by Melissa Donovan
Direct to object (DTO) printing is growing as seemingly everyone and everything wants customization of some sort. This derives from the consumer looking to place their name or some other meaningful token onto a cup all the way up to corporations searching for branding opportunities. Another popular trend, collaborations between businesses.
Above: The Inkcups Double Helix is a UV cylindrical printer featuring two side-by-side print stations that can simultaneously print artwork onto two of the same vessels for double the printing volume. The Double Helix is compatible with the company’s artwork preparation software, ArtPrep.
More often we see companies striking up licensing deals with entertainment powerhouses to feature characters or designs on objects. DTO printing using digital print technology is advantageous here. It caters to the need for less inventory, shorter runs with high variability, and limited capsule collections.
While many companies seek third-party printers to create these special items, DTO printer manufacturers are making it easier than ever to bring this process in house. The newest printers are not only equipped with physical ease-of-use features like simple user interfaces and automated maintenance, they are integrated with robust software that enhances automation and cuts down on manual errors.
Automation in Flux
Software automation is essential to DTO printing. Without it, the manual process of preparing files would be extremely timely as well as costly.
“It is key for a seamless print production of customized object printing,” asserts Olaf Walter, president, MPRINT, LLC.
Derek Moffett, product manager, Mutoh America, Inc., says that without automation software a user could spend up to ten times the amount of time preparing files for DTO printing.
“Ultimately, software automation can reduce costs and increase efficiency. This allows your employees to do more or focus on higher margin products,” agrees Adam Tourville, director of sales – North America, Direct Color Systems.
A number of industries utilizing DTO printing benefit from software automation. Jessica Makrinos, marketing manager, Inkcups, provides examples of print on demand and ecommerce. “During the peak of COVID-19, many promotional product companies looked at the print on demand market as the next logical step while trade shows and other events were on hold. This allowed customers to place low-quantity orders with more personalized products, which meant more artwork to ