By Cassandra Balentine
As the opportunity for digital print technologies heats up in industrial environments, ink is an integral component for success. Many industrial applications are generated by the short run, multi-versioning, variable data opportunities digital print enables.
However, these applications often require intense customization specific to each application. Therefore, print manufacturers, printhead manufacturers, as well as ink, media, and software providers collaborate to build solutions for industrial environments.
Industrial print generally occurs as part of a manufacturing process, falling outside the print-for-pay arena. The requirements of ink are determined based on the application and its required functionality.
Pedro J Martinez, CEO, Afford Inks, says industrial ink is specifically tailored for industrial applications, other than signage. “Industrial inks have been designed to be consistent in operation for 24/7 working environments in which the key element for success is consistency,” he offers.
While quality is critical, it is not the primary function of an industrial ink. Craig Smith, president, Innovative Digital Systems, says industrial inks generally have a performance specification to meet, like holding up to chemicals, abrasion, or UV light exposure.
Peter Saunders, business director – digital, Sun Chemical, defines industrial inks as those utilized as part of a manufacturing process where a printed image is not the total value of the printed item. “For example, the front panel of an electric device can say on/off. Industrial inks can be functional with unique properties—such as being conductive—and they are typically not decorative,” he adds. “Solvent-based and UV inks are currently available for digital print environments, but are tailored specifically to each individual printed application.”
Bob Keller, GM, Marabu North America, agrees, noting that everything excluding traditional graphics applications can be defined as industrial inks. “Industrial printing is performed during manufacturing as a stage within the process. This type of printing presents unique challenges in terms of the variety and complexity of the forms, substrates, and surface finishes involved. Whether printing on metal, plastics, textiles, glass, ceramics, wood, or other materials.”
Craig Reid, VP – digital division, INX International Ink Company, explains that industrial applications usually involve jetting directly to either the job itself or a sub component of something that will become a finished good. “It can include all types of inks and coatings—energy curable, solvent, aqueous, and a variety of hybrid inks. Often included in industrial fluids are primers and/or pre-treatment options, depending on the applications and substrates.”
Digital Print in
The opportunity for digital print in industrial markets continues to evolve. Digital offers industrial markets small batch quantities of product and high photographic quality with multicolored printing.
Reid adds that over and above inkjet printing tags and labels, inkjet printing to flexible and rigid packaging is one of the fastest growth segments. “This includes printing direct to shape onto cans, bottles, lids, and a variety of containers. Flexible film packaging is in the very early adoption stage, with a significant uptick in new projects this past year. Direct-to-shape decoration and personalization onto a variety of consumer products also continues high-growth adoption. Essentially, most applications that were previously done via pad printing, screen printing, and flexography, are migrating to inkjet where feasible. There is also a surge in inkjet printing for home and office decoration including wood flooring and panels, cabinets, siding, glass, and tile.”
“All of this without the investment in printing plates and high setup costs,” says Smith. “This has led to more opportunities for the industrial market to capture individualized market segments. In today’s market, people want products customized and we are able to easily digitally print down to one part—or images that are only printed onto objects once,” he explains.
Keller suggests every segment of the printing industry has moved or is moving toward digital printing. With shorter runs, multi-versioning, and variable data becoming more common every day, he says they are finding it cost prohibitive to print with traditional methods. “I was recently talking to the CEO of a corrugated printer that just invested in a multimillion dollar single-pass inkjet printer. It’s a huge investment for this company. When I asked the CEO what made him go down this path—a path that is still new and fairly untested, he said, ‘right now I see pennies coming out of the back of my traditional printers, with this new digital printer I see dollars coming out of the back.’”
Keller suggests that print providers are tired of just getting by. “The idea of being profitable is driving digital growth,” he states, adding that printers without digital capabilities have three choices today, one—print the low volume with little to no margins; two—print larger volumes than ordered and keep it stocked for the next order, also with little to no margins; or three—decline the business, no margin.
In some cases, digital technology is the direct replacement of an analog print method as run lengths decline and print on demand becomes required. “In other cases, digital technology enables all new capabilities previously too time consuming or costly on a piece-by-piece basis, and offering both advanced marketing campaigns and personalization at an affordable cost,” says Reid.
Smith sees two segments within the industry that play into the growth of digital. “Manufacturers are trying to capitalize on delivering customizable products to their customers. While suppliers are working to adapt digital printing to products, which just a few years ago we thought were impossible to print on.”
“General acceptance of digital printing is growing in industrial markets because of improved printhead hardware and ink capabilities. It works especially well for short runs and variable data type of applications in the industrial market,” says Saunders.
However, he points out the diverse nature of the industrial marketplace and the fact that the requirements for ink are very high and two factors hindering the growth of digital printing in industrial markets.
