After a 4-year hiatus, due to a variety of external factors, Labelexpo, the flagship show for the label and packaging industry, returned to Brussels this September with notable buzz and excitement. Despite an almost unbearable heatwave hitting the city during the time of the show, the halls and stands were busier than ever with many across the industry keen to collaborate once again. I have now worked in the print and packaging sector for over five years and, especially over the last two of those years, I’ve realised that there is no better way to enhance my own knowledge than seeing the technology and connecting with people first-hand at a trade show. With this being my first time at Labelexpo, I was more excited than ever to uncover the key trends being discussed by 600 exhibitors across nine halls.
Automation is on the increase everywhere we look at the moment, and it was a key trend under discussion at this year’s Labelexpo.
Beyond automated setup, integration of presses into the wider factory network was also a big topic under discussion, as well as everything from end-to-end colour management, real-time machine monitoring and reporting production data through the cloud. We are also seeing the application of machine learning and artificial intelligence linked to on-press cameras and other sensors. Overall, we’re seeing a big shift towards a joined up continuum of automation technology that runs right throughout pre-press, printing and finishing.
The benefits of this include waste reduction, increased uptime, and the reduced need for manual intervention – increasingly important as the industry’s recruitment difficulties show no signs of easing.
The show itself featured a dedicated ‘Automation Arena’ that highlighted these trends, demonstrating a full ‘lights out’ production workflow from file creation to digital printing and converting.
Hand in hand with automation, Labelexpo also had a big focus on productivity this year, in particular Expanded Colour Gamut (ECG) printing. Daily presentations by an ECG expert took place on the show floor, examining all aspects of fixed colour palette printing, where up to seven inks (CMYK+OGV) were used to reproduce spot colours. This was echoed by many exhibitors from ink companies, to workflow companies.
Sustainability also continues to be a key trend, led in large part by the growing number of legislative and brand mandates for a circular economy. This means diverting packaging from landfill and towards recovery and clean separation of materials, which then become feedstock for new labels and packaging products.
This has led to the increasing incorporation of post-consumer recycled (PCR) material into new label face papers, films and release liners.
Another key point of interest is a resurgence of attention on linerless labels. Linerless is a well-established technology in the logistics and industrial labels sectors, but has yet to make a significant impact in the primary label market. It is here that an increasing research and development effort is being focused.
Labelexpo itself led by example – implementing a number of eco-friendly practices. The aisle carpet used during the event was entirely recycled after the show. All feature areas were built using reusable systems and onsite signage was recycled post-event to reduce the environmental footprint.
Additionally, Labelexpo partnered with the Woodland Trust on an initiative that enabled attendees to scan a QR code which allowed them to plant a virtual tree at the show. For every virtual tree planted, The Woodland Trust planted a real tree. I was able to easily get a free-of-charge shuttle-bus from the show to the airport. This was part of another initiative to reduce the show’s carbon footprint.
Digital embellishment was another key theme at Labelexpo. The ability to produce packaging and labels that feature metallic, reflective, thermochromic special effects or embellishments enables packaging to reach a new level of shelf appeal within the competitive retail space, heightening the consumer experience. This is especially key for products such as perfume, cosmetics and luxury goods packaging.
While embellishing has traditionally relied on analogue methods, we are now seeing this being able to be achieved digitally – through toner technology, inkjet varnishes, digital metallisation and laser die cutting. Additionally, retro-fittable inkjet modules can turn conventional printing or converting machinery into hybrid systems with the ability to apply tactile varnishes, or variable white, black and spot colours.
Although it will always remain at its core a labels show, Labelexpo continues the trend seen in 2019 toward short-run, added value flexible packaging. This reflects the fact that more label converters are adding flexible packaging to their product offering to become a one-stop shop. Visitors to Labelexpo had the opportunity to follow a Flexible Packaging Trail, which takes in both digital and conventional press technologies, flexpack material constructions, coating, laminating, ink and curing requirements, inline and near-line decoration options, QC and migration testing.
In addition, there was a dedicated Label Academy flexible packaging masterclass, which explored best practices in UV printing of flexible packaging.
Smart Labels and IoT integration
The integration of smart technologies into labels was another standout trend at Labelexpo 2023. Smart labels embedded with RFID tags, NFC technology and QR codes enable enhanced product tracking, authentication and engagement. These labels enable consumers to access product information, promotions and even provide real-time feedback through smartphones, creating interactive and personalised experiences.
Overall, there was certainly a lot to unpack from his year’s Labelexpo, and that was before I even looked at all the samples and freebies I brought home with me! It’s been a truly exciting year for the labels and packaging space and I’m looking forward to seeing how the landscape continues to evolve.
So there we have it – another successful show complete. With FESPA, interpack and Labelexpo a success, it sure has been a busy year in terms of the major global industry exhibitions for Team AD. We can all now breathe a sigh of relief… until FESPA and drupa next year that is!