by Melissa Donovan
Just-in-time decoration is growing as more brand owners recognize the popularity of customized products as well as capsule collections. Digital printing is well equipped to meet this demand. For pre-manufactured objects, direct-to-object digital printers are ideal. Manufacturers from multiple industry verticals add bespoke solutions into existing production lines. No two solutions are the same. Many variables differentiate one system from the next.
Above: Beverage cans printed using a Tonejet Cyclone C4 digital printer by Solucan.
Have It Your Way
Bespoke direct-to-object printing solutions are designed to work within an existing production space. Some vendors also offer base printer models with the option to retrofit or customize the printer according to their needs and space restraints—creating a middle between true bespoke and turnkey. Both are feasible options for manufacturers in multiple industries.
According to Bob Keller, president, Marabu North America LP, popularity for more bespoke, custom solutions stems from how varied direct-to-object printing has become. “As ink and hardware technology evolve, markets previously considered out of reach for digital are now becoming a reality. However, there is no single system that can meet the requirements of so many different market segments. The more unique the application, the more specialized the inkjet system must be to meet the requirements.”
“The proliferation of piezoelectric-based industrial inkjet modules with fluid delivery systems that can operate at any angle have paved the way for new direct-to-object print systems. Careful integration of ink delivery hardware, printheads, drive electronics, and motion control mechanisms into small modules allow industrial inkjet solutions to be applied in ways not previously technically possible,” adds Jonathan Wilson, sales director, Meteor Inkjet Ltd.
Keller notes that demand for custom, single-pass systems designed for unique applications has risen at a feverish pace recently, but so have flatbeds for “flat” items and cylindrical printers. The difference—not as much tinkering of the device. “There are a few applications that would be considered more mainstream. For example, most flat items like promotional products have driven the massive increase in sales of common flatbed printers. These solutions typically require minor modifications of the platen for the layout of the products printed, but the same print engine is applicable across a range of applications. Flat is flat. The same can be said of cylindrical.”
While customers were buying printers ten years ago as-is and placing them in their space, Adam Tourville, director of sales – North America, Direct Color Systems, says today they are taking base printers and adding robotics, flame and corona units, auto load and unload, and conveyors to make the printers even more efficient. “Custom solutions are popular because they service a unique aspect of someone’s manufacturing process. It gives that customer a more tailored, more efficient process.”
It’s the “have it my way” mentality, states James Bullington, CTO, LSINC Corporation. “Implementing a direct-to-object printer into an existing process flow can disrupt or reduce efficiencies unless a tailored solution for the added effects makes up the difference.”
Consumer demand dictates smaller runs and more customized products, hence the need for digital decoration. “With today’s increasingly segmented and customized products, the additional cost of multi-SKU inventory, and the challenges of projecting and managing volumes and costs of handling a product through multiple decoration stations, many companies understand that adding inline or on-site, just-in-time product decoration lowers costs and improves product customization options,” explains Jay Larsen, GM/director of research and development – digital division, INX International Ink Co.
The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic also influenced the need for a flexible solution that can be added to or features removed from to meet consumer demand. “A completely customized solution may work for a time, but unexpected events can change demand in an instant, which we witnessed with COVID-19. Companies immediately switched from printing products such as promotional items to printing on face masks and hand sanitizer bottles. The ability to have flexibility is crucial,” recommends Jessica Makrinos, marketing manager, Inkcups.
Something else that the current health crisis brought to light is the frailty of supply chains. “These circumstances serve to drive demand for more efficient, environmentally friendly, localized manufacturing processes. As an example, a localized production of tubes including forming, filling, and on demand digital printing directly onto tubes eliminates waste from over production to satisfy economic run length requirements while reducing CO2 throughout the supply chain,” explains Wilson.
“The impact on component availability in traditional supply chains has only emphasized the need for digital direct-to-object printing. Minimum order quantities have increased and shortages of certain types of goods have forced manufacturers to look for alternatives on short notice, which does not fit well with the responsiveness of many traditional decorators,” agrees Bullington.
