Is Industrial Inkjet Still the Rising Star in the World of Print?

If you are reading this, you may want to introduce inkjet into your manufacturing production. And you could be thinking to yourself.  How difficult or easy is it? And what are the challenges and the opportunities?

And is industrial inkjet still the rising star in the world of print?

In order answer these questions, this article draws upon the key results from recent InPrint Surveys.

Earlier this year 162 people from across the world answered questions relating to the growth, challenges, and opportunities for industrial inkjet printing. This year the survey had more of a focus on packaging, which is the largest industrial market and the respondents were made up of leaders from the inkjet developing community.

Firstly, the growth rate for industrial inkjet in 2017, remains strong and virtually identical to the 2015 survey with 25.93% believing growth to be double digit. This outpaces other print markets by some distance.

However, we see a reduction in expected growth year on year. In 2016 34% answered that growth would be double-digit. In the 2017 survey, there is also an increase in the 1-5% segment with a change of 13.07% (2016) to 29.63% (2017). This is a significant change that points to a more realistic understanding of how fast change and more importantly digital inkjet adoption is taking place.

Regardless, respondents considered 2016 to be the most significant year yet for industrial inkjet and that most (37.5%) believed 2017 will be building upon that as the most successful yet. Clearly, the market remains positive, confident and more realistic. One could argue that it is helpful if there is a reduction of hype, as this only serves to form a barrier to progress by setting unrealistic expectations in the minds of customers and investors.

In ceramics and display graphics, inkjet now plays a dominant technological printing role. Therefore since 2014, much of the industry has been waiting in anticipation as to which segment will be next one to adopt inkjet in a big way. According to the survey, it appears that inkjet is poised to play a much bigger role in its use within packaging (73.75%), décor (54.37%), and to a lesser extent functional inkjet printing (33.13%).

Rapid consumer change is a reality. So it should not be a surprise that packaging and décor come out as higher than functional printing. These two segments are closer to the consumer and able to benefit from an early advantage by adopting inkjet. This isn’t to say that functional printing is not important, it is, but the advantages of moving to digital printing is not as compelling. In addition, the technical challenges are considerable.

Inkjet for Packaging Now

Packaging is the biggest single market. But current inkjet use right now is mostly focused on direct to shape and corrugated printing.

Direct to shape printing attracted the highest proportion of respondents (27.5%) in the survey that believe that inkjet will add value in digital direct to shape first before any other packaging segments  InPrint’s Global Packaging Partner, Tonejet’s Simon Edwards made the following analysis within the InPrint 2017 Survey. “Digital direct to shape printing is now possible and this offers a number of new possibilities for retailers. However, one of the roadblocks is that brands want more control over their business. This is positive, but it creates a tension as converters do not want to provide late-stage customisation as they don’t want to change their infrastructure. It is understandable as it represents a risk and a threat. The ceramics segment picked up on this and it changed as a result. But other markets are different. A key problem in packaging is that the supply chain isn’t designed for late-stage customisation. This is not performed by the converter, as it is done in the actual manufacturers. Some of the world’s largest beverage companies want to print in the filling location, not outside of the business with a converter.

Brands want to be smarter about managing inventory as it is complex to direct and fulfill production, distribution, and marketing for multiple SKU’s. Just think of the complexity of material handling and manufacturing. Within this segment, and this is possibly applicable across many sectors, the top 5 companies supply half the market.

Half want production to remain the same, half want to innovate. It is quite profound and this is due to culture.”

Inkjet for Packaging in the Future

50.13% of respondents agree that flexible packaging is the leading area of development investment. The primary nature of flexible packaging means it commands the highest value within packaging. However, inkjet’s role in this is some distance away from being realised with most (47.5%) believing that inkjet will play a larger role in packaging in the next 2-5 years.

What is slowing adoption, aside from the inevitable technical challenges that inkjet must overcome is the structural and cultural barriers to change. This can impede the speed to which inkjet will perform a significant role in any sector.

To support this point, in the survey, most respondents (40.63%) believe that brands and retailers are too concerned with digital printing exactly matching analogue printing in speed and image reproduction. This means that there is a fundamental misunderstanding (from customers) of the role digital should be playing within production. Obviously, print quality is important, but the need for digital to match analogue in terms of colour reproduction may over time become an obsolete demand. As Simon Edwards explains, “A large percentage of production is now going to CMYK. Brands are starting to move towards more colour rationalisation and this makes sense as it reduces cost and it prepares them to move towards digital. The fewer colours they use in their artwork the more efficient they become. The bottom line is you have to minimise the print time to gain maximum benefit.”

The Need to Bridge a Knowledge Gap

There can be a misunderstanding coming from the end customer for the role inkjet will perform in production. This can obviously lead to problems further down the line.

According to our research, many end users often miscalculate the time, cost and complexity of integrating inkjet into production. Inkjet is not necessarily a replacement process and in contrast to analogue, inkjet production will often appear much more expensive. However, this is really missing the point as inkjet offers unique performance attributes that complement analogue production, and the manufacturers that have accepted this are already enjoying competitive advantages.

Respondents believed that the greatest ROI that inkjet will provide in the short term is added flexibility and speed (31.87%). A digital process rarely competes (yet) with an analogue process in volume and cost but it does add agility into production that can mean that a plant can respond quickly to demand, it can run multiple different print jobs in one day, with different patterns, onto different products thereby adding in a level of functionality and a clear ROI for the manufacturer.

In order for these advantages to be realised end customers must work closely with OEMs, Integrators, Ink Providers, Software companies and Inkjet Head manufacturers to create the best possible solution for their business, whether this is for packaging, décor or functional printing. In past surveys, greater collaboration, knowledge, and patience is also a key criterion for getting it right with inkjet in manufacturing. So in order to achieve effective integration there is as much responsibility on the end customer as there is for the developer, integrator or other component maker within the inkjet development community. And this will take time.

The exciting and positive fact is that right now the products, the quality, the expertise and the focus have never been better. Inkjet is maturing and improving in speed and quality all the time. Therefore much of the risk has already been reduced due to advances in technology and understanding.

So, in answer to the original question. Is industrial inkjet still the rising star of the print world?

Yes, it is. Industrial inkjet is ready to make a considerable contribution to an array of industries. But it is not always as simple (yet) as just buying a new machine, putting it in the line and reaping the rewards. An end customer must gain a clear understanding of what it is they want to achieve, then be willing to collaborate, step outside of their comfort zone and work in partnership to find a solution. The expertise and the technology is ready. But success will not be attained without patience, an open mind, determination and a willingness to learn that digital production is different to analogue, and so too are the challenges and advantages.

Moving onto another level

If you decide to visit InPrint 2017, then you are on the right track. The best companies in the world are exhibiting and available to provide you with answers and help. Just make sure to speak to as many people as possible, and attend some of the many educational conference presentations.

Finally, I put this question to you. If the answers can be found at InPrint 2017, then shouldn’t you be?

Hope to see you in Munich!