For Sensient: The Future is Water

Simon Daplyn Bio Photo.jpg

Sensient is a leader in development and supply of innovative digital inkjet inks for textile, industrial and specialty printing markets with a focus on sustainability. Highly experienced in sublimation printing, Sensient’s acquisition of Xennia Technology in 2015 added reactive, acid and pigment inks to enable a portfolio of inks to print onto any textile. We talked to Simon Daplyn who is leading Sensient into new industrial applications, and we ask him his view of the development of the technology into new markets.

So the clue is in the title – as a business, Sensient is heavily invested in a future of water-based inks, am I right?

Yes, this is correct and what is encouraging is there is seemingly a preference for water-based inks from the market.  This is because of the safety and eco-credentials. We have the right inks, but for us, coming from textile background our knowledge of the production requirements of water-based inks in industrial printers and capability to develop a range of print heads that stands us in good stead. 

So you are only focused on textiles?

No, we also see a big need today and in the future for water-based inks for many applications. Another advantage of Sensient as an organisation has is a vast knowledge and experience in highly regulated markets such as foods, pharmaceutical and cosmetics.  This background enables us to approach applications such as packaging where we feel a high potential need for regulatory requirements to be understood. Sensient has a track record in food colouration so we have a deep knowledge of the food regulations. So if we can leverage this, and not just focus on the competitive scenario in corrugated, then I think we will see some exciting new developments here.

As our focus is more regulated markets, this could be flexible and folded, food or pharma packaging.  We already leverage our experience in edible colorants by developing edible inks for decorating foods and pharmaceuticals.  For these markets, it is required to be FDA or GMP (good manufacturing practice)  compliant and within our facility in St Louis we are already geared up for this as we make jettable edible inks. We are FDA Certified and audited almost weekly.

Edible inks is a growing market space and Sensient offer a pretty defined set of products and it helps to have a track record in this area to be able to properly comply with the global regulations.

How do you develop new inks for these markets? What gives you the confidence to be speculative?

More and more our strategy is to work with an OEM to create a product that is right for the needs of a market or segment. 

For the speciality/industrial market, our focus is OEMS and large industrial users, as it is hard for the distributor model to work in this field as customers are big here and you need to be able to service their needs, which can be demanding.

What we are finding in the industrial segment is that in many cases the companies wanting to address the market are not traditional inkjet guys. So for packaging, it may be the original Flexo, folding equipment suppliers like Engico. Their expertise is in handling equipment and they have developed skill and knowledge in inkjet to offer their customers the flexibility digital print can provide in production.  In packaging some of the big traditional analogue players are looking for machine makers and integrators to provide the digital engine with specialist ink manufacturers and software suppliers  – they want the head partner and the ink partner is looking into inkjet.

For example, Bobst has developed Mouvent who are applying a model in both fields. KBA is now configuring digital systems for their customers. At the end of this year – I imagine we will see some hybrid examples of inkjet and flexo. Labels are going hybrid and we see a real emphasis on substrate handling.

What changes have there been in the market since InPrint 2014?

When InPrint was launched it was a technology show that was demonstrating what could possibly be done with digital printing technology within manufacturing. Now, the machines are more formed and available and the level of expertise is much higher, you can see great progress with the technology. Industrial print now is less of a concept and more of a reality for industries such as packaging and flooring. But clearly, there are some markets where it has been slower to adopt. Flooring is way behind for example. The flooring guys would blame the lack of the right machinery that is somewhere that needs attention but equally one could argue this market is conservative so behaviourally less inclined to change. 

So at InPrint in 2014 we were presenting a concept and ideas and talking to market about what to develop. Now we have a greater technical capability, clearer partners and markets. It is still conceptual but the focus is now more commercial than in 2014. But to be honest, I still think it is still on the cusp of really taking off.

What about décor? 

