Tarkett: Integrating Inkjet - The end-users perspective

 Klaas Kackmann- Schneider, Tarkett

Klaas Kackmann- Schneider, Tarkett

With more than 130 years of history, Tarkett is a worldwide leader of innovative and sustainable flooring and sports surface solutions. A world leader in integrated flooring and sports surface solutions, Tarkett has been providing unique flooring experiences each day in homes, schools, workplaces, hospitals, retail stores, hotels, and wherever sports are played. This world leader has also been developing inkjet within its production process. We talked to Klaas Kackmann-Schneider, who is the Technology Investment Manager for Tarkett with a responsibility for industrial inkjet for the company. We talked about integrating inkjet into a company with a long standing tradition of analogue production.


What do you do for Tarkett?

“I am in charge of developing inkjet technology for industrial manufacturing of flooring for Tarkett. We think that as the world continues to change there will be a need for short run, flexible production and this is where digital inkjet comes to the fore.”

How long have you been working on an inkjet solution?

“Since 2011 we have been developing industrial inkjet within our operation in 2013. We have one line which is being launched this week in the US and has been in operation since beginning of the year. It is an exciting time but also very challenging.”

What is the key to success when implementing inkjet into the production of vinyl flooring?

“Cooperation and sharing is a big issue. Tarkett is not an inkjet business so gaining the help of expert companies and people from the inkjet world is crucial. In a mature market a machinery supplier would offer something and they would approach us with a solution and it would be a simple proposition. But this hasn’t really happened yet in vinyl flooring. So we had to find a supplier and actually convince them to do a project with us. So coming from a different world to inkjet it is challenging as you learn things as you go along. When we started our inkjet journey we actually thought that 3 years would be enough but it has taken longer.”

So there is demand for digital why hasn’t it more obviously taken off with vinyl flooring décor?

“There are other companies who have developed standardised machinery which are maybe not for the vinyl market but for other flooring applications and people don’t take the plunge as no one seems to be keen to take the risk as first. There are a few suppliers that have taken the risk and made a machine and nobody takes it on. This is surprising on the one hand but then it is quite a conservative market and changing represents quite a big risk. As well the flooring market is big in turnover but in comparison to e.g. packaging, paper printing (press, merchandise) or textile the printed sqm are smaller, so it is logical that the first approach for printing machinery builders are these markets. 

We had many talks about paper printing and then laminating – some of them started, stopped with inkjet it is a bit difficult for us to understand what is truly happening and what is actually taking off. There are too many smaller players involved and not enough impetus to change which means that digital takes longer to become accepted.”

Why did you decide to develop your own solution as opposed to investing in a pre-manufactured machine?

“We would have been happy to buy an existing system but as a flooring company we don’t need high speed. We require high end finish. The issue for us is reliability and compatibility with existing working systems. You have to find something that works within your system so you have to adapt an existing system or build something entirely new. This is where we were 5 years ago and we had to make a decision. Now there are more suppliers so if I started again now, I might have made a different decision but at the time there was very little to choose from. This industry is really traditional and quite slow moving and everyone is focused on reliability first. 

It is important to note that Tarkett and many of our competitors are not paper printing companies, we are end users. So printing is not something we have a heritage in and this is not a community that is keen on actually doing the printing. Our production normally is more of a heavy industrial process than you might think.  The relatively delicate nature of printing is very different to sawing wood for example. With a heavy industry when you introduce a sophisticated technology such as inkjet heads it is extremely delicate and culturally difficult to get used to. If things go wrong it costs money and this risk creates fear. These inkjet heads can get damaged and you lose money on downtime, so the inkjet sector really needs to convince people. This is why we would have been ready 1 to 2 years ago with our development but it takes time to convince people, find the application, where to develop it, what we do with capacity, it takes a lot of patience and expertise.”

What are the issues with current production?

“In our world we have a lot of capacity with analogue. It may take a lot of years for ROI but once it is paid off it makes money for the producer. So for some people why change this?  But with inkjet we can be faster, achieving a better turnaround, lead time and stock etc. Of course it is not easy to put numbers in fact it is quite difficult sometimes. That is why it takes so long to do.

The development takes time. I am a process engineering master and have been working now for more than 10 years in R&D and inkjet is an amazing and frustrating technology in equal measure.”

If the industry is conservative and reliability is regarded as so important why bother at all with digital?

“Our leadership team were and still remain committed to digital for the future. Leadership decided and saw a huge opportunity in digital printing and that this could be the next step for flooring décor. This is an exploration. You go fast to understand, evaluate the risks, then you have a real project. During exploration we saw we would have a good chance to be successful for a digital future. Everyone is talking Industrie 4.0 – everyone wants to minimise stock and to gain higher flexibility and you just can’t easily do this using the old technolog, so for us digital printing is the first step to create greater flexibility in our production process. ”

What are the key drivers for digital with regard to flooring?

