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Inkjet’s New Frontier

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

Many screen printers working in commercial markets such as display graphics have long since confronted the reality that digital printing is changing their businesses. The question was how quickly they needed to embrace the technology to ensure success in their businesses for years to come.

In the broad field of industrial printing, where analog processes such as screen printing are still predominate, printers are now facing the same question. Because digital technology is in an earlier stage of adoption in many of these specialized applications, many printers remain on the sidelines taking stock of technology developments. Yet, prompted by many of the same market drivers that spurred the growth of wide-format inkjet printing, manufacturers are investing heavily in industrial printing technology and they are steadily making important inroads. For many industrial printers, the time to embrace digital technology in at least a measured way to ensure future proficiency may be at hand.

This article provides an overview of industrial printing, the market dynamics that are driving interest in digital solutions, and some of the sectors where inkjet is gaining market share. I’ll mention vendors who are developing solutions specifically for industrial purposes, though because we’ll be covering so many applications, these should be considered examples and not a comprehensive list.

A complex, fragmented market
At InfoTrends, we like to define industrial printing through three unique differentiators that are common in almost all of these applications:
• Printing is part of a manufacturing process for another type of product.
• It enables a product’s functionality or adds a decorative element, or both.
• It uses specialized inks, toners, or other technical materials or fluids (e.g., resins and conductive compounds).

To those unfamiliar with industrial printing, the vast range of products comprised by this field and the functional characteristics that are achievable can be staggering. Some of the more common industries where industrial printing takes place include automotive, construction materials, energy (including solar cells and printed batteries), printed electronics, original equipment manufacturing, consumer products, biomedical, and flat digital displays, but there are many others.

Today, most industrial printing is performed using mass-production analog technologies, particularly screen printing. For a variety of reasons including limitations in the printhead technology and the complexity of these applications compared to mainstream print markets, inkjet’s role in industrial printing has been limited until recently. We at InfoTrends, however, believe the path to inkjet adoption is clear and will follow a progression similar to what we experienced in wide-format inkjet: market development, rapid growth (where some industrial applications including ceramics and 3-D printing are today), and competitive turbulence (where wide-format signage and display printing are now) followed by market saturation and decline.

While industrial printing is evolving in a similar fashion as wide-format printing as a market,  it’s important to note that the similarities end here. True, some wide-format printers can be used in certain industrial applications, but for the most part, the printing systems are of a different ilk. They are typically purpose-built for specific applications and designed as integrated parts of a high-volume manufacturing process incorporating pre- and post- printing processes that ensure the permanency and durability of the final print. The decorative part of this market typically uses inks that are similar to those in graphics printing; but on the functional side, jettable fluids such as resins and conductive compounds are being developed specifically for the needs and industry standards of each product category.

The digital advantage
Digital printing offers many of the same advantages to the industrial sector that it brought to other market segments where it has taken root.

Customer: Demands for shorter turnaround, smaller batch productions, and faster times to market aren’t unique to commercial sectors such as P-O-P. In-plant shops and contract printers serving industrial markets can reduce or even eliminate make-ready times, delivering jobs faster and without the minimum quantity requirements of their analog methods. Additionally, the limited patterns and designs that characterized markets such as construction and home-décor materials will be a thing of the past.

Mass customization: Consumers are increasingly looking for individualized products that meet their needs. Custom cell-phone cases that carry consumers’ names over their choice of backgrounds and home-décor products such as wallcoverings printed to a customer’s exact specifications are just two examples. Mass customization requires a new business model that is based on just-in-time manufacturing. Digital printing enables customized products to be produced in short runs while optimizing the supply chain to take advantage of online ordering, reduced warehousing costs, and hub-and-spoke distribution models. It could even bring some manufacturing back to local markets and reduce the trend of outsourcing.

Operational benefits: For in-plant printing facilities, the trend toward shorter-run production demands different resource management strategies that lend themselves perfectly to digital printing. Web-based digital store fronts allow jobs to be submitted with minimal manual labor, enabling faster response time, better load balancing of production resources, and maximum utilization of output devices. The ability to synch printing with just-in-time delivery schedules, or on demand, also reduces raw material inventory and streamlines the supply-chain operation. In addition to allowing more jobs to be processed more quickly, digital printing reduces waste when optimized correctly, a key consideration in many industrial applications. Finally, while there may be no substitute for a well-trained workforce, digital printing typically requires less manpower than analog processes.

Environmental benefits: Just as in the commercial graphics space, many industrial printers are looking for their next investments to be environmentally friendly. By displacing multistep printing processes, inkjet printing reduces material consumption as well as power and water costs. It also reduces the amount of ink used since each droplet lands in its intended location with no overspray or spread.

