Six years ago, digital printing at Labelexpo was definitely in the minority. Four years ago the first inkjet presses began to populate a hall set aside for digital printing. Two years ago inkjet printing was everywhere, well beyond the confines of the digital printing hall.
This year digital printing will be everywhere as befits a technology that is now mainstream. More digital label presses are being sold than conventional UV flexo, letterpress or litho machines.
As a harbinger for the impact that inkjet might make in other industry sectors, Labelexpo is the perfect showcase.
If so, there are quickly becoming three strata to the inkjet sector. First is the low cost entry level area where inkjet machines using Memjet print heads come up against LED print engines adapted to print on reels rather than sheets.
Second are the pure digital presses, led by HP Indigo, Xeikon and EFI Jetrion as the pioneers of digital label printing. These have since been joined by Domino, Screen, Durst, Epson and now Konica Minolta.
Third come the hybrid machines that combine elements from analogue printing, flexo or screen printing units alongside inkjet arrays. This is the spot that Nilpeter’s Caslon tried to address, but failed through a conflict between the two approaches.
Presses being developed now and coming to Labelexpo have analogue and digital units working together.
Thus FFEI’s Graphium includes flexo units for spot colours or specials that cannot easily be printed from inkjet and the Gallus DCS340 development combines Gallus material transport and expertise in adding value to a label with Fujifilm Samba inkjet heads.
If the proliferation of digital printers at the show two years ago seemed the high point of an ecosystem which must surely see some developments fail, that impression was wrong.
There is another wave of digital printing machines to entice label converters, commercial printers interested in the label sector and which are starting to blur the lines between label printing and flexible packaging.
Tarsus, the organiser of Labelexpo, points to this trend as one of the highlights of the event. Labelexpo Global managing director Lisa Milburn says: “Package printing is now central to the label printing community and Labelexpo experience. With 53% of our total exhibitors showing products for flexible packaging and 32% featuring products for folding cartons, Labelexpo Europe offers all printers the most extensive showcase of package printing solutions available.”
Flexo press developer Soma is bringing the Optima CI to the show as a press able to run both label materials and traditional flexo films. It is intended for the growing shrink sleeve market, pouches, in-mould labels and shorter run flexible packaging.
It has eight print stations around the central impression drum. The print units use a cartridge system to switch quickly between spot colour.
Soma is not the only packaging focused development. A joint project involving Flint Group, newly acquired Bobst subsidiary Nuova Gidue, AVT, DuPont and others under the Revo banner will show a system for food packaging that uses low migration UV cured inks as an alternative to electron beam curing.
The issue that this claims to have sold is guaranteeing that every metre within the reel has been fully cured and that brand colours can be matched from the seven-colour ink set.
HP Indigo will feature the Indigo 20000, the wide format press designed for digital printing of flexible packaging. This sits alongside the new WS6800, the latest version of the label press with improved colours, process control through inline spectrophotometer and higher productivity.
It will run at up to 40m/min in the enhanced productivity mode where the black separation is replaced by CMY inks. It can also feed lightweight boards for carton jobs.
Xeikon will launch its fastest press as the CX3, previously known as the Cheetah in the extensive testing that has been underway since the start of this year. It will run at 30m/min compared to 18m/min of other Xeikons. It will also show the carton kit which enables the converter to produce folding cartons.
It will also introduce its first metallic colours, versions of silver as an embellishment or as a base colour to enable a wide range of metallised colours. A new version of the Varilane imposition software expands its capabilities to deliver efficient use of the full width of the substrate.
The entry level of the market has attracted the attention of developers adding Memjet print heads to a web transport system. These offer high speed and high imaging quality, but can print only on a limited range of substrates.
Epson has introduced the Colorworks 3500 in this on demand sector, expecting it to be used as an in-house printer to migrate what have been mono labels to colour. Primera also has technology intended for this application, but which also enables instant low cost production of labels which do not require a high quality finish.
