The Best of Both Worlds. Andy Thomas-Emans: Strategic Director Labelexpo Global Series.

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Next week the printing and label world will be focused on Brussels as Labelexpo opens its doors. Ahead of that, we wanted to find out some of the key trends and issues for label makers with a particular focus on inkjet. In this blog, we talk to Andy Thomas-Emans, Strategic Director at Labelexpo and get his perspective on the current label landscape.

What do you do?

I am Strategic Director for the Tarsus Labels & Packaging group, which includes the Labelexpo Global Series of exhibitions and summits, Labels & Labeling magazine, and the Label Academy, which produces a series of technical books on all aspects of the label and flexible packaging converting industry.

What new is happening to the Label sector with regards to printing?

Flexible packaging applications are starting to be seen at Labelexpo, which is very exciting. For the first time, we have a dedicated Flexible Packaging Arena featuring both conventional and digital production of stand-up pouches.

Why is that, is Labelexpo becoming a packaging show now too?

Labelexpo remains at core a labels-related exhibition. But modern, servo-driven label presses can handle unsupported film like shrink sleeves and flexible packaging materials, opening up new opportunities for label converters in value-added short-run applications. Label presses are also getting wider, with a new category of machines up to 26in/670mm which we call mid-web rather than narrow web. These wider formats are better suited to the bigger formats of flexible packaging and shrink sleeves compared with a standard PS label.

Label presses have developed over the years with multiple processes in-line, such as Screen and cold foil and now digital print modules, and label converters are skilled at fast changeovers. This means brand owners can be offered completely new kinds and run lengths of flexible packaging and shrink sleeve products. This is where the niche opportunity exists.

What new digital printing tech will we see at Labelexpo Europe 2019?

I see several technology trends at this year’s Labelexpo. Firstly, single-pass inkjet is moving to wider press widths up to 430mm. Inkjet is a scaleable technology so can technically be used across even wider widths than that.

Secondly, we will see a new generation of pigment, rather than dye-based water-based inkjet technology from Memjet, called DuraLink. System integrator Colordyne will demonstrate a digital print module scalable across mid-web press formats, making it ideal, for example, for flexible packaging.

Thirdly, we see the development of low migration UV inkjet systems.

Finally, there are major developments in electrophotographic press workflows, particularly around flexible packaging. Xeikon will launch a complete digital printing and pouch lamination line, while HP Indigo with its PackReady partners also focuses on flexible packaging.

All of these developments point to labels as a growing market for digital print, but has this always been the case?

When I first started in the label industry in early-to-mid 90’s, Indigo was just starting up, as was Xeikon. Both were toner-based. The presses were slow and not robust enough for industrial print applications like labels.

Inkjet technology has moved through the same labels-specific learning curve and is now proving itself a very versatile solution in terms of ‘traditional’ label workflows.

The narrow-web self-adhesive label industry has evolved through a range of print technologies since the 1970s, moving from letterpress to flexography and including processes like screen-printing, hot and cold foil technologies. The label guys were able to keep the best elements of each process in the same press line – for example, flexo, screen-printing and hot/cold foiling is a common combination of processes. Inkjet is now being incorporated into flexo presses as just another combination process.

The strength of the digital label market has now been recognized by inkjet suppliers moving from the commercial print market to the labels market, developing specialist single pass machines. So we saw companies like EFI, Domino, Durst, FujiFilm, Konica Minolta, Epson and Screen entering the market, and recently Canon, which launches its Oce Labelstream 4000 at Labelexpo Europe. Bobst has moved from the conventional label press market to launch its Mouvent water-based and UV inkjet technology. And at this Labelexpo Bobst launches its first hybrid flexo-label press.

So, the development of Inkjet into labels has had its unique path. But why have labels seemingly taken longer for Inkjet to become established versus, say, the wide-format market?

For inkjet to become established in the labels market a number of technology challenges had to be overcome. Most important, in the labels market, we are applying ink droplets to a fast-moving web rather inkjet heads mounted on an X-Y frame in the wide-format market. This required very accurate drop placement systems and also the ability to dry inks quickly. We saw the development, for example, of LED-UV ‘pinning’ systems which held the drop in place until a final cure on a mercury arc UV lamp.

UV inkjet is a complementary chemistry to UV flexo, so once this technology was robust enough for inline use, it became easy to see how it could work alongside UV flexo in a typical narrow web combination press, as well as in a standalone digital press.