Keller states that four obstacles hinder digital inkjet growth in industrial sectors. The first is the equipment manufacturer’s willingness to tackle the engineering requirements. “These printers are typically not mass produced and are expensive to manufacture,” he offers. Second is the ability of ink manufacturers to formulate new inks for each application. “Relatively speaking, there are a small of amount of manufacturers that can produce OEM quality inkjet ink,” he admits. Third is the availability of new raw materials to meet print industry standards. “Just because it works in traditional printing does not guarantee it will work in digital printing.” And, the cost of equipment. “The great news is the ROI for equipment that improves their production is easy to justify,” he offers.
The inability of inks and equipment to print on three dimensional (3D) products is hindering digital growth, as is the need to conquer certain adhesion or performance issues with ink, suggests Smith.
“The time and cost it takes to develop the often-required customized equipment can be a hindrance, not only for the integrator of the system, but also for budgets and the timeline expectation of the solution buyer,” says Reid.
Martinez points to cost, lack of reliability against analog systems, and the fact that many industries have investments in place that are still being paid for as hindrances for digital in the industrial markets.
On the Market
Industrial applications continue to look to digital print as an alternative to analog processes when it makes financial sense to do so.
Martinez stresses that industrial printing is not new, but inkjet has entered the scene for industrial applications. He presents a brief timeline of digital’s penetration into key industrial markets, noting that in the 1980s digital technologies were used for marking and coding packaging. From there, inkjet enjoyed a slow transition into textiles in the 1990s and is now accelerating. The ceramic industry was revolutionized with digital starting in 2008. Now, it is used for a range of applications as a replacement for analog printing, as well as new applications. The growth of 3D printing also utilized the technology as a manufacturing rather than printing process, he explains.
Unique ink formulations are required for each of these industrial inkjet applications. Afford Ink offers solutions for almost all printheads available in the market, according to Martinez.
Smith says inks tend to fall into three different categories—UV hard ink, semi rigid ink, and soft or formable inks. UV hard ink is for hard surfaces, while semi rigid ink is for parts that have some flexibility, and soft or formable ink is for products that would be vacuum formed and for in-mold applications.
Innovative Digital Systems offers all three categories of ink, focusing on UV and LED. The company also works with low migration inks, which are made for food packaging applications. Innovative Digital Systems primarily manufactures industrial ink for Mimaki. The company has its own set of printers, from its Turbo Series to its Mach1 single-pass systems.
INX makes inks and coatings for a large number of OEMs that prefer to sell it under their own brand names and not disclose the ink manufacturer. “More industrial applications require custom built equipment, often involving integration companies to develop the unique solution for that given application. The inks and coatings are sometimes sold under private label or with an INX brand name. In either case, they are often custom formulations to meet the specific requirements of a given industrial application. The main difference for industrial applications is typically a much closer collaboration between the development of the inks, integration of the hardware, and software suppliers,” says Reid.
Kao Collins offers a full gamut of digital inks from water-based to energy curable for industrial applications. “Just as digital print is used in a growing number of markets, so are our fluids. Our inks are used in mailing, TransPromo, package printing, labeling, consumer goods, pharma, and security applications.”
Kristin Adams, marketing manager, Kao Collins, says the company partners with many printhead manufacturers and OEMs to provide high-quality, application specific inks. “Open collaborations between the ink manufacturer, equipment manufacturer, and customer are key for success. In our experience, this is especially true when the customer is incorporating digital inkjet to expand into new markets and applications where unique challenges exist. In certain applications this also applies to the substrate manufacturers and curing equipment manufacturers,” she offers.
Marabu provides a complete portfolio of digital ink technologies, with the exception of functional inks. “Our products include solvent and eco solvent, UV-curable, water-based, textile, and resin for every one of the mainstream printhead technologies,” says Keller. “It’s great when one of our standard formulations meets the specifications required for an industrial application, but the increasingly complexity of this new segment has required many custom developments.”
Marabu digital inks are currently involved in several interesting markets, according to Keller, including architectural; membrane switch; automotive; high-speed container decorating—glass, plastic, and aluminum; footwear; textile; sporting equipment; and electronics.
“As a global manufacturer and distributor, Marabu does a significant amount of business under private label and confidentiality agreements. In fact, the proprietary nature of this emerging business segment has driven the majority of our sales in this direction. We work closely with integrators and manufacturers under this type of agreement,” admits Keller.
Sensient offers a range of digital textile inks, including sublimation, reactive, inks for polyamide, and pigment. “We also have ranges for HPL. Our newest water-based technology platform will find applications into packaging and decoration on a project base,” says Dr. Christophe Bulliard, marketing director, Sensient Technologies SA.
Sensient starts its process by defining the best possible ink for the substrate chosen by the customer. “We will then get it to work on the equipment they are using or acquiring. We are able to formulate for most printheads and printing systems,” explains Bulliard.
