By Olivia Cahoon
Digital printing influences flooring manufacturing as a result of smaller volumes, individualized mass production, and minimized inventory. Traditional technologies for printing flooring patterns for decorative laminates included gravure and flexography. Today, flooring manufacturers have the choice of direct or transfer digital printing. Regardless of method, digital printing is changing the flooring market with increased design options, online ordering, and specialty features like digital lacquer embossing.
Above: METIS scanning technology offers improvement in CGI renders. The scanning program, available through CGS, captures color ,texture, and glossiness all in-register, in a single scan to recreate wooden boards.
Digital printing is making inroads into flooring manufacturing environments due to advantages like shorter runs, increased flexibility, and shorter time to market.
Digital solutions offer significant economic and logistical benefits throughout the supply chain including just-in-time delivery, high-value customization, broader design options, and inventory reduction for printed papers, laminated flooring, and gravure cylinders. “Laminators are compelled to challenge the current supply chain and in fact, it is creating a tug of war with printers,” reveals Pattie Smith, VP, business development and marketing, Enterprise Inkjet Systems Division, Kodak.
While many understand the value of digital printing, it also represents an investment for manufacturers to purchase production inkjet presses. However, Smith says if they do not make the investment, they understand that laminators could bypass the printers and establish their own digital printing operations. “As the running costs of inkjet narrow the gap with gravure printing and digital print offers high-productivity solutions, flooring manufacturers take note of digital options.”
According to Dr. Anke Pankoke, head of marketing/PR, Hymmen GmbH, more than 40 million square meters of flooring are digitally printed every year in Europe as a result of digital’s industrial-sized benefits. These benefits include producing small volumes of décor, integrating digital into the décor industry’s process chains, individualized mass production, fast response to market trends, shorter time to market, shorter setup times, lower storage costs, and new design options such as register lengths, color, and visual depth.
By definition, Fernando Tomás, director business development, building materials, EFI, believes that the industrial flooring manufacturing process requires balance in between nimbleness and high productivity to improve the quality, cost, and delivery of such products.
Traditional technologies used to print flooring patterns for decorative laminates include gravure and flexography through screens or silicon rollers. “Some current industrial processes may require a hybrid technology approach because of the performance of the material to be applied,” says Tomás.
However, conventional techniques require large volumes to make the printing process cost efficient.
Currently, gravure printing is digital’s largest competitor in the flooring market due to a variety of design possibilities. While it produces fine, detailed images with CMYK, each ink color is applied by its own cylinder and with drying steps in between, requiring more time to complete. Like flexography, gravure printing is often used for high volumes.
“The flooring industry is dominated by gravure printing technology,” explains Smith. “To date, digital has largely been used only for prototyping and sample runs.” As digital solutions operate at speeds of up to 1,000 feet per minute, she believes printers recognize the efficiency of inkjet printing for production-level runs and manufacturers are closely behind. “It is our belief that both gravure and inkjet will always co-exist in the industry as each offers value at different run lengths.”
Direct & Transfer
When it comes to printed flooring, manufacturers have the choice between direct or transfer digital printing.
According to Tomás, direct digital printing offers the highest productivity and the possibility to establish integrated digital printing processes. “Direct printing is the target for digital technology in the flooring space,” he comments.
Direct printing to board also allows floor manufacturers to print the exact number of square meters needed, says Pankoke. Additionally, there is no need to stock intermediate printed material and delivery delays are prevented.
On the other hand, transfer digital printing for flooring offers a more controlled process and the possibility of second tier quality inspection compared to direct printing, shares Tomás. “It is not that transfer digital has a strong advantage, rather transfer addresses some of the aspects that direct printing needs, and is improving.”
In fact, Tomás believes that between direct and transfer, direct printing is a more conducive method to flooring manufacturing environments because it delivers the full digital technology potential in a straightforward process. “Nevertheless, there are some conditions and manufacturing process configurations where transfer seems to be more convenient.”
As flooring demands increase, print technology manufacturers develop new features that target decorative laminate flooring products.
In this market, ink improvements are designed to be non-metameric to maintain visual color regardless of lighting conditions. Metamerism occurs when colors are viewed in different light sources. For example, a beige flooring product appears warm under incandescent lighting but can appear gray under fluorescent lighting.
According to Smith, this aspect of inkjet ink is a challenge for most digital suppliers. “Our proprietary micro-milling technology produces extremely small and consistent nano-particulates, thus offers reduced light scattering to virtually eliminate concerns for metamerism.”
Tomás sees two new features and technology trends for decorative flooring. The first is the possibility to print alternative fluids besides inks, through innovation on ink delivery systems, electronics, and printhead technology. For example, alternative fluids are used to achieve structure or 3D effects. “The second is the printer connectivity to the rest of the manufacturing processes, to integrate the printer on the industry 4.0 scope.”
Digital Lacquer Embossing
Other new features for decorative laminate flooring include proprietary technology like Digital Lacquer Embossing (DLE). DLE is Hymmen’s response to customer demands for surface appearance and texture that match while also appearing natural. With this technique, which is the subject of several patents granted, Pankoke says a transparent liquid medium is printed into a layer of conventional, non-cured lacquer. This is accomplished with Hymmen’s Jupiter Digital Printing lines. “The deep and unique structure is then brought about by subsequent physical and chemical reactions,” he explains.
