Servo technology and a glut of digital packaging solutions not only had Brussels buzzing with interest but could also point the way towards new market applications for the labelling sector reports Des King

In contrast to the waning pulling power of a number of trade shows, over 20 000 visitors attended LabelExpo Europe 2003 in late September, a 25% increase on the previous event of two years ago.

The show assembled more than 400 exhibitors displaying working equipment and substrates ranging from pre-press and production technologies through to finishing solutions. With pressure-sensitive applications growing at around 6% in Europe and in double digits in Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe and South America, labelling undoubtedly represents the narrow web industry’s core business.

But why stop at just labels? With production equipment increasingly capable of handling a far more versatile substrate base, the challenge to labellers is either to stay put or more aggressively extend into flexible packaging and small cartons.

Technology based capability isn’t the only driver here. With 12% of LabelExpo’s visitor audience drawn from the Eastern Bloc alone, significant alarm bells will have sounded throughout the labelling sector’s predominantly SME converter base, whose ability to deliver on competitive pricing is being steadily eroded by cheaper labour costs achievable in emerging countries such as Poland. Anticipated price hikes in raw material costs likely to impact upon margins within the next few months also point to uncomfortable times ahead.

With both conventional and digital press technology promising faster production speeds, reduced make ready time and tighter control over material wastage, re-investment now is not so much an option as a necessity.

This is not just a strategy for staying in play with a customer base, but as the mechanism towards meeting a wider sweep of value-added flexible packaging requirements.

Labelling might be the present occupation, but flexibles and cartons are the future and the signs were clearly there for all to see.

From buzzword to reality

Having grabbed much of the pre-show buzz, servo-enhanced press equipment took centre stage with leading suppliers such as Mark Andy, Edale, Gallus and Nilpeter all obliging with prominent displays of new equipment.

Considered by many to be the pick of the show, Gallus exhibited the extension of its successful EM 260/410/510 into a servo-driven hybrid printing device which allows for both flexo and screen within the same unit with changeover achievable without breaking the web.

Incorporating full multi-substrate capability, the 510 S has front-end loading of both sleeve-based print cylinders and anilox rollers, and represents 25% weight and lower cost benefits over conventional print cylinder construction.

Gallus also demonstrated its premium end offer through the RCS 330, a fully servo-driven combination press with interchangeable UV flexo, rotary screen and hot foil stamping units. This can effect a substrate change from 90-micron clear PS labelstock to 15-micron PVC foil, inks and two processes in just 25 minutes.

Nilpeter introduced its second-generation MO-3300 S, featuring advanced servo drives and a new control system allowing both short and long runs. As with the line shaft model, the MO-3300 S incorporates a 340mm wide web and platform design allowing freely interchangeable printing and converting units.

Also on show were the servo-aided FA-3300 340mm wide modular UV-flexo press designed to convert both self-adhesive laminates and the thinnest flexible films, plus the six-colour UV-flexo multi-function FA-4200 platform press for printing thin films for shrink sleeves.

Mark Andy’s Comco ProGlide MSP is now servo-enhanced. Capable of 230m/min with infinite register adjustment, it is being positioned as an “all market flexo press” capable of converting a wide range of substrates from 25-micron unsupported film to 600-micron carton board.

Also progressing the servo route was Edale, which demonstrated the Sigma shaftless press, developed from its predecessor, the E430/510i. “We are focusing upon shrink-sleeve because we believe it’s the fastest growing new application,” said international sales manager Alan Chandler.

Gidue’s new E-Combat shaftless press had its first major outing featuring the IML-EDL delivery system for in-mould labels. Incorporating servo-driven controls for all press functions, the E-Combat is available in widths ranging upwards from 280-530mm and can convert an extensive selection of different substrates without the need to change configuration.

Additional press highlights

The Codimag Viva 340 letterpress, incorporating an intermittent semi-rotary screen unit supplied by Stork Prints, attracted plenty of interest due to its ability to handle different specification short-run screen print applications without incurring cylinder and tooling costs.

