Now that most of the year's big trade shows are behind us, we can think back on what we've seen. The September Label Expo Americas show in Chicago offered what we believe is a good lesson—for a print-related trade show to stay vital, labels and packaging are a key source of longevity. The Rosemont exhibition halls had their usual forest of label booths, and the aisles were crowded with converters. This show now has a very long history; the first Label Expo that we know of in the U.S. took place in 1989. Most trade shows fade or disappear long before the 25-year mark, and that's especially true in the printing industry. Labels, however, are a different story—there's no displacing them in consumer products, and they also tend to grow in industrial uses.
That said, even this famous label show has added a focus on packaging, which is another print market that's immune to screen-based competition. For that field, one big Chicago show remains this year: Pack Expo (November 2-4). Printing there will mostly be for logistics (e.g., coding and bar code labeling), but HP Indigo will show its color EP (electrophotographic) web press there for flexible packaging. In addition to its longevity angle, Label Expo Americas had a few other themes, which are discussed below.
HP Indigo still leads the EP market, and currently places more label presses annually than any digital or conventional label press vendor. During Label Expo, the company launched its WS6800 and also showcased its 29" 20000 web press for flexible packaging and labels. HP Indigo's closest rival, Xeikon, is the only other major supplier of EP label presses. Xeikon had its own news at the show—a new, high-speed version of its dry toner EP print technology called Cheetah (named for the world's fastest land animal). In the wings is Xeikon's liquid toner technology, "Trillium," which the company says will soon have its first beta installation in France to print direct mail (not labels) and in process color.
HP Indigo and Xeikon have huge head start versus inkjet in the contest for the label converting application. A tide of younger inkjet rivals, almost all of which have been in the market for less than five years, are making their presence known too. These companies had their own news at the show, which we'll excerpt here:
• In June, Epson announced that it had placed its 100th SurePress water-based inkjet label press, having launched it only in late 2011.
• At Label Expo Americas, EFI Jetrion announced that the installed base of its 4000 Series products has reached 200 systems, accounting by itself for more than a third of the installed base for inkjet label presses.
Both of these companies are far behind the EP leaders, though; neither has as many installations as Xeikon does, and each has just a small fraction of HP Indigo's 1,200+ installations. That said, the tallies for Epson and EFI are still important. Now that color inkjet has about a seven-year history in the label market, it is capable of competing more effectively with EP technology. Epson's installed base is well established after just 30 months of marketing, and EFI Jetrion now has many installations with one or more finishing stations inline.
Presses that combine process color inkjet with conventional presses are another theme for the 2014 label printing equipment industry. Mark Andy's Digital Series was on display in one of Label Expo's biggest booths. Although the system has just two betas installed, it was still a headliner. A variety of companies are now pushing hybrid printing, ranging from established flexo press suppliers (e.g., Mark Andy, Omet) to inkjet specialists (e.g., FFEI, PPSI, SPGPrints). There are also a number of other companies that offer retrofitted presses with inkjet, including Innovative Print Technologies, Industrial Inkjet, PPSI, and SuperWeb.
As is the case for hybrid printing, combining printing and digital cutting inline is not a new concept. Nevertheless, a number of companies have recently begun offering end-to-end, "all-in-one" solutions. Colordyne, Durst, EFI Jetrion, and Komori/INX all supply presses with inline laser cutter products, and each of these companies had a new offering at Label Expo Americas.
In the tabletop printer market, Allen Datagraph, Afinia, and Primera are offering printers and digital cutters for near-line use. These companies were joined by at least two competitors (Okidata and Graph Tech of Japan) during Label Expo Americas.
Enhanced Tabletop Color Label Printers
At Label Expo 2014, about a dozen exhibitors offered enhanced tabletop color label printers, including Afinia, Allen Datagraph, Colordyne, Epson, Graph Tech, Kanematsu, Neuralog, Okidata, Primera, Printware, RTI Digital, and VIP Color. All of these products target small converters and print entrepreneurs. Tabletop color label printers are moving up in terms of productivity and reliability, while also shifting into durable label applications.
This year's Label Expo Americas event provided an excellent opportunity to view and consider the progress of digital print technology in the label market. Digital technology is now everywhere, and this is positive news for vendors of EP and inkjet label print systems alike. As seen at the show, the options are increasing and improving, all in the context of a print market this is growing overall—not just for digital printing!