Sun Chemcial offers UV and solvent-based inks to the digital industrial print market for a variety of applications, including everyday items such as phone cases and golf balls to décor applications such as wood paneling, as well as decorative baseboards and framing systems.
In addition, the company offers energy curable inks for packaging segments which include low migration capable formulations for traditional food packaging materials such as flexibles, foils and paperboards, and direct to shape.
In the electronics space, Sun Chemical offers an array of products for use in the rapidly expanding sector, including conductive and notation inks as well as etch resists.
Hardware advancements in digital print will allow it to gain traction in all market segments listed above, says Saunders. “These will be supported with further advancements in ink chemistry, such as the recent introduction of Aquacure, Sun Chemical’s newly developed water-based inkjet ink technology. Aquacure offers the functionality that digital printers have wanted from water-based technology and will have a positive impact on both well established and emerging inkjet market segments. Aquacure technology delivers adhesion to a range of media, offers superb flexibility, is odor-free, and has an extensive color gamut,” says Saunders.
Ink characteristics for industrial digital printing is dependent on the application and substrate. Industrial applications come with unique requirements ranging from flexibility to low migration and chemical resistance.
“The inks need to fit in with the other parts of the manufacturing process and be tailored to the needs of that specific application. The inks need to stick to a base material and need resistance properties,” says Saunders. He adds that while some need to stretch for thermoforming, others require flexibility, and some base materials are temperature sensitive. “We need to do all this while also ensuring that the inks meet all legislative standard for that particular industry or application.”
“For us, the main characteristics for industrial applications—other than being able to fulfill the physical or chemical properties required—is consistency in performance,” says Martinez. “However, inkjet printing is a system in which ink is one of its legs, but not the only one, so it is crucial that printheads, software, and substrates are also fully consistent.”
Smith says characteristics to success in this industry can be categorized within the three types of ink—hard, soft, and semi-rigid. Hard inks must withstand abrasion and adhesion chemical resistance; for soft inks, flexibility is the most important factor; and semi rigid inks have to hold up to abrasion, adhesion, and flexibility factors.
Keller says advancements in printhead technologies with wider viscosity ranges and print speeds is creating opportunities as well as challenges for an ink company willing to invest in development, even in areas that may have been considered impossible for digital in the past. “For example, manufacturing involving thermoforming requires an ink capable of withstanding high temperatures and elongation. Food packaging requires very fast drying—water, or low migration—UV. Toys and products designed for children require complete absence of any raw materials that could be potentially hazardous. Most glass applications require excellent adhesion and opacity. We are at the infancy of industrial printing. As the opportunities increase, so will the performance requirements,” he adds.
Industrial applications require more sophisticated inks and coatings for a variety of reasons. Reid offers examples of faster print speeds, such as in single pass printing that require very high pigment loads and stable inks; post processing such as inks that handle forming, bending, and pasteurization; and inks that need to pass migration testing for food packaging and some consumer products.
To obtain better results for industrial applications, digital print technology—including equipment, inks, and substrates, continuously advance.
In recent years, the biggest advancements in regard to industrial ink come with the development of adhesion promoters and primers, says Smith. “Within our industry, these products make it easier for industrial markets to print UV ink systems that can adhere to substrates like polypropylene, polyethylene, nylon, and other materials of this sort,” says Smith.
“The print industry is all about higher quality printing at faster speeds on as many types of substrates as possible with the goal of reaching a diverse type of printer,” says Keller. Industrial inks tend to support specific applications, making it less versatile with a smaller target customer. “Because of this, OEMs pick the high-volume applications. The good news is that the technology is here today to digitally print on just about anything. The printheads available today are good enough to print just about any type of ink. The raw materials available today are good enough to make inks adhere to just about any substrate. We will continue to see very specific printing for industrial applications, but I see a trend towards a more diverse type of industrial printer that print directly on as many types and shapes of substrates as possible.”
In the next few years, Smith predicts more low migration inks, which are able to pass FDA standards for food and packaging. “These inks will be addressing the toxicity issues, adhesion qualities, and the use of inks in specialized applications in medical and electronic fields.”
Reid says that while solvent or aqueous inks are sometimes the most appropriate, the advancements in multiple types of energy curable and hybrid inks and coatings enable much of the digital printing for industrial applications.
Martinez sees new routes in ink formulation for this industry, including hybrid UV or water-based inks. He expects advancements in printhead technology, software, and printing machines, together with the new development in inkjet inks, will open new opportunities for industrial applications in which cost and reliability for the adoption of inkjet printing has not been achieved.
Industrial applications often require custom ink formulations to ensure proper functionality. Whether the ink needs to stretch, dry fast for speed, or conform to low migration restrictions, ink manufacturers are ready to oblige. Digital print technology currently serves a range of industrial environments and is on the path of continued disruption.
Apr2017, Industrial Print Magazine