40 Years of Labelexpo: A Showcase for Innovation & Change

1980s: Makeready in Minutes

Go back to the 1980s and the early years of the show, and you will find a decade of technology innovation. As mentioned earlier, the retail sector was undergoing significant change, with major developments in automated checkouts, retail barcode scanning and demand for 100 percent barcode readability. Converters were being pushed toward ever higher quality, to work to new ISO standards, to produce faster, and also to be more cost conscious.

Such were the demands on converters that machinery, ancillary equipment and materials suppliers were all developing new solution and products. Labelexpo Europe in the second half of the 1980s and then the first Labelexpo Americas in 1989, reflected these trends.

All the leading label press manufacturers of that time—Gallus, Nilpeter, Edale, Mark Andy and Webtron—showed the latest innovations in both rotary letterpress and UV flexo, as well as the early versions of combination process presses, while Gerhardt Engraving (now Rotometrics) presented magnetic diecutting technology—something that was to significantly change the way that labels were cut to shape. Newfoil displayed some of the first hot-foil label presses as far back as Labelex 1982.

The registration desk is a hub of activity at Labelexpo Americas 2008.

A major advance in prepress was also now taking place, with the development of electronic design and laser composition technology by companies such as D.I.S.C. and Purup Electronics, advances that were to take makeready times for flexo and letterpress down from hours to minutes.

Such advances enabled the designer to create and place on a computer screen all the elements for producing labels—positives, negatives, screened text, key lines, logo scanning, choke and spread, step-and-repeat, bar codes and dispro, right up to making plate-ready films. Undoubtedly one of the most significant advances dedicated to making labels easier and faster to produce.

Important innovations during this period included the introduction of laser-engraved ceramic rolls, the introduction of the chambered doctor blade, the launch of Mark Andy’s Quick Change technology and the Stork RSI (Rotary Screen Integration) for the roll-to-roll graphics industry. Both thermal direct and thermal transfer substrates now became important for the fast-growing retail price-weigh labeling sector. Materials suppliers now became a key part of the exhibitor profile.

The late 1980s also saw more use of plastic bottles, tubs and pots, with substrate suppliers such as Fasson starting to show the first pressure-sensitive (non-PVC) filmic label materials. The ongoing demand for all kinds of industrial labels was also requiring high-performance and long-life filmic and synthetic substrates.

1990s: UV + Digital Dawns

Moving into the 1990s, Labelexpo shows during the first half of the decade were now seeing a substantial growth in the use of UV flexo, with major developments continuing to take place in flexo plates, anilox rollers and UV flexo ink technology. While the 1980s (especially in Europe) had been a period in which rotary letterpress was the technology to invest in, the move in the 1990s was now to UV flexo, and to UV flexo combination presses—rotary screen and UV flexo, UV flexo and hot foil.

It was still a period of technology innovations for the label industry, but the second half of the 1990s saw new innovations that were set to fundamentally change the world of label production—namely the launch of digital printing with both Indigo and Xeikon brining digital electrophotographic toner technology to the market. Labelexpo 1996 also experienced its first showing of laser die cutting. Although both developments created much excitement, it would still be a number of years before these technologies would gain wider market acceptance.

2000s: Globalization & Multiprocess

The show floor at Labelexpo Americas 2006

It was to be the period between 2000 and 2009 before digital printing started to become accepted by brand owners and converters for what it could bring to labels. Multi-versions and variations, personalization, short runs and reduced time to market: This all coincided with a growing requirement for value solutions, brand engagement, and the label industry moving toward a service-based industry, and the brand owner customers becoming ever-more global.

At Labelexpo Americas 2002, Mark Andy showed the DT 2200, a combination of 6-color digital inkjet and flexo printing. The following year, at Labelexpo Europe 2003, HP Indigo launched the first WS 4000 series of digital presses, and the world of labels began a major transformation. Labelexpo shows in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 also saw the rapid evolution of inkjet printing. EFI Jetrion launched its Jetrion 4000 Series inkjet printing system in 2006 and Domino its N-Series inkjet presses with Kyocera print jetting assemblies, combining the productivity of flexo with the flexibility of digital.

However, the 2000s were not all just about digital. Advances in flexo technology from 2005 brought label converters the benefits of servo drive technology, the introduction of multi-substrate presses, closed loop inspection systems and advanced IT. Labelexpo 2007 saw Nilpeter launch its sleeve-based offset platform. Shows in the mid-2000s also created a buzz around RFID, with many exhibitors showcasing the technology.

Labelexpo shows in the 2000s were very much at the forefront of changes coming in all areas of the environment, sustainability, waste management, hygiene accreditation, food-safe inks, supply chain logistics and information management—all having an impact on flexo and digital converters. Major advances in MIS, e-business and quality management were also now taking place.

2010s: Inline Finishing

This brings us to the current decade of Labelexpo shows from 2010. Labelexpo Europe 2011 saw a blizzard of important new products introduced—ever-more digital printing and offline, nearline and inline finishing solutions, new self-adhesive, shrink sleeve and transfer decoration labels, and flexible packaging solutions.

With so much change, the Labelexpo shows introduced technology workshops and master classes. One of the first was a workshop that compared print quality and performance across liquid toner, dry toner, inkjet and HD flexo. This was followed in 2012 by a laser diecutting workshop aimed at highlighting the commercial availability of the technology.

A crowded show floor at Labelexpo Europe 2007

Complementing the workshops has been an ever-increasing range of conference sessions and master classes—on digital label and package printing, on shrink sleeve technology and, this year, also on flexible packaging, label substrates, and inks and coatings.

Labelexpo shows, wherever they are held in the world, are always about exposure to working machinery, knowledge and education; being able to see and discuss the latest technology, materials and solutions; and being at the forefront of promoting an industry that today is one of the most advanced and automated of all the printing sectors.

Flexo and digital are undoubtedly the two major printing technologies today, but the last three Labelexpos have seen a growing range and variety of hybrid flexo/inkjet presses being introduced. They are bringing new levels of creativity and value-added printed products to not only the label market but also to the world of package printing.

Labelexpo Europe 2019 will almost certainly set new records. With more than 600 exhibitors to see, it will undoubtedly stimulate a whole new level of investment into what has become one of the most dynamic areas of printing.

About the Author

headshot Mike Fairley
Mike Fairley is a strategic consultant for Labelexpo Global Series.