As I write, we’re on the eve of this year’s Label Expo show and I wanted to set out some of the wider questions before heading to the show and getting caught up in a blizzard of press conferences and meetings.
It already seems clear to me that this will be a much busier show than expected, at least in terms of new product launches, judging from the weight of my email inbox over the last month or so. Naturally this includes a fair number of new presses, with several new digital presses from the likes of Screen, Durst and Konica Minolta. There are also several flexo presses from companies such as MPS and Mark Andy, as well as hybrid machines from MPS and Bobst.
A few years ago a vendor explained to me that the proposition for digital label presses was very simple; if a converter had lots of jobs of 10,000 linear metres and above then they probably also had a couple of jobs of 1000 linear metres or less. But today that argument is not strong as modern flexo presses have become incredibly efficient and can handle a certain amount of short run 1000-metre jobs. Instead the pressure is on the digital developers. On the one hand, they are rushing to develop presses that are cost-effective enough that converters can justify putting one next to their flexo press. But they are also still working on high end digital presses that can take on longer or mid-length jobs and turn them around quickly, but without compromising on the final image quality, including any inline converting or special effects typical of higher value applications.
At the same time, we are also seeing a lot more packaging in the labelling world. This is largely to do with the range of substrates opening up new applications, with pouches being particularly common. This has been helped on the flexo side by the adoption of servo motors, which has now spread down to the entry-level machines. The inkjet presses are still struggling with any kind of food packaging applications because of the difficulty in countering migration with UV inks. But I know that most vendors are working hard to develop water-based inkjet inks and I feel that there is a growing acceptance for using inkjet-receptive coatings, at least for short runs where the costs are less prohibitive, as seen with the Gallus Smartfire and Rigoli.
The other side of the packaging trend is for mid-web inline flexo presses, with several vendors such as MPS and Lombardi due to show off new models this week.
There also seems to be a much greater emphasis on workflow software and on integrating software from different vendors together, at least on the digital side. Previously all the digital press vendors simply made arrangements with Esko to ensure their presses could fit in with an Esko workflow. But I see that several digital vendors now view workflow as a useful way of differentiating their offering and are working with multiple software vendors such as OneVision and Dalim to achieve this. This is a sensible, if obvious, development given that many of the digital presses have broadly similar specifications, and none of them come anywhere close to the productivity of a flexo press.
I’ll continue to post news items from the show this week with a longer article, or possibly series of articles, on some of these issues to follow in subsequent weeks so watch this space.
Now, I know that I am not the only British person travelling to Brussels this week with questions to answer. I have a horrible feeling that whatever emerges out of the Brexit mess will have a far bigger impact on British converters than any of the presses or other technology on show at Label Expo. Nonetheless, I am looking forward to returning to Belgium and catching up with old friends, which I don’t think anyone in the British government can say. Then again, I’m travelling on an Irish passport.