I’m joining the industrial revolution

So my flight is booked and my hotel room reserved, and in November I’ll be heading off to Portugal on my annual pilgrimage to the IMI conference. Once in Lisbon, I can wallow in the wonders of the latest ink-jet developments and positively overload on what developers and systems’ integrators are up to in their quest to develop the necessary ingredients for the new markets that are emerging and evolving. And much of what’s going on crosses over into the industrial segment of the processes we’ve grown to accept as key drivers in many of today’s production systems. In the eyes of most, the graphic arts’ arena has been the primary focus for ink-jet printing in the past decade and more. We have seen tenderfoot applications and processes make their way either into the mainstream or through the exit door, never to be heard of again. We’ve witnessed digital methodology become an accepted process in the display sector before it slid off into other areas, and my tedious mantra that “wide-format is getting narrower” has become a reality.

Back in the time of early diversification I didn’t have a crystal ball; nor did anyone reveal devastating trade secrets that would shake the digital industry at its core. But logic decreed that developments would go beyond shoving ink through nozzles and producing colourful images that rivalled analogue production methods. Surely ink-jet technology was never going to restrict itself to the confines of the conventional printing industry and sign and display sectors, and this is true. Looking back through the conference binders of yesteryear, thoughtfully provided by IMI, it’s easy to see that predictions have been rife about the potential for deposition away from graphic arts. The very nature of the process which is, to all intents and purposes, non-contact brings a vast remit of opportunities to systems’ developers who have nothing to do with traditional markets but everything to do with the various different industrial segments that can now benefit hugely from ink-jet and its methodology.

Some might say that much of the awareness of present day innovation has come about because initial research and development was directed towards graphic arts. Those manufacturers who applied themselves to determining the suitability of digital techniques have reaped the benefits. But others have been able to learn from the results emanating from the early days of ink-jet, which go way back before it even became a plausible option in everyday print. So now we have a fascinating situation where diversification has increasingly opened doors into industrial sectors and, once it’s been determined that a fluid can be jetted with success, so integration becomes reality into systems and equipment that need to have a means of application of ink or other liquids. Perhaps using digital print in the graphic arts’ sector has been easy to identify because it is an end-user process that supersedes or enhances existing production methods. Maybe industrial uses of ink-jet are less clearly defined because they are the results of integration rather than being an alternative to analogue.

But the definition of industrial ink-jet remains a little vague. The temptation for manufacturers of printers in the graphics’ sector to tag their equipment with the “industrial” nomenclature is ambiguous. It’s also a bit misleading to dish out awards to print companies for “industrial” applications when, clearly, what’s really gone is clever handling and production of a commercial job.

Dictionary definitions don’t help so a clearer understanding can be achieved by considering “industrial” ink-jet as being a part of an overall production process rather than merely being a means to an end. It’s probably true to say, too, that developers of all the incumbent elements that go into the technology are less interested in blanket definitions, particularly if their expertise goes into refining print, enhancing three-dimensional additive applications, generating functional results or being utilised for coding and marking.

At this year’s IMI conference developers and manufacturers will set out their stalls in the form of detailed papers about their particular position in the various markets that are applicable to ink-jet production. Next year we’ll see the inaugural InPrint show taking place in Hannover and, at this event, there’ll be a two-day conference organised jointly by ESMA and IMI. Even those with only a passing interest in future  methodology, technology and products should take these events seriously and be there.

So, for those who might think functional printing and deposition looks a bit boring, think again. Forget about graphic arts and ponder the other areas where ink-jet is, literally, making an impact. Think more about deposition rather than print, and consider the implications of extra dimensions, specialist marking and coding, electronics, even food. There is some fascinating stuff going on out there, much of which has only been made possible by the use of this technology in an increasingly diverse range of industries.

Nothing will stop developments rumbling away in the back-ground but with such a diverse banner it’s sometimes difficult to categorise industrial segments. So it’s a healthy sign that events and conferences are underway now where we can increase our learning and overall knowledge, and understand more about the uses and potential for a process which only a couple of decades ago wasn’t really considered as an integral and valuable part of an overall production process.