By Tim Greene
For years as the markets for document-oriented inkjet-based printing systems have matured, technology providers have poured resources into the development of new markets. The bucket term “industrial inkjet” is often used to refer to the group of markets that represent the new frontiers for inkjet technology suppliers. Some manufacturers use “industrial inkjet” to refer to printers that are really fast, which is often a requirement in these markets, but a better definition is the use of inkjet in product manufacturing, whether that use is functional, decorative, additive, or packaging. Across all of these segments digital printing has a common advantage in its fundamental value proposition within the proofing and short-run models, but increasingly inkjet is challenging production and high-speed segments of these industrial markets.
Benny Landa is famously quoted as saying that “whatever can be digital will be digital.” This profound statement has a lot of meaning, because even though together these industrial inkjet markets represent a huge opportunity for transition from analog to digital printing, there are some elements of each of these markets that, due to economics or technical limitations, may never be suitable for digital printing. However, as inkjet technology advances, particularly within ink and printhead technologies, Landa’s statement can be built on to say that “whatever can be inkjet, will be inkjet.”
This applies to market segments such as three dimensional (3D) printing, of which only about five percent of printers use materials jetting technologies today. Materials jetting relies on some of the same principles and technologies—such as printheads—as conventional inkjet printing. Part of the reason that IDC expects materials jetting to be one of the quickest growing segments within the fast-growing 3D printing market is that the potential for utilization of inkjet printhead technology in 3D printing enables a dramatic increase in 3D print speeds, which we believe has been one of the barriers to wider adoption of 3D printing in the past. Whereas some 3D printers that use filaments or directed lasers have just one point of curing or extrusion, an inkjet printhead has hundreds or thousands of nozzles.
From a technical standpoint one of the key advantages of using inkjet is that it is a non-contact printing technology, which allows for printing onto surfaces and substrates that tend to be highly variable such as some ceramic tiles. Over the past ten years the production of ceramic tiles has shifted dramatically toward digital printing. Also, the availability of rugged inkjet printheads, able to jet a wider range of materials with accuracy, at faster frequencies, and with much greater reliability has enabled ever higher levels of speed and image quality, which is key to penetration in the production sides of industrial markets.
The life of printheads has grown partly due to the increased use of MEMS technology, which is a silica-based technology that makes the printhead a single unit instead of a unit with mechanical parts that are glued together. MEMS printheads are more of a permanent part of a printing system, which is important in production environments because product manufacturers don’t want to have to stop or slow their production lines to replace printheads.
One of the many factors to consider within the analog-digital conversion dynamic is the opportunity to create a more efficient supply chain. In some industrial inkjet markets this represents one of the biggest advantages for digital printing. The growth of e-commerce and fast fashion companies such as uniqlo and H&M—which are constantly changing over their inventories—demands a more efficient manufacturing process in the garment segment of the printed textiles market.
Also, consumer preference for local manufacturing and sustainable practices are driving changes in the current supply chain wherein fabrics are printed and garments are created months in advance in low-cost geographic markets then shipped around the world with the hope that patterns and designs meet consumer fashion trends. Digital printing enables a much cleaner production process and allows designers to test ideas and get products to market much faster.
The textile printing market has a case of inertia because of the cost structure that includes production in low-cost labor markets such as Bangladesh, China, and Thailand, but also the minimal price of screenprinting inks. For a manufacturer, the price of inkjet inks is a major barrier to “going digital” because typical textile printing inks sell for ten to 20 times what screenprinting inks cost. However, weighing the economics of the transition from analog to digital/inkjet printing should include much greater ink efficiency—using a lot less ink to create similar designs, the reduction of shipping/transportation costs, lower power consumption, and reduction of the use of clean water. The reduction in use of power and clean water is a very important issue in developing markets where the availability of water and power cannot be assumed.
The challenges for digital textile printing include the ability to print onto a variety of materials with the same type of color performance, longevity, and wash resistance that traditional analog printing processes provide. To that end, a lot of work is being done on new pigment and dye-based ink sets to meet the needs of inkjet printing systems and their customers. Many of the leading brands in the fashion industry such as Dolce & Gabbana and Hermès routinely offer inkjet printed fashions to their customers. Similar dynamics exist in the supply chain for finished goods in ceramics, wallcoverings, and laminates where digital printing creates huge efficiencies in the supply chain.
Many of the suppliers to the inkjet market have identified packaging as one of their primary targets due to the fact that packages don’t face digital replacement. Packaging is itself a huge market opportunity, but to really understand the packaging market it is necessary to look at it in its segments—corrugated, label and flexible, folding carton, and bottles and cans. Of these segments, digital printing has only been successful in penetrating the label market, and even then by far the biggest penetration is by HP Inc. and its Indigo technology. There are many examples of inkjet-based label printers, from low-end/desktop label printers up to high-speed UV-curable inkjet label printing systems, but combined they don’t add up to as much of the label printing volume that HP Indigo has captured.
For inkjet technology manufacturers there are a variety of technical challenges within each segment of packaging and a standard set of challenges in terms of economics. When looking at displacing an alternative technology economics is, of course, a big part of the consideration. Fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) manufacturers are not looking for ways to spend more money on packaging and in most circumstances, are not willing to step backwards in terms of print quality. Moreover, larger companies insist on having not only the full range of their “equity colors” available, which can be very difficult for a CMYK inkjet printer to replicate. Also, there is a growing desire by FMCGs to use their packaging to stand out on the department store or grocery store shelves by using special effects such as fluorescents or metallic inks, which create additional technical challenges.
In addition, the printer needs to be aware of the use case for packaged goods. Will the package get wet? If the ink rubs off because the package got wet the FMCG will not be happy. Will the package be in contact with food? If so, the inks must meet health and safety regulations. Where will the package be stored? If the package fades in the sun the FMCG will not be pleased. All of these considerations are similar across the packaging market segments.
Also, these packages must be printed at very high rates of speed as FMCG companies will not accept slowing down their production lines for packaging.
Of course inkjet printing at high speed in any format creates technical challenges in drying or curing the inks. In document and graphics printing, manufacturers are able to accelerate ink drying and curing by using heat for water-based inkjet printing and using pin-and-cure technologies in UV-curing inks. In the packaging market the inkjet ink formulation is an important consideration for quality, health and safety, and durability reasons. Some iterations of UV ink chemistry may not provide the color gamut, adhesion, or the variety of finishes that FMCG companies look for on their packaging, whereas some water-based formulations may not have the required image durability.
On their own, each of these markets represent major opportunities, but together, they represent over $1.3 trillion. Of course, big parts of each of these segments will likely never shift to inkjet production based on their existing economics and the inability to jet certain types of materials, but there is clearly massive market opportunities that justify the development expense. Furthermore, unlike some aspects of today’s document-oriented markets, such as photographs and proofs, the manufacturing of products and packages, while certainly impacted by different trends, is not subject to digital replacement. IPM
Tim Greene leads Framingham, MA-based IDC’s research efforts in the area of large format printing. He delivers insight through the firm’s Production and Large Format Print Markets service as well as the Worldwide Quarterly Large Format Printer Tracker. Greene also provides in-depth analysis on adjacent markets such as digital signage and 3D printing systems.
Nov2016, Industrial Print Magazine