Flexible packaging, the label industry’s next savior? 

Labelexpo 2019 Review – Part 1

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Labelexpo 2019 in Brussels
Labelexpo 2019 in Brussels

By Ron Augustin

Following a major trend in the industry, Labelexpo Europe in its 40th year included a significant panoply of presses and ancillary equipment suitable for flexible packaging, even though substrates and other consumables for this segment were missing entirely at the show. (There were some film suppliers but they came to Labelexpo mainly to project their films for use as face stocks in pressure-sensitive materials and to some extent for use in wraparound labels, IML and shrink packaging.)

Increasingly, label converters have been compelled to diversify into packaging, to offer their customers a combination of pressure-sensitive label stock, wraparound labels, IML, lids, tubes, shrink sleeves, standup pouches, rolls of single- or multiple-layer flexible packaging, or folding carton boxes. And technology developments have been an enabling factor in this trend, as narrow- and mid-web presses and their converting and finishing extensions are converging on all levels. This has also made label production more accessible for companies who started as flexible packaging converters, and even for those whose core business is in commercial offset.

Labelexpo’s flagship trade fair has been able to keep exhibitor and visitor numbers fairly stable, even though both were slightly down this year. Almost a quarter of the 600 exhibitors were companies from Asia, including 85 from China, 20 from India, 16 from Japan, 12 each from Taiwan and Korea, and one from Malaysia, not counting the representatives at the stands of the European and American brands. 

Many of these told us that they came to Brussels to target the Eastern European, Russian, African and Middle Eastern markets, rather than the industry’s largely saturated client base in Western Europe. Next to the flexo, offset and hybrid presses running at the stands of the large international brands but also at some of the Indian, Chinese, Turkish and other manufacturers’ booths, there were about 50 inkjet presses from 30 manufacturers at the show, as well as inkjet modules and print bars from more than 15 manufacturers.

Five misconceptions on the latest generation of label presses

  1. The future is digital’ – Obviously, digital printing is replacing the other printing technologies in many areas. However, there are as many applications where digital will remain one mature set of technologies among other ones, side-by-side and in combination with flexo, offset, gravure, screen, intaglio and various embellishing techniques, which each have their specific characteristics and advantages in terms of quality, feel, productivity and economics. These are unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future, and the Labelexpo organizers are quite right in observing the current “flexo fightback.” Opposing digital and analog as a sign of progress is a marketing bubble, that we can only hope will soon be something of the past. 
  2. Hybrid presses – In the label industry, most of the larger narrow-web presses have a long history of integrating modules that combine the main flexo or offset units with rotary screen, gravure, and other technologies. They have now been complemented by inkjet modules and industrial engines based on inkjet or toner. Presses based entirely on digital units are being complimented, for instance, by flexo units for coating, varnishing or white inks. Same story for converting equipment. So, what’s new, and what is real? As virtually all presses use ‘hybrid’ technologies in one way or another, the ‘hybrid’ buzz word should soon be redundant as well. Without questioning at all the fabulous capabilities of these presses. 
  3. In-line converting – Narrow- and mid-web presses have been at the forefront of integrating converting functionalities into printing presses. Diecutting and foiling are typical examples. Bobst’s Lemanic is an example of a press almost fully integrated into the final product processing line, where cigarette boxes can be printed, coated, embossed, die-cut, inspected, and directly conveyed into the cigarette packaging line. But again, there is no one-for-all solution, and many applications, for reasons of speed, quality, operator expertise or simple economics, require off-line converting and finishing. That’s why, also at Labelexpo, so many converting and finishing devices can be found, overtaking the number of presses there.
  4. On-press switching between labels and packaging – The claim of easy switching between label and packaging products on the same press hardly corresponds to market requirements. There is a clear trend of label converters venturing into folding carton or flexible packaging, and packaging converters adding adhesive labels, tubes, and pouches to their portfolio. For converters, the ability to offer both adhesive and wrap-around labels, or for commercial printers to add roll-to-roll to sheetfed label and packaging products, is a logical step, facilitated by more and more accessible technology developments.However, in most cases, they will dedicate their presses to specific job categories, and not switch between labels and packaging on the same machine! Typically, a converter working with a particular type of presses will buy another type of press to expand in a new type of business but will dedicate each press to either labels or pouches or shrink sleeves or flexible packaging, each based on their settings, technical requirements, and economics.
  5. Industry 4.0 readiness – Most press manufacturers claim to be ‘Industry 4.0 ready,’ but does this make much sense for a printing press? Artificial intelligence and robots may be useful at the interface between printing and finishing, and between finishing and processing, but for the actual printing process, they have no meaning. Color management and inspection systems may have some built-in autocorrection capabilities, but they will never tell me at which press speed and at which solvent concentration a particular color will reach its optimal hue.Robots may be used to load and unload the substrate, but at what cost?The only application of Industry 4.0 readiness that has any relevance is the interaction with customers’ packaging and processing workflows, such as linerless labels or IML that can be picked up and applied by a robot arm in the packaging process. Again, much marketing buzz in an industry which in reality is much more down-to-earth. 

