Collaborating towards a new future for INX Digital
After nearly 12 months into his post, we spoke to Marco Zanella who ascended into the role of GM for INX Digital Europe, based near Milan, Italy. A supporter of InPrint from the start, we talked to Marco about his background, his view of the market and the future of INX Digital.
Marco, tell me about your background with inkjet?
I started working with Paolo Capano in 1999 for Anteprima in the textile market and the area where Fagnano Olona (which is the location close to Milan Malpensa Airport which is where INX Digital is situated). The plant was flooded by the river and the owner had no choice but to sell. And when Anteprima was formed we moved in – the place goes back a long way as a centre for textile production, so it was right to have a production operation here. Back then INX was not involved.
What did Anteprima do?
Anteprima was a very innovative textile printing business and the entrepreneur was Paolo Capano. The kind of things we were doing were ahead of their time. We were trying to sell more flexibility in the creative process by giving designers more freedom. However, back then in the early days, the cost of the process was too high and it was too early for the market. Many people who saw the vision were put off by the cost.
Over the years Anteprima changed from being a service provider into becoming an ink distributor. Eventually, they became a Triangle inks distributor and this is when the relationship really blossomed. Anteprima changed from service provider for digital textile printing to be Triangle distributor for Europe, Middle East, and Africa, with the task of building the distributor network in that region and then in 2008 became INX Digital which is now part of the Sakata INX Group.
Did you remain at INX during this time?
No, not entirely. It was around 2010, I decided to broaden and deepen my knowledge by joining Huntsman, a famous specialty chemical brand with some leading digital textile inks. The timing was great, Digital textile was increasing in its importance and I had a good position with good products and a well-respected company with an established sales network.
This two-year period was great but I realised I missed working in a smaller company environment. Huntsman is so big, it is not such a company that you shine within. I then had the opportunity to switch to MS right after the Dover acquisition and they were looking for someone to run an ink business unit. This sounded perfect and I was keen to work with Dover and the MS team to really grow the ink business. However, it wasn’t strategically possible to package in a single solution the supply of both ink and a printer from the same provider. Textile customers are always in search of the very last dime of savings. So, it was at this point, at an InPrint Development Group Meeting in Italy in 2014 actually, that I reconnected with Paolo Capano and I returned to INX Digital in 2015. Sadly it was not that long before Paolo passed away in September of the same year, which was a terrible shock to all of us and left the team devastated for quite some time.
You have been in the position for nearly a year what kind of vision do you have and goals do you want to achieve with industrial inkjet for INX Digital during this challenging phase?
It has been difficult for all of us to carry on and adjust after such a tragic loss. However, the key thing is that the business is in great shape. The main thing was to continue to be supportive with one another and not change too much, too soon. So much about the company is right, so making radical changes was not correct both out of respect but also because this was not a logical thing to do.
In terms of leadership, Paolo was quite a different person to me and that is why we enjoyed a good working relationship. A creative entrepreneur, many of the ideas that we benefit from now at INX Digital were from his vision and energy. I am grateful for that and for what I learned directly from him. The aims the business have are similar but there are some differences. For instance, I am concerned with creating an environment where the team steps up to try new things out. If we solve problems together in collaboration I believe this will be motivating and effective and already we are seeing some good results.
How are your customers and partners reacting to this approach?
This approach is leading onto some interesting projects and we think collaborating with others is a key to future growth. We need take the best approach or process that works. Ideas come from the market, from customers, partners, and colleagues. I don’t believe any one person has all of the answers, and to be honest I don’t believe all the answers are there yet for every application. Of course, sometimes you get ideas but the market is not ready yet. So the digital process is too expensive or just the ink costs too much and this poses a problem and growth stalls. But the more ideas the better, and now the whole team has full permission to propose them which I think is healthy.
What segments do you think are important for developing industrial inkjet?
