Printing Digital Labels

Going digital can produce high-quality, full-color labels at potentially lower cost.
Sep 02, 2007
Volume 31, Issue 9

Although digital printing technology has existed for at least a couple decades, the use of narrow-web digital presses to print labels for pharmaceutical products is a more recent development.

Advantages and innovations

Hallie Forcinio
Conventional printing processes such as flexographic, offset, or rotogravure require a prepress workflow involving preparation of a medium or series of media—one for each color—to create the image that is reproduced on the label material. Digital printing eliminates the need for the film, plates, and cylinders used by conventional presses because the image resides in the computer and outputs directly onto the label film or paper using special inks. Resulting labels are typically finished with a topcoat to enhance gloss and protect the printed surface from damages such as abrasions.

Moving the prepress process into the computer can save hundreds of dollars per stock-keeping unit (SKU) per run and shortens lead time to an average of one to two weeks versus three to four weeks for standard flexographically printed labels. Although the typical lead time for digitally printed labels is fewer than 10 days, overnight or even same-day delivery is possible.

In addition, the deletion of so many of the steps in the process helps eliminate areas for potential quality-related issues. Many pharma manufacturers see digital printing as a way to improve the overall quality of printed packaging.

Digitally printed labels can incorporate serialized 2D barcodes and RFID inlays to address track-and-trace and pedigree requirements.
Shorter lead time makes it possible to deliver labels on-demand and reduce label inventories and storage requirements. It also minimizes, if not totally eliminates, label obsolescence and waste. The shorter turnaround allows drug makers to react more quickly to changes in regulations or market conditions, enabling faster launches into new markets and customization to address the needs of specific patient populations, track-and-trace requirements or counterfeit prevention.

Computer control also ensures high-quality reproduction equivalent to offset printing with precise registration, scannable bar codes, and consistent color label-to-label and run-to-run. In fact, color consistency and registration are improved significantly when compared to conventional print methods. Because the computer-based process relies on electronic data, variable information such as serialized coding is easily included, making the technology ideal for meeting track-and-trace and pedigree requirements.

Digital printing also is compatible with radio frequency identification (RFID) as well as a wide range of security features such as microprinting, color-shifting ink, taggants, watermarks, and two-dimensional barcodes.

Because changeover from printing one label design to printing another is primarily computer-based, it requires minimal cleaning and reconfiguring of the press and generates very little waste, typically not more than 20 ft. of label material. As a result, downtime related to changeover is almost nonexistent, making the computer-to-label digital printing process well suited to the extremely short runs typically required for promotions or prelaunch samples. However, longer runs, up to about 200,000 labels, often are cost effective.

"Depending on label size, the economic target would be runs of 1000 to 200,000," says Joe Tenhagen, vice-president of marketing at Nosco (Gurnee, IL), a printer that specializes in producing labels and other packaging for the pharmaceutical industry. "With this new business solution, production planners can rethink how they order, receive, and manage their brands," he adds.

A mathematical formula—label width × label length × quantity—can help determine whether digital printing is practical for a particular label. Generally, if the answer is between 400 and 600, the job is a good candidate for digital printing, according to Nosco's website. Thus, digitally printed labels are being specified for a growing number of pharmaceutical, biotech, and animal-health products and medical devices where the majority of SKUs fall within this volume range.

Transitions to digital printing

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