Industries particularly in demand of digital customization—placed either inline or offline of their manufacturing systems—include beverage, home, and personal care. They want what digital decoration offers, “high artwork flexibility, print image change on the fly, the possibility of producing smaller quantities, and quick response to market demands,” shares Zsolt Rozsnyai, digital decoration, KRONES AG.
Adding to that list is pharmaceutical, beauty products, and cleaners like detergents. “Using bespoke industrial solutions enables benefits like product localization including languages or special regulatory requirements and short-run packaging for special events creating upward brand value and commanding a premium price,” says Wilson.
“Any shape that is decorated is fair game for a bespoke production inkjet solution. Obviously, the simplest to implement are flat or cylindrical surfaces, but solutions are built for complex shapes in both industrial and consumer product spaces,” notes Larsen.
Ask the Right Questions
A manufacturer must take into account whether adding a bespoke solution will be profitable. Other considerations include performance and reliability.
Understanding digital technology and what it has to offer is key to justifying the investment, says Bullington. “Operators should understand the difference between direct-to-object digital printing versus traditional methods. A prime example is understanding that digital images are created as process color combinations and not spot color implementations.”
Makrinos suggests manufacturers ask three questions. First, how will operations change—and will this increase or decrease time to market? Secondly, what will the return on investment (ROI) be and when will it be achieved? Third, how can the solution help grow the company?
“Manufacturers are advised that adding direct-to-object digital print capability requires careful consideration not only of the design of the image but also the compatibility of the jetting fluids with the object’s substrate. Recognizing the limitations of productionizing a digital line, accepting the tradeoffs between productivity and customization, and analyzing cost models are important,” recommends Wilson.
If the solution is inline, Larsen believes it’s important that the speed of the printer match the speed of the production line. “There is not often a one-to-one match, so alternatives must be considered, such as parallel printers, more print stations, and faster printheads. There are also budget considerations. Speed and quality requirements force expensive systems to meet the demands at production speeds.”
Performance, cost, speed, and reliability are important factors, says Keller, but just like any other technology there are tradeoffs. “You need to make sure that a digital ink can stand up to the requirements of your application. If you can get beyond that first hurdle, you have to consider your budget and ROI expectations. Assuming you’ve made it that far, you must be sure that you can depend on its reliability.”
“When looking to add printing to a production line, you want to ensure it is something your company needs. You want to look at your current line and see where the issues are—changeover rate, change over time, defects, and output. Then you would want to look at the benefits of inkjet—immediate changeover to different graphics, variable data, custom colors, and potentially increased output,” recommends Tourville.
Rob Day, CEO, Tonejet Ltd., says in terms of Tonejet solutions—digital printers decorating beverage cans—the biggest concern is available footprint and next the ability to run power and compressed air to the system. “No two customers have the same space, so we customize the layout to fit within the space available and avoid existing fixtures.”
The physical components of the system must be addressed, for example, the printheads, curing lamps, and ink. Each factor is variable from manufacturer to manufacturer.
Treat each system as unique, stresses Tourville, every scenario presents different products to print to and different testing requirements. “After these are figured out, that’s when you decide on printheads based on resolution, frequency, and ink set. Then you can decide on ink delivery systems and lamps, pretreatment, and the other auxiliary equipment.”
Rozsnyai agrees, pointing out how the process of printing on glass versus plastic is a determining factor in the periphery of the equipment. “Depending on the material, the number of printing colors, the ink used, and of course the right equipment, the machine is designed accordingly.”
Ink development is crucial and Keller suggests looking at this first. “If the pretreatment/ink/coating process doesn’t meet your performance requirements, you can build the most elaborate hardware in the world and still fall short.”
