Hype Today, Hybrid Label Presses are Coming a Long Way

By Dominique Huret

The digital print production in the narrow web sector continue to grow. Press manufacturers continue to tap into these niches to offer the best of both worlds, flexo and inkjet equipment to label converters. While it is obvious that the combination of print technologies offers them wider flexibility, a lot of options are available on the market. Luckily, there’s something for everyone.

“Across the market, the term hybrid is generally accepted to mean a combination of digital and analogue print technology, with inline converting capabilities. It was conceived as a means of offering the best of roll-to-roll digital print with additional flexo print and finishing units all on one platform for single-pass production,” summarizes Phil Baldwin, sales manager for Mark Andy in the UK & Ireland.

The hybrid presses started with a bad reputation of cutting-edge and not a reliable architecture for label production. The first few days were marked by the presence of a number of suppliers offering brand-new digital presses combined with traditional flexographic conversion equipment. But in the early days, the hybrid press was the result of a collaboration of a flexo press manufacturer in partnership with digital press manufacture, to create a jointly branded hybrid solution, with each adapting its own technology as required. Many followed that trend and were much publicized. Gradually, demand has picked up as label printers witnesses new products, requiring a combined solution.


The initial idea

The concept of “all-in-one” in the printing industry came with a Hewlett Packard desktop printer back in 1997, the HP OfficeJet 1150C. It was referring to a new product category combining Print-Copy-Scan — all-in-one — all in color. This new concept became a major success.

In the graphics industry, this concept is more recent and was initiated with the launch of the BOBST DM5 in 2019, which indeed was a flexo M5 press with a digital module — therefore the name. Since then, BOBST enhanced its concept with the launch of the DM340 and DM510 back in 2022, establishing a new press category fully modular and upgradable where other manufacturers quickly joined.


Mark Andy one of the pioneers

“But essentially you still had two different products from different manufacturers that were not co-developed and whose compatibility relies on adaptation and modification as opposed to a natural synergy. As one of the pioneers of true hybrid solution, Mark Andy developed an in-house solution provided by a single-source supplier. Being forerunner meant that it was an exercise in what could be achieved technologically — like the very early days of commercial digital printing back in the 1990s without real market demand. And so few manufacturers were willing to invest significant sums of money in the R&D required.

“At Mark Andy, we saw things differently. Right at the beginning we carried out some detailed market research on the likely demand for such technology and its performance parameters matched to production costs and potential sales volumes. What became clear to us was that to have the best chance of convincing flexo or digital printers to invest in hybrid technology we needed to develop it from the ground up in-house so that we understood every aspect and could ensure full compatibility between the various print and converting functions,” explains Jean Louis Pecarelo from Atypic France, representing Mark Andy.

One of the pioneers of narrow web technology, Marc Andy had the depth of expertise needed to make it work and worked at developing it into a commercial product not just a demonstration of skills. If the Mark Andy’s Digital Series were initially received with a degree of suspicion because it was an unknown and unproven concept.

“Flexo had been established and developed over many years and digital had been around for two decades, but a combination of the two posed questions of how it could be used by converters and marketed to their customers. But, once we were able to demonstrate its capabilities in terms of quality and flexibility, and faster running speed than a pure digital press, then its appeal became more obvious and those in the narrow web sector with an eye on the future began to see a new opportunity,” says Phil Baldwin. “In the highly competitive narrow web sector, what convinced label printers was the combination of Mark Andy’s proven servo-driven flexo platform and the integrated inkjet engine that set it apart. As well as, the extensive printing and converting capability in a single pass is ideal for label printing for leading brands. Another important bonus, the digital consumables, like ink and toner, as well as the click charge, can all be mitigated against by the hybrid’s combined flexo printing and inline finishing capability,” adds Liz Waters CEO of The Watershed Group.


