Label Expo part 4: from Flexo to finishing

It’s easy to forget that a decade ago journalists like myself would have mainly gone to Label Expo to see the latest flexo presses. In the years since the focus has shifted more and more to the digital presses, where the technical improvements have moved at a faster pace. However, there were still plenty of narrow web flexo presses shown at Label Expo.

There have been considerable changes to narrow web flexo presses during this time. Mechanical drive systems have mostly given way to servo controls, with most presses sporting two servo motors per flexo station. This change has come about partly in response to the threat from digital, as it allows for much greater automation and easier operation of the presses. It also allows the presses to handle a wider range of filmic materials, which is becoming increasingly important as more customers look to take on packaging applications alongside labelling. This also explains why we are seeing wider presses with most vendors offering a choice of web widths, typically at least 470mm and sometimes up to 620mm or wider. There also seemed to me to be an increasing trend on designing flexo presses to allow for easier integration of digital print units. 

Mark Andy showed this Pro Series flexo press.

Mark Andy showed off its new Pro series flexo press, which has been designed as a compact and affordable press for those looking to upgrade from an older mechanical machine to a newer servo-driven press. It’s available in both 330mm and 430mm web widths and can produce up to 150mpm. It can be set up with up to eight flexo print units and it’s also possible to integrate the print engine from the Digital Pro Max, which itself is based on a Konica Minolta Accurio Label 400.

The Miyakoshi stand featured its semi-rotary offset MLP13H press, which can run at 101.6 mpm. It takes media from 70 to 300 microns, up to 350mm wide with a 330mm print area. Vinay Kaushal, director of Provin Technos, which is the Indian distributor for Miyakoshi, says that Miyakoshi has invested a lot into this press, including adding artificial intelligence. 

From left: Vinay and Akshay Kaushal, directors of Provin Technos with the Miyakoshi MLP13H press.

He explained: “They use the AI to control the ink density and instruct the operator how to maintain the ink and water balance to reduce the operator skill level to the minimum.” He says that there are sensors throughout which report the main running parameters to a series of screens so that the operator can see all the information for all the units from one place. Kaushal says that the press is mainly suitable for short to medium run label applications, noting: “In Europe they sell a lot for liquor labels.”

Bobst showed off a fully automated Master M6 press that has been designed for short-to-medium runs for both flexible packaging and unsupported label films. It features Bobst’s V-Flower printing units, which enable fast, automatic changeovers of the print cylinders without stopping the press and with minimal waste. However, to get the most out of this level of automation it’s really best to run an extended colour gamut inkset in order to avoid having to change the inks over between jobs.

Matteo Cardinotti, who heads up Bobst’s narrow and mid web division, says that customers are increasingly using extended colour gamuts, noting: “First the difficulty to adapt to that technology was the difficulty to adapt the expertise in the press room to the prepress because in ECG you don’t need the special experienced operator in the press room. But you do still need someone in prepress that can understand how to produce this file in the best way to reach the targets. So you need to have a change of the skills from press room to prepress. The only challenge is mindset which is the same for digital. In the last ten years we have seen this movement which helps customers become more ready to embrace ECG.”

Even so, converters have usually worried that without spot colours it might be harder to reproduce some colours. But Cardinotti continues: “The second issue is sustainability. The brands understand the impact of sustainability so they want their jobs printed in ECG. They are willing to make a little compromise to get the ECG colours.”

Omet demonstrated its modular Kflex flexo press.

Omet marked 60 years since the company was founded with a cake on its stand. The company also showed off its KFlex press, which was introduced last year. This is a highly flexible press, thanks to its Switch system which allows users to swop printing and converting units in or out as needed. Each flexo unit has two servo motors for automated settings. It has a camera system to control registration. It’s available in two widths, 430mm and 530mm, both able to run at up to 200mpm. Apart from the printing units, it can also be configured with various converting units including cold foil and hot foil, inline lamination and die-cutting.

Lombardi brought along the latest version of its mid-web press, the Invicta I2. This is a 670mm wide press that is targeted at the market for short run flexible packaging as well as other unsupported label film applications including shrink sleeves. Lombardi also showed its Synchroline press with a new electronic control system that should allow for future integration with digital printing or embellishment modules.

Multitec showed an S2 narrow web flexo press, which was due to be installed after the show in Budapest, Hungary, for the Swiss company QP Holding. The S2 press boast two servos for each print station with Aero LED curing throughout. It’s available in four sizes, including 370mm, 530mm and 610mm, with the most popular being 450mm.

The Danish firm Grafisk Maskinfabrik, better known as GM, brought along its recently-announced DC350 Flex+Wine line, which I’ve already covered in more detail. It’s a 350mm wide device that can be run inline or standalone and includes a 50-ton hot stamping module. GM also showed off a  wider version of its compact Hot Foil unit, the new HF350, said to converters a more cost-effective way of adding embossing and foiling effects. It can be set up as an independent embellishment unit or connected to a digital press or the DCMini compact label finisher

Amit Ahuja, CEO of Multitec.

