In-House Printing Provides Multiple Options for Decals and Labels
A Wisconsin company handles critical labels and decals that must be strong, durable, and solvent resistant
A Wisconsin company handles critical labels and decals that must be strong, durable, and solvent resistant
Duratech Industries is a versatile label and decal printer specializing in three different types of printing—screen, flexographic, and digital. The company recently installed a new digital, flat-bed, UV curing, inkjet press—a Swiss QPrint Impala—in its La Crosse, Wisconsin plant. The new press will give the company additional capabilities and efficiencies in the low- to medium-volume production range and will include expanded color matching. In addition, the new machine prints a very high-quality image, and it's much faster than the company's other digital presses.
"The reason we bought this particular press is because most of the digital presses only print CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black)," said Peter Johnson, president of Duratech. "You can't get every color that the customer wants with CMYK. So with this particular press, we got additional ink channels in it for solid orange, green, and violet UV inks. This expanded our color matching gamut significantly. We couldn't get some of the reds with CYMK, but now we can dial them in with the orange. The biggest efficiencies we get are on the low- to medium-volume press runs. So if we had ten colors on a job, and the customer only wanted five or ten pieces, the screen printer might be $1000, but the digital machine would only be about $100. So it's much more competitive and efficient for printing low volumes."
Johnson has learned to combine printing technologies to enhance the company's range of printing capabilities. "One of the things that digital printing is really good at is printing really fine dots and gradients," said Johnson. "It's not as easy to do with screen printing. So what we've done is we've been able to use these fine gradients and fades, but they don't have a lot of opacity to them for solids. So we come back and screen print them to make the solids more opaque, so we can get the benefits of both technologies. I will run part of the job on the Swiss Qprint digital press, and then finish the job on a screen press."
DuraTech), ISO-9001 and TS 16949 certified, produces mostly overlays, labels, nameplates, and appliqués with a variety of printing processes for multiple industries. The company's largest volume of work is screen printing, followed by the flexo process, and then digital printing. "Digital printing has been around for a while, but the speed is increasing and the costs are coming down," noted Johnson. "And the opacity and the color matching is getting much better. It's becoming a very saleable product, a replacement to screen printing. These are flatbed printers with a UV ink jet technology. The UV function cures the inks."
High-performance Materials Give Added Capabilities to Labels
The company's newest digital press, the Impala, can print on heavy materials up to 50 mm. Although the label maker does very little, if any, paper on these machines, it has printed on pieces of wood. However, 99% of what the company prints is on flexible plastics. "Kind of our core, go-to product that we grew up on is a second surface printed, polycarbonate label material," Johnson comments. "The ink is on the backside of the clear material, and then we put 3M transfer tape on it. We buy the roll of adhesive from 3M and we run it through a laminating machine. Then it transfers the adhesive onto the backside of the part with a carrier. After we're done with the part, you have clear plastic on the front, ink sandwiched behind that, and a 3M adhesive liner on the back. A lot of these are high-performance materials."
UV light, Johnson says, is never a friend of clear plastics, so Duratech works with a lot of specialty materials for outdoor applications where scratch resistance and chemical resistance are necessary. "One of the big ones we do is for Thermal King, a company that makes refrigeration units for semi-trailers for large trucks," Johnson affirms. "All of the graphics on the front of the semi-trailer are our graphics. I can't imagine a worse environment than the outdoor temperatures in Alaska. We can get different coatings on top of polyesters or polycarbonate that will prevent yellowing. It just depends on the use of the label."
Having three printing processes in-house gives Duratech a great deal of versatility and flexibility. The digital printing works very well for small runs and prototypes. Duratech is so versatile that its production runs vary from five pieces to hundreds of thousands. "If somebody needs a dozen labels or decals in a fast turnaround, digital is the way to go," says Johnson. "And the cost per unit on low volumes is very competitive. Screen printing works well for medium- to high-volumes, and has better color matching capabilities. The highest volume press we have is the flexographic press. We can do hundreds of thousands of parts per day on that press because it's a web roll process. We can do six colors in line, with UV curing stations between each color. The press is 10 inches wide, so if I have a twelve inch part, we will run it by screen printing. So we do have a lot of flexibility between all of these processes. In screen printing, if we are printing a solid-based black, with one pass, we can get an ink density of five, which is almost completely opaque."
