampering. In contrast, lenticular prints are durable and need no special lighting to reflect their movement or depth.

Custom Label Printing Options

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Custom label printing is sexy. No, really. Here are two quotes from (from “Resilience Shown by Label Industry As Positive Signs Predict Growth in 2012-2013”):

“There are few industries which are showing positive signs of growth and the label industry is one of them. With a 2.5 percent growth predicted for 2012-2013, the American label sector is continuing to thrive due to constant innovation and methods to improve quality and quantity with reduced costs.”

“The newspaper printing business might be going down due to readers following more technological advances, but due to a huge food and beverage market in the United States, label printing continues to drive the economy.”

Bottom line? Businesses need labels to market their services and products and to operate their facilities. And labels are physical, printed objects that can’t exist exclusively on a tablet or smartphone.

I think this is exciting, and I think it’s supported by the dynamic growth in digital printing. While flexography and screen printing had been the technologies of choice in prior years, new digital presses (both inkjet and laser) can now print one label, or thousands of labels, while adding variable data information to each item, without the set-up charges of the older printing methods. Infinitely variable digital die cutting can even bypass the expensive step of creating metal dies to cut the exterior border of the custom labels.

And should the job require a long run without variable data, flexography and custom screen printing are still viable options and can potentially be more cost-effective than digital printing.

A Plethora of Options for Custom Labels

Here’s a short list of some of the label products available:

Property Identification Labels: These identify equipment, furniture, and other business assets. They can be numbered or barcoded sequentially, and they can be printed on plastic or metal foil substrates.

Bumper Stickers: These are actually custom labels as well. You can buy bumper stickers on a more durable, weather-resistant vinyl material, rather than on paper, and you can even laminate them for increased protection.

Dome Labels: These are custom labels with a raised polyurethane dome over each label. The dome gives a 3D appearance to the artwork on the label.

RFID Labels: These require an integrated system of labels, “readers,” and software, but they allow wireless transfer of data (without physical contact) using radio-frequency electromagnetic fields.

Wine Labels: With or without metallic foil treatments, these custom labels are unique in their requirements. The adhesive must stick to cold, wet bottles, and the ink cannot bleed or smear.

Food Labels: Similar to custom bottle labels, these must not contaminate the food within the packaging, so issues of toxicity must be carefully considered and controlled.

Window Decals: These include adhesive labels and static cling labels (which attach to windows and mirrors with only a static charge and no adhesive). Window decals must not degrade when exposed to sunlight and moisture, so color-fastness of inks and durability of substrates are a consideration.

Tamper-proof Security Labels: Some of these custom labels include holograms. Their goal is to deter tampering or even to self-destruct when an attempt is made to remove the labels.

Some Things to Consider When Specifying Labels

  1. Label Shape (round, oblong, rectangular, or rectangular with rounded corners). A good way to save money is to choose standard shapes and sizes using pre-made, rather than custom made, dies. Or ask your commercial printing supplier about laser die cutting.
  2. Label Ink Colors (one-color, two-color, process color). Some vendors will offer a limited color palette but will provide any PMS color for a surcharge. Ask about the printing method: screen printing, flexography, or digital printing.
  3. Material (plastic or metal foil). Think about durability. Will the labels be used outside, in heat or in cold?
  4. Special Finishing Treatment (embossing, die cutting). Do you want a special treatment for a seal used on a certificate, for instance?
  5. Numbering of Labels (consecutive, random, with added barcodes). Accuracy in numbering is crucial, so make sure your vendor can handle this aspect of printing.
  6. Adhesive (removable, permanent). Some labels will even stick to metal engines or cold, wet wine bottles.
  7. Presentation (rolls, sheets, fan-fold sheets). Think about how the custom labels will be applied. Any kind of automated application equipment may require a particular presentation of labels on a roll or sheet.
  8. Intended Use (inside, outside, in extreme temperature conditions). This pertains to the adhesive, the substrate, and potentially the coating (such as a laminate).

As with any printed product, ask for samples and test them. Talk with your commercial printing vendor about the intended use and ambient conditions, as well as the presentation of any variable-data information. Labels need to be functional first and attractive second.