We define packaging as a ‘macro’ category. And every sub-category within packaging has its own requirement with many engineering solutions working in different places. I think inkjet really is still in the early phase where there is no clear accepted engineering or sales model. We are very active in markets that are in the early phase as we think it is really important to understand the challenges and make plenty of connections early on to ensure we are well positioned when the market begins to move and the adoption of inkjet accelerates.
What inkjet heads do you tend to work with?
We tend to work with whatever head is right for the particular job. At times, we use Kyocera because Sakata has an excellent relationship for many years and also because they have models with the highest resolution and suitable for top quality prints. But again, we have no real preferences and adopt what we believe is the best choice for the application, and grow excellent relationships with all major manufacturers.
Flexible packaging is notoriously difficult to enter for inkjet – how are you approaching this?
We have recently been working with a packaging company with a lot of expertise in coffee, by inkjet printing their coffee bags. The coffee bag opportunity came about because the company in question are intrigued by the opportunities for digital inkjet but as they are running gravure, their quality expectations are also very high. It seems that this company is OK with 600 dpi, at least at this early stage. The venture is an exercise or ‘proof of concept’ that inkjet can work in flexible packaging and it can work with their current processes. This has introduced me to think that we have to do this kind of work and move into new markets without living only on conventional models. This is the kind of customer that inkjet needs in order for us to try things out, eventually fail quickly but then find the right application that works. For us this is crucial, and for them, it may lead to some great opportunities.
At Drupa we provided a sample of this application with water based inks. What we did at Drupa was preliminary and at the beginning but it was interesting to trigger the interest of potential customers. We know we have a long way ahead of us but we made one step forward. We printed one coffee bag, fabricated the usual way and this was something and for a really innovative company and a leader in packaging printing.
Of course there is a lot to discuss technically. There is no business model for us to sell this at this stage but we are trying out new things at a quick pace.
So partnerships are key as run lengths decrease in size..?
Yes I think so. This is what you need in terms of having a partner that can help you to define a new market. The typical flexible packaging printer has big accounts. They are making big batches. Some will literally print kilometres and do so in a very cost-effective way. However, we are hearing that average batch size is decreasing and the same companies are asking for batches of 500 for limited series of packaging or private labels and this doesn’t fit into their mass production model. So they still use the conventional process for this short batch run and they often print at a loss. Printing at a loss is not good business sense, but the large production companies are doing it so they can retain the large run work, so you can kind of understand it. If they had a digital solution, surely this would make sense!
How does this kind of work compare with your traditional markets?
It is very difficult to compare of course. For INX Digital the brand is very active in graphic production and the market is very formed and easy. When you speak to people in new industries there is no knowledge of inkjet and this immediately poses a problem that you have to solve.
This also goes for the way inkjet print production is sold. Producers need to think of inkjet as different to their current technology and production model. If producers approach it in the same was as they sell conventional print technology it simply will not work.
What is hard for me when speaking to people at shows is that they approach you with a traditional mind-set of analogue print production. They want to go digital but they expect it to do the very same thing that their existing process does but merely digital. They look at inkjet as a replacement technology. This is not the case and cannot be the same and to be honest, the value of digital should be about creating new opportunity, not just replacing the old.
Within packaging, a sector that is poised for strong growth is corrugated printing. So do you see this also?
Yes, we do and we are already active in this area. In other markets, it will be different. You cannot compare textile with packaging for example. We are working with a customer in the corrugated market with water based inks. The premium part is the 'point of sale' message. The image of the product and the product identity. This part of the process is already adopting inkjet but the print is not the product itself. If you buy a garment from Zara, you buy a printed garment. The print is a feature component so within the value chain it plays a critical role whereas in corrugated the print plays a more functional role. That said, the corrugated market is growing for inkjet but the perceived value of a container is much lower than a garment I think.
What other packaging segments do you think are important?
