Leading people into new places: Inca Digital


I recently caught up with John Mills, CEO of Inca Digital one of our exhibitors at InPrint 2017 in Munich in November. I had the opportunity to find out more about John, his view of leadership and the developments he is implementing at the Cambridge-based inkjet pioneer.  

Tell us about your background John?

I discovered when I was undertaking my Ph.D. in Physics that I was actually quite good at being able to manage clever people and translating complex technical content into understandable English that could be easily understood outside the technical community, so I realised fairly early that technical management roles would be the way forward for me.

My career started at Domino, initially leading projects and eventually working my way up to managing the development group within the company. I then went to a start-up - Plastic Logic - which was one of the early innovators in printed electronics and became its VP of Engineering. When the CEO left, I made the transition from technical leadership to the CEO of Plastic Logic. From there, I moved with some of the investors of Plastic Logic to Datalase, which became all about turning the business around and we successfully achieved this. 

I was then invited to join Inca Digital as I have known Bill Baxter since our time together at Domino, and four years’ later, here I am – leading a business that continues to be a pioneer of new technologies for new markets. 

Inca Digital is obviously a famous name in wide format, what are you aiming to change and achieve?

When I started we were a single product, wide format technology business. Four years’ later, we have three distinct product ranges – the Onset X series, the SpyderX and the recently announced Onset M – and we are making great inroads into a number of fast developing markets across the industrial print sector. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be leading a company like Inca as we push the boundaries of what is possible with inkjet.  The Onset platform is a superb machine and technology – in fact, the fastest Onset is twice as fast as other machines in wide format printing.

The joint development project we currently have with our parent Screen and global packaging giant, BHS Corrugated, to develop a high speed, high volume inkjet machine for the corrugated market is a great example of where inkjet can go if you have the right combination of imagination, innovation, and insight. This project is a core part of our strategy to drive inkjet technologies into multiple industrial markets. 

For many printers, the Holy Grail is always speed is it not?

Speed is not the holy grail. Defining your business model and ensuring you forensically understand why you are investing in new kit and exactly what it will offer you both in terms of productivity and new revenue streams - i.e. how you will maximise the monetisation of your investment - is the holy grail for printers. 

There is a lot of talk about single pass out there at moment and how it has the potential to dramatically transform printers’ businesses. At face value, this is of course, true. However, the reality is much more nuanced than this. Those considering investing in single pass technologies need to understand why they are investing in it and how they may need to culturally and operationally restructure their business to take account of the investment. Single-pass presses are not just a new way of printing, they offer a new way of doing business – moving from a few high volume jobs to many low volume on-demand, customised jobs, for example. 

This sort of restructuring of the production schedule has resource implications up and down the chain and can increase the complexity of the workflow, so these need to be thought through and the value proposition clearly understood. That all may seem obvious, but some of those considerations sometimes get lost when an industry gets excited about a new technology. 

That is a sound point. So what areas do you see as being relevant for inkjet?

The potential for single pass machines is enormous but with unlimited potential also comes risk. The industry is asking for single pass, but from what I can see out there, where the sweet spot is in terms of high value, high revenue, high volume applications is yet to be fully defined.  
Some competitors seem to be gaining some traction in the corrugated market, but the feedback I’m getting back is that the commercial revenue model for their machines is not yet clear.  There is a bit of the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ when it comes to single pass. There are big announcements from those who are investing, but are the machines out there really fulfilling what they initially promise? You’ll never hear a ‘no’ from those companies who have invested as they have too much riding on a flagship investment like this. The key to every investment has to be an absolute focus on ROI – what is the real ROI you can achieve now and what is the machine’s true potential in this regard? Great technology is not so great if you can’t or don’t know how to make money out of it! We’ve spent a lot of time defining both the performance of the technology and the revenue model for our single pass platform, as we do with all our inkjet platforms. I know that when our single pass machine is available it will have a robust technical proposition as well as a solid commercial model.  

