Challenging tradition: The direct to surface inkjet revolution has begun

The inkjet revolution in flooring has begun in terms of the integration of inkjet. In this interview Phil Jackman of SunJet explains the how the market is ready and why the structure of the industry is posing some challenges both from a technical and cultural perspective. Phil will be a panellist for our InPrint Decor Webinar on 14th July.

How do you define the traditional wood decoration market?

“Traditional décor, I define generally as wood based panels used for furniture or flooring. However, flooring used to have strict product types including laminate, carpet, tiles & vinyl.

Each had their distinct look and applications, served by different products. But this is changing. Advances in printing and production techniques mean that some floor coverings can now replicate other materials, making the market cross-competitive. Modern ceramic tiles or Luxury Vinyl Tiles (LVT) can have a rather convincing wood effect and thus are able to compete with wood laminates. 

I can also see more designs are coming through into the market. I was surprised by how design led this industry is. The introduction of more designs can lead to shorter run lengths. Rotogravure printing struggles to be competitive and productive in this regard – digital becomes interesting either running alongside and complementing gravure or direct print, which is more disruptive, replacing the majority of the supply chain which is commonly found with traditional print.”

Tell us about this traditional supply chain

“It really is a long supply chain in traditional wood décor and one that has evolved over several decades. Sun Chemical has been a valued supplier of printing inks into this market since the beginning. Firstly you have a décor paper producer that supplies the printer who, in turn, prints the design. The printed paper is then sent for impregnation with resins (usually melamine) and then it goes to a laminator where it gets pressed to form a laminate. This is eventually made into the furniture or flooring and supplied to retail. Commonly there are 5 or more different processes, often provided by 4 or 5 companies in the chain, each adding their own particular skill. Whilst clearly very specialist, it is not a process that is very responsive to design changes because of all the nodes and work in progress (stock) in the supply chain. 
 
Inkjet is a non-contact print process and can therefore print directly onto the wood based panels more readily than gravure. The procedure uses several pre and post print processes but doing it all under one roof gives the manufacturer more control and allows for a quicker response to market changes. I can see décor doing a similar thing, as has been seen in other industrial applications, where creative potential and customisation is not the main driver. Instead the ability to produce flexibly with shorter run batches enabling production to be more nimble and responsive, whilst internalising more of the value, is seen as key.”

So inkjet brings something very new to production which increases efficiency?

“Yes. Inkjet is an enabler in direct print as it is a non-contact printing process. Traditional analogue printing works well onto paper but is more difficult onto hard surfaces. The combination of short run capability and the jettisoning of the supply chain become synergistic when printing direct to boards with inkjet. My vision is that inkjet will grow radically in the wood decoration industry.”

Will inkjet disrupt and replace?

“I think it will disrupt to an extent but not fully replace. The insertion points for inkjet are alongside gravure, printing onto paper (to add operational flexibility) and also direct to board. Potentially, large direct print flooring companies with multiple inkjet lines will consume some of the traditional paper print business. But I think, in all honesty, that gravure will remain for the foreseeable future.”

Will inkjet add high end value or low cost production of low value product?

“Low production cost is more associated to higher run lengths where gravure is a more compelling process. Conversely, higher value jobs will more likely be printed in inkjet mostly because of their lower volume. But the two processes can co-exist and be complimentary, adding operational flexibility to the print process rather than additional value at the product level.”

When is this revolution due to start?

“It has already started. There are inkjet machines installed for printing onto paper as well as direct to boards. Sun Chemical has been ahead of the game in this respect by leveraging our market and product knowledge of the existing décor industry and applying it to our inkjet capability. Knowing the chemistry and pigments utilised in gravure has accelerated the development of the best possible inkjet inks for the industry. This has resulted in many products being supplied through our OEM inkjet business that are in use today. Once inkjet becomes more proven and accepted, it will grow quickly because it can produce some outstanding results with relatively cheap materials. For example, you get relatively cheap MDF and you can make it look like oak or walnut and, with appropriate finishing and texturing, it looks outstanding and is long-lasting.”

Will it also be the same for vinyl flooring?