Labels are a big thing for us and we have developed our own narrow web inkjet press which have been very successful. We are also active within 2-piece and 3-piece metal packaging. INX is one of the few companies who know the industry inside and out. Drinks cans, paint cans and everything and anything made from cans. We are also active in every other packaging sector with conventional and with inkjet also and they are all different. But you have to become a market expert in order to introduce inkjet effectively.
We are also doing some development work within 3- piece metal decoration using UV Curable inks. We are trying to leverage our market specific knowledge. I see the companies in the US being more focused in 2-piece digital printing and in Europe there is more focus on 3-piece digital printing. I expect a new deal of interest in the months to come – you may have heard that INX Europe has hired a new President from the packaging industry and I am looking forward to working with him and benefiting from his experience and knowledge. His name is Peter Lockley.
With your background in textiles, is this a segment you are looking closely at?
Yes, it is. What I like about this segment is there is significant pull from the end-consumer. Just look at fast fashion. The pull has taken place and change is happening. When we go to the shop we are consumers and retailers need more flexibility, and this will continue to grow and change will happen. But without the pull factors, it will not change.
Fashion is difficult to understand; it is like trying to predict the stock market! But one thing is certain, it goes through cycles. Now you go into the shop almost nothing is printed. For example, a garment can be printed, dyed, stitched, embroidered, yarn dyed, or single colour patterned. The fashion for garment decoration changes every year. But this goes through cycles. As buyers, we get bored quickly it is all about styles and trends.
Do you think that the adoption of digital textile is well underway?
Yes it is. Digital textile is now quite high up on the S-curve. The cost of printing a metre of fabric with inkjet is nowadays competitive to conventional, at least in the Western world. Digital textile is now challenging traditional technologies. When you are past point 1 and an alternative to the current technologies you have to be able to prove this in terms of cost. For textile you need to have comparable cost and the equipment will cost 2-3 million euro which is unacceptable for emerging markets because their local market doesn’t care so much about branding and paying more than they have to particularly when the demand for shorter runs is not as high.
What kind of idea are you developing for textile?
The focus for us is developing pigment ink for digital textile. Available pigment ink for digital textile printing is really important as this widens the scope of textiles for inkjet. Once this is possible then growth will increase.
What is the difference between pigment inks and reactive inks?
The main difference between pigment and reactive is that reactive is a chemical bond so it is thin and very small while pigment is rough and it sticks onto the surface and because of the wear and tear of garments it is very demanding of the ink.
It is a challenge to do this but I feel we have the skill, capacity and a lot of experience and knowledge with textile. We are developing this now with our experience with the t-shirt printing sector with Sakata inks. We have taken and used some of the technologies we have used with direct to garment – nobody is really ready to fulfill the requirement of the industry, products available today are not really serving the industry that well. To be honest, the market is not ready either. Perhaps this will develop the more availability there is. We have the technology and capacity to challenge the market and introduce the right technology at the right price and this is important as it is a cost sensitive market. We are confident that pigment inks will be developed successfully for the digital textile market and INX Digital will be one of the leaders here.
What do you believe are the biggest challenges for inkjet in new markets?
In short, gaining a new customers support for trying something new. Take décor for example. Some of the biggest production companies are so invested in their existing structure. I see more commitment to look at new opportunities in mid-sized companies which are more innovative and able to create change more effectively.
A key challenge I think customers perhaps don’t understand is that when making something with industrial inkjet printing you have to know a lot of different things, using different skills, from engineering through to chemistry. And then you have to consider the specific needs of the end market. So we really need to collaborate. In Italy, we have a group of companies and people with the right skill sets to be able to achieve some fantastic things. For INX Digital, on a global scale in terms of integrating industrial inkjet we in Italy I think we are the experts.
InPrint in Italy is the perfect platform for us which is why we decided to exhibit and become sponsors and we look forward to engaging with the worldwide industrial print segment to develop new partnerships and new customers of the development of industrial inkjet inks, technologies and applications.