As inkjet matures and improves its capability for speed, quality and flexibility, digital continues to prove its worth in label and packaging printing, and in addition in other industrial markets, direct to substrate in: corrugated, flexible package, metal bottle and more recently metal can printing.
And the exciting thing is that inkjet, according to Mark Hanley of IT Strategies, is both creating parallel industrial markets and contributing to manufacturing print, by adding value, by blending with traditional processes.
Sure, inkjet is still somewhat at an early stage in some application areas, but speaking both anecdotally and with the insight of research organisations like IT Strategies, and leaders like INX, it is most certainly coming to the fore, and I believe will soon reach the critical 'tipping point'.
The technical challenges remain, but it appears, that the real challenge is actually a human one. The capacity to accept new ways of doing things, which may include learning something new to meet a demand for customised, short run production.
It is a fact that people become used to doing things in a certain way. It is a myth to think that the human race likes change. In fact the opposite is true. We prefer things to remain the same. Thankfully though, with innovation, it is clear that some 'get it'! But the mainstream perhaps need to accept and adopt new ways of doing things. Many brands want the power of personalisation that is possible with digital print production, but some of them are still uncompromising on quality. For some, if the output doesn't match exactly the quality and speed of the traditional technology, it is disregarded as being not good enough, whatever additional performance and flexibility it may contribute to the entire process. But this attitude is changing as end manufacturers realise a different technique can achieve different results.
And comparing print finishes between conventional and digital, with a magnifying glass could be missing the point.
Stefano Rogora, Marketing Manager at INX Digital, believes this to be true, Rogora explains, “We saw the same thing happen with the graphics, textile and ceramics markets, in that at first digital printing was not accepted. But look at that market now, it is totally transformed, and whilst conventional screen printing is still superior in some respects, it hardly features at all within graphic print production!
Rogora continues “We are realistic in that we believe that the digital transformation, in the industrial market, may not be as 'total' as it has been with graphic applications. However the market potential is far greater. Let's be honest, graphic printing is much easier to achieve higher quality output. Industrial printing generally requires a higher level of output in terms of quality and volume printed. Not only that, they are different markets and the needs and demands are quite different. Industrial production demands that quality of print, scale of volume and speed of production. And as digital constantly improves, we do see more and more adoption for our InkJet Module print technology, and more and more interest in other surfaces that mean the entry for digital has already begun. For example, take a look at what we have achieved with the Engico Aqua technology for corrugated printing, the quality, speed and flexibility is unique.”
However, as Rogora points out packaging print companies will need to understand and accept, and many are beginning to, that it isn't always helpful to compare a process that jets ink onto a substrate, 1mm from the substrate itself, with one that utilises a traditional printing 'press' process. “The approach, but also the value is totally different again”, he adds.
The fact is that within manufacturing a shift is taking place, and the proof of this shift is coming from innovators, like INX Digital, who are bringing new products to the market.
As well as corrugated and flexible packaging, INX are also developing their patented can and metal cylinder print technology.
Printed onto metal sheets using a flatbed printer that is printed flat and shaped onto a metal cylinder, the metal is printed on 3 pieces and then formed into an aerosol can. As well as aerosols, tuna cans and bottle caps are already being printed digitally.
These are obviously suitable for smaller runs, for special promotional offers and trials.
Flatbed printers are also being used within manufacturing for proofing. This same technology can now be used for metal decoration for production, and for smaller run promotional production. The exciting thing is that despite resistance from some of the traditionalists, some leading print customers are now accepting that digital output is acceptable for certain jobs.
Rogoras opinion is that these people are accepting and understanding that the print finish will be different because digital adds performance value that conventional print technology cannot.
"If you are flexible enough to accept that digital print will achieve a different finish, you can perform short runs that will enable a customer to produce customised targeted print production to local areas with localised messages." Says Rogora.
So it seems that conventional packaging and label printers need to change their thinking in order to get digital into their production line. They need to think creative, be more flexible and accept that the finish will be different. By doing this, you will create new value, as this is the value of a new technology.
Is digital disruptive? According to Rogora, digital plays a complementary role.
In terms of digital label printing, this is a growth market with 9% CAGR anticipated for inkjet. A digital label printing machine can print 50,000 big labels per day in 7 hours. It is clear the market is already looking for, and adopting, digital kit. But it seems the digital label machines are doing separate jobs, to the long run conventional machines. And for a decent price, the NW140 Powered By JetINX, at approximately €250,000, will enable a company to begin start to print digitally. “You can run your long runs on offset and smaller runs for one customer 50,000 focused locally” Continues Rogora.
Corrugated is also ready to run digital. Other applications may have further technical challenges aligned to production and quality, but corrugated printing is about to grow significantly as one colour printing for certain jobs is deemed acceptable.
As for packaging, the quality of inkjet print output will improve, however the speed, flexibility and personalisation value will eventually outweigh the quality argument. It is only convention that is standing in the way.
For some goods, high quality packaging is really important. For example, high level, cosmetics or electronics, will only accept a very high standard of finish. Is this a barrier for digital technology? “This is not a problem. Mainstream products are already accepting digital and this is a big enough market” Concludes Rogora with a smile.
Which suggests to me that it is really only a question of time before digital makes further steps into industrial and tends to suggest that the future for industrial print in packaging and labelling, is not to be found by looking through a magnifying glass.