by Melissa Donovan
Efficient production is good for a company’s bottom line, aids in sustainability, and places less burden on press operators and the rest of a business’ staff. In manufacturing, a number of notable trends like shorter runs and customization benefit from the effectiveness of digital print. Specifically, in terms of product decoration, printing directly to an object has never been more cost effective for on demand requests.
Direct-to-object (DTO) digital printers on their own are productive, but adding inline pretreatment boosts throughput even further. Pretreatment in general is necessary to enhance ink adhesion to a surface with a low dyne level. It also aids in preventing chipping, peeling, or fading of a graphic. Placing the process—whether corona, plasma, flame, pyrosil, or jettable primer—directly inline with the printer provides an even greater level of efficiency.
DTO printers are instrumental in manufacturing, especially for any vertical looking to decorate their pre-manufactured products to capitalize on shorter runs and customization.
“Consumers demand more personalization and higher quality on all prints. This includes items traditionally imprinted with a one- or two-color logos. Consumers want full-color images printed to the same substrate,” shares Sydney Willis, director, sales and marketing, LSINC Corporation.
Paul Bolduc, president, Koenig & Bauer Kammann (US) says the main drivers for DTO digital printing include customization, creating new markets, and the opportunity to provide photorealistic images.
Digital print offers fast production times. “Digital DTO printers allow manufacturers to print directly onto products, eliminating the need for time-consuming and costly manual decorating methods. These printers print high-quality images, text, and graphics onto a range of substrates, including plastic, glass, metal, and ceramics, in a matter of seconds,” explains Jessica Makrinos, marketing manager, Inkcups.
“Many manufacturers are switching from labeling to direct print. Instead of investing in millions of labels, you can almost instantly change what you are printing on the bottle without worrying about old inventory. This gives manufacturers more freedom with their products,” add L. Wilson Lee, director of business development and Mark Plantier, VP marketing, Enercon Industries Corporation.
Another advantage to using digital print—reduced costs. “Traditional decorating methods, such as screen or pad printing, can be costly and require significant setup times, especially for smaller production runs. DTO digital printing eliminates the need for expensive tooling, reducing setup costs, and increasing production efficiency. Additionally, these printers require less ink and consumables, further reducing overall costs,” says Makrinos.
DTO digital printing presents a new level of flexibility as well. “It enables quicker changeovers from one SKU to another, increasing machine uptime. This flexibility also permits products to quickly respond to seasonal or regional variations,” shares Peter Baldwin, marketing manager, Engineered Printing Solutions (EPS).
DTO digital printers in manufacturing environments is on an upward trajectory.
Makrinos cites a report by MarketsandMarkets stating that the global digital printing market is expected to grow from USD $24.8 billion in 2018 to USD $35.1 billion by 2023, with a compound annual growth rate of 7.1 percent. The report also states that packaging and label printing sectors are the largest contributors to the digital printing market, with the highest growth rate.
Part of the reason for this growth, according to MarketsandMarkets, is because digital printing technologies, including DTO printers, are well suited to the packaging industry’s requirements, such as short-run printing, customization, and fast turnaround times.
“It’s difficult to give an exact percentage of the adoption of DTO digital printers in manufacturing, as it varies across different industries and regions. However, it’s safe to say that the adoption of these printers is steadily increasing as manufacturers recognize the benefits they offer in terms of customization, speed, quality, and cost effectiveness,” shares Makrinos.
Lee and Plantier’s best guess at growth numbers, “ten to 20 percent adoption at this point but that number will continue to grow. Along with the flexibility of changing print, the overall cost will be less in the long run.”
“In the market of decorating glass and plastic articles, I would say the adoption is in the 15 to 20 percent area. As the technology develops, I believe the percentages will continue to increase,” agrees Bolduc.
Growth areas differ by market. “In the promotional market, almost everyone we speak with has some type of DTO digital printer. In the wine and spirits market, which is more traditional, digital is in its infancy. I suspect that just as every commercial printer eventually adopted some type of digital device, the DTO space will follow,” forecasts Willis.
Despite growth, there are barriers to entry. “The initial investment cost for these printers can be high, and the technology is still relatively new, which may make manufacturers hesitant to switch from traditional printing methods,” admits Makrinos.
Accelerating the Move to Digital
With manufacturers not yet fully embracing DTO digital printing, it’s imperative that players in this space headline education about the technology’s advantages.