InfoTrends firmly believes that these trends will continue to drive a digital transformation in industrial printing, from an estimated $30 billion (worldwide) in 2012 to an estimated $107 billion in 2016. Many industrial inkjet applications are in the development phase at this point and the pace of progress will vary by market needs, technological maturity, operational benefits, and the cost of doing business using these new solutions. An example we can all relate to is 3-D printing, which was introduced in 1984 and now in 2014 is surging ahead through rapid growth a mere 30 years later! We’ll examine some industrial markets where interesting developments are happening in the remainder of the article.

 

Ceramic tile
In the past decade, digital printing of ceramic tiles has evolved from a novelty application to an established high-volume decoration process that continues to gain worldwide acceptance. Currently, over 6 billion square meters of ceramic tiles are printed annually by inkjet printers, with the installed base of equipment representing $1 billion of machine sales. Since 2010, the number of vendors offering ceramic inkjet printers has grown, and sales of digital equipment now exceed those of traditional analog printing lines. Experts in the ceramic industry estimate that 60-70% of tiles will be digitally decorated within the next three to five years.

Endless patterns are available now to emulate natural and manmade designs. Imaging is done directly onto raw tiles and then finished in traditional high-temperature kilns, a process that dramatically changes the color and appearance of the printed inks. This is a challenging production environment for any printing process, but inkjet’s results are nothing short of astonishing.

Beyond providing excellent reproduction quality, digital printing has brought a change in the value-chain dynamics of the tile industry, opening new opportunities for producers who employ digital decoration. Manufacturers can plan for shorter product lifecycles in addition to offering more custom options and greater product differentiation.

Two printhead manufacturers, Xaar and Fuji Dimatix, spearheaded this transformation by developing heads that were capable of jetting the aggressive inks used in ceramic printing. After several years of work by these firms to commercialize the technology, printer OEMs in Europe and Asia took the lead in developing systems designed for use in tile production facilities. In Europe, the C3 printer from Cretaprint (purchased in 2012 by EFI) is capable of printing 50-150 linear ft/min and uses an EFI front end designed specifically for ceramic printing. With the largest share of worldwide tile production done in China, a range of Asian OEMs are vying for market share. One company that exemplifies the rapidly growing machine market there is Teckwin, which has claimed that sales of their ceramic-tile printers have doubled each year since entering the field in 2010.

Furniture manufacturing
The US furniture manufacturing industry is made up of around 20,000 companies with about $60 billion in combined annual revenue, according to Hoovers. Included in this group are prominent US-based manufacturers such as Herman Miller and La-Z-Boy, as well as several major names that do some manufacturing here including Hunter Douglas and IKEA.

Increasingly, many of these manufacturers are changing their product lineups seasonally. The changes can be as simple as switching out a slip cover to match the season or as extreme as replacing the entire set. As consumers become more accustomed to having a greater range of choices, their demand for customizable furniture will grow and digital printing enables
manufacturers to capitalize on the trend. Recently, IKEA began offering limited runs of upholstery-quality fabric in their stores, allowing consumers to purchase the material by the yard to create custom interiors. With advancements in inkjet technology, IKEA’s next step could be offering fully customized upholstery for a premium price. A variety of print-service providers have already been serving this niche on a smaller scale with custom-printed leather and other fabrics to allow for fully personalized furniture and décor.

Furniture applications for digital printing aren’t limited to the upholstery. A number of high-speed systems design specifically for printing onto wood and other surfaces used in manufacturing furniture, cabinets, doors and laminates have been introduced in the past few years. Two examples from Europe are the German company Hymmen, which partnered with Xaar to develop the single-pass Jupiter system capable of producing about 80,000 sq ft/hr., and the Spanish company Barberán, which offers systems for a variety of direct printing applications onto wood, MDF board, and similar materials.

Construction materials
The US construction industry was worth $1.3 trillion in 2011 according to the US Census, with some key opportunities for digital printing. The first is glass, estimated to be a $22 billion market in the US alone. Beyond the advantage of allowing product to be printed on demand, digital printing enables multiple effects to be achieved on each piece of glass more easily. Sheets can be printed with a design and a gradation screen for privacy in a single step, compared to traditional methods where the glass would undergo several stages before the design was printed.

Windows and doors, an $8 billion market, are another product category where inkjet printing has brought customization and short-run printing capabilities. Similarly, flooring materials (a $2 billion industry in the US) are increasingly being printed digitally, and on an increasing range of carpets and laminate flooring materials in addition to tile. Inkjet allows corporate colors and brands elements to be incorporated into the design, providing faster turnaround for custom fixtures compared to traditional methods. Digital printing could also be used in the production of countertops, a $10.3 billion market.

