A Discussion with Xaar: Is Inkjet Crossing the Chasm into New Sectors?

 Adam Strevens, Strategic Marketing Manager, Xaar

Adam Strevens, Strategic Marketing Manager, Xaar

At InPrint, we run surveys to gain an understanding of growth and change for industrial inkjet. However, it always helps to speak with some of the experts in technology businesses that have an independent view on a number of new sectors. Xaar is a good one to speak with regarding direct to shape and décor in particular, being an independent head manufacturer. So I had a chat with Adam Strevens who is Strategic Marketing Manager at Xaar.

Adam, what is happening for direct to shape inkjet for packaging? Lot of initial noise but not a lot of obvious production? Has inkjet been swallowed by the chasm?

I have visited a number of product print and tube printing companies. It certainly looks like there are increasing numbers of machines on the market and I think this is growing.

Initially, there was a lot of interest and excitement surrounding companies such as Krones,Till (now 100% owned by Krones and renamed Dekron), KHS, and so on. Whilst there have not been a vast number of printers installed yet the interest is high. These companies continue to further develop and promote what we are referring to here as direct to shape inkjet for packaging. Similarly, there is continued development of the broader product printing inkjet space by companies like EPS and Bergstein, to name a couple. By chasm if you are referring to the often cited Gartner chasm then, no, I don’t believe inkjet is stuck in it as that implies it has gone past supplier proliferation and peak adoption, neither of which has happened; it is very much still in the early adopter phase with a select few end users still trialling inkjet or just starting to get involved with trials.

What is holding this back?

For one thing, development cycle times for bespoke equipment like this are not short and I do think we are at the point that some of the larger big brand companies need to invest more in this kind of innovation.

There may be an issue of perception with brand owners in terms of pricing. On the surface inkjet is not cheap when compared with analogue so people find a reason not to use it. The TCO and the flexibility the technology enables need to be made clear to overcome this. As with many UV inkjet ink based applications, a 20% or 30% drop in ink cost would strengthen the TCO and help adoption.

We need to work closer with the printer OEMs and end users to promote more early adoption and find ways to move the technology forward.

For the smaller tube or cylinder printers, end users need to ideally be ordering more units of a given printer design so that the companies specialising in building these can grow more quickly due to greater ability to forecast and reduce build costs. This is likely to be more easily achievable for smaller print systems than for the kind of for large volume production machines needed at bottling plants. People perhaps forget that with ceramic tile printing, it took at least 10 years from the early days of the first ceramics printer to the adoption peak. The key point is that when the ceramics market reached the tipping point in terms of conversion to inkjet for its decoration process, conversion happened very quickly indeed for a whole industry sector. However, it still took five years from the peak in 2013 to reach about 80% digital conversion. We should not lose sight of the fact that overall it takes quite a while to get there but if the commercial arguments make sense it will get there.

Is it fair to compare ceramics with direct to shape? Is DTS more complex?

The supply chain for direct to shape is more complex and it is technically a more difficult application. Printing vertically with direct to shape inkjet for packaging is definitely more challenging although Xaar printheads do this well thanks, amongst other things, to Xaar’s TF Technology ink recirculation. There is typically a higher image quality requirement and you are also dealing with printing on cylindrical objects – the diameter of which can vary significantly in the case of glass printing.

But again, I would come back to the point that quite a few more small companies are starting to produce tube printers which is a good general indicator for inkjet and direct to shape. For this segment to really grow then the big brands need to make extra investment. It is natural that the smaller systems will be adopted faster than the much higher volume inkjet printers for direct to shape.

Our recent survey shows that a key issue is the relative scarcity of integrators – would you agree?

I agree there are not enough integrators and this is a challenge. However, currently one has to accept that inkjet in the world of printing is still a small percentage of all print processes. As inkjet printing grows and it becomes increasingly user friendly greater adoption will take place. For sure having more integrators would help this happen.

What about décor?

Xaar sees continued interest in use of UV inks for décor printing of some flooring but for LVT and HPL flooring, which I think we are mainly talking about here, inkjet has yet to really be adopted. High speed and high image quality requirements with aqueous inks mean it has not been cost effective to date, though we have interest from at least one partner in using Xaar thin film technology for this application.

What other application areas do you see growth in?

At present I see good signs that inkjet printing is becoming more popular for the glass industry based on growth in our printhead sales in that area. Industrial glass printing has some significant similarities in terms of the inks, and Xaar printheads are the best choice for glass printing, particularly for frit based inks. Apart from glass, there is still good demand for our bulk piezo printheads in labels for both colour and high opacity whites and increased interest in digital embellishment using Xaar high laydown technology for tactile varnish effects and so on. Of course there are many aqueous ink applications accessible with new thin film technology which Xaar sees as high growth areas for the business over the coming years – including flexible packaging, production print, commercial print, textiles, and corrugated printing to name a few.

What future do you see for industrial inkjet into these new sectors?

I would question the likelihood of a hockey stick curve like that seen for inkjet adoption in ceramics and to large extent that is because greater capex is needed to produce high end high speed print equipment that will be able to cover the higher performance demanded of many existing analogue (or other digital) printing lines. Also, in cases where speed is more than enough of a match for analogue there are still ink limitations that will prevent a full and rapid conversion to digital such as was seen with ceramics. Ceramics was an amazing revolution. However, more gradual piezo inkjet growth at a higher than average rate relative to most if not all other print processes is not a bad thing! The outlook for the piezo inkjet industry as a whole is good and we should be pleased and positive about that.