So corrugated has clearly gained your attention and investment, tell us more about this segment?

If you look at the corrugated market, then there are at least 30-40 Inca machine machines printing corrugated display units. This is where the majority of the existing flatbed wide-format machines are being used as the need is there, the value proposition is understood and the revenue stream/commercial model is now proven. The Onset X platform is perfect for this sector as the majority of work is short run, so you don’t require the volume benefits single pass technology offers. 

This platform, therefore, doesn’t pose any kind of problem for converters, as it does something genuinely new and is providing a solution to meet the challenges of the changing retail environment whilst not disrupting mainstream manufacturing. However, it is applications like shelf ready packaging that now need attention, because the value proposition for digital is not yet clear in this part of the market.  Inkjet is still in its in infancy in markets like this and if you consider it has taken nearly 20 years for the commercial print industry to get its head fully around the benefits of personalisation for example, we have a long way to go in educating this market as to the benefits and the value proposition of inkjet. It will be brand owners that drive much of this change. When they start asking for product only inkjet can deliver, the converter will start investing more rapidly, because they then see the commercial value or imperative. 

So this is a good example of how digital adds operational value, where else does digital add value for packaging?

Applications right through the packaging and corrugated supply chain from primary, secondary and tertiary packaging to displays including: 

•    POP/POS
•    Store displays/pop-up promotional stands
•    Shelf ready packaging
•    High end graphic boxes
•    Shipping boxes

What volume is all of this for digital? Do you think that brands and retailers truly understand the value proposition of digital printing?

I think in order for digital to be successful in packaging the sales proposition must be much clearer. The printer or converter must see that digital can do for them what analogue can’t – i.e. customisation without compromising quality; and the brand owner must be able to see that the digitally printed packaging or display is helping to generate more market share or save more money for time to market from a production perspective. Until all of this is clear, then it simply will not happen.

Seeing other packaging companies succeed when using inkjet is the most powerful type of persuasion and this would be clearer if more companies in the industry were using it and benefiting from it.  This takes time and it’s about constantly educating the market, especially around the commercial model for inkjet. But the clarity of this message is clouded when manufacturers claim their technology can deliver something it can’t or the suggested commercial return is just not realistic in practise. 

The label market is often held up as an industry where CIJ printers have made significant inroads. But, this has been largely facilitated by legislative requirements for batch coding imposed on the brand owner, so this is a great example of an industry adopting inkjet once they see the need and value proposition that inkjet offers and how it fits with that need. 
Again, we see this in ceramic tile market, where the higher per-unit cost of inkjet printing (predominantly due to high ink costs) has been more than off-set by the fact that the tile manufacturer can produce a thinner tile (less material equals less cost) as the inkjet printing process is non-contact. That is exactly the sort of detail we need to be getting down to if we are to coherently outline the value proposition in each market. 

In short, all of these industries need more than just a ‘grand vision’ of what inkjet might be able to do. Some inkjet equipment manufacturers have been guilty of expecting their customers to just understand the huge potential of inkjet, but the irony is many actually feel a little paralysed by the vast choice. Inkjet is so flexible, with so many applications, it can be hard for a printer (in whatever industry) to know which one to focus on next and what will be the most profitable for their business. 

This is where we much all do more to educate new markets, and not overpromise on new technologies. We must do more to help customers focus on the flexibility of the technology and then find the market that it fits.  If we don’t, the path to adoption and prosperity for inkjet manufacturers will be much more arduous than it needs to be. 

So what is it that BHS (a market leader in corrugated manufacturing) sees as the main value for the development of digital inkjet?

For BHS, whilst the project itself is significant in size, it is the general contribution our digital print technology will make to simplifying their manufacturing process that is the real key to the future.  BHS is making a strategic investment in digital by building new fully digital plants for corrugated manufacturing. In addition, as it replaces its existing plants, new ones will be designed for digital from the start, so that digital inkjet won’t be disrupting as such, it will be fully integrated from the outset. 