Most of this segment is still a commercial market. There are not many industrial full production companies using inkjet today. This is due to a conservative market, and the key value of inkjet not being fully realised at this point.

What about digital textile? 

For us, textile is key to our success and we continue to develop innovative and eco sustainable solutions for our customers.  It is fair to say that that the market has become somewhat commoditised at least in terms of ink sales.

Globally, in Asia, textiles are really important and for other industrial markets, we hope that this will also be the case. China really is a market of its own. Gone are the days of poor product from China. It is still not quite European quality, but still perfectly OK for the purposes of the machines. Outside of this, we will develop industrial out of US and Europe then move to Asia. The brands seem to want proof of concept in Europe then they will integrate it into their main Asian production. 

For textile, as with electronics, the production on an industrial scale is done out in Asia. For example, many big sportswear brands are out there.

What is the current proportion of digital print production in the textile industry?

Textile is growing and this is at a fast rate. For textile right now, 5.5% is digital which is phenomenal as digital represents a large volume business. Market studies tell us there are 39,000 machines for digital textile which are installed – this is a lot when you consider only 5.5% is digital. Without question, new players have come in to take advantage of the market and it is now a question of price v quality. If you have a product which is western manufactured it can be challenging on price because people really are chasing volume. 

This helps the industrial markets – the big volume players will want similar things in terms of the scale – in textile always bottle price – industrial is sq metre price – it is a slightly different argument then you need to be focused on value as well. We think you need to be different and focus on expertise – which is why we focus on our core strengths.

What is your view of how the future industrial market will develop?

Everyone is really focused on packaging and at least corrugated to go first for inkjet. Other segments could follow quickly with the right solution, for example, we know that the market for food compliant packaging is there and they want to go digital.

Why will inkjet be popular for packaging, surely HP Indigo already has a foothold? 

The development of single pass can challenge the speed of Indigo, and there are other ways to add value with alternative inkjet solutions. For example, if the ink enables removal of the primer this speeds up the process and reduces costs.   Whilst the Indigo is a great technology, other industrial inkjet solutions allow greater freedom of the ink chemistry and can provide a more tuned and flexible way of working for the user.

Flexible packaging really needs white ink, and this can be a challenge.  The ability to use recirculating printheads allows ink management at a higher level and with the right ink negated the needs for continual maintenance.

Labels are already established and again there could be a shift away from UV which today is the dominant technology – I was surprised at how quickly people jumped onto wanting water-based inks. No one talks about low migration now – low migration ‘compatible’ inks is an assumed must. This doesn’t mean all water based will grow – but this is why corrugated will go first to inkjet as it is least demanding from a regulatory standpoint and closely aligned to POP. For food compatible packaging, water-based inks are in high demand.

I still expect décor and flooring to really convert in some way to inkjet – digital is what they want – the hardware projects are indeed happening, but perhaps the analogue production culture is not yet ready to change.

There are parallels between textile and industrial. Problem is the hardware. If you are not in with an OEM then there is a problem. Some don’t want a closed system – but customers like the safety and the relationships.

What part of the whole process adds value? 

The ink! This could make or break it if the colour is wrong or functionally it doesn’t do what you want.  The ink is the only part of the digital process that becomes part of the final product and so it is critical to get this choice right.

Is the ink developed first or second?

Many people go to the OEMs first. Hardware is somehow easier to fathom. But if you take a conventional supplier, there are too many projects, they are too busy already, and there are not enough integrators to effectively place the technology into the manufacturing line. So finding the right partners is really important. This can really block things in terms of decision making.

What is the key problem for the continued development of industrial inkjet in your opinion?

Not enough suppliers of customised solutions for the demand in the market! Or someone who is willing to work with a big player of conventional equipment to really make something fit. The conventional analogue manufacturers have the brand and the channels – if you throw a digital name into the mix, then this is harder to sell to a conservative audience. It is often an easier decision for manufacturers to work with the people they know and trust – it provides them with the confidence to change.