Sticker Printing: Any Size, Color, or Shape

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

I just saw a video made by a custom printing vendor I work with in my print brokering business providing an education in the new realities of die cutting. The equipment showcased in the video is the Mimaki integrated inkjet printer and cutter. (I’m sure that many other printers have similar equipment, so you may want to ask your print provider, if this technology seems appropriate for your work.)

Printing and Die Cutting: The Old Way

To provide some background on die cutting, let’s jump back a bit to discuss how this process used to be done (and continues to be done in many cases). You will see that it is a time and labor consuming process, in contrast to what the Mimaki equipment can do.

First the product (let’s say a custom sticker) is printed on an offset or digital commercial printing press. Then on a separate rotary or flatbed press, a steel cutting rule (inlaid into a wood block to make sure it doesn’t move) in the shape of the custom sticker is pressed forcefully against the press sheet by the action of the press. The sharp edge of the die then cuts through the paper. The surrounding paper (scrap) is held to the press sheet by thin bits of paper (pins) that have not been cut. This keeps the die cut item from falling out of the surrounding paper and into the press. Finally, the paper surrounding the die cut element is pulled away (scrapped) and discarded.

A good analogy to help you visualize this process is a cookie cutter. You press a cookie cutter into the uncooked dough and then peel away everything that’s not the cookie.

What makes die cutting expensive is twofold. First, there’s the cost of the metal die ($450 and higher, in my experience). Then there’s the die cutting process itself, which most commercial printing vendors do not do in-house. (Outsourcing the die cutting work adds time to the schedule and also increases the cost.)

Printing and Die Cutting: The New Way

Custom printing vendors with integrated inkjet printers and label cutters can make labels any size, color, or shape.

First, the large-format inkjet equipment prints the 4-color labels. Then, as the Mimaki equipment shifts the paper back and forth, a knife blade (like the pen of a plotter) moves around the contoured perimeter of each label, trimming through the coated label paper but not through the underlying label backing (this is called “kiss-cutting”). Finally, the user can peel the label away from the backing.

In contrast to traditional die cutting, the Mimaki integrated inkjet printer and label cutter requires no metal die and no separate rotary or cylinder press. Of course this lowers the overall cost of die cutting, as well as the time required to die cut the labels. It’s a much simpler operation, one that depends on digital information to position and move the label cutting knife around the press sheet (and also move the paper back and forth as needed).

What Does This Mean to You, as a Print Buyer or Designer?

You can have more flexibility in creating personalized wine labels, medical labels, custom stickers, etc. You can even create individual prototypes for product packaging, or you can create mock-ups of other items that require die cutting, folding, and gluing.

An Even Newer Way

There’s one more way to die cut using digital information: laser die cutting. In this case, the custom printing supplier would use even newer equipment with a laser instead of a digitally manipulated cutting knife. After the inkjet printing, the laser would burn through the paper substrate instead of cutting it.

Commercial Printing: Advances in Product Packaging

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

In a world where offset and digital custom printing are struggling for a place among digital-only communications media—such as e-books, Yelp, and Facebook–product packaging work is actually growing.

Advances in Digital Packaging Presses

Until recently, the main focus of digital custom printing within the packaging arena had been custom labels. For flexible packaging beyond custom label printing, the options included offset printing and flexography. However, this has started to change.

The drupa commercial printing trade show highlighted the HP Indigo 10000 (a B2 press, accepting sheet sizes up to 29.5” x 20.9”) that will be ideal for the folding carton and flexible packaging market.

Why is this such good news:

  1. The ability of the press to accept a 29.5″ x 20.9” press sheet allows operators to either produce larger printed products or impose more units on a press sheet. Prior iterations of the Indigo had accepted press sheets closer to 12” x 18”. Accommodating larger press sheets will allow HP Indigo to potentially compete head to head against sheetfed offset presses.
  2. Sustainability of both product and packaging is a deciding factor for many people when purchasing consumer goods. The ability to produce more environmentally sound packaging via digital custom printing is a major selling point, particularly in terms of the waste reduction and productivity enhancing qualities of digital printing.
  3. Mass customization of data and images has become essential as well. The new, larger-format digital presses allow for combining packaging with variable data coupons, tickets, and surveys, thus integrating dialogue marketing with product packaging work.
  4. The variable data capabilities of digital presses such as the HP Indigo 10000 allow commercial printing vendors to add individual barcodes or QR codes to packaging. This helps in tracking individual products, coding and controlling inventory, and identifying counterfeit products.