Although Duratech's printing technology is used for a wide variety of industries and applications, the medical industry uses a great deal of the screen printing for its warning and caution decals and labels. "If it's used in the ER of a hospital, it's cleaned with a variety of cleaning agents, so they want to make sure the adhesive doesn't let loose, and that the ink won't be impacted by some of their aggressive cleaning agents," Johnson explains. "A lot of our flexo printing goes to manufacturers. If somebody is building a unit and they want to put variable text on it, for example a serial code, flexo is used. A lot of our flexo is run through a zebra thermal transfer printer. We'll print the customer logo and make the label look cool. Then they'll take our small roll and put it into their zebra printer to print the variable text.
"One of our customers makes scales, so they use it for ID tags," he continued. "The biggest digital application is for foreign language parts because the volumes are typically small. They might only want five pieces after they do large volumes for the English language parts. It's more economical to do small volumes with digital technology."
Johnny Shell, vice president of technical services at the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association in Fairfax, Virginia (www.sgia.org), says that innovation is abundant in the field of label and decal printing in the United States.
"Time to market is a critical factor for brand owners in the major label market sectors: health and beauty, food, beverage, and pharmaceutical," said Shell. "The ability to get a finished product within a short period of time can change the approach to any campaign. Digital labels are addressing an area of the market that is impossible to address with conventional processes. This is an important element in terms of cost factor. The ability of a label converter to produce labels on-demand, in quantities required by the customer, is a huge advantage, especially when compared to conventional printing, where there are stockpiles of labels and the potentially writing off of large quantities of inventory."
Shell explains that digital printing is making great strides with many new technical innovations. "Digital has become competitive and complementary to traditional print processes," he points out. "Quality and speed continue to improve, as does ink chemistry. Digital label printers are highly flexible and can be used in a wide range of applications. Today's digital printers are using the technology in a variety of ways to achieve different performance specifications. Today's manufacturers are bringing well-enabled inkjet printers to market that print full color, many with UV ink, and are delivering impressive results on a wide range of label applications and substrates."
Duratech handles all of the elements of graphic design and layout for a customer's products with a staff of one graphic designer and ten graphic artists. "Part of our design process may be a customer who wants to redesign a label or a label set, maybe to update its look to make it look more high-tech, or whatever their desire is," said Margo Merola, the company's communications and marketing manager. "If they have existing parts or blueprints, they will show us those. We work with their marketing people or engineers to get the look they're looking for. They might say, ‘We really like the look of X, Y, Z companies.' Then we'll make some multiple design concepts and go over them with their staff."
The vast majority of the products the label company manufactures come to it already designed. "Occasionally, Margo will get involved with a customer that doesn't have a design staff or isn't using an outside service," says Johnson. "We have some design capabilities, but typically, our customers will use a design house. We do have a staff of ten artists. Mostly they take someone else's CAD drawings or Adobe Illustrator file and then make it printable."
In-mold Decorating and Thermoforming Enhance Available Options
Duratech also produces a large volume of in-mold decorating (IMD) products, which, Johnson says, are among the company's best-selling products. Duratech, he adds, is one of only about five to ten printers in the United States that do this type of specialized work. "We'll take a clear plastic sheet with our ink printed on the second surface," Johnson explains, "and sometimes we'll thermoform it into a three dimensional shape, and sell that decal to an injection molding company. They'll put our decal into an injection molding tool and then shoot the resin in to make a part. If you do it right, all of the heat and pressure doesn't harm the label. We did a lot of research on which substrates work well for this application. The ink systems are the specialty piece that can handle the high temperatures. And there's some specialized barrier coats that we use that prevent the molten resin from washing away our inks. The appliance industry loves the IMD products."