Label presses at Labelexpo Europe

Traditional narrow-web manufacturers such as Gallus, Nilpeter, Omet, Mark Andy, Bobst, MPS, and Edale all had inkjet presses and hybrid presses with inkjet components at the show. Next to the toner-based systems from HP, Xeikon and Konica Minolta, new inkjet presses were introduced by Canon Océ, Dantex, Dilli, Durst, Epson, Inx, Memjet, Miyakoshi, Mouvent, Screen, Xeikon and others, while Atlantic Zeiser, FFEI, Fujifilm, Gallus, Kodak, Xaar, and a dozen others showcased inkjet modules and print bars.

Bobst

Bobst launched its Master DM5 at the show, combining flexo and digital at speeds of up to 100 meters a minute, and showcased a complete range of Mouvent digital presses, the LB701-UV, LB702-UV and LB702-WB, all running at speeds of up to 100 meters a minute. The Bobst stand also included the Master M6 and Vision M1X UV flexo presses.

Gallus

Gallus introduced a new rotary die-cutting unit for the Labelmaster, and a modular, easily shiftable, digital print bar for highly opaque white ink. Other presentations at the Gallus stand included the Heidelberg Phoenix UV LED imagesetter, Screeny plates used with the Gallus Rotascreen system, and three presses, the Labelfire, Smartfire, and Labelmaster. 

Nilpeter

Nilpeter added a new press to its FA series, the FA-26, a 670 mm wide press for short-run flexible packaging and labels. The company also showcased new inkjet varnish, opaque white inkjet, and semi-rotary die-cutting units for its FA-17, and new UV lamination, UV LED drying and die-cutting stations for its FA-22 press. Omet launched its Xflex X7, a 670 mm wide flexo press including a rotogravure unit. The company also came to the show with its compact entry-level 8-color UV LED flexo press iFlex, the Xjet hybrid press powered by Durst, and a new linerless laminating module for the processing of CLS film.

Mark Andy

Mark Andy introduced its new Evolution series, available in widths of 330 and 460 mm at speeds of up to 230 meters a minute, and its toner-based Digital Proline, a modular entry- to the mid-market level digital system developed with Konica Minolta and running at speeds of up to 24 meters a minute. Mark Andy also showcased its Digital HD series, a 430 mm wide 7-color UV inkjet press introduced early 2018 and running at speeds of up to 73 meters a minute.

MPS

MPS showcased its recent 430 mm wide hybrid EF SymJet press including five flexo stations and equipped with a Domino digital N617i inkjet printer, running at speeds of up to 75 meters a minute in hybrid mode. The MPS stand included three other presses, the EXL mid-web packaging press in widths of up to 670 mm and speeds of up to 300 meters a minute, and the EFS and EFA multi-substrate presses in widths of up to 530 mm and speeds of up to 200 meters a minute.

Lombardi presented a new press, the Invicta i2, available in widths of 750, 850 and 1,100 mm for flexible packaging. The Invicta i2 in 750 mm width was the widest label press shown running at this Labelexpo. The company also showcased its Synchroline flexo press and the Digistar hybrid press with an inkjet module by Domino, including new foiling and embossing, flatbed screen and semi-rotary die-cutting units.

Codimag, Rotatek, and Spande

Codimag and Rotatek both showcased offset presses with in-line flexo, gravure, screen, lamination, die-cutting, cold and hot stamping, and embossing options. Spande based in Shanghai, for the first time at Labelexpo Europe, showcased a flexo press, the S7 Series available in widths of 370, 450 and 520 mm and speeds of up to 200 meters a minute.

Durst

Durst launched a new press, the Tau 330 RSCi Low Migration, in addition to its Tau 330 RSC and RSC E also at the show, and available in widths of 330, 420 and 508 mm at speeds of up to 100 meters a minute.

HP

HP’s presentations included HP Indigos 6900 and 8000 printing labels, an HP Indigo 20000 producing standup pouches with Karlville pouch making equipment, a beta-testing HP Indigo GEM for digital embellishments, and various in-line converting partnerships for the production of metalized labels, shrink sleeves and brand protection applications. HP also announced a partnership with Agfa for the creation of the HP Indigo Secure Studio application for brand protection and security printing.

Xeikon

Xeikon had a large line-up of inkjet presses next to its toner-based engines, including the PX2000 and PX3000 with speeds of up to 50 meters a minute, and the Jetrion 4900 and 4950 series with speeds of up to 24 or 48 meters a minute. Konica Minolta showcased its proven 230 mm wide AcurioLabel press developed with GM and MGI. Screen introduced new versions of its Truepress Jet L350 series with twin power UV and speeds of up to 60 meters a minute, while Canon relied on its 330 to 410 mm wide Océ LabelStream 4000 series with speeds of up to 75 meters a minute.

Domino

Domino came to Labelexpo with a 445 mm wide high-speed dual-bar K600i inkjet printer mounted on an ABG Omega SRI with slitter, rewinder, inspection, and digital embellishment units, and printing at speeds of up to 150 meters a minute. The Domino stand also included an N610i ABG Hybrid press. 