Amit Ahuja, CEO of Multitec, says that people are more price conscious now, noting: “This press is more stable in terms of registration than most European presses so it’s value for money. This press can print 12 micron PE and if you can print that then you can print almost anything.” He adds: “People need to change their old presses even in a recession.”

Ahuja added: “There is demand for digital but not so much in India.” However, Multitec can add digital units, working mainly with Domino to create a hybrid solution though he says that this mainly appeals to people looking to get into packaging.

It’s worth noting that most of the Indian exhibitors that I spoke with told me that the market in India is stable but that they were concerned at the recession in Europe. 

Fujifilm announced LuXtreme, a new LED UV curing system that can be retrofitted to any narrow web flexo press to allow it to run UV LED inks. It’s a water-cooled system developed primarily by IST and has up to a 720mm lamp length, scalable in 24mm steps. It can run at speeds of up to 200mpm.

Fujifilm also introduced a new ink, CuremaX IDFC, which has been designed for indirect food contact packaging. This is a dual cure UV ink that can be cured with either LED or conventional lamps though its primarily designed for use with LED curing.

On top of this, Fujifilm announced a partnership with the Swiss company Lüscher Technologies that will see Fujifilm resell the Lüscher range of MultiDX! and Xpose! platesetters on a worldwide basis. Manuel Schrutt, head of packaging for Fujifilm EMEA, told me: “Luscher is well known as a premium high quality supplier so we wanted to use their quality together with our Flenex plates.” 

Fujifilm launched this Luxtreme LED curing system.

Fujifilm also showed off the Revoria PC1120 at Label Expo. Schrutt noted: “They are very good for booklet labels and we sold a press for this. And we do see quite some interest for this area.” He added that customers also used the Revoria’s ability to print gold and silver effects online to avoid the need for an additional process.

Converting

Actega showed off its EcoLeaf unit for metallic effects though this was not actually running at the show. This is now commercially available and can run at production printing speeds up to 80mpm with flexo or 70mpm with inkjet. I’ve already covered this in more detail but the main advantage is its sustainability as it completely does away with the waste associated with conventional foiling. There’s no carrier film, and no unused foil, while the metallic effect is very similar to that achieved by foil. The samples certainly appear very shiny and are said to be scratch and fade resistant.

Actega’s EcoLeaf metallisation unit.

The EcoLeaf unit was designed to be easily integrated into an existing production line and just requires speed and safety signals. At this year’s Label Expo Europe it was shown integrated into an AB Graphics solution, with several press vendors including Dantex promising to integrate it with their presses.

I didn’t have time to look properly at the finishing options though there were a number of interesting devices shown. Daco Solutions launched Jo Jo its SRV350 inspection slitter rewinder. This is a servo-driven machine with an inspection system from Nikka, closed-loop unwind tension control, and a fully automatic slitting unit with servo-driven positioning of the knives. It runs at speeds of up to 300mpm with a 350mm web width and 800mm unwind diameter. An optional accumulator can be added, so any labels replaced on the web will pass back underneath the camera to ensure 100 percent inspection.

AB Graphics had a large number of different machines, including several lines featuring the Actega EcoLeaf modules. The company also showed its flagship product, the Digicon series 3 converting machine, in this case configured for working with beverage applications.

ABG showed this Digicon series 3 set configured for beverage applications.

Polar introduced its LabelSystem DCC-12 die cutter, which it claims is one of the fastest on the market. It’s a servo-driven system that’s designed for highly automated inline production of bundled die-cut labels made of compressible plastic materials such as OPP films for in-mold. It features a new control system that allows for a 25 percent increase in productivity, with an output of 10 cycles per minute.

The Chinese firm Rhyguan showed its Plus 330, a modular digital finishing machine with Corona, full rotary flexo for flood varnishing, digital die-cutting, and automatic slitting. It’s mainly designed for short run jobs but unfortunately I ran out of time to take a closer look. 

Conclusion

HP demonstrated how Indigo-printed pouches could be fully recycled.

The other big trend from Label Expo that I did not have time to cover properly was towards more sustainability. This is clearly becoming a more important issue and I expect it will feature more heavily at the next Label Expo in 2025. I believe that many vendors are looking at developing water-based inksets for their digital presses, and that many substrate manufacturers are looking at building more functionality into their materials with the same type of plastic to allow for easier recycling. The most interesting example of this at the show was HP, which has put together a scheme to recycle used pouches back into new materials to make new pouches, which I will come back to in more detail in a later story.

The other takeaway for me was that a four-year gap between shows was too long and meant that there were a lot of things to catch up on. This in turn means that next year’s Drupa show is going to need careful planning after an eight-year hiatus.

Label Expo itself returns in 2025, but with a new location at the Fira centre in Barcelona. Many in the label community will be sad to say goodbye to Brussels but after the heat of this year’s event, the modern air conditioning system will be a welcome relief. My understanding is that the show will be tweaked to reflect the greater emphasis on packaging that we saw at this year’s event.

You can find the other parts of this review of Label Expo, on hybrid presses here, on inkjet devices here, and on packaging and toner presses here.


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