Driving ‘state of the art’ screen printing innovation

I recently visited MacDermid Autotype, new InPrint Exhibitor and a company famous for innovation for industrial screen printing.

MacDermid Autotype is a global industrial manufacturer of high quality precision coated films and blended liquids for use in the printing, automotive and electronics industries. Their product range includes; overlay films for Membrane Touch Switches, stencil products, cleaning chemicals for screen printing, Film Insert Moulding (FIM) and graphic display films.

Whilst I was with David Parker, much of the discussion surrounded the evolution of the car and how manufacturing has changed to increase sophistication of the vehicle and the interface with the driver. And the visit was a real eye opener in terms of innovation and cutting edge technology for industrial production. Using screen printing. Yes screen printing.

Depending on how old you are you may or may not recall what it was like to drive a car that didn’t use unleaded petrol, that didn’t possess electric windows or an on board computer, and one that required human driver to actually maintain it, and check whether the oil needed changing  etc. Sound horrendous?

Oh how times have changed. And for those of us who are not mechanically minded, for the better!

These days’ cars virtually drive and maintain themselves. In the age of smart technology we do not need to know how to maintain a car, we just drive it, such is the sophistication of the intelligence behind automotive production and the technology utilised.

And screen printing has risen to the challenge to play a key role in functional and decorative print for car manufacture of all of the world’s leading automotive manufacturers.

These days many of the top automotive manufacturers utilise a process David describes as FIM (film insert moulding) also known as IMD (in mould decoration). They use this process to decorate the interior instrument of the cars. This is the ‘bling’, the sparkle and the finishing touches that make the interior of the car shine. However it is also the functional element of in-car entertainment, function and orientation.

Why is interior decor important? Aside of the functional aspect, in our smart technology age, expectations have radically changed. We assume that products will endure; remaining robust despite the forces we throw at them. And we do not tolerate any imperfection.

The car remains the second largest item we are likely to ever invest in. But a car is no longer just a practical mode of transport. It is a statement, and it needs to reflect and to some extent define who we are. It is an extension to our home. So when consumers drive cars they must feel good about it. It also helps to justify the large amount of money we have invested in something which unlike a house, depreciates in value quite quickly.

The word I learned from David is ‘haptic’ as David Parker explains. “A car is a sensory experience so people want to be able to touch different surfaces that will give them a unique type of experience. They also want the finishing to align with their status.”

What does haptic mean?

Haptics is any form of interaction involving touch (from Greek ἅπτω = ‘I fasten onto, I touch’). It can mean: Haptic communication, the means by which people and other animals communicate via touching. Haptic perception, the process of recognizing objects through touch.
As the motor car is now a sensory experience, it makes sense that automotive manufacturers are constantly looking at new methods for improving the delivery of this experience. In the future cars will synchronise with all of our devices in the home and in our mobile world.

Branding itself has moved onto a new level. Manufacturers know that they must produce a sensory experience on a level that exceeds that of the rational. Anything that improves the quality of the final product will mean they can derive more profit, plus they enhance the likelihood they get a repeat sale to this customer. This lifetime value of brand loyalty has tremendous value. It is a fact that people stay determinedly loyal to their particular favourite brand for this very reason. A car is as much an experiential purchase as it is a logical one.

Although a dominant process now, David informs me, FIM is actually a relatively recent innovation as the development and introduction of any new process into a complex production schedule is bound to take time. It certainly proves that screen printing is still very innovative! And retains its position as the best process in terms of durability, precision and finish.

David explains, ”Industrial printing the interior decor for cars is not easy. Think about how we use cars, the humble automotive has to withstand a number of different forces. If you have a family, it has to contend with any number of challenging materials such as sun cream, various foods, liquids including sugary drinks and so on. All of which are difficult substances for a functional display to withstand as they can have corrosive properties. All of this used to be printed onto the top surface but this is no longer enough to provide consumers with the kind of experience they expect whilst being robust enough to cope with coming into contact with these substances. Utilising MacDermid Autotype films and screen printing, the FIM process is highly effective as you can protect the graphic behind the film.  Using the second surface or sub-surface you literally print back to front. What also enhances print quality further is you can print this onto a flat surface and then mould the substrate to create the ‘in car entertainment’ display enhancing the quality even more.

Film Insert Moulded Gear Unit
Film Insert Moulded Gear Unit

David explains, “At the moment the FIM process dramatically improves the presentation of the car interior through decorative printing, however in the future this could be further combined with functional printing using conductive inks to further enable elements within the display to work. The beauty of this is that this can be produced as one component and that it can be environmentally sealed meaning it is both waterproof and air-tight.

David explained that when considering the inside of a car, manufacturers now want to create a more user friendly environment.  “Manufacturers want to have something soft enough to work with but hard enough to endure human contact which can deteriorate things quite quickly. Therefore we have to thoroughly test a number of likely substances that could affect the substrate including tomato ketchup, car cleaning agents, sun lotion, sugary drinks and many other things that might provoke deterioration.

In terms of producing the graphic itself this material has to be both soft and hard. Soft enough to form then it needs to change characteristic and morph into a very tough surface. Having this soft and hard characteristic is challenging. The substrate is screen printed, dried, formed, and then the film is UV cured to harden it even further.  You will then back injection mould this with molten plastic.

If you are injecting molten plastic directly onto the printed surface the inks have to be able to withstand these very high temperatures and you want to make sure the ink retains their colour density and don’t wash out. These screen printing inks have to be very specially formulated for this process and are therefore an incredibly vital component.”

The car is an incredibly demanding environment. In addition to contending with corrosive and abrasive substances, a car’s interior temperature can vary from freezing when stationery to over 50 degrees in the middle of summer. When considering this, the substrate, the ink and the manufacturing process are vital to providing the driver with the kind of experience and performance they expect, especially when they are investing a huge an amount of money for their vehicle of choice.

Screen printing is an extremely flexible and effective production tool and is the enabling process in FIM and continues to evolve to meet the modern demands of life and products manufacturing. Attend InPrint 2015 to get the latest on cutting edge screen and digital printing for industrial manufacture.

McDermid Autotype will be exhibiting at InPrint 2015 – to meet David Parker and his colleagues make sure you visit Hall A6, Booth number F41.