Advances in Offset Lithography

KBA, Rapida,Heidelberg—these are the heavy hitters in offset custom printing, and these companies have been expanding their offset printing options for product packaging, as evidenced at drupa and elsewhere.

For instance, one particular press, the Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105-8+LLYLX3 offers eight printing units and coating units, as well as UV-ink printing capabilities. It allows for in-line printed dull and gloss varnish effects, and the use of opaque white, metallic inks, and substrates such as aluminum coated cardboard.

Why is this such good news:

  1. As with other commercial printing arenas, packaging faces cost, quality, and turn-around pressures. Being able to print multiple design effects in-line speeds up the manufacturing process and controls costs. Increasingly, such eye-catching effects as printing on metallic foils can be produced efficiently, allowing packaging to really stand out on store shelves.
  2. Press automation improves make-ready times, reduces waste, and improves overall efficiency. For instance, the Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105-8+LLYLX3 includes automated pile changing at the feeder and delivery ends of the press. It is increasingly possible to provide eye-catching packaging faster and more economically.
  3. Many of these packaging presses are hybrid, including both offset and inkjet capabilities. This means that variable data can be added during the press run rather than in a separate pass. Printers can use such capabilities for adding QR codes, barcodes, and other variable data, or for error detection.
  4. Closed loop, electric eye devices constantly monitor the color density on press, making adjustments as needed to match preset color data. This leads to faster throughput and less waste, as well as improved color fidelity.
  5. Presses such as the KBA Rapida include automated process synchronization. For instance, 41” Rapida presses can change plates automatically while the press automatically washes blankets, cylinders, and rollers. Again, speed translates into cost-savings and improved turn-around times.
  6. The production of flexible packaging consumes vast amounts of power due to long press runs and high heat requirements (the ovens for drying ink on web presses, for instance). With energy-reduction in mind, KBA has developed VariDryBLUE, which captures heat from the initial drying units and reuses it for subsequent drying processes, reducing heat, saving energy, and lowering carbon emissions.


Product packaging seems to be immune from the encroachment of digital-only media. That said, digital technology has been instrumental in improving the speed, quality, cost, and environmental impact of this custom printing work.

Custom Printing Is Alive and Well in Ocean City

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

On a recent trip to Ocean City I made it a point to determine exactly what kind of custom printing market existed. I wanted to expand my print brokering reach into this Maryland city, and I was doing some market research. I was able to enter the environment as an objective observer and identify what was, and what was not, being printed and to see how this reflected the characteristics of the audience, the visitors to this ocean resort town.

In spite of the reading I had done over the past few years on the death of newspaper, magazine, and book printing, I decidedly did not see a scarcity of business printing products on my trip to the beach.

Tabloids Aimed at Niche Markets

Most major newspapers have been challenged recently, but in Ocean City I found a plethora of smaller tabloids. Most pertained to real estate (many people want to retire to Ocean City), the elderly (since those who retire to the beach are usually older), beach activities (understandably), entertainment (music and the visual arts), and conventions (since Ocean City, as a beach resort, is an attractive venue for meetings).

I found it enlightening to see that custom printing of smaller newsprint publications targeted to niche markets seemed to be thriving (at least in this one geographical location), even though larger broadsheets aimed at a more general audience (perhaps an entire city) were challenged by the Internet back here in the Washington, DC, area.

That said, upon my return to the DC area, I noticed a number of Spanish and Asian tabloids, again reinforcing my belief that it was not all newsprint publications, but rather the generalized, large-format broadsheet newspapers, that faced the most intense competition from the Internet.

Large Format Printing (and Small Format Printing) along the Beach Roads and in Grocery Stores

Wherever I went in Ocean City I saw large format printing. Ocean City is all about visual competition, with each shop vying with all the others for your attention. Making signs stand out is the first step toward a sale in Ocean City. Up and down the main road I also saw feather flags and other digitally printed signs flapping in the ocean breeze.