Solvent inkjet never made a mark in labels because solvents have been pretty much removed from the narrow web environment (apart from some specialist gravure applications).

Water-based inks had to overcome the challenge of being (in the first generation) dye based, so lacking lightfastness, and required specialist coatings to work on filmic substrates. The development of pigment-based systems opens up completely new possibilities.

So digital print has more than one potential use for the future?

Yes, I see four main routes for digital printing technology.

1 – The traditional digital label route - a standalone press and with offline finishing. The advantages is that the digital press can just keep running, with zero downtime between jobs and time consuming converting setups moved to a separate machine.

2 – Hybrid is a growing trend for inkjet, now that print speeds are closer to flexo speeds. This means inserting a multi-color digital print module into a combination flexo press. A wide range of configuration possibilities is offered, including any combination of UV flexo, screen, cold foil etc, but the key point is that all printing and finishing is done inline – the ‘traditional’ narrow web model.

At this Labelexpo there are a wide range of examples. Durst, for example, has partnered with Omet for the launch of the XFlex XJet and there are similar systems from traditional narrow web press suppliers like Gallus,/Heidelberg, Mark Andy and MPS.

3 - A third route is to mount a digital printing module - a ‘Print Bar’ the same width as the press - on a rail above a Flexo press. This will be single colour, either black or a spot color adding variable text, barcodes, track and trace information; or an opaque white, used as a replacement for a screen-printing unit. Typically this is done as a first down white when printing film.

4 - The fourth use of inkjet is for jetting ‘functional fluids’, and particularly varnishes. The challenge here is these are more viscous fluids, so prone to clogging the inkjet heads. This is why we see head developments like Xaar’s recirculation technology. Although handling viscous ink is a challenge, it does enable you to build tactile effects including simulation of embossing or de-bossing. It allows a variable spot matt or gloss coating to be applied, for example, to follow a variable digital printed image.

A number of suppliers will be demonstrating these systems at Labelexpo – for example, Gallus/Heidelberg with its Digital Embellishment Unit which is incorporated into the LabelFire hybrid press.

Then we see companies like MGI building complete UV inkjet finishing and embellishment lines, also including variable foiling. Up to now, these tactile effects have only been achievable using a screen printing unit – think for example of ‘grippy’ labels on shower products.

Are all the technical challenges for inkjet for label printing now mostly overcome?

The early challenges are certainly overcome. Now inkjet can run at 75 metres per minute and print at 1200 dpi resolution. So from the speed and quality standpoint, it has improved significantly. If you look at the quality ladder it is as good as UV Flexo but not quite as good as offset or gravure - the territory occupied by the toner-based systems.

The other challenge for UV inkjet is potential migration of UV ink components into foodstuffs, a challenge shared with UV Flexo. The problem only arises if an ink is not 100% cured, and this has led to the development of more reactive photo-initiator systems and work around Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) - for example proper servicing of UV lamps and measurement of dose at the web surface. Low migration (LM) ink systems use heavier molecules, so again, this has been an issue for potential clogging of inkjet heads. At Labelexpo, several inkjet press manufacturers including Durst and Screen are demonstrating LM systems, often including nitrogen inerting to lower the effect of oxygen inhibiting the curing process.

On water-based inkjet inks, we now see the evolution of new pigment-based ink systems overcoming the limitations of dye-based.

Is Direct to shape inkjet threatening label printing?

I think that direct to shape inkjet printing is fascinating, but it will never replace conventional labels due to speed and cost considerations.

If you look at the history of Labelexpo, this market has evolved, adapted and exploited whatever technology is best for producing decorated containers. Direct to shape technology is simply another form of labelling, and we already see suppliers like Mimaki exhibiting such systems without raising an eyebrow.

I see a similar history to shrink sleeves. Labelexpo was originally a show dominated by pressure-sensitive labels. When shrink sleeves arrived these were said to be more packaging than labels. But now label converters print onto shrink sleeves. The market has decided it wants this, then so too does Labelexpo!

So Labelexpo has grown into a product decoration show. A significant part of the label industry has always been heat transfer labels, and in principle, these are little different to direct-to-shape. Similarly flexible packaging when it first arrived at the show caused some pushback. But the label community is made up of very entrepreneurial companies who will use whatever opportunity comes along to continue to grow their business.

Labelexpo has been a story of constant adaption and evolution. Label converters have been solving problems by combining and blending technology and never standing still.

Labelexpo Europe takes place between 24-27 September 2019. For more information, visit the website: www.labelexpo-europe.com.

Marcus Timson