The recent Labelexpo event in Brussels, Belgium once again showed how prominent digital technology has become in the label industry. Digital products and services were everywhere, not just for printers and presses in Hall 9, but really in all corners—for inspection, web management, authentication, color matching, variable data printing (VDP) and even for augmented reality and other means of connecting labels to digital content.

One sign there’s no going back is that for top manufacturers of narrow web flexo presses, Labelexpo 2015 was an event where a digital strategy was essentially mandatory: all of the big names (e.g., Gallus, Mark Andy, MPS, Nilpeter, and Omet) had digital presses, all but one of them hybrids. Why hybrids? For flexo technology vendors, this approach is the first line of defense against the onslaught of stand-alone digital presses, which now account for at least 25% of all annual press placements in the world. With hybrids, flexo vendors can offer digital print technology that’s still substantially based on their own manufacturing and expertise.

As to digital vendors, all the famous ones were exhibiting, and dozens of less well known companies were present as well. An encompassing view of digital printing at Labelexpo inevitably includes technologies that vary widely in type and nature, from B2-sized presses to tabletop printers to wide format proofers. The overarching message for these technologies is that they’re all doing well. Besides the “sold” signs on presses from Durst, FFEI, HP Indigo, Xeikon, and a number of their competitors, other types of printers also sold well during the event.

Today’s market is benign for digital printing in general—besides the famous digital presses, thousands of wide format inkjet printers operate on the premises of converters, brands, and designers, and other thousands of tabletop label printers operate at end-users’ sites (mostly) and at print service providers’ locations (some). Digital printing is thus welcome in many corners of the market, not just the best-known press arena. Ultimately driving this situation are the end customers, namely the thousands of brand owners who order more frequently and in shorter runs, for marketing and efficiency reasons, spurring the kinds of print jobs where digital is most helpful.

One final, overview-type note about Labelexpo 2015: the direct printing of flexible packaging and folding cartons is now an established theme of the event. Visitors to the 2011 and 2013 editions saw package printing workshops, with digital and analog vendors running narrow-web presses to print flexible packaging and folding cartons. The 2015 show had its own such workshop. HP Indigo, which leads all label press vendors in targeting package printing, showcased in its booth the HP Indigo 20000, with a 30" web specifically designed to handle flexible packaging media.

Packaging was also strong enough to draw a surprising first-time exhibitor to Labelexpo 2015—Soma Engineering. Located in the Czech Republic, Soma makes “mid-web” flexo presses for the flexible packaging industry. While label converting is overwhelmingly narrow-web (up to 18"), Soma showed a 24" version of its Optima CI, the only central impression flexo press at the show.

Mid-web presses, generally from 22" to 40", are a rare choice for labels but a common one for flexible packaging converting, and this is Soma’s focus (a 32" Optima is also available). As to central impression flexo, it’s famous for printing on a wide range of media, from thin film to board stock. As a new face at the show in Brussels, Soma had a crowded booth. The converters were intent not just on flexible packaging, but also on the edgier label categories (e.g., shrink sleeves and mold labels) that Optima can print in up to eight colors at speeds up to 300 mpm/984 fpm.

Resolve: even after so many years, Labelexpo is still fresh and dynamic; its surprising youthfulness is due to the label market’s willingness to embrace digital technology, and even the direct printing of packaging, as strategic options.