DLE takes advantage of Hymmen’s digital single-pass printing method. According to Pankoke, it includes properties such as enhanced flexibility, short setup times, no storage costs, and new design options. “Not to mention the savings resulting from the changeover of rollers or pressing plates,” he adds.
With a width between 70 and 2,100 millimeters including a single digital printing bar, this technology is designed to easily integrate into existing processes. Despite using only a small quantity of the structuring medium, Pankoke says all proven features of the lacquer such as hardness, bonding, scratch resistance, and chemical reliability are ensured. “It is possible to create structures that are embossed in register to the décor of the surface, whether with digital or analog printing.”
To ensure the necessary capacity for the customer trials, Hymmen installed a test line at its pilot plant in Rödinghausen, Germany. “DLE offers an unprecedented extra benefit for surface finishing—seeing and feeling authentic surfaces now becomes a reality thanks to the widespread usage of Hymmen’s industrial digital printing process—including the commercial and technical benefits,” explains Pankoke. “Moreover our patented DLE solves the surface structuring part of the process and can substitute analog technology by a cost-efficient digital solution.”
“We see this technology driven by the chemistry of the material to be applied. Definitely the versatility of digital printing to selectively print lacquer may be a game changer in this process,” admits Tomás.
Digital printing is changing the flooring market as a whole with increased design options, custom online ordering, and short-run capabilities.
“It is easier to go to market with new designs, you have new possibilities and a shorter lead time,” comments Pankoke.
Digital’s ability to shorten and reduce flooring lot sizes creates more online demand for tailor-made products. “Going to the complete digitalization of this business allows flooring manufacturers to eliminate intermediaries and accelerate the response time,” explains Tomás. He believes the connectivity between industry 4.0 with predictable big data information and a strong online sale platform could significantly improve cash flow for companies that transition to digital manufacturing.
According to Smith, digital printing will likely revolutionize the supply chain in the flooring market as laminators consider the economic benefits of in-house printing. Additionally, economically feasible, short-run digital printing solutions allow retailers to offer a wider range of SKUs and high-value customization.
Part of the process of creating a digitally printed floor involves scanning a piece of wood or granite and then placing those images through a specific design software. The software and scanning technologies used in this process replicate the surface so that they are nearly identical to the real thing.
The design process starts with an idea, which is often to replicate a natural wood floor such as a bright, smooth maple or a distressed, wide-plank farmhouse floor, says Rob Lawrence, business development, METIS Scanners, CGS-METIS. To execute this, he says an original floor model is cut, sanded or distressed, and stained. Then, a scanner photographs the model. The scanned image is imported into desktop publishing/design software to further meet the look and feel of the design objective. According to Lawrence, this step also creates a final image at the size of the final printed dimensions.
Scanners are well suited to reproduce natural products and alter appearance to achieve desired attributes. Some scanners use different lighting techniques to obtain several scans, such as the Cruse Image Stacking program. The separate scans are merged as layers and are combined in different percentages to obtain the exact look needed, says Mike Lind, dealer, Cruse U.S. The selected combination can be saved and printed, and the original scans are kept for new combinations to be made.
“The different lighting techniques or modes are programmed into the scanner so that they are called up and are always constant,” explains Lind. There is no operator setup required to set modes. “When these modes are combined in different layers of different percentages, a multitude of different looks are available.”
Recent advancements to scanning technology include better visualizations and improvements to 3D capabilities.
A recurring theme is the need for better computer-generated imagery (CGI) visualizations. According to Lawrence, specifiers, architects, and designers indicate that firms with more realistic product imagery are often selected over alternate products with inferior renders. “With METIS scanning technology, we have seen a dramatic improvement in CGI renders. This is mainly due to METIS’ ability to capture color, texture, and glossiness all in-register, in a single scan.”
Lawrence says other scanners are able to capture reflectiveness rather than glossiness, forcing CGI images to only approximate how the light interacts with the surface. “When working with 3D models, glossiness data can be utilized and leveraged for a more accurate depiction of how light will interact with a surface. Instead of creating how the surface might interact with the light, we are able to experience how it will.”
Recently, Cruse introduced a new 3D scanning capability called Cruse Photometric Stereo (CPS). It uses five different scans to make a 3D map, which are used to directly print in layers or emboss printing cylinders. “The original is placed on the scanner, Cruse CPS program is selected, and then the five scans are automatically done,” offers Lind.
Additional Scanned Applications
Other types of digitally printed applications that utilize scanning software include fine art reproduction, point of purchase displays, and textiles. Additionally, scanners are used in archives, museums, and libraries to scan large, fragile objects like maps and documents.
According to Lawrence, METIS has only started to scratch the surface of what is possible with this technology. In addition to CGI renders and fine art reproduction, he sees it becoming increasingly utilized in the growing production of printed textiles as well as ceramic flooring.
“Textiles are printed more frequently, rather than woven or traditionally produced. Handbags in particular benefit through increased cost savings and durability by printing textures like leather,” says Lawrence. While luxury vinyl tiles are popular today, ceramic tiles utilize texture in new and unique ways as well. For both applications, Lawrence believes the ability to print and reproduce any texture in-register and with color accuracy is crucial for the material’s success.
Traditional techniques for printed flooring require large volumes to make the process economical. Digital printing, whether a direct or transfer method— can be used in the flooring industry to achieve custom designs and exact replications of natural products.
Oct2018, Industrial Print Magazine