Industrial Inkjet: Style definitely sells as wallpaper market shifts to digital

By John Corrall, Founder and Managing Director, Industrial Inkjet Ltd (IIJ)

According to IT Strategies, digital print has hardly impacted on the Wallcoverings market yet. In 2015 it was around 0.4% in terms of area printed.

If you go to a “wallpaper” trade show then digital and analogue printing seem to be separate things with separate goals. Digital is for “mural” walls (where the whole wall is one big picture) or it’s perhaps for short runs of the “latest” thing for children, (characters from “Frozen” as an example). Analogue is mass-production. It’s all about volume. The stands look different too.

The “digital” guys are all bright colours and “push”. The analogue people are about style, fashion and quality. So far there is little sign of any merging of these two technologies.

The majority of wallcoverings digital print is being done by wide-format inkjet printers, particularly HP. These machines are scanning multi-pass systems and so are slow. Watching one producing wallpaper is an exercise in self-control. The paper steps forward so infrequently that sleep is almost inevitable.

On the other hand, analogue wallpaper production is typically produced at up to 70 metres per minute linear speed. Typical print width is 1.2 metres (2 rolls wide). Machines are large – maybe 100 metres long. It’s fast and efficient. It’s a world away from current digital production methods.

So why would volume wallpaper producers even consider replacing analogue technology?

The answer – like many markets these days – is short run. The wallpaper market in the west has been in a gentle decline for some years. The wallpaper producers chase new geographic markets but they also try to encourage consumers with “designer” wallcoverings. Style definitely sells. Big name designers are hired by wallpaper producers to create new ranges. And these ranges need to change regularly. It’s very similar to furnishing fabrics – where this year’s colours and patterns will sell - but last year’s are “history”.

If run lengths are reducing, then setup and tooling costs start to dominate. And so the large “analogue” wallpaper producers are looking at digital purely on economic grounds. They understand that ink costs are going to be much higher with digital, but that may be OK – as long as machine setup time goes and the costs of plates and screens will disappear.  Also analogue has a serious limitation when it comes to image or pattern designs i.e a fixed image repeat length. Every job they print must repeat the image every 600mm, which really does limit what a designer can create.

So if the big analogue producers have a need for digital print, then what has prevented them adopting it so far?

Apart from the economic consideration – which largely comes down to the cost per litre of the inkjet ink – there are two issues, speed and ink performance. On the question of speed the ideal is that the digital print operates in-line as part of the current analogue process. So coating and embossing should be carried out by conventional processes and only the print should be digital. For this to work the digital print must operate at full analogue speeds ie 60 to 70/minute. On the second point, wallpaper has to meet some fairly tough regulatory requirements in terms of emissions (and smell) but also wash and scrub resistance. Most digitally printed wallpaper today doesn’t seem to fully comply with these regulations. This might be acceptable when the digital print is only for “niche” applications but it certainly won’t be for mass production. There is also the question of print width. A digital printer that can’t print “standard” wallpaper roll width is never going to be a big seller.

The good news is that all of these requirements at least seem to be achievable. Ink performance and cost, print width and speed are all now within reach. It’s very likely that wallpaper printing is about to see a massive shift to digital technology.

Watch this space – it’s definitely going to get bigger!

Industrial Inkjet will be exhibiting at InPrint 2016 on the Konica Minolta stand Check out their entry here

For more information on Industrial Inkjet check their website here