The next big thing with inkjet? The writing could be on the wall

At InPrint 2016 in Milan, John Corrall of Industrial Inkjet, the Cambridge based industrial inkjet integrator, delivered a really good presentation on the wall coverings production market and I took notes during his presentation, and below is my interpretation of what was said.

We are pretty convinced that the next big tip for inkjet printing is in wallpaper production.

There is a definite life-cycle for inkjet applications. If we look at the example of the ceramics market, the possibility for printing using inkjet was available well before the eventual tipping point came. Kerajet had inks that worked and had an inkjet solution for some years without really making a big impact on the market. One day, the cost per tile for inkjet printing fell below that of conventional print and all of a sudden without much warning the market tipped. Very quickly they had lots of competitors. In a few short years 1000 single pass tile printers were sold in Europe – pretty much saturating the market. Soon after that Chinese manufacturers entered the market and by then it was too late for new players to enter. There is now no point in trying to join that market.

Ceramics was a very good market for European inkjet manufacturers but only for a very small space of time.

So what will be the next big thing?

Could it be labels? This has not really taken off for inkjet. All of the inkjet machine builders combined are not really close to catching HP Indigo.

Direct to product? Yes, this is slowly happening but it is technically challenging. Unlike ceramic tiles which are all more or less flat, the direct-to-product market covers a huge range of shapes and sizes of things to print. This means that every system is special-purpose. Every inkjet printer for direct-to-product is pretty much customised to suit a relatively narrow range of product shapes.

Laminates and décor? Yes again there is interest. But the segment is varied. For example, there is a lot of interest in high-pressure laminates for kitchen worktops, or office furniture. But is this the next big thing? One issue is the width and speed of such lines – typically 2.1m wide at 50m/minute linear speed. This is an expensive inkjet printer which when amortised may mean that the cost per m2 is high. Another segment – one that we have sold a few systems in – is printing direct onto floor boards – either laminate for indoor use or artificial (plastic) boards for outdoor use. But so far this doesn’t seem a huge market.

A couple of years ago we were doing market research into the laminate market and a spin off from this work was the discovery that wallpaper production might be interesting for us.

What we found when visiting major wallpaper producers was that there was already a very strong pull in the market for digital. They are looking for the technology already? Why?

We joined IGI (which is the European association for Wallpaper Production) and their data shows that there has been a gentle decline in demand for wallpape since 2006 in Europe, and producers are fighting that by trying to do new things. This includes new designs, more choice, and the use of famous designers. All of this means run lengths are becoming shorter and shorter.

If they are going to cope with this effectively, they need to cut set up time, tooling costs and waste. Wallpaper producers know that they need technology and digital is a compelling proposition.

Because traditional printing screens are expensive and have a limited life then tooling costs for conventional wallpaper production are high. More variation means more tooling – which is increasing costs. Screens are physically large – which means storage costs. Digital print does away with these costs altogether.

If you have ever done some DIY at home then you will know that you have to make sure that when you buy wallpaper it is all from the same batch. If you mix rolls from two batches then the colour is different. Wallpaper producers mix inks themselves to get the right pantone. If they get it slightly wrong then they get waste – they have to scrap the ink. If they don’t make quite enough then they won’t complete the production run and will have to start again – so they mix extra ink – which then goes to waste. Even though the ink itself is not expensive there is a cost to measure and control colour matching and a cost to dispose of waste ink. Again digital does away with these costs.

Another reason to go digital is because the conventional wallpaper press is a big machine and a huge investment. It requires a lot of space and costs several million Euros. If a wallpaper producer is thinking about buying new equipment then potentially digital could make a big saving in both system cost and the floor space needed for it.

Isn’t digital wallpaper already available?

Yes it is. Digital wallpaper is already available. There are a lot of people selling digital wallpaper but today this is purely for mural walls or“picture” walls. For example digital is used to print “Frozen” characters for children’s bedrooms. But this is not mass production. This is low-volume specialist production. Today it is produced by wide-format inkjet systems. HP do very well at this with latex inks. But watching such a system run is boring. The wallpaper is being produced at a speed measured in centimetres per minute, not the metres-per-minute of conventional “analog” mass produced wallpaper.

The Xeikon(toner) machine is faster but it is too narrow at 50cm for “standard” wallpaper which needs to be at least 21 inches (533mm). This means a printer about 55cm wide is needed (to allow for trimming). It is also still a lot slower than “conventional” wallpaper production speeds.

 So the current options on the market are not that compelling for large wall paper manufacturers?

I think that the current offerings are too slow or too narrow. Also there are a lot of regulatory requirements for wallpaper and we have doubts that some of the digital wallpaper today meets these requirements.

So what do we think the requirements are for mass produced wall paper?