BOBST expanded on this idea

BOBST has more than 130 years’ experience in the packaging industry with one out of every two corrugated boxes in Europe been in contact with BOBST equipment. But the Swiss company is a new entrant to the inkjet label press market. “Flexo continues to grow but digital and hybrid presses are growing faster. Shorter print runs and customers looking for greater levels of flexibility are driving the growth in digital printing. We see leading converters combining technologies to be more effective in answering customer demand. This trend is here to stay. The combination of technologies has led to the rise of hybrid flexo/inkjet, which is a major trend in the label printing industry.  At BOBST, we believe that the future will be a blend.  We are starting to propose modular presses combining inkjet and flexo printing technologies but as well embellishment and cutting modules – all-in-one and all inline. In addition, hybrid presses offer the opportunity to not only address short runs but as well medium runs very economically.”  explains Patrick Graber Marketing Director of Narrow-Mid-Web at BOBST.

Mid 2021, BOBST acquired 100% of Mouvent, with all the technology it had developed (colour consistency, print quality, productivity and limited maintenance, software, white ink). All this technology was included in a digital printing unit, integrated into a range of digital or All-In-One presses.

“You need the right tool for the right job, and at Bobst we’ve understood that. The MASTER DM340/510 have a modular architecture: a digital press with all-in-one and all-in-line flexo modules. It combines the power of BOBST’s flexo and inkjet technologies in a single workflow for priming, printing, finishing, and die-cutting labels in a single pass with a single operator. The press is configured with fully developed and patented BOBST technology, giving printers a single point of contact who knows both inkjet and flexo,” says Graber.


Italian label printer IBE has a fleet of 13 presses, including 3 BOBSTs and two HP Indigo presses. “We added the MASTER DM5 to our fleet in September 2020. What convinced us? The print quality (1200×1200 dpi) and the digital printing speed of the press (up to 100 m/minute), plus it’s proving very cost-effective for us. Registering in the feed and in the web during makeready and production operations, even between a flexo system and a digital system, are undeniable advantages, while waste is reduced. BOBST’s operating costs (TCO or Total Cost of Ownership) are reasonable with the price of maintenance, inks and materials competitive,” comments Roberto Spreafico, Managing Director of IBE.



Fujifilm opted for inline printbars

At the recent interpack, press manufacturer Fujifilm was showcasing its move to the packaging sector. Fujifilm was exhibiting its extensive portfolio of analogue and digital packaging solutions.

“Printing adds value to packaging. For several years now, we’ve combined our expertise in the latest digital printing technologies with an analogue heritage. Well known on the market now, the Fujifilm’s Samba piezoelectric print bars enable digital inkjet printing to be integrated directly into existing analogue production lines. The X-Bar Powered by Fujifilm Inkjet Technology is a modular solution for adding digital printing in-line with conventional printing or on finishing lines. Imprinting is commonly used for adding variable printed content to a range of applications. The X-BAR provides the print quality of 1200 dpi at printing speeds up to 1,000 feet per minute, which is fast enough to keep pace with some of the fastest analog press lines in web-fed commercial production today. These capabilities are offered with state of the art Fujifilm inkjet technology in print widths including 4- and 9-inches for partial and full page printing,” explains Manuel Schrutt, Fujifilm Packaging Director EMEA.


Reynders Labels Printing

Some converters go for “global hybrid printing workshop”

With about 40 different presses, flexo and digital from all big makers, the Belgian based label printer has a down-to-earth approach: “Our aim is to produce a nice label at an affordable price. The final customer does not care which printing process is used so it is to the label converter to decide how to print with the economic criteria in mind.

“We’re not printing fine art here; we’re providing quality labels at competitive prices with very quick turnarounds to match the growing number of SKUs [stock-keeping units] and declining run lengths. Our printing presses are commercial tools. But of course, removing the need for a Repro Department saves time and money and we can send 95% of jobs straight from the customer through our sales team to the press. But the price of the digital consumables weighs heavily in the balance,” adds Michiel van de Perre key account at Belgium-based Reynders Labels Printing.

Curious minds and converters in need of cutting-edge equipment alike should find what they need at drupa, next June.  No doubt that several new printing presses and probably many All-in-One systems, will be show stoppers.