At Enercon, there is a movement to educate customers on the benefits of surface treatment plus printing. It works with printing companies to make sense for both sets of customers.
Inkcups plays an important role in accelerating the evolution of digital print. It is committed to educating the market about the benefits of DTO printing and how it can improve product branding, reduce waste, and improve sustainability. This includes participating in industry events, offering training and support, and sharing thought leadership content on its website and social media channels.
Koenig & Bauer Kammann takes what Bolduc refers to as the “long approach,” spending time developing solutions for customers. “These solutions include designing better inline pretreatment solutions, testing products in our lab, and working with multiple ink suppliers to continue to develop and use the best consumables for the application.”
LSINC printers produce high-speed, high-resolution images in full color. The look and feel of samples gets even the most traditional printer interested in exploring digital technologies. The company carries multiple patents and continues to breakdown the barriers to adoption in the market.
Manufacturers looking to complement or replace traditional decorating practices have a few set standards, according to Makrinos, when it comes to implementing digital devices. These include quality, compatibility, and scalability. If these are met, the path to digital is clearer.
“The quality of DTO digital needs to be as good as or better than traditional printing methods to ensure that products look their best. DTO digital printing should be compatible with a range of materials and products to be useful for any manufacturer. It must be scalable to accommodate large production runs and meet the demands of high-volume manufacturing,” explains Makrinos.
According to Willis, “current manufacturers need assurances that customers will accept the final product. They want to know if the ink holds up as well as their current technology. The early adopters are in a position to take market share from those that are lagging. The demand for high personalization and a ‘greener’ approach to printing are already moving manufacturers in this direction.”
Baldwin notes that DTO digital printing requires a very different skillset than older analog methods of product decoration. The prepress workflow requires graphics skills that most pad print machine operators don’t have to worry about.
Bolduc points out that while many manufacturers have dipped their toe in DTO digital printing, some have also experienced disappointments in the technology. “Many equipment manufacturers claim specifications under perfect conditions, which in manufacturing conditions cannot be met.”
“Change is always difficult to embrace but as more manufacturers become aware of the potential savings and ease of the change, more will make the investment,” admit Lee and Plantier.
Pretreatment is an important part of DTO digital printing. Many times a pre-manufactured object relies on a pretreatment to enhance adhesion of the ink to the surface of the item in question.
“Pretreatment is generally used in digital printing to improve adhesion between the ink and the substrate. This is particularly important for substrates with non-porous or low-energy surfaces, such as glass or plastic, which can be difficult for ink to adhere to without proper preparation,” explains Makrinos.
James Bullington, CTO, LSINC, says pretreatment is also used for its “ability to withstand ink fastness tests that simulate what the media needs to go through after initial manufacturing, during final finishing processes, shipping, or dishwashing.”
There are many variations of how the pretreatment process works. It can occur near line, offline, or inline to the digital printer.
Baldwin says “throughput is the primary driver of inline solutions rather than part topography. The type of substrate is the other factor—even seemingly-specific formulations such as HDPE can have different ingredients that affect ink adhesion.” Most of EPS’ single-pass inkjet printers have some form of inline pretreatment in order to maximize throughput.
“Inline pretreatment is preferred because it is the best guarantee to ensure a printable surface is presented to the printer. Automation eliminates human error, improves process consistency, and boosts quality while increasing throughput,” share Lee and Plantier.
Koenig & Bauer Kammann provides inline solutions for all of its customer applications, and for most if not all applications inline is preferred. “The reason most customers or applications consider inline is that it reduces the number of times customers must touch the article, thereby increasing manufacturing efficiencies,” explains Bolduc.
According to Makrinos, inline pretreatment is generally preferred because it is more streamlined.
“By applying the pretreatment solution directly before printing, the printer ensures the substrate is properly prepared and optimized for the ink to adhere to the surface. This can result in better color vibrancy, sharper details, and improved durability of the printed image.”
Not all printers include inline pretreatment and not all applications benefit from pretreatment applied inline. “Many manufacturers print to multiple media types that require different types of pretreatment, which is why inline isn’t necessarily useful,” notes Bullington.
“Whether or not inline pretreatment is necessary or preferred depends on the specific printer and the type of material being printed on. Some materials may require more extensive pretreatment than others, and some printers may be able to achieve high-quality results without inline pretreatment,” notes Makrinos.
Convenience and Efficiency
There is a trend toward newer DTO digital printers running pretreatment functions inline. Having this as part of the overall process is beneficial and cost effective.
