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Inkjet’s New Frontier

(March 2014) posted on Tue Mar 18, 2014

Most industrial applications today remain the realm of analog printing processes, particularly screen printing, but inkjet is rapidly gaining momentum.

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By Ron Gilboa

The highly specialized inkjet systems used in electronics printing are designed specifically for these applications and are often supplied by vendors that integrate custom-built inkjet printing units into complete manufacturing lines. One inkjet developer from this sector in the news recently is the French company Ceradrop, purchased in 2013 by the MGI Group. The company’s CeraPrinter line of inkjet machines can be supplied in a wide variety of configurations with up to 20 printheads ranging from 4-150 pl drop volume and up to 1024 nozzles.

As the technology for jetting functional fluids rather than pigments advances, inkjet printing is continually being used for higher-tech applications that incorporate printed electronics. Solar panels, OLED displays, touch screens, “smart” cards, and RFID antennae are just some of the possibilities. As Kovio, a company that is using digital printing to create RFID tags that can be incorporated into a wide range of consumer products noted on its website, “Printed silicon electronics combine the intelligence and functionality of silicon semiconductors and the low-cost manufacturing paradigm of graphics printing. Instead of using conventional color inks to print magazines, books, and newspapers, this new paradigm uses functional fluids to print integrated circuits, sensors, and displays. This revolutionary technology brings the value proposition of silicon-based integrated circuits to industries that until now have not been able to embed integrated circuits in their products.”

Inkjet’s ability to incorporate functional electronics into nontraditional goods is being leveraged in industries far removed from the graphic arts. Among the most exciting developments has been the emergence of “wearable” electronics, clothing with the ability to track the location of the person wearing them, monitor their vital signs, and much more. Such technology has obvious military applications but is beginning to appear in consumer goods such as baby garments that incorporate monitoring devices. The possibilities are endless.

Preparing for the future
This article has shown you a sampling of today’s industrial inkjet applications and a small representation of the vendors that are active in this space. It has taken several decades of technology development, but digital printing is now providing the same advantages to a myriad of industrial applications that it brought to other markets.

Is inkjet ready for a specific application you may be considering, and are you ready to take such a significant step? Changing your business to meet the needs of mass customization, digital production, and on-demand generation requires careful planning. No one knows your business better then you or can better assess your tolerance for risk and the learning curve that is inevitable with such technology substitution.

My advice is to continually educate yourself. Read, attend conferences and shows where industrial inkjet technology is featured, get demonstrations of products that may apply, and go on tours where the products are being used in the field. Learn everything you can about the technology, its capabilities, and its limitations. Test, and then test some more. Many machines have comparable specifications but a slight difference could mean the difference between unattended, cost-effective output and a constant production headache. Work with your vendor on technology-implementation and business-development plans, because they will be invested in your success as well. Finally, digital migration is a team effort, so remember that the trained professionals you hire and collaborate with will be your best assets.

Ron Gilboa is a director of InfoTrends’ Functional & Industrial Printing Advisory Service and has been involved in graphics communications since 1980. Ron’s skills and experience span print industries including industrial, functional, general commercial, direct mail, transaction, packaging, and photo printing as well as vertical industries. Ron is an expert in developing market strategy, go-to-market plans, research, forecasts, and content for emerging industrial print segments.


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