“For vinyl production, gravure is also the dominant print process. But this material has different challenges to those of wood. With wood-based laminates you rely on chemical reactions to provide the bonds between layers and this can be achieved with inkjet. But in vinyl the challenge comes because you heat several layers together and rely on bonding together via the thermoplastic nature of the materials used. You basically melt the layers together. The gravure inks can include some useful materials that can aid that bonding process. The complication of doing this with inkjet is most materials used for gravure are not ideal for inkjet as they could block nozzles in the print heads and would not be overly reliable in application. Also, as vinyl is non-absorbing, the drop spread and image quality can be more difficult to control.”

How do you overcome this problem?

“Again, Sun Chemical has a considerable business supplying the traditional gravure print business with inks used in vinyl flooring. We have been sharing our internal expertise and collaborating to develop what we think is the only way you can overcome the technical challenges and still provide a reliable solution in an industrial high volume application. Sun has developed gravure applied primers that are designed to be used in conjunction with our inkjet inks. The inkjet ink applies the decoration and the primer assists with image quality and laminating.”

Is vinyl further behind wood décor because it is more difficult?

“Maybe, but the drivers of demand are similar. The industry really wants to be able to inkjet print onto vinyl flooring and this desire is even greater than wood. The gravure print process is wider, even wider than wood based (which is typically 2m) printing. Vinyl is sometimes up to 5 metres wide and gravure cylinders and associated start-up costs are very expensive. But it isn’t easy to introduce inkjet in a high productivity industrial capacity. It is doable with a scanning print system in those widths but production really needs single pass and this isn’t possible today as the machines don’t exist of this size. It is difficult but not impossible and, because the demand is there, it will happen, eventually.

The vinyl production process is also not as fragmented as wood. They have more of a turnkey operation which helps development but the process is shorter and thus the compelling reasons for direct print onto wood do not really exist in vinyl. However, the need for digital print to remove some of the short run pain for the gravure production is very real.

Inkjet is still not really being used yet in an industrial print capacity – some of the vinyl wide format multi-pass printers (through luck rather than design) work. So, some of the very low volume or specialist jobs are being printed digitally. Solvent inkjet inks will have some value here because the chemistry used in signage printing often works with vinyl flooring too. The challenge comes with productivity and this is where wide format machines struggle as they are not able to produce the volumes required. Taking the solvent ink chemistry forward into single pass is not a viable option due to reliability and up-time concerns, hence our approach to look ahead and develop an ink and primer combination that meets the challenges of the industry at higher volumes. 

There are moves in the industry to develop print systems, most of which are not in the public domain. Therefore, gaining traction has proven to be an issue as machine and chemistry do not always align and meet the needs of the customer. Trying to get everything lined up to meet their requirements is not an easy task and can only come via collaborations that are starting to happen.

So it is a slow moving revolution but one that will definitely gain pace?

“Yes, I know there are several people working on it so it will happen – the end goal is difficult but we are getting quite close. A high capacity but flexible production environment is the key to an industrial inkjet solution. 

Oddly in my opinion, despite all of the apparent emphasis in other industries around customisation through digital print, these trends in décor do not seem to have moved as quickly. If the product is durable, textured and robust, aside of having a choice between colours and designs, what does a consumer really need? 

Décor in the home and in commercial space is different. In a hotel lobby, restaurant, shop, pub etc. there is a desire for logos or other information to be embedded in the flooring, but this is typically not the case in private homes. 

I don’t think the mass market will need personalisation on a large scale. However, consumers like choice and fashion trends in furniture and flooring are driving the industry to change, and this is a change towards a more responsive digital model.”

About Sun Chemical

Sun Chemical, a member of the DIC group, is a leading producer of printing inks, coatings and supplies, pigments, polymers, liquid compounds, solid compounds, and application materials. Together with DIC, Sun Chemical has annual sales of more than $7.5 billion and over 20,000 employees supporting customers around the world. 
Sun Chemical Corporation is a subsidiary of Sun Chemical Group Coöperatief U.A., the Netherlands, and is headquartered in Parsippany, New Jersey, U.S.A. For more information, please visit our Web site at www.sunchemical.com