By Olivia Cahoon
The flooring market is full of possibilities as manufacturers turn to digital printing technologies. Quick time to market, short runs, and design freedom are just some of the advantages.
Manufacturers incorporate digital processes into different facets of the production line. This includes direct or transfer digital printing as well as enhanced design methods that ultimately enable flooring facilities to replicate natural materials.
Above: Within the decor industry, Xaar printheads are used to print patterns or images directly onto the substrate used to produce flooring, furniture, and panels.
The State of Flooring
Digital printing technology entered the flooring market only recently—allowing floor manufacturers to take advantage of custom, robust floors. Since then its use has grown.
“The production of digitally printed flooring is getting more popular,” admits Carsten Brinkmeyer, head of sales, digital printing and liquid coating, Hymmen GmbH Maschinen- und Anlagenbau.
From a digital inkjet point of view, this leads to increasing investments in hardware and technology. For example, Jason Remnant, head of business development, Xaar, says he noticed a host of new capabilities enabled by digital inkjet printing at the LIGNA wood industry conference—a major worldwide event covering wood products and flooring.
The new capabilities not only include advancements in the quality of printed imaging, but also the ability to create robust surface textures. “This reflects the same technological advances witnessed in other similar types of industries, for example, ceramic tiles,” adds Remnant.
While digitally printed flooring is a growing market, there are few digital installations at the moment, admits Carlos Monzón Royo, chemical engineer and technical manager for coating processes, Barberán S.A.
As technology improves, flooring companies incorporate different facets of the digital process into existing production lines. This includes both printing methods as well as design processes.
Digitally printing flooring creates a large change in the digital process. New technology enables printing and protecting pieces directly onto the board, using liquid reactive materials instead of paper and plastic overlay, explains Royo. This process creates a new production line that reduces production costs, time to market, and the need for stock.
There are additional methods for creating digitally printed flooring as well. Other companies use digital technology to print on paper or foil, which is laminated on wood-based panel and finished afterwards. According to Brinkmeyer, another technology is digital printing to paper that is covered by melamine and pressed to laminate in a double belt press afterwards.
Regardless of the method, the closer flooring manufacturers get to replicating natural materials such as wood, the more viable and marketable the product will be. “With realistic graphics and textures, some of the flooring we have seen is almost indistinguishable from the natural material being replicated,” continues Remnant.
The design process is also affected. For example, Brinkmeyer says some companies have their own digital décor design studios in house while others purchase décor designs. In-house studios allow for custom designs and immediate alterations based on client needs and trends. It also helps flooring companies remain competitive in an artistic market.
Advice & Recommendations
Flooring manufacturers using or considering digital printing technology should be prepared to fully invest in the digital process, including design, ink, and integration into production.
Digital is new to the flooring industry. Similar to other markets that benefit from digital printing technology, it is key to properly understand the capabilities—including opportunities and limitations, advises Remnant. “Equipment manufacturers as well as flooring manufacturers need to learn where digital delivers the biggest benefits and can create new opportunities—not just in operational efficiencies but in business growth from new designs and capabilities.”
Kenichi Hara, manager, international communications section of corporate communications division, Kyocera Corporation agrees. Suggesting floor manufacturers should investigate if they have enough short-run orders to justify the large investment of a digital printing machine and all that it entails.
Once the technology is understood, flooring manufacturers interested in digital printing technology should consider how to integrate it into the entire production process. “Printing is only a part of it and it doesn’t help the producing company to buy a digital printer as a standalone solution,” admits Brinkmeyer.
For example, Brinkmeyer suggests manufacturers fit the capacities of all parts of the production line. “You need to fit the chemistry of the inks to the chemistry of the primer and other finishing lacquer.”
Manufacturers should plan to integrate digital printers into the entire line control. In order to reach the desired level of surface quality, Brinkmeyer says it’s not enough to look at what the printer can reach, but also what other factors of the entire production process need to be customized.
Depending on the manufacturer, other features apply. There are many detailed individual considerations to look at, so manufacturers can work together with technology partners that are experienced in the woodworking industry process. “And not only concerning the digital printing line but also concerning the liquid coating lines and maybe even presses,” adds Brinkmeyer.
In general, flooring production is a demanding process that requires largely stable printing systems. According to Royo, there are many different lacquers that need to give high-performance properties. All systems involved should be high capacity and industrially proven equipment. “A close relationship between machine producer and lacquer/ink manufacturer is also important,” adds Royo.
Bespoke & Turnkey
Flooring manufacturing facilities may either use a bespoke or turnkey press to digitally print flooring. To determine which option is best, manufacturers consider their needs and communicate with press manufacturers.
Bespoke presses are sometimes more beneficial for this market. The flooring production process requires a high level of customization because there is a large variety of base material. The target market also affects the process. “In any case we try to design lines that are flexible to overcome many different possibilities,” shares Royo.
Regardless, there is no standard solution for all flooring facilities. “As manufacturers establish many different processes in producing flooring, you also need an individual solution to integrate digital printing,” offers Brinkmeyer.
Uptick in Interest
With digital printing technology establishing itself in the flooring market, manufacturing facilities take notice.
“We have certainly observed growing interest from printer manufacturers in our printhead products and technology for use in this market,” shares Remnant.
Primary reasons for looking at digital inkjet as a print technology vary by company. Some facilities want to eliminate repetitive designs so that printed flooring appears more life like, while others may want to reduce inventory or waste. Hara also sees an uptick in interest, albeit slowly. “We see the interest slowly increasing as the need for digital printing is not very strong against the investment and running cost.”
Royo believes almost all flooring companies are starting to think in digital terms. “At the moment most companies are searching for different digital solutions, everything is open but projects are becoming more serious.”
In Europe, the change has already happened. According to Brinkmeyer, lot sizes are becoming smaller as customers demand more individualized décor. “Digital printing offers not only the necessary flexibility to economic costs but also completely new design options due to less repeating décors.”
He points out that there are unfortunately many technology solutions not yet completely developed, which causes irritation in the market.
To further integrate into the flooring market, new digital technology advancements are emerging in printhead quality and design.
According to Remnant, many equipment manufacturers are looking into high-speed, high-quality printheads that can adopt and work with water-based inks. “They are placing a lot of research and development resources into this area,” he admits.
On the other hand, standard 720 dpi resolutions still prove to meet most of the market’s needs. In fact, Remnant says many of these technologies are still applicable with UV, not just water-based inks, where there are different and new challenges to overcome in its implementation.
There are also advancements in the types of digitally printed flooring available. For example, Hymmen developed the Digital Lacquer Embossing (DLE) process that uses digital technology to produce stained flooring. “This offers a highly interesting opportunity for real world flooring,” comments Brinkmeyer.
With DLE, wood is fine ground to reduce standing fibers. Digital printing is then used to apply a transparent ink to areas that won’t be stained. The ink is cured and the stain is applied and then distributed. A topcoat is applied to seal and protect the wood.
EFI also offers a solution for digital wood staining and natural decoration. The EFI Cubik presses use mineral ink for single-pass wood staining that automatically adapts the stain based on each piece. The ink is suitable for all types of wooden substrates, including plywood, laminates, and natural wood.
Dive into Digital
Digital decoration improves the flooring manufacturing process by expanding options for all parts of the production line. Before diving into this technology, manufacturers should learn where digital delivers the largest benefits and how it can create new opportunities. It’s also important that flooring facilities prepare to fully invest in the digital process, including design, ink, and integration into existing production lines.
Apr2020, Industrial Print Magazine