Oki is also in this space with a more conventional roll to roll printer able to print with a white as well as four-colour process. As such it starts to push up against the Epson SurePress 3304, its scanning inkjet press.
While it has only limited throughput, the print method ensures quality because it can compensate for blocked nozzles in a way that single-pass printing cannot.
That said, Epson will also bring its single-pass 3306 inkjet roll to roll press to Labelexpo having introduced this machine two years ago. It is a UV cured machine rather than water based inkjet as the earlier press and the new machine also uses the Precision Core thin film piezo head that Epson has developed.
Durst will feature its Tau 330 inkjet label press using a high pigment ink developed with SunJet to reduce overall consumption by around 30%. It has also developed the Tau 330E as a low cost machine to broaden the appeal of inkjet to a swathe of smaller converters. Exact pricing and specification will come at the show.
Durst is among the companies with an inkjet only press where the choice of inkjet head supplier seems to be between Kyocera, Xaar and now Ricoh. The Japanese supplier is exhibiting for the first time, showing not a dedicated label press, but wide format machines able to print and cut on self adhesive materials.
Domino is firmly in the Kyocera camp, having started six years ago with a test rig, moving to a four-colour prototype four years ago, to a full high productivity production line at Labelexpo 2015. Since then the company’s N610i has become popular as a seven-colour press which is competing with analogue flexo presses because of its productivity.
Screen also uses the Kyocera head on its TruePress Jet350 UV. The press is starting to sell in good numbers, with multiple installations at users like Springfield in Hull which now has two of the machines. Screen is adding a JetConverter 350 finishing system to this at the show, while also being able to supply it with other finishing options. There will be a Vivid Colour Mode to expand the gamut possible from four-colour inks.
EFI Jetrion, which has the largest market share of inkjet label presses, uses Xaar print heads and integrates laser cutting with its presses to deliver fully finished inline label production. There are now three models in the range headed by the Jetrion 4950LX.
FFEI, which launched Graphium at Labelexpo last time, is promoting the benefits of hybrid production saying that running with one or two flexo units for spot colours can make sense economically because flexo ink is cheaper and can make sense in terms of colour matching which would otherwise need to be done from process colour inkjet inks.
The skills needed to run colour management across different processes is something that the UK company has in abundance. It points out that using an element of flexo has limited impact on makeready as this is unlike registering eight or ten units on a conventional press line.
The same thinking lies behind the Gallus DCS 340, the result of integrating Fujifilm print heads on a Gallus press platform with Heidelberg press control and colour management software. Mark Andy’s Digital Series also combines inkjet printing with conventional modules for flexo printing, coating and foiling.
Nilpeter is thinking on similar lines. Having used an FFEI inkjet system in the Caslon press, it has switched to Screen to supply the inkjet printing unit for the new Panorama line combing inkjet and conventional printing and finishing inline. The inkjet engine becomes the Nilpeter DP-3 with a different transport to the Screen Truepress Jet350UV.
The first version will be limited to inkjet printing, flexo varnish quick change die cutting and multi-roll rewinding. Next year inline foiling, embossing, screen printing and further flexo units will be options.
At the last show Uteco showed a press design using Kodak’s Prosper print heads. This has since evolved into an Onyx 812 press running with EB inks and with two Prosper print heads to print in black and a spot colour.
Four-colour printing is clearly possible. Certainly Taiyo Kikai believes so. The Japanese press manufacturer has announced it has a press design using Prosper inkjet heads to print labels, running at 152m/min, much faster than a conventional flexo press let alone other digital presses. However, neither Kodak equipped machine is expected at Labelexpo.
The show will also include more conventional machines, including latest developments from Rotatek and Nilpeter from the established label press purveyors. They are being joined in Brussels by KBA with its Varius waterless litho web press configured for label and packaging applications.
The range of developments across the board, and particularly from inkjet, make Labelexpo the sort of destination that should attract every label printer, but also commercial printers looking to understand the impact that digital technologies are having on one of the most developed sectors to date.