The growing pains of industrial print

On Thursday 24th March I ran a webinar focused on the results from a survey that we conducted in January. Joining me on the panel were Mark Hanley of I.T. Strategies, Paul Jenkins of ThePackHub, Ralf Ehrlich of PAS, Tim Phillips of IMI Europe and Marvin Jensen of CyconJet. I thought the panel collectively gave some excellent insight using the results as triggers of discussion.

The idea of the survey is to give us some insight on the state of the market, the pace of growth and the areas where we could perhaps see opportunity. On top of this the idea was to give us a clue as to what the key issues are. Of course it is nice banging the ‘growth drum’ whilst crowing about the potential of industrial print. However it is somehow more useful to discuss the challenges. Because where there is growth, there are growth pains. It is clear that industrial printing clearly also has some issues of its own. 

Integrating inkjet isn’t easy or fast

When talking in particular with Ralf Ehrlich of PAS, a company that utilises bespoke digital print equipment for industrial clients such as Bosch, he explained it really isn’t easy to convert to digital. The impression the digital revolution has given us is that it will be easy – or just a simple question of converting technologies isn’t helpful at all. PAS has taken time to invest in production technology that specifically meets their needs for production. This also means specific ink development as well as engineering. And this takes time. Another, perhaps unfashionable fact, is that designing and integrating digital industrial printing technology into a manufacturing line is not fast. Whilst inkjet itself is now over 20 years old it has not reached plug in and play status for industrial applications. Not least because a primarily visual head technology doesn’t adapt well to different kinds of substances being jetted through it! A considerable amount of time and technical challenge has to be overcome in order for this to take place.

More collaboration required for continued growth

The industrial sector is challenging industrial inkjet and printing in general to meet difficult demands. Therefore a pooling of resources and collaboration is absolutely essential in order for effective integration. The panel agreed that this is a key industry issue. They all felt that all aspects of the supply chain should collaborate more openly and that failure to do so slows digital conversion and as a result growth. There are two broad approaches to integrating digital – a closed system where you work with one supplier who could perhaps provide an end to end solution or you work with a number of different suppliers but with one company responsible for integrating. The panel felt collaboration across a number of providers would gather the best results thus enabling the best use of any technology. There are clearly pros and cons to both and a more closed approach would suit some companies who place either simplicity or secrecy at a premium. Open collaboration has propelled digital industries forward at a rapid pace, but perhaps with integrating digital technologies for industrial print manufacture isn’t quite the same. Nonetheless a more open collaborative approach would help to share knowledge and expertise leading to more cohesive growth.

Bridging a knowledge gap

The panel agreed that there is a considerable knowledge and skills gap and that with growing demand for industrial print, this may be growing rather than shrinking. This is in some part perhaps a natural result of a fast evolving market. By this, the structure of the segment has not yet been constructed. The supply chain is still forming and within this forming chain there are gaps of knowledge. The market is clearly forming but has a long way to go. Where there is not a structured market, there are also no established channels to customers. In this regard, industrial print is in contrast to commercial print which has become very structured and easy to isolate the customer base. The predictability and ease with which it is to access resources, knowledge and expertise is contrasting with industrial print.  It is also perhaps a symptom of a marketplace that also needs to collaborate more. This validates the forming of the InPrint Show as a platform for development.

Inks and materials a key issue

Linked to greater collaboration it was widely agreed that the engineering aspect of industrial printing is really driving the formation of the market and the uptake of new applications. It is not that ink manufacturers are not dynamic or innovative but that it doesn’t make sense to speculatively create a new ink without it having a possible application through a channel or OEM. The challenge for ink manufacturers is to be able to respond quickly to demand or strike up strategic partnerships with OEM’s to be collaboratively develop inks for evolving applications rather than being reactive to demand and struggling to respond quickly enough.

New applications are not always the key driver

Tim Phillips felt this coming out on top was a surprise. Partly as he felt that the consumer is actually driving the change. Ralf Ehrlich of PAS also presented what this company does. As a company that prints onto home appliances with customers such as Bosch, PAS have in the past 5 years developed digital production. When they began their journey they though new application possibility would be appealing for their customers. Whilst the capability is there, according to Ralf Ehrlich, this has not yet happened. Yet in the survey results this is the key driver. Marvin Jensen made the point that there is strong interest in new applications but that currently the customer base is not willing to pay the premium to access this. Yet.

Economic benefit crucial to speed of adoption

Despite the technological bias of the panel, many felt that technology is not the only driver of change. All agreed that consumer conditions for change were equally important. Building upon this question one step further, all thought that economic benefits must exist in order for change to occur and that if an economic reason to convert was evident, particularly so in the short term, then change and digital conversion would occur. If there is no clear economic value then the shift may not happen, or the take up of digital is much slower. The panel discussed the ceramics sector being a prime example of short term economic gain providing huge impetus towards digitisation. However the downside of this is that the market moved very quickly towards digital production to the point that the sector commoditised very quickly. Now we see a market looking at implementing new ideas for differentiation in order to drive more value. 
If you would like a copy of the report, please do not hesitate to contact me or indeed complete the form that this link goes

If you would like to hear the Webinar (and see the slides) then please click here