Two well-known European vendors that have been active in developing inkjet technology for wallcoverings and carpeting materials are MS Srl from Italy and Zimmer from Germany. MS has a range of printers for textile and paper printing applications, including the JP7, which uses up to 164 grayscale heads to print 71-in.-wide rolls at speeds up to 18 ft/min. Zimmer specializes in digital printing systems for carpets, allowing manufacturers to simply stock white carpeting and then custom print each order as it comes into the facility. Zimmer’s ChromoJET MT-4000 is a 163.4-in. printer available in several models, the fastest of which has 1024 nozzles per color and a top quoted speed of 20 linear feet/min.

Textiles
Initially, digital textile printing was mostly the domain of dye-sublimation systems for applications such as garments and soft signage, but the technology has grown rapidly over the past decade. InfoTrends recently projected that the worldwide market for digitally printed textiles will be $18 billion by 2016 with a 39.3% compounded annual growth rate from 2011 to 2016. The garment industry is included in these totals and since these applications are mostly outside the scope of this article, I won’t cover this sector here (with the exception of some very interesting examples in the next section).

Where industrial markets are concerned, many applications involve interior décor, some of which we covered in the sections on furniture manufacturing and construction materials. Digitally printed textiles are also used in a variety of exterior industrial applications including tarps and screens.

Textile printing applications are highly dependent on the ink system being used. Pigment and reactive-based inks allow for printing of natural based fibers such as cotton, silk, and linen. It should be noted that pigment inks are also capable of printing on poly/cotton blends. Direct-dispersion inks are used on polyester and acrylic fiber. Nylon, silk, and wool are commonly printed using acid-based inks. Digital solutions are available for all of these materials, although printers generally must know which textiles they’ll be printing before purchasing a machine.
Two Italian companies are among the innovators in developing solutions for industrial textile printing. Ten years ago, Robustelli, a company with significant expertise in fabric-handling systems, partnered with Epson to develop the first Monna Lisa printer. A full range of printers are now offered in the line, including the Monna Lisa Evo, which can print fabrics up to 126 in. wide at speeds approaching 7500 sq ft/hr. Regianni, another company with deep roots in analog textile-printing technology, also developed its DReAM, its digital-printing platform for textiles, in 2003. Its latest generation printer, the ReNOIR, is an 8-color grayscale printer available in three widths, and can print up to 4300 sq ft/hr on a range of substrates suitable for apparel, home textiles, banners, as well as leather digital printing.

Another vendor deserving mention here is the Israeli company Kornit, better known to the readers of Screen Printing for its direct-to-garment solutions. Last year, Kornit entered the production roll-fed textile printing market in a big way with its Allegro printer, which can print fabric up to 70.8 in. wide at speeds up to 3200 sq ft/hr. Of particular note, the Allegro uses the firm’s NeoPigment inks, which allow multiple fabric types to be printed on one device without changing ink sets and bypassing the number of finishing operations traditionally required for certain fabrics and applications.

Automotive
Despite hardships in the industry, the US remains one of the largest automotive markets in the world with a large network of parts and suppliers that account for 3% of the manufacturing sector and $171 billion in revenue in 2011, according to the US Census. Beyond the myriad of labels found throughout an automobile are many other printed components and decorative elements including dashboards, radios, control panels, windshields, and custom upholstery. Inkjet’s advantages are particularly compelling in a market that is always affected by cost and timing pressures in manufacturing.

In addition to many of the vendors covered in the Textiles section, two vendors (Durst and Dip Tech) come to mind when discussing the automotive industry. Durst has had technology to print windshield borders for several years; more recently, its Rho IP 203 machine was designed for a variety of industrial applications that include automobile components such as dashboards, dials, and membrane switches. Dip-Tech, a relatively new entrant into the marketplace from Israel, focuses specifically on printing solutions for glass applications, including automotive, marine, and a range of other transportation markets.

Electronics
This fascinating and rapidly developing market involves both decorative and functional applications for digital printing technology. On the decorative side, the application most familiar to readers of Screen Printing is probably the instrument panels used in home appliances, medical instrumentation, and a host of other equipment to provide a human/machine interface. These decorative panels and the flexible circuitry beneath them are still predominantly produced by analog methods today, but a number of leading vendors in the wide-format space have been working to penetrate this market.

Another decorative application in the electronics field involves printing accessories for devices such as tablets and cell phones, or even the devices themselves. The consumer electronics market was valued at $202 billion in 2012 according to the Consumer Electronics Association and the demand for customization is just beginning to be met. Already, a large number of commercial print-service providers offer customized smart-phone cases. This application also crosses over into the promotional-products industry, where vendors have developed smaller inkjet machines for decorating everyday items such as cell-phone covers and advertising novelties.

Moving into the functional side, rapid advancements in material science are enabling inkjet to be a viable technique for producing electronic circuit boards, chips, and flexible circuitry. Applications range from inkjet-printable solder mask for traditional circuit boards to conductive inks that allow fully functional electronic components to be printed via inkjet. This market is still in its infancy, but is already estimated at $1 billion with projections that it could reach $45 billion in 2016, according to Xerox.

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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