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The Mike Fairley column - Labelexpo at 40

Labelexpo has come a long way since its first edition

It hardly seems possible that we are coming to the end of 40 years since the very first dedicated label show was held at the old Horticultural Halls, near Victoria Station in London in 1980. More simply called Labelex at that time, the show was an interesting mix of industry suppliers and their UK agents, as well as some key label converters, between them making up a core of just 47 exhibitors.

A dedicated show conference program was also held at the nearby Royal Westminster Hotel on ‘The economics of the total labelling operation. The fledgling Labels & Labelling International (founded in 1979) was the show’s sponsoring magazine. 

These activities all proved to be the beginnings of a publishing, exhibition and conference partnership that eventually became the Labelex/Cowise Group in 1990 and then, in 1998, a key part of the newly-formed Tarsus Group.

Run annually in England for the first three years, the show soon grew its exhibitor base to a level in which the leading label press manufacturers and ancillary suppliers looked for a move to a more international venue and exhibition facility. This led to the show, now designated as Labelexpo Europe, being held at the Rogier Center in downtown Brussels in 1985.

A second show at the Rogier Center followed in 1987, before moving in 1989 to the newly-built Hall 12 at the Brussels Expo venue, one of the largest and best-connected exhibition centers in Europe, where it still remains to this day. Indeed, in 2019, it is safe to say that Labelexpo Europe has become the world’s leading event for the label and package printing industry – with more products, more launches and more live demonstrations than ever before. 

It’s perhaps surprising to note that neither of the first two shows at the Rogier Center in the 1980s never reached more than 100 exhibitors and just a few thousand visitors. Yet this year the industry can look forward to seeing more than 600 global exhibitors, between them showing a full range of machinery and materials for both the label and package printing industries, as well as anticipating around 40,000 visitors from all over the world. 

That’s quite an achievement for a dedicated niche show that perhaps represents no more than 10 percent or so of the global printing industry. Even so, it is probably fair to say that Labelexpo Europe, now additionally encompassing the narrow and mid web part of the flexible packaging industry, can also claim to be one of the leading innovative and biggest print related shows worldwide. 

Beyond Europe 
But it’s not just in Europe where Labelexpo shows and events have made their mark. Labelexpo shows in Brussels, as already mentioned, were introduced in 1985 and have run every two years since then; in Chicago in 1989 and again in 1990 and every two years thereafter at the Donald E Stephens Convention Center. Later came, initially, a show in Singapore and then, more recently, shows in India, China and Thailand, as well as Label Summit events throughout Latin America and Asia.

This is all a very far cry from the late 1970s when the idea of a specialist label show and conferences were first being conceived. At that time, label converters that wanted to find out about new equipment, products or applications for the new world of self-adhesive label technology would tend to read the packaging or printing trade press in the hope of finding some label news or a possible relevant article. 

The same applied to trade shows. The label printer went to drupa, Print or Ipex in the hope of seeing new label technology, materials and products spread around numerous halls. The possibility of a dedicated label show or a magazine was only just being considered. Even niche label-related conferences were few and far between.

It was the emergence of pressure-sensitive materials, new types of narrow web presses, screen printing, foil stamping, new die-cutting solutions, the early days of UV curing, etc, that cemented the growth of Labelexpo shows. From a world that had been dominated by wet-glue label printing (over 70 percent of all labels), largely on sheet-fed presses, came a major need to inform, educate, see and hear everything about the fast-growing world of self-adhesive materials, technology and applications. Still very much the focus of Labelexpo shows even today. 

Other key factors that aided the growth of the dedicated label events during the early years were the beginnings of retail barcode scanning and the requirement for new types of thermally-sensitive price-weight label materials and variable information printing (VIP) – all based on self-adhesives – advances in inks and varnishes, the new demand for filmic substrates, and a growing requirement for embellishing labels with metallic and raised (embossed) effects.

By the late 1980s there were major environmental pressures coming on vinyl materials, the main non-paper substrate used by the pressure-sensitive label sector at that time, with new vinyl replacement label films such as polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene appearing at Labelexpo shows in Europe and North America.

In terms of press technology, the 1980s – certainly in both Europe and Australia/New Zealand – was very much about the growth of rotary letterpress printing technology. Indeed, as many as 70 percent of new roll-label presses installed in the latter part of the 1980s (and seen at Labelexpo shows) were rotary letterpress − predominately Gallus and Ko-Pack machines. Today, rotary letterpress technology makes up no more than a few percent of new roll-label press installations as UV flexo – and digital – have become the dominant roll-label printing technologies being installed worldwide.

Digital impact 
There can be little doubt that the biggest impact on the label industry and seen in the growth of Labelexpo shows and Summits since the 1990s has been the evolution of the digital technologies, from the first steps into the commercial application of computerized digital design and artwork for labels coming from Purrup and DISC (now both evolved into Esko) that have made such an impact on today’s label industry, as well as the initial developments in stand-alone black-and-white digital printing presses.

From the mid 1990s onwards, Labelexpo shows were – and still are – at the forefront of showing the new technologies of color print-on-demand digital label printing. From the very first showing and then installations of Xeikon and Indigo machines in 1995, and then also inkjet technology in the 2000s onwards, Labelexpo shows have significantly tracked this fast-evolving technology to the point where digital in Europe now makes up something like 50 percent of all new label press installations.

Is it safe to say that Labelexpo shows and Label Summits still have a future? Well certainly, there is no slowing down of innovation and change. Digital solutions of all kinds still have a long way to go. New models of electrophotographic and inkjet presses continue to be launched. New generations of both entry level and complex high-end analogue/digital hybrid presses are still evolving, digital pre-press continues to be upgraded, and Management Information Systems (MIS) are revolutionizing the way companies are managed and perform. 

Where else can you see and compare all the different technologies and products in one place in just a few days? Where can you listen to and discuss the fast-changing world of labels with the leading global experts? Where else can you go to see a glimpse into the future of your business and how to grow it successfully and profitability?

As for the fast-changing pressures and demands on environmental issues, sustainability, waste management, recyclability and recycling, energy, workflow and cost-efficiency, life-cycle analysis, cradle-to-grave materials usage, etc, there’s a whole ongoing mini-Labelexpo area on these topics alone.

Apart from self-adhesive labels, the Labelexpo shows today also offer label converters the opportunity to further broaden their business into shrink sleeves, into in-mold labels, and a whole variety of flexible packaging applications that include pouches, sachets, pot lids, and much more.

The label industry, with already more than 20 years of investing in and developing digital printing, has a wealth of digital knowledge that the flexible packaging industry had not yet really begun to acquire until very recently, or has been exposed to or seen a demand for. 

That is all changing. Brand owners have experienced what the label industry has achieved with a whole range of new digital solutions and applications. They now want the same kinds of benefits with their packaging. Labelexpo shows therefore now provide an ideal backdrop for the label converter to extend their expertise and investment into the world of package printing.

Certainly, few can doubt that Labelexpo shows and Label Summits around the world have played a crucial role in the education, development and growth of a, now global, label industry during in its 40-year show history. Indeed, it’s perhaps hard to see how the world of labels could continue to grow and expand at the rate it has without the platform that Labelexpo shows have provided since 1980. There is still an undoubted real need for what the shows can provide. 

Long may Labelexpo shows continue. 


Mike Fairley is Labels & Labeling's strategic consultant.

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