Enhancing Industrial Inkjet Production: A Discussion with Thomas Franz, Baumer Instruments GmbH

As well as transforming day to day life, digital technology is also making changes to how products are made. But it doesn’t just happen overnight as much as it might seem to.  For example, printing and decorating laminates or any other surface isn’t as easy as it looks. Of course, quality continues to be of paramount concern for any producer and their customers. If a new technology cannot quite muster the necessary quality then it is not adopted. It is as simple as that. So any new technology has the challenge of providing a finish which is deemed to be as good or accepted as ‘good enough’.

For quality control in any manufacturing environment it makes sense that inspection instrumentation is important as it can accurately monitor and measure output of the application ensuring that the new technology is doing its job properly.

I recently had a discussion with Thomas Franz who is the Managing Director for Baumer Inspection. Baumer Inspection GmbH, placed in Konstanz Germany, has specialized in optical inspection systems since 35 years. Baumer Inspection  is part of the Swiss Baumer Group, a worldwide leading company for innovative and high quality sensors and systems for process automation.

Thomas Franz joined the company in 1995 and his focus is to develop specialist inspection machines for industrial print production with a current focus on wood décor. Thomas explains, “Whe started the surface inspection technology business based upon a technology and a patent we call “ColourBrain”. ColourBrain defines precise criteria for the appearance and for the classification of appearance  of multi-coloured decorated surfaces. We decided to focus here and began with ceramic tiles, laminate flooring and foils and paper for furniture tiles.

“2 years ago we started developing inspection of digital printing surfaces and within that project we decided to sponsor a PHD at the University of Konstanz. The university itself, as Baumer Inspection, is located in Baden Württemberg in Germany’s industrial south. The aim of this new PHD focus is to design an automated inspection system specifically for digitally printed decorative surfaces.

“In the first step we need to design special cameras and illumination systems. The first test sample is  finished to check a 400-500 millimetres wide web and we are now going for a number of test installations to prove our design. The first of those tests is done at Classen, one of our key customers. Classen is a leading flooring company and they have single pass printing systems utilising the 2.25 metres wide single pass Hymmen system with Xaar heads! 

Our target is to finish our design and complete our first full industrial test in 2015 and then to target our first order for a prototype system with the aim to install an inspection system for 2 metres in 2016.”

So how does the Baumer system help new inkjet production and what are the advantages?

“As with any manufacturing technology of course there are production challenges. With certain substances jetted through the heads you may get problems with clogging. Along the industrial production line you are likely to get 1000’s of nozzles and statistically there are bound to be challenges managing these heads.

“The second problem with the heads is being able to control the units as this aspect of the production can lead to banding which obviously does not pass quality control. The target with this inspection technology is to provide insight into quickly seeing a problem almost the instant it happens to prevent unsightly banding and limiting waste. During production this is sometimes very difficult to see with the human eye but our system enables us to see a problem in real time, which sets off an alarm and informs the operator.

How much does the system cost?

“The price of the Baumer system is dependent on the width of the line itself.
We have a system which is modular and can be set within 150 to 200 mm wide and you can adjust 10, 20 or more of these modules so if you only print onto 1 metre it is not the same as 2 metres or more. Inspection with high resolution at production speed up to 150 metres per minute is possible.  

“In terms of our technology for inspecting and ensuring quality excellence, I have never seen anything else in the market. One really has to calculate the value regarding a constant monitoring of a fast printing process. Most of the time one cannot see if the nozzle is failing as it even is difficult to see after the job is done. The Baumer system can save a huge amount of production time and represents a tremendous saving for companies.”

Inkjet is clearly growing in popularity but what needs to change then in order for the new industrial print production process to be accepted?

“I guess when it starts to adversely affect the bottom line and the economics forces it. If one considers paper printing the demand for runs are getting shorter and shorter. So production is required to change to meet this. If an analogue system is being used it will have to constantly adjust colour and production..

It is worth noting that any adjustment to an analogue system can actually take 3-5 hours! Time is money. Production will last for 3-4 hours and you can see productivity declining. This is forcing companies towards new technologies.

Producers of melamine faced furniture boards want to be able to buy what they need and this is forcing them to look at new ways of producing which is forcing change. Melamine paper is used with gravure printing and they buy a lot of that and use only part of it, it is such a waste.”

So will we see a complete revolution in how wood décor is produced?

“There are different conditions within wood flooring when compared with ceramics and I am not sure it is that helpful to compare. But I know that production is changing and will continue to change however the pace is not going to be as fast in wood décor as it was in ceramics. For instance, ceramics production being centred on two key areas in Europe helped the speed of change plus the economic conditions were so strong that it was literally illogical not to alter production methods.”

So what new things happening in terms of wood applications that might make a difference?

“Luxury vinyl tiles are clearly a strong growth area. The application has its place and will grow no doubt. I can see it replacing a small amount of laminate but it won’t replace the big volume jobs that will continue to exist. What is also helping the pace of adoption is the fact that the price of digital printing inks is going down and as long as this trend continues the barriers to adoption (that of cost) will continue to depreciate and more and more digital inkjet wood décor, and other surface applications will grow.”

Thomas Franz and Baumer Instruments GmbH will be exhibiting at InPrint 2015 booth #D01