In the grocery stores I also saw an expansion of printed signage. Shopping carts had tiny printed signs molded into their plastic handles. There was also the ever-present point-of-purchase display: the cardboard cut-out with food of some sort stacked on its trays (a marriage of offset and flexographic printing). And there were shelf talkers, little signs attached to the grocery store shelves advertising the food.

New Technology Coexists with Custom Printing

Two examples of the newer technology stood out for me. I had not been to Ocean City in a while, so I was more aware of the changes since my last trip.

I saw more variable data electronic signage. Exterior LED (light emitting diode) signs grabbed the attention, reminding me of Las Vegas. These images moved, while other signs were static.

In the department stores I saw two new fixtures: digital kiosks and indoor digital signage (LCDs, or liquid crystal displays, like televisions playing silent ads over and over). What I didn’t see was any less printed signage. Marketing wall-graphics (large format printing) and custom labels on the clothing attested to the life still in “ink on paper.” Variable-data electronic media and custom printing coexisted in the same stores.

Try This Yourself

You may find such an excursion useful as you collect ideas for new marketing campaigns, or perhaps as you determine the correct mix of custom printing and digital media for your business or clients. Try to focus objectively on the use of business printing (offset, digital, large-format, and flexography) and its integration with the newer interactive technology. Think about the audience for the newspapers, advertisements, and signage, and even the restaurant menus. How do these various media images coalesce to “sell” the experience of a particular location?

It could be an enlightening experience.

Custom Label Printing: Inkjet Technology Provides Accurate, Durable Labels

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Digital printing is making inroads everywhere, and custom label printing is no exception. Not long ago, if you wanted to print custom labels, your best option was to look for printing companies offering flexography (printing with inked, rubber relief plates). Issues to consider included ink rub resistance, and how to imprint individual barcodes or sequential numbering on the labels. Digital printing is an ideal solution, given these requirements, although not all printing companies have this technology yet.

Epson has recently developed the SurePress short-run digital custom label press. Here are some of the specifications for the press. I will follow up with an explanation of how they will benefit you.

Custom label press specifications

The Epson SurePress, which is clearly just one of the first of an upcoming line of short-run custom label presses, will print on a range of substrates up to 12.6 mm thick and 80 to 330 mm wide. The substrate will not need to be precoated to accept the water-based, pigmented inkjet ink.

Substrates will include coated and uncoated label paper as well as film, and the press will switch automatically between the two black inks (regular or matte) depending on the substrate.

The six-color ink set for this digital press includes orange and green as well as the four subtractive primary colors used in custom printing: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. This allows for a wide color gamut, which is essential in reproducing corporate identity colors in logos.

In addition, the patented print heads allow for both rapid print speeds and detailed imaging, including fine graduated screening.

Specialty inks ensure the durability and brilliant color of the custom printed labels.

According to company information on the press, the new Epson SurePress AQ Inks are pigment based and resin coated, allowing for quick drying and strong adhesion to the coated, uncoated, and film label base. Heating units that vaporize the ink solvent reduce the drying time and therefore improve productivity.

What benefits does this new custom label press offer?

Unlike a brochure or annual report, a label is primarily functional. It needs to be readable, accurate, and durable. This involves the following characteristics:

  • Water-Fastness: The label needs to be usable regardless of exposure to varied temperatures or moisture. Think about custom bottle labels. Wine bottles that are chilled and then brought to room temperature will produce water condensation on the surface of the glass. If the ink is not water fast, it will run, and if the adhesive is not water fast, the labels will fall off the bottles.
  • Rub Resistance: Industrial labels need to be printed with an ink that won’t rub off. The resin inks and the drying process of the Epson label press ensure good rub resistance.
  • Accurate Color: Many labels include corporate logos. Corporate colors are often difficult for printing companies to match with a standard C,M,Y,K ink set. Adding orange and green to the inkset dramatically expands the number of colors the custom label press can accurately match.
  • Detail Work: Labels often include bar codes and small type. If the barcodes are not crisp, they will cause errors in the bar code readers. The precision of the output provided by the Epson printheads ensures readable bar codes and small type.

If you need short-run labels, start researching this Epson press. Most business printing services will not yet own one. It is very specialized and new. However, representatives of the printing services you trust may be able to point you in the right direction.


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