by Melissa Donovan
Decorative printing is a hot market. Smithers Pira released The Future of Decorative Printing to 2023 in September 2018, stating that decorative printing volume was almost 13.1 billion square meters in 2018, with a value of more than $18.9 billion. According to the research firm, the market is forecast to grow five percent annually from 2018 to 2023.
While gravure printing is the most used technology in decorative printing, accounting for 83.6 percent of print volumes in 2018, inkjet is the fastest growing process. Smithers Pira cites it increasing from 4.1 percent of the print value in 2013 to 13.8 percent by 2023.
Segments of the decorative printing market as referred to in the report include wallpaper, flooring laminates, furniture/panel laminates, wallcovering laminates, and direct printing of pre-manufactured objects.
Furniture or panel laminates are of particular interest due to the increase in new construction as well as the popularity of trying to mimic natural materials like wood, stone, or brick. Inkjet processes—both direct and indirect—that involve printing decorative laminates are ideal for this type of application.
The cost and availability of raw materials are influencers. For example, stone slabs are much more expensive for a kitchen countertop than a laminate that looks like the same thing. The same can be said of solid wood, plastic, and glass.
“This creates a market opportunity for printed laminate alternatives, especially on digital systems, which are increasingly better able to recreate the complexity and variability seen in natural materials. For the home decoration market, printed laminates offer several advantages besides reduced raw material costs, including lower weight and being easier to clean,” cites Smithers Pira’s The Future of Decorative Printing to 2023.
Above: Example of digitally printed laminate produced on Hymmen Double Belt Presses.
Laminate countertop manufacturers are on the forefront of digital printing technology. Innovators at a production level, they increasingly incorporate inkjet into their facilities.
As recently as a few years ago, manufacturers only included some small laminate series made by digital multi-pass systems in their catalogs, according to Carlos Monzón, head of lacquering and finishing systems, Barberán S.A.
However, as production requirements increase in response to market demand for more personalization, a variety of choices, and short production, digital is becoming more prevalent. “This fact is pushing the need for this type of digital solution therefore the high-productive single-pass systems are growing fast as a real industrial solution,” continues Monzón.
Hymmen GmbH Maschinen- und Anlagenbau has sold and installed three industrial digital printing lines with a total summarized capacity of close to 400 million square feet of digitally printed countertop surfaces.
“Obviously, this amount of capacity in only three production sites is definitely on a production level. One of our customers is stating that he wants to shift to 100 percent digital production for all of his countertops in his production site,” admits Dr. René Pankoke, president/CEO, Hymmen.
Most laminate-based applications—not just countertops—can be printed digitally one of two ways. The first involves printing to a paper or film that is then laminated to a rigid substrate. The second option is printing directly on the rigid substrate—eliminating a step.
Inkjet’s advancing capabilities make the direct to print option very attractive. “It offers maximum flexibility because it makes it possible to print even one single panel of a particular design if it is required,” says Monzón.
Pankoke argues that all digitally printed decorative laminates used as countertops are printed onto paper and then pressed either in a dry press or first impregnated and then pressed to paper to form a laminate. The laminate is then glued onto the rigid substrate.
“This method is used in order to receive the required surface properties such as very high scratch resistance, heat resistance, impact resistance, and other measurements that are according to either an EU norm or a national norm in the country where the countertop is produced,” explains Pankoke.
As mentioned prior, gravure printing is a popular analog method of printing decorative laminates and it is still used.
Similar to the two-step digital process, gravure printing occurs on paper, the paper is impregnated, and then the laminate is produced, says Pankoke. “Today, still the majority of producers are still using rotational gravure printed papers but more are thinking about exchanging this for digital printing onto paper.”
Monzón comments that while analog technologies bring with them expenses like printing on rollers or plates, a higher requirement for stock space, and limits on print variability; they aren’t going to disappear with the advent of inkjet. “This technology is still the best option for most high-level productions, but it requires the digital technology as a complement to be able to be adapted to the new demands of the market.”
To the Masses
Digital technology is poised to infiltrate mass production of decorative laminates and specifically countertops. So much so that it is of popular opinion that digitally decorated laminate countertops will be available at a consumer level like Home Depot or Lowe’s. Alternatively, architects and design firms working directly with countertop manufacturers still represent a portion of users.
“I would say we will start very soon to see this type of product available at the consumer level because the technology is ready for it. Up to now, it was very limited to some design firms or specific architect jobs, but with single-pass printing the possibility is open for all other markets,” shares Monzón.
It is important to point out that the architects and designers creating bespoke designs do not require the production-level capacity that single-pass printers afford. Pankoke says these users would work with a multi-pass digital printer.
“The printing process can be done much slower. It does not need an industrial scale printing machine. The digital printers for such bespoke products are usually multi-pass printers with a much lower capacity of 50 to 100 or 200 square meters per hour, as compared to several thousand square meters per hour,” he adds.
According to Pankoke, when comparing digitally printed laminate countertops with digitally printed laminate furniture, the cost per square meter for the countertops is equal to the non-digital, rotational gravure printing option. This one-to-one comparison gives countertops a huge advantage and proves they exist at a mass production level.
“In furniture there is still a difference between short runs and longer runs, which is non-existent in countertop laminates due to the build up of three to ten layers of different papers that are laminated together before being glued to the countertop,” says Pankoke.
Multi-pass digital printers are commonly found in sign shops and smaller organizations where mass production isn’t necessarily a focus. Single-pass printing technology is at its infancy, but there are machines available that are used in countertop laminate production and installed directly in countertop manufacturing facilities.
The Barberán Jetmaster 350 F-C single-pass roll-to-roll device prints with UV inks, which dry quickly and print on paper of low quality and/or weight, with an excellent printing quality. Its printing width is 50 to 350 millimeters. The company also offers a Jetmaster that can print directly to panels up to 1,890 millimeters. It runs at a production capacity of ten to 50 meters per minute.
Based on EFI Cretaprint’s single-pass printing technology, EFI Cubik printers are robust, highly reliable, and ideally suited for industrial environments. They deliver high productivity and enhanced decoration possibilities. Specifically designed to print directly on wood-based substrates, the printer can output to decorative laminates.
Hymmen’s JUPITER is an industrial single-pass UV LED digital printing line. A printing station covers the full working width of the substrate and prints the board or web material passing underneath the printheads at a speed of up to 50 meters per minute. The digitally processed print data can be used for printing almost immediately and even changed quickly during production. The print image comprises of tiny ink drops of the colors CMYK. Several printheads per color are operated in a series to achieve the required working width.
SPGPrints offers the PIKE décor, a fully customizable platform using a standard five-color CMYK+W UV ink set. The single-pass printer is equipped with PIKE UV inks, which are specifically developed and manufactured by SPGPrints for the printer.
While it is undeniable that digitally printed countertop laminates are available, the fact remains that it isn’t as widely known as one would think. There is a shroud of secrecy placed over much of this segment of digital printing, as many countertop manufacturers want to differentiate themselves from the competition. Hopefully as the technology advances and becomes more common we will be afforded a peek into their production facilities to the entire process at the floor level.
Jun2019, Industrial Print Magazine