Roughly speaking you need 70 metres per minute linear speed and a print width of 1.2 metres wide in Europe or 1.4 metres wide in the USA. In Europe the 1.2m is usually printing two up (two rolls in parallel). In USA the full width can be a single roll (commercial wallpaper).

Then there is the media. As well as paper there is PVC and also non-woven artificial materials. Any digital system really needs to cope with a wide range of standard wallpaper media. Our research work came up with a list of 42 different common wallpaper stocks. Our goal from the beginning was to cope with most if not all of these.

In addition, you have to consider whether you will be printing on pre-embossed materials, which means that you are going to have to print down into the “recesses” of the embossing. Many wallpaper materials are fibrous and have a haptic or furry texture. You may have 3mm long fibres sticking up. The key point here is that if digital only works on a limited set of media – especially if it only works on expensive “digital” papers - then we aren’t going to reach the tipping point. Digital will remain a low volume niche technology.

 What else do you need?

The cost of print must be comparable to ink cost to conventional per roll if you are going to replace conventional. When it is similar, inkjet will take over.

Our potential customers already have printing presses for wallpaper and they don’t want to throw them away – but what about the rest of the process, slitting, embossing and priming? The rest of the process needs to remain the same so initially anyway we think that digital will need to integrate into existing production lines. This implies that the digital module must be compact.

Clearly here are some technical issues. How do you align the inkjet to the embossing?

One important issue is regulatory requirements. There are rules that all wallpaper has to comply with. You can’t just print wallpaper and hope. There are regulations on smell, “emissions”, heavy metals and wash-ability. For example wallpaper paste is alkaline. We have to make sure the print doesn’t fade in contact with the paste! As a result of all this there is an aggressive test program for any new ink. It needs testing on a very large number of different media. This is a lot of work. Its not easy for ink suppliers to create an ink that will meet such a wide spectrum of requirements.

With conventional printing, the picture you are printing must align with the embossing both along the web and across it. The paper stretches as it goes through the press so there is always a risk that the print and the embossing come out a different size. If that happens then you are going to have to remake either the printing plates or the embossing plates. This is waste.

With digital you can grow or shrink the digital image until it matches the embossing. However what the customers expect is that the digital system will do this instantly and without stopping print or without creating a “gap” in the image – both of which would create waste. The software to do this is not quite so simple!

Gloss is big a problem for wallpaper production. This was something we didn’t realise from the original market research. You can’t show a wallpaper producer a glossy print and expect them to like it. The print needs to be matt – even if the underlying media is glossy (wallpaper producers use additives in conventional printing inks to achieve this).

Wallpaper producers seem to know instinctively when a print is too glossy. We needed a more repeatable way of measuring this so we bought a Konica Minolta Glossmeter and made a study of inks versus media versus gloss level for various images. Again, this was a lot of work but by double-checking our results with some friendly wallpaper producers we were able to come up with a simple “specification” for acceptable gloss level.

What about the economic case for inkjet? This is vital according to the research?

Yes it is. The day that inkjet proved capable of being cost effective in the ceramics market, the market tipped to inkjet and no more “conventional” production lines were sold. For inkjet print of wallpaper – depending on the density of the image being printed – we are seeing print costs per roll of the order of 0.60 Euro. Our understanding is that this is comparable with conventional wallpaper production – even though the inkjet ink may be 10 times the price of conventional inks. The difference is the removal of setup time, tooling costs and waste.

There is also the marketing “pull”. As long as digital print is not too expensive then it offers wallpaper producers something new. A simple example is the repeat length of the image. Conventional print on wallpaper repeats every 600mm. Digital can print an image any length you want.

Unlike some industries that we have been involved in, the wallpaper producers seem to really know their costs – they don’t just compare cost-per-litre of the ink but look at the big picture – the total cost. They have some experience with short run digital for mural walls and aren’t scared of digital. However to change over their mass production to digital needs speed. They need 70 metres per minute.

We also believe that the digital system needs to integrate with their current production line. In effect it creates a “hybrid” wallpaper press.

What is the Market Size?

The total number of wallpaper production lines is thought to be around 300 worldwide so this is the potential market size. We calculate that a 1.2m wide inkjet printer mass-producing wallpaper will use around 46 tonnes of ink per year which makes this market very interesting to ink suppliers. However there are still technical challenges! Not least is that the inkjet system will need to be extremely reliable and able to print for 8 hours with no nozzle failure.

As will all new applications, a lot of the technical problems are with the ink. We have already spent a year testing inks both for their performance in the inkjet printhead and on the wide range of wallpaper media on our list. We have endless test results for gloss, emissions, wash and scrub.

We have a 56 cm colour demo unit printing 70 metres per minute. We now think that we have the right ink and the word is out that we may have a viable, cost effective solution for mass production of wallpaper.

So for the next big thing in inkjet. The writing could literally be on the wall.

Watch this space for news and updates!