Inkjet for Decor - Is this a dream or reality?

This is the title of my talk at IMI Europe in Amsterdam. For my talk I will be joined in part by Giorgio Macor of Kuei. The invention of the Kuei ‘haptink ink’ has gotten the industry talking about how inkjet is able to add tremendous value to decorative surfaces. But given the significant innovation such as this, why are we not seeing more obvious examples or evidence that it is being used and adopted?

As with every kind of new technology that enters a market there is bound to meet resistance of numerous kinds, here is just a sample that I see which need to be overcome. 


The first element is the technical issues. The challenges confronting inkjet in a number of markets are not inconsequential. I am not a technical person, but even I understand that introducing inkjet into a manufacturing line clearly isn’t a matter of simply putting an inkjet device on hand and watching it transform production. This is the stuff of dreams, and not grounded in any kind of reality.  

Introducing a new technology into a manufacturing operation is challenging as it takes time for it to be able to exist, particularly in a truly industrial production environment such as flooring manufacturing. The run lengths are huge and the demand for quality production are high. When we consider the flooring market, this sector is very heavily invested in analogue, for good reason. Floors have a functional as well as decorative purpose, so inkjet may provide some interesting potential for design but it has to work with speed and function and this poses traditional flooring companies a bunch of headaches in that the value isn’t obvious, at least to them. 


Oddly with inkjet, its strength is also its weakness. The strength of digital is the unique attributes that it brings to any production line. However, the word ‘digital’ can mean different things to different people and as such expectations must be managed. Generally speaking in our everyday lives, digital is seen as a replacement technology, and for industrial inkjet for décor, I simply do not think that it is. The economic advantages of inkjet, particularly for flooring are yet to be proven. So whilst there is positive motivation for many to move to digital, these producers are not sure how it will work within their production. Many companies are therefore well outside of their comfort zone with digital and as such unless they can see an obvious, quick economic advantage they discount digital as expensive and therefore unnecessary. 


In order to provide customers with the necessary confidence and comfort to change, then knowledge is required. However there is a knowledge gap for industrial inkjet within the manufacturing community. This will hold back progress significantly as the right expertise is needed to solve complex production problems. It is clearly important to have these ‘dreams’ as these fuel progress of any kind, nonetheless in order for these to be realised people with the right experience are vital in order for dreams to come true. A project manager must collaborate with various partners to gain a production value which is tightly positioned between market, engineering and chemistry. The sweet spot is not easy to attain or to monetise.


Finally, for any dream to become a reality, it is one thing enabling production, quite another achieving sales. Technical innovation is a dream unless it has commercial investment and power behind it in order to make a market. It will simply be a dream otherwise. To achieve any kind of revolution, as Che Guevara famously said. “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.” And this will not be done with technical innovation alone. I think the inkjet market will ultimately need to invest more in communication in order to accelerate progress. Of course this is a little ‘chicken and egg’ and easy for me to say, but when collective commercial focus is given on any new technology, then revolutions are more likely. It is as simple as that.

So inkjet for décor. Dream or reality? There is more content to follow which will be included in my talk, but you will have to come to Amsterdam to find out more.

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