“With the issues of finding people, inline pretreatment eliminates extra handling. In a production situation I would consider this a must,” admits Bolduc.
In a labor market where good help is difficult to secure, Lee and Plantier also see inline pretreatment as a huge advantage. “Inline surface treating can eliminate primers and other manual surface preparation processes. Automation reduces labor cost and allows manufacturers to reallocate employees to higher value processes. Improved quality also increases customer satisfaction and means less quality issues and rework.”
“Inline pretreatment is a crucial step that improves print quality, reduces costs, increases productivity, and expands printing capabilities,” explains Makrinos.
Baldwin argues that “inline pretreatment is not only beneficial or cost effective but rather essential for single-pass applications where throughput speeds are high. Inline solutions also eliminate the costs associated with offline pretreatment such as labor and inventorying half-finished goods.”
“Inline pretreatment ensures a level of consistency through better process control, which is not possible in manual application,” adds Bullington.
Pretreatments are adhered using corona, plasma, and flame or Pyrosil processes, as well as jettable—from the printheads—primer. The method used depends on the substrate or material being printed to, for example glass or metal makes a difference.
“Pretreatments such as flame and flame with Pyrosil are more often used on glass where cold end coatings and contaminants need to be removed so they do not negatively effect the digitally applied ink. Corona and plasma are more often applicable to plastics where a flaming process negatively effects the structure of the media. Spray and jettable primers are used on a wider cross section of media since they do not affect the structure of the media,” shares Bullington. A majority of LSINC clients have chosen to utilize an inline flame with a jettable primer.
Lee and Plantier explain that plasma and flame pretreatment prepare a surface by cleaning, etching, and functionalizing the surface to increase surface energy and improve wettability. These surface treating technologies are preferred over manual and chemical processes because they do not expose workers to hazardous chemical primers, and the treating process can be automated.
Enercon’s Blown-arc and Blown-ion atmospheric plasma is often utilized in these situations. Blown-arc is used for lower speed lines printing on non-metallic surfaces. Blown-ion plasma is for either conductive or non-conductive surfaces. Newer Blown-ion technologies treat wider areas in a singular pass with more consistency than technologies that rely on a rotating motion.
“Both plasma and corona change the surface tension of the substrate, but in different ways. Corona uses an electrical charge to alter the surface tension, whereas plasma uses the plasma of a flame. Due to the nature of the two, plasma is the more powerful. Jettable primers are available to promote adhesion to a number of different substrates,” notes Makrinos.
Inkcups’ Helix and Double Helix DTO printers are available with inline pretreatment options. Customers are able to choose between corona, plasma, or jettable primer.
Koenig & Bauer Kammann designs systems with all of the above—the basic consideration is the adhesion of the ink. “One other option is flame or Pyrosil, which is primarily used on glass and ceramics. Our pretreatment system using flame and Pyrosil is the K31 A-FS or K31 A-XS,” says Bolduc.
Depending on the system, the user may be able to switch between corona, plasma, flame, or jettable printer on the fly. This is advantageous for manufacturers looking to DTO digital print for decorating multiple surfaces like plastic, metal, and glass using the same device.
“Generally speaking, most printing lines rely on one specific technology for their pretreatment needs. It is possible to have multiple technologies on a single line if needed. In most cases, these changes can be made in the field. If you can print on an item based on various geometries, the surface treating portion will also work,” explain Lee and Plantier.
EPS’ field service technicians are able to retrofit different pretreatment methods to machines in field as end user needs change. However, “since the pretreatment method is selected during the design process, having previously tested and found the ideal pretreatment method as part of the proof-of-concept sampling process, these modules are not typically designed to be user-swappable in the field,” explains Baldwin.
“Although switching between pretreatment systems is possible, we typically equip a machine with the most robust pretreatment system for the application and allow the customer to turn off the items that are not needed,” adds Bolduc.
Pretreatments like corona, plasma, and flame are specialized stations that exist in the production line feeding the printer, according to Bullington. This means they can be turned on or off based on the substrate. However, “more often than not as production speeds increase one sees that the printers are mated to production lines that feed similar media to the printer to reduce changeover times. So one is less likely to see a line that needs all types of pretreatments, and instead a line is configured around one specific type.”
DTO digital printers and the process of running pretreatment inline maximizes throughput in a production facility. With more brands looking to offer customized options of their products, it makes sense to adopt this technology to meet the growth in on demand personalization.
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Jun2023, Industrial Print Magazine