“The process begins with ink adhesion and performance,” agrees Bullington. “Then it moves to resolution and opacity at the desired production rate. Higher resolutions or greater coverage to yield higher saturation on darker substrates negatively impacts production rates. Matching cure lamp capacity with the desired production rate ensures proper adhesion and less media damage.”
Careful consideration should be taken on the integration of printheads, drive electronics, and curing or drying hardware into production lines, says Wilson. Additional attention should be given to printhead and electronic cooling, UV shielding, cabling, tubing, and motion control.
“Once a proof of concept is established, you can start the process of designing the print engine. Printhead technology, robotics, conveyor length/speed, single- versus multi-pass, LED lamp power, ink delivery, and software/user interface must all be considered and carefully matched to your production process. There will be significant variability in these factors from customer to customer and application to application,” adds Keller.
An area that is often overlooked, according to Larsen, is how critical the motion and mechanical movement of the product is to the overall success. “As resolutions and speeds increase, so must the precision and reliability of the mechanical and positioning aspects of the printing system. Many customers underestimate the precision required for high-quality inkjet printing at typical production line speed.”
ROI as the Driver
Any size company is a fit for a bespoke solution, but sometimes a turnkey option or a modified turnkey printer might be a better fit. This depends on a company’s budget and ultimately ROI.
With so many variables at play, Keller says it’s impossible to look at company size as a determining factor. “While it is generally true that a turnkey solution will be lower in cost than a bespoke printer, that’s not always the case. The real question to be answered is based on ROI.”
“If the ROI doesn’t make sense, there is no need to do it,” agrees Tourville. “Everyone has potential for a custom solution—from a small change to a large, complete system. What drives this is volume, cost, variable data, and ROI.”
Dursun Acun, sales director, OPM Europa, also believes ROI is the determining factor between choosing a turnkey or bespoke direct-to-object device. “From our point of view we can say that these solutions can’t be ignored due to the ability to save a lot of money on logistics. People forget the logistical savings this technology brings.”
“Any size company is a fit for either a bespoke solution or turnkey direct-to-object printer. A few factors that come into play include budget and intended use. If there is a specific need that cannot be satisfied with a turnkey direct-to-object printer, then a bespoke solution might be the better option,” admits Makrinos.
Small or large, a bespoke solution is a fit for any size company. “Startups may be unencumbered by existing production infrastructure allowing them to avoid the tradeoffs associated with retrofitting a solution, whereas large companies might be in a position to demonstrate a strong business case for a bespoke system based on verified customer demand,” suggests Wilson.
Bullington points out that there are only so many turnkey options available and they are targeted at the sweet spot of economical sizes. “For instance, cylindrical printers generally accept diameters between 40 and 125 millimeters (mm) with lengths up to 300 mm but printable areas not larger than 240 mm.” So if you’re looking for something outside this window, a bespoke solution might be the better option.
Turnkey direct-to-object devices are a consideration depending on the manufacturer’s intentions. For example, smaller, tabletop flatbed devices. “The rise in popularity of these is due to a desire to expand product offerings and profits. Because of their small footprints, they can fit in almost any shop,” explains Ken Parsley, product marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc.
“The public’s increasing desire to personalize just about everything is translating into unlimited opportunities for on demand printing onto an ever-widening range of items. More businesses are using UV printers to customize and personalize products, accessories, and gifts,” notes Jay Roberts, product manager – UV printers, Roland DGA Corporation.
Working with a turnkey device has its benefits. “Turnkey solutions offer experience of the machine for training and support purposes and extensive application knowledge. These solutions also offer more flexibility from one application to the next,” admits Jessica Makrinos, marketing manager, Inkcups.
Success or Failure
Bespoke direct-to-object printers offer a host of benefits, but can be a complicated sell. A manufacturer must perform their homework diligently to ensure the right combination of parts and purpose are placed in an existing production line. Success is paramount when everything works well together, but failure is imminent if the current manufacturing process isn’t treated with respect and the projected ROI doesn’t make sense.
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