News: Digital Printing Up to the Challenge

HP Indigo 4500 press prints serialization and security labeling.

In the last three to four years, Tony Kapsaskis’s customers have been asking for more. And for less. Customers of the pharmaceutical-only printer Challenge Printing (Clifton, NJ, and Sanford, NC) have been asking for more colors and higher quality in labels, yet in smaller volumes.

“Our customers have been working to help pharmacists identify tablets and capsules with printed images of these on the bottle label,” says Kapsaskis, who serves as Challenge Printing’s director of sales and marketing. “It is part of a wider effort to reduce dispensing errors.”

But matching product colors using process colors on a traditional printing press hasn’t been easy. For instance, Tim Gelsinger, director of new product development and QA, says flexographic printers have trouble “matching all Pantone colors out of process colors.

“In large part, this is due to the difficulty of maintaining registration between the printing plates, particularly when attempting to construct text using traditional process techniques,” he says.

Offering short print runs has also been tough with flexography, given film and plate costs as well as setup time. “Lead time for label printing has typically been about two to three weeks or longer,” reports Kapsaskis. “In addition to film and plate production, there is all the work of adjusting plate position and pressure.”

The Challenge Printing team decided to investigate other printing options and found the HP Indigo 4500 digital press. With this system, Kapsaskis says his production department can “bypass everything—plates, film, and other traditional aspects. We can just download images to the press’s computer and run the press. With the Indigo we are able to shorten lead times, as needed, to just a few days.” Gelsinger adds that “the digital press allows us to construct all Pantone colors out of process colors with perfect registration, while still preserving the additional option of using PMS colors for enhanced graphics.”

Gelsinger and Kapsaskis agree that printing quality has improved. “We have found that because there used to be several steps in the prepress process, such as creating films and plates, the quality of the image would degrade. Even with our state-of-the-art direct-to-plate system, we still could not avoid the platemaking step,” says Gelsinger. Kapsaskis calls digital printing “first-generation output.”

Challenge can now add variable printing to its label production, now that plate changes are no longer necessary for label changes. Item serialization and unique bar coding are now label options, Kapsaskis adds. (For more on Challenge’s use of the HP Indigo 4500 digital press for serialization and security labeling, please see the Fall 2008 edition of Tracking & Tracing Pharmaceutical Products online at

The Indigo 4500 digital press uses an electrostatically charged cylinder that attracts ink to downloaded images and imparts those images directly to substrates. Kapsaskis believes that digital printing could revolutionize order fulfillment by shaving off turnaround time traditionally needed for platemaking and press setups. Adds Gelsinger: “Every time the cylinder of a digital press makes a revolution, the image can be different.”

Challenge is also able to meet another industry request: short runs, with short lead times. “Even though we never had order quantity minimums, it was too expensive for a customer to order a few thousand labels,” reports Kapsaskis. “Today, we are in a position to efficiently produce from a handful of labels up to 100,000 or more, depending on the paper footage required for the order.”

“In the past, customers would ask for a make-and-hold inventory,” he adds. “But all that did was just shift the costs of inventory from customer to supplier. Now, because we can offer just-in-time printing, we can offer ordering models in any quantity range and replenish stock as needed for the customer. Essentially, we are the first pharmaceutical printer to offer ‘order to package’ purchasing models, as opposed to the traditional ‘order to stock.’”

Says Gelsinger: “We eliminate the risk of labels becoming obsolete.” And, “we free up capital for the customer,” says Kapsaskis.

Kapsaskis admits that digital printing is not ideal for long runs given the economies of scale with traditional flexographic printing. “But this new press has the ability to create work for itself. It provides incentives for customers to lower their economic order quantities and even include variable imaging. We believe that with this press we have started a revolution in pharmaceutical printing in terms of quality, lead times, and ordering patterns.”

This is becoming particularly obvious in the reaction that Challenge is experiencing among its customers.

“Our customers are extremely interested in this technology and view it as a true paradigm shift in the way they order packaging components,” says Adam Sasso, who serves as Challenge’s marketing manager. “We are changing the industry.”

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