Duratech's industry with the most customers is medical diagnostic equipment that's found in hospitals and clinics. The decal and label company has to produce excellent printing for them with excellent materials. The raw materials have to be protected against abrasive cleaning solvents, and the correct adhesive has to be applied to make sure it sticks for the long term.
"The second biggest industry that we serve is the household appliance industry, like dishwashers, washer and dryers, stoves, refrigerators, and freezers," says Johnson. "The biggest growing market in the appliance industry is IMD. The majority of our customers are OEMs in special fields, where we might do a logo on a warning or caution label for them. We also do work for the automobile industry, like labels for the heater control panels. The overlay is a second surface printed on a clear material, like a polyester or polycarbonate, with 3M transfer tape on it. It's more functional than decorative. The appliqués are what the automotive customers call an overlay that goes on a heater control piece. It's still second surface printed on a clear material.
"We also make nameplates," he continues. "They can be on plastics or on metals. Typically, it's the company's logo. We do them by screen printing and digital. We can run a thick piece of plastic or metal through the digital machine."
Vendor Managed Inventory Program Streamlines Customer Ordering
A vendor managed inventory program is a key organizational method that Duratech uses to manage inventory and purchases for its customers. "In screen printing, if you're going to quote a five or six color label, the price per part is significantly lower for higher quantities," Johnson said. "It gets lower as the quantities go up. So we've taken advantage of that pricing structure by doing vendor managed inventory programs. We manage thousands of part numbers for our larger accounts. They don't want to place a purchase order every time they purchase a part, so we put these programs together designed for a particular customer for a particular location."
To facilitate product ordering, the company first establishes a contract and a pricing agreement with the customer, and then the products will be run for them and stored in an inventory location that is near the customer. "I have on-site people that will manage their inventory," Johnson points out. "They'll contact us sometimes two to three times per week. When the bins get low, they'll replenish them. The invoicing is done every two weeks or once per month. So the amount of transactions that their buyer has to do are cut down dramatically. It's called the Breadman program because if you look at a grocery store, that's how they operate. The guy that brings in the bread brings the new stuff in and takes the old stuff away. They are all vendor managed situations."
Exports comprise about 10% of the company's overall business. The company has a contract manufacturing warehouse in Galway, Ireland, and it ships products to Puerto Rico and about 40 or 50 other countries in the world. The work is mostly with huge national accounts that manufacture in all of these different locations. "The majority of our exports are to subsidiaries or contract manufacturers of our larger U.S. customers," said Johnson. "We export higher technology products, such as nameplates, overlays, badges, security labels, domed products, and dual web flexo products."
Johnson outlined a good example of the company's ability to solve a technical challenge. It was for an OEM customer that manufactures tire inflation pumps used at gas stations. The project was a 3D graphic that was mounted on the top of an air pump that needed to be visible day and night. The end product, Johnson commented, had to be outdoor durable in all types of climate conditions and relatively impact and chemical resistant. And the product needed to light from within for nighttime visibility.
"The 3D parts were produced on a thick (0.177-inch) plastic polycarbonate," said Johnson. "The final product resembles the top half of a car tire. The graphics needed to be distorted before printing so that when the part was thermoformed, the graphics matched the shape of the final part. The draw depth of this particular part was almost 11 inches, a very deep draw. Working with a thermoformer and a graphic distortion firm, we developed a series of prototypes using various material and ink combinations. Analysis of each prototype helped determine the best processes and materials for the application. The OEM had concept designs that we reviewed and made design recommendations to avoid problems with our production and processes."
Testing a variety of prototype constructions, including base material and inks, was done by Duratech to ensure the company would produce a part that met the OEM's requirements. "Polycarbonate was the base material," says Johnson. "The inks used needed to be able to withstand the extreme draw (11 inches) and not crack or fail during the thermoforming processes. The parts were screen printed, and the forming process was thermoforming."
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