So this is a game-changing move by BHS?

Yes. I think so. They have gone into this project with a sound rationale and are very clear about what their strategy is and what the outcomes need to be. They understand the huge potential inkjet offers their markets.  However, for inkjet to continue to grow in the packaging and corrugated markets, packaging companies themselves need to make the brand owner much more aware of inkjet, its use across a wide range of applications and what that actually means for the brand owner. At the moment, there is a structural or systemic problem in that the brand owner strategists are too far removed from production and as a result have little knowledge of the possibilities. Packaging companies need to structure the argument for digital in line with the needs of the brand owner. Stop selling the technology and start selling the benefits and possibilities to the customer. 

How do you define industrial print?

Inca defines Industrial print as printing on an object that has a secondary use, so the print plays a crucial functional process. So this could be white goods, consumer electronics, and instruction panels for the automotive industry and so on.

What other issues are posing a challenge for industrial inkjet development?

I would say ink development is a big issue and whoever solves this issue will win, it is as simple as that.  And, this is where anyone who is prepared to use any ink has an advantage as one ink may jet very well in one type of head but not another, so companies like Inca must remain agile and open enough to choose the right head partner for the right project. 

Collaboration is the key to solving this issue as it’s very unusual to get one company with all of the elements (skills and technology) required to create an industrial print solution. The process of getting the inkjet sets into a manufacturing process is the key to unlocking a new market for inkjet.  The luxury vinyl tile market is a good example of this. The industry is very keen on finding an inkjet solution that works for the LVT market and we are actively looking to collaborate with companies in this sector to achieve this.

What is the main challenge for the makers of industrial printing technologies?

I have now visited over 300 customers and prospects across the world and talked to about their existing products and how digital inkjet might be able to help them. One thing I have really noticed is that in terms of defining strategy, bigger companies seem less likely to naturally innovate. This is because when a company gets to a certain size, the C-Level executives often start delegating strategy and vision to those below them and then everything seems to become a process. Unfortunately, what often follows from that is that adopting something new becomes less of a priority, and more of an inconvenience. It is this type of corporate culture that poses a considerable challenge. 

So I guess this is an issue when it comes to encouraging larger companies to change, how do you lead and what is your take on the best way to manage change and create opportunity?
You must start by going out, listening and understanding challenges and the pain points businesses have. Having that kind of insight is really important for a leader because if I have seen it myself, I can see what is most likely to be needed and wanted. From there you can lead them to the solution that suits them. What is really critical is vision, strategy and a roadmap.  Naturally, if people know where they are going and why they are much more likely to follow you. If you don’t lead, the process, the message, and the investment strategy all become fractured and fragmented. 

What products are you developing based upon all this insight you have gained?

The new Onset M B1 machine announced earlier this year is a very exciting development and I think it will be the start of a real transformation in the B1 market. The market has been asking for it and we have now delivered it. 

All big players are already manufacturing B1 Sheetfed presses, however, they will only print on a limited range of substrates and single pass. It is the incredible versatility of the Onset M and its ability to print on such a wide range of substrates, opening up new potential revenue streams, that sets it apart. 

So are the leaders in the marketplace demanding single pass?

Earlier this year I went on a tour of a half a dozen of the top printers in the world and asked them all about single pass. All of them stated they don’t need to print more than 1000 boards an hour so they don’t necessarily need more capacity, but what they do need is more flexibility. And, this demand for flexibility on multiple fronts – volume, speed, customisation, quality – will only grow in the coming years. The machines and manufacturers that can meet this demand for flexibility will be the ones who succeed. 

It is fashionable to talk about single pass. But what these companies really need is the ability to print onto any surface and at speed, so the answer isn’t necessarily single pass. It’s the combination of flexibility and speed they want.

Inca will be participating at InPrint 2017 on booth #364


Check out their show entry