Receiving its worldwide launch, Gidue’s multi-substrate Unipro press significantly extends narrow-web options with a width size of 730mm, and can convert plastics, aluminium, paper and laminates up to 450gsm carton board without the need for changing configuration in operation.

Gidue managing director Federico d’Annunzio said: “We see big opportunities for growth in mid-web printing. There is the opportunity of taking a range of carton work from traditional sheet fed litho operations and running this more profitably on a mid-web press.

“We also estimate that the mid-web range of 500-800mm will be the most important growth area in flexible packaging and that wider web outside this range will suffer from the demand for short run jobs.”

Omet previewed its Varyflex gearless and shaftless flexo printing unit which allows for independently driven screen combination work and is designed to offer the operator optimum adjustment possibilities from paper thickness to printing run.

Also extending flexo options in the label sector was Ko-Pack International’s new Euroflex range, available in a choice of web widths from 250mm for use with either UV, water or solvent based inks. Euroflex can be specified in combination with rotary screen, letterpress, gravure and hot/cold foiling in up to 12 colours.

The Euroflex film and label press has an operating speed of 150m/min, making it ideal both for short-run work and extended narrow-web applications.

The principal digital print options on show were represented by toner-based systems from HP Indigo and Xeikon, and the inclusion of the Dotrix SPICE print-head technology within Mark Andy’s combination device – initially launched two years ago and now with its first packaging installation at PortionPack Europe in the Netherlands.

In the meantime HP Indigo and Xeikon are strongly contesting the digital short-run market with Indigo claiming that 30% of its machinery sales now fall within the sector.

H P Indigo has now confirmed its second ws4000 dedicated label press UK installation at Devon-based Tamar Labels, whose customer base includes the Ginsters food service snacks brand. An otherwise predominantly flexo operation, Tamar had earlier become the first UK buyer of Edale’s new Sigma 430mm servo-driven shaftless press.

“As well as labels, the broader packaging sector is a very strategic area for us,” confirmed HPI’s industrial division general manager Danny Dams. “We are certainly looking to extend the capabilities of the ws4000 into flexible packaging. This is under development and will come probably next year.”

While the ws4000 press was making its second appearance at LabelExpo largely unaltered from the model launched two years ago, chief competitor Xeikon showed an upgraded version of its dedicated LabelSprint press, based on the DCP 320 S and supplied in combination with the Dcoat in-line finishing unit.

For label printers reluctant to invest in new press equipment, improving digital pre-press and workflow solutions represent an increasingly viable option.

Agfa unveiled its new Sublima XM screening technology, which can achieve a maximum of up to 340lpi against a norm of 120-130lpi, enabling flexo printers to attain resolution levels comparable with offset.

  Esko-Graphics were specifically targeting flexo label converters said software marketing director Jan De Roeck: “We’re seeing a big move towards flexo printing on flexible materials. This technology is eminently affordable and represents a very good ROI at both the high ends and desktop levels in the sector.”

Substrate developments

Improving press capabilities, including lighter touch tension control and heat reduction systems, have begun to open up an emerging market in thin filmic substrates. Leading the development is ExxonMobil which introduced its Label-Lyte 55XLC536 transparent film for self-adhesive labelling of squeezable containers at the show.

The company also showed its 65-micron Label-Lyte XI447 film for in-mould labelling food product applications, with receptivity to most inks and printing technologies, together with excellent die-cutting.

Amongst a number of other materials suppliers launching pressure-sensitive filmic products at the show were Raflatac, Ritrama, Sihl and Treofan.

Despite the rapid growth in adoption, filmic label stock still only represents a fraction of the substrate market. Also covering the sector, but leading the pack of coated paper suppliers, is Avery Dennison.

Its roll materials division has now extended its white Fasson-branded self-adhesive machine-coated offer through the introduction of Fasson MC Plus, an 85gsm semi-gloss single sided paper suitable for multi-colour label printing on either narrow or wider-web presses.