Epson

Epson showcased three new models in its SurePress industrial label press series, the water-based L4533AW and the UV LED L6034 and L6534, as well as a range of ColorWorks printers for packaging lines. Converting and finishing equipment AB Graphic (ABG) with its largest stand ever showcased twenty machines, including a Digicon, configured for high-end beverage applications and embellishments, with flatbed screen units, foiling heads and a newly designed turret rewinder. One of its latest developments shown was the entry-level Digicon Lite incorporating semi-rotary flexo.

Cartes

Cartes had several converting and finishing machines on show, such as the CE160, GT360 and Gemini platforms for converting, finishing and embellishing, combining laser die-cutting, silkscreen, hot stamping, metallic doming, high-raised and flat printing, embossing, debossing, semi-rotary flexo, full and spot varnishing, inspection, slitting, and rewinding. Lesko highlighted some of its finishing systems for shrink sleeves, IML and labels, among which the CF380 equipped with corona treatment, flexo, lamination, cold-foiling, die-cutting and slitting facilities.

Rietstack

Rietstack presented its IRS series for die-cutting, embossing, de-curling, unwinding, rewinding and stacking, available in different combinations. Grafotronic had eleven finishing machines at the show, including seven new developments. SMAG was at the show with a large line-up of converting equipment in its iConvert series, including multi-process platforms in widths of 850, 1,000 and 1,200 mm for converting, finishing and inspection.

Other converting machinery brands at the show included ALS, Bielomatik, Brotech, Contiweb, DCM, ETI, GM, Karlville, Kocher+Beck, Prati, APL from Korea, and several Chinese manufacturers such as Rainbow and half a dozen companies from Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Among the many interesting developments in consumables at the show, Flint developed a database of 180,000 formulations for spot colors, based on five different anilox and four different substrate settings, which is available for converters mixing their flexo inks in-house. 

Monotech

The Indian exhibitors Monotech based in Chennai, who also represents Xeikon offset CtPs in India, focused its presentations on its Colornovo UV inkjet label press, available in widths of 220 and 330 mm and speeds of up to 50 meters a minute. This UV digital label press already has an installed base of 12 presses globally, including 7 in China and two in India. 

Multitec

Multitec from Faridabad showcased its E and S lines of servo-driven flexo presses in widths of 370 and 450 mm for flexible packaging and folding carton. The press at the stand had been sold to a Russian customer in advance of the show. UVGT (UV Graphic Technologies) from Noida presented its Ultraflex UFO flexo press, the Ultraflex USR slitter-rewinder, cutting, inspection, doctoring, curing, punching and plate mounting systems.

Shri

Shri and its sales agent Flexart from Ahmedabad provided information on their Brison series of die-cutting, foiling, inspection and anilox cleaning equipment. RK Label from Ahmedabad informed about their FM series of flexo label presses and finishing equipment.

Triad Engineering Works

Triad Engineering Works from New Delhi, a newcomer at Labelexpo, presented a range of handheld label printers, thermal transfer ribbons, and ink rollers for label printers, calculators and cash registers.

IEEC 

IEEC from Mumbai showcased their corona treatment systems for narrow web presses.

Acme Rolltech

Acme Rolltech based in Ahmedabad presented its range of anilox rollers for narrow- and wide-web flexo, offset, corrugated and coating industries, with hexagon, elongated hexagon, diamond, tri-helical and open channel cell patterns.

Diehard

Diehard, a Labelexpo regular from Guntur, AP, came with its large range of flexible dies for the label industry.

Mona Equipments

Mona Equipments headquartered in Noida showcased shafts for various machines and doctor blades. 

Convertech 

Convertech from New Delhi which is a regular exhibitor at Labelexpo in produces doctor blades for gravure, wide web flexo, and narrow web flexo presses had its strong variety of fit for purpose range of steel doctor blades on show.

Resource Engimech

Resource Engimech from Baroda presented chucks, shafts, reel lifters, rollers, tubes, springs and air valves for various machines, as well as a reel shaft extractor.

In addition to Cosmo, Jindal, SMI, Holostik, Garware Polyester, Max Specialty Films and Stic-On Papers came to Labelexpo with their respective substrates for the label industry, while Globus International from Raigad, Maharashtra, presented itself as a manufacturer of silicone coated release liners with customers in 45 countries. Holostik presented its security holograms as it has done at past Labelexpos.

The next Labelexpo Europe has been planned for 22-25 September 2021. In the meantime, Labelexpo India is to take place from 29 October to 1 November 2020. 

Labelexpo is also starting a new Brand Print Global series, starting in Bangkok 7-9 May 2020, based on the synergy between printers and brand-owners. It will focus on PoP/PoS displays, shelf-stacking units, wide-format signage, direct mail, fleet graphics, 3D printing, and interactive technologies.

Ron Augustin is the European Editor of Indian Printer and Publisher and Packaging South Asia.