Guest blog from EFI: Digital diversity spreads across all areas of functional print

Stephen Emery, vice president, ink and new business development, EFI Inkjet

Stephen Emery, vice president, ink and new business development, EFI Inkjet

When digital processes are brought in line with industrial production, the entire landscape advances for emerging markets and existing application segments. This brings fresh challenges to manufacturers where changes in logistics and, often, in design parameters require a different mindset as well as revised technological methodologies.

During the past decade the role played by print has evolved from simply providing a mass-produced result. Now it involves greater creativity through innovation, faster reaction from desktop to finished product and more specialised products that are not just an aesthetic improvement but bring practical benefits to end customers. These vary widely from brand owners and commercial buyers, right down to component and product purchasers who no longer want to be restricted by static stocks on the shelves. 

The evolution in industrial print production has led EFI to become one of the major sponsors of InPrint, now in its third year and rapidly establishing itself as a specialist event where digital technologies can demonstrate the role they play in today’s applications. The arena for functional requirements is growing rapidly, with inkjet playing an increasingly important role in the development and production of items which, formerly, were restricted by the limitations imposed when using purely analogue methods. 

There have been many reasons behind the changes now taking place, but important drivers include greater emphasis on print-on-demand which in turn hastens the turnaround times, reduces waste and improves environmental principles incurred during manufacture. Coupled with this, improved logistics and more accurate ordering cuts down the need for overstocking, bringing SKUs to manageable levels and saving considerable costs on both deliveries and warehousing. In functional print environments these factors can prove vital when maintaining profitability in an ever more competitive climate.

Now established for several decades, inkjet print’s benefits have been promoted heavily for short to medium run lengths. However, as the technology has become more advanced to enable greater reliability and higher throughput speeds, digital print is now increasingly the driving force behind higher output levels. As demonstrated with EFI’s Cretaprint ceramic tile printer, machines can be used for 24/7 output with seamless workflow for continuous production. This enables high volumes to be generated with no compromise when variable data, versioning or multiple orders are required within a tight time scale. Inkjet is not restricted to low order volumes for on-demand production. More accurately, the technology is becoming a more versatile and flexible approach to industrial production routines that once relied on analog print and decoration methods. 

Digital print also brings with it the benefits of lean manufacturing which, in industrial terms, is becoming increasing important where labour-intensive tasks can erode machine up-time. Eliminating the human element simplifies manufacturing and fabrication structures, including the printed element within the overall process. This leads to higher levels of automation and a more efficient workflow with fewer touch points and process steps that formerly required manual intervention.

In EFI’s view, industrial print goes beyond the confines of being part of a manufacturing line, with applications that sit outside the graphic arts space and which perform a function instead of, or as well as, fulfilling a decorative need. It is in this overlapping space that we are witnessing immense growth in demand for our technologies. EFI’s ink formulations, printing systems and workflow software have combined to simplify the transition from analogue to digital processes in many production areas.

Driving our customers’ success in industrial market segments has become a major emphasis for EFI. Ceramics and textiles, for example, are major arenas where the company has undertaken significant commitments helping businesses leverage the dynamic versatility of inkjet print. The EFI Cretaprint series of printers has helped revolutionise the production of tiles, enabling low volumes, customisation, and just-in-time supply-chain versatility. 

Likewise, the EFI Reggiani family of digital textile printers enables the industrial manufacturing efficiency essential to supporting global trends in décor personalisation and quick-turnaround, ultra-efficient fast fashion design. Digital print has become an enabling technology that allows designs to be created ready for availability in a matter of days, instead of weeks or months. And complementary technologies, such as EFI’s newly acquired Optitex 3D design technology, bring yet another essential layer of time-savings and automation to industrial manufacturing in the fast fashion world. 

These examples and more show it is easy to see how digital technology can cut back on lead times, make it practical to generate lower and variable volumes and cater for different world demographics and trends. None of these criteria were possible with analogue methods that are geared for long runs and cannot be adapted to changing market needs once production is underway. This old model of industrial decoration leads inevitably to overstocking and, often, to loss-making heavy discounts on manufactured goods.

EFI’s technology investments in the wide- and superwide-format graphics space have helped the company expand those technologies into new industrial applications. And, our long-term expertise in matching these technologies to new application types helps position our customers in their quest to adopt functional trends and address speciality needs.

By combining our existing knowledge of ink performance and printer versatility, our R&D teams worldwide allow us to help our customers reach even more new markets. In particular, we are addressing the promising market for corrugated board packaging – a segment of the packaging industry that has relatively little digital adoption despite all of digital’s advantages.

At drupa, EFI introduced the new Nozomi single-pass corrugated board press. This innovation speaks to the serious effort we put into responding to customer needs and market demands. 

Similarly, the development of EFI’s thermoforming ink chemistry has broadened the capabilities of low cost wide-format printing so that it can now accommodate a vast range of functional purposes as well as purely decorative applications. It is a truly remarkable technology that has been used in everything from traditional signage graphics to functional production of automotive and marine parts plus many other industrial formed object manufacturing applications. 

The opportunities for industrial print continue to grow quickly and relentlessly, and manufacturers need to be ready to address changing market requirements often at relatively short notice. These opportunities available in what EFI terms its “Imaging of Things” comes from the ability create new, functional opportunities for many different types of businesses. 

One of the key considerations with functional print is the variation in type of end customer, and these businesses can come from any of the many different manufacturing sectors whose requirements are specific and cannot be generalised. In application terms, it is the versatility and flexibility of digital print that is enabling leaner manufacturing principles to be incorporated into production lines worldwide. The requirements can vary enormously according to the industry being addressed, from textiles through to interior decor, coding and marking of components for identification purposes, packaging and labelling, and the manufacture of ceramics and associated compounds. Examples where digital technology is growing include the aerospace, automotive and marine segments, household goods, electronic and electrical products, plus a multitude of everyday items that are used both in commercial and domestic environments. 

Customisation is key and InPrint offers a good platform for enabling integrators, developers, manufacturers and end users wanting to learn how best to adapt to, and benefit from, the flexible opportunities of inkjet digital print. We are greatly looking forward to sponsoring and taking part in this unique event, and in the months leading up to it we intend to offer you additional insights into the industrial print opportunity here on the InPrint blog.

EFI will present at the InPrint Forum 7th September in Chicago to check out the programme