The printing trade calculation used to be so easy: the longer the print run - the better the price. But this model is being used less and less often - particularly when it comes to printing labels. Of course, major print runs will continue to exist, but a significant change in market needs has led to a range of products that are increasingly tailored to specific needs; consequently the label that displays a product’s name and number, code and branding must also be individually tailored. Online retailing has created a new market which simply did not exist previously. These new customers expect a visually attractive product, produced in low numbers and delivered fast. In other words: the number of varieties is rapidly increasing, while at the same time print-runs are getting shorter. Thus, label printers face the challenge of having to produce a higher number of different labels in much shorter print runs, without adding to the cost.

In order to be able to deal with such jobs cost-efficiently and profitably, label printers need to tighten up on costs. Each step - planning, set up and print run - adds to the overall cost of the job.  Also, the shorter the run, the higher the overhead is for that particular job. So where is the value-add that label processors can produce for small runs? Since none of the steps can be eliminated, what can make a difference is an automated process for each of them.  New developments in automation can improve the overall workflow, assist in cost-reduction and actually enable new services.

Automation - the magic word

An online printing solution (ideally incorporated into an overall MIS business) can automate the production process, while making it more efficient. Many label printers have already recognized that adding digital printing to traditional printing methods helps ensure that their business models continue to thrive. Likewise, many printers are including an online label printing job option on their websites. But that’s only the beginning.

This is the point where an innovative online printing solution makes label printing more efficient by combining the capabilities of the Internet with digital production techniques. The solution starts with a website interface where the print jobs and their specifications are collected and assigned. The next two components on the workflow chain are represented by a digital front-end which uses the job data to control a sophisticated digital printer and software. Using these two features allows a printer to use the imposed labels to generate the profiles for the subsequent cutting contour onto a laser cutting system. These profiles are often referred to literally as “digital punch profiles.” Finally, a digital label printer prints the labels in whatever format, shape and quantity are required onto a wide variety of self-adhesive materials. A digitally controlled laser cutting system then finishes the production process. The labels are ready for delivery.

Web-based production environment

No modern narrow web printer can afford to pass up on printing labels in short runs with quick delivery. Global brand owners are the frontrunners here and have been selling many different versions of their products for years.  Smaller regional suppliers are following this trend and are expanding their market presence with a wide-ranging variety of products. One-man shops, start-ups and even private individuals require short runs - maybe an enterprising amateur cook wants to market home-made jams or perhaps home-brewed beer. They each need their own, high quality, specific labels, professionally produced and in short runs.

From order to printing press

Once preliminary information-gathering for a print job has been completed, the uploaded and approved labels are sorted by size and material and then sent, automatically to the front-end. This is where the new production job is automatically saved. Then the printer confirms and finalizes the order with the customer.

Then each individual label is “ripped” (copied) and a printable bitmap file is generated for every label. All the labels are now imposed onto a previously determined imposition layout. The aim is to organize the labels optimally, based on the material, to minimize substrate waste. Finally the print job is transmitted to a digital printing press which prints the labels.

Custom-made cutting contour

With specialized software, printers can bridge any gaps that still exist between digital printing and digital finishing. The software calculates the cutting contour for each label. At the edge of the print roll a barcode is printed alongside every row of labels. This 2D barcode is the key element that is automatically added to every layout of every print job. Not only does it determine the cutting contour; it also sets the cutting paths for the laser cutter. It means that even unusual shapes can be cut accurately. The individual cutting profiles can be stored in separate files and saved in different output formats, such as DXF, SVG and PDF. They are stored on the laser cutter and can be called up when needed.

The major advantage of using digital laser cutters is that digital printing and finishing can now be fully integrated into the workflow. That means that label producers can get the most from changing motifs and formats during both the printing and finishing stages.

Summary: “Think big” for small and individual runs

Label producers are used to major hurdles in making small print runs profitable and efficient.  For printers using online solutions, the combination of customized software, a professional laser cutter and the web-based front desk portal are game-changers.  This complete solution means that label printers have another powerful tool at their disposal. Customer demand for specialization, speed and customization add up to a growing and on-going need for highly automated workflow processes.