“The key drivers for us are flexibility, the ease of changeovers and the appeal really is to change from relying only on the cumbersome nature of engraved gravure cylinders. Simply changing the cylinders is a huge job, in fact it is the most inflexible printing process I know. As the cylinders are engraved you have to wait for the engraving process if you want to introduce a new pattern. You will then need three to five cylinders and making these cylinders really takes a long time. You print a test, you adjust a colour, you test again, you change the colour and the process goes around again until you are happy with the reproduction.  For me this is one of the big reasons to change. With cylinders you are really limited with regard to the length of the repeat. With flooring you don’t want to see the repeat pattern on the floor. You really don’t want every 10 tiles to be the same of every few feet a similar or the same package. So it limits design as you can really see the repeats as the human eye picks up repeating patterns easily. As well as this the colour range is quite limited. There are not really more than base colour use as well so this is limiting for spot colours and the colour range meaning that designers do not have many options.”

But reliability is key though, so having different options for design and reproduction is not a big deal?

“I am not convinced reliability will always outweigh flexibility. Of course inkjet has to be reliable but the flexibility it gives production is compelling. The analogue system cannot really get much better. You are talking 0.1% improvements these days. So there is not much more in the way of evolution to come. The limitations means that this is a natural evolution. The question is now when and how fast. Everyone is saying it is going to be quick but I don’t see this happening yet.

Part of this is the time and perhaps the lack of competition between vendors. Once someone sees a system that is truly giving a producer competitive advantage then I imagine the adoption will accelerate. 

When we began this project 5 years ago we would not have imagined the amount of time that it is taking. But we are charting a new course that hasn’t been done before so it will take time. It is a complicated and complex thing to do to introduce a brand new technology into a huge analogue manufacturing operation.

The three core elements are print head, ink and media. The interaction of the ink has to go through the heads, so how big the ink is and its viscosity are limited from that side then you have to get this onto the substrate and this has requirements as well. These three variables must work well in combination and when you consider all three aspects then the focal point for a solution is actually quite small. You need a custom solution because nothing is literally off the shelf.

If you approach the ink companies with the need for a specific solution without giving them a specific commitment to volume then you don’t get anywhere either. You cannot guarantee them business because you don’t know what is going to happen and you don’t know what the outcome will be especially for the ink supplier if they cannot use it for anything else. You have to find a provider who already has an ink that can perhaps be adapted because the ink will have to work with a challenging substrate or someone who is willing to take a risk as well, but that’s what innovation is about to take the correct risks.”

Tell us about the particular substrate?

“Our media is a hydrophobic polymer (PVC). So it doesn’t like water. So ink-wise, you need something with a low surface energy or it doesn’t wet properly on the surface. This is hard for inkjet to achieve. When you think about paper printing, in comparison it is really easy. Paper was adopted for centuries for printing whereas our substrate is not. You need a lot of trial and error to find the correct compromise between ink, media and print head. You have to choose your print head carefully as changing after a period of development almost means you have to start again.

The problems are really detailed – if you are an end user you have someone else from the machinery side to help – but when you have to deal with them all yourself it is a challenge for people who have never seen inkjet before to first understand what is needed then to solve the problem.

This is a problem with a new technology and I do think more collaboration is required in order to get the best results as quickly as possible.”

Do you think part of the problem is that everyone expects digital transformation to be quick?

“Yes this is an image issue with digital seeming to make everyone’s life easy and therefore it should be fast and simple. This may be the case with digital paper printing due to the larger interest and longer history but as I say, for vinyl flooring and other industrial applications it is far from easy. Also you cannot really compare this industry with the ceramics market as this sector had some real drivers that made the adoption very fast. In ceramics they are always burning tiles, breaking tiles and they were forced to change due to the economics and were fortunate a particular head enabled this change.Our market is different. We will have a leading position and we will have some unique selling points. The question nobody truly knows right now is how much the customers will like the options.  A lot of things like customisation may not be such a big deal because it will take time for the designers to catch up with the possibilities. As well as the technical challenges, almost as big is the sales challenge because encouraging people to take a risk and try something new is really hard so any company taking on digital needs to factor in the time it will take and the investment that is needed for commercialising the production once it is at a stage where it can be done.”

Klaas is a panellist for our next InPrint Webinar - Decor: The Next Big Thing for Inkjet? on 14th July. Register for free here

Tarkett in brief:

•    A global leader in innovative and sustainable solutions for flooring and sports surface solutions
•    2015 net sales of € 2,715 million
•    A 130-year entrepreneurial success story with the constant commitment of the Deconinck Family, our long-term shareholder
•    Listed on Euronext Paris
•    Shareholders composition as at April 27, 2016 : Société Investissement Deconinck(50.2%), Free Float (33.8%), KKR International Flooring (15.7%) and Treasury Shares(0.3%)
•    One of the broadest products portfolio in the flooring industry, offering integrated and coordinated solutions to professional and residential end-users
•    1.3 million m² of flooring sold every day for Healthcare, Education, Housing, Retail & Hospitality, Offices and Sports
•    The most global player in the sector with 34 industrial sites and almost 12,000 employeesserving clients in more than 100 countries
•    Balanced geographic exposure: Net sales breakdown by region in 2015 : CIS, APAC & LATAM 22%, North America 41%, EMEA 37%
•    Committed to sustainable development and circular economy, with an active and acknowledged eco-innovation strategy
•    Successful acquisition and integration strategy : 20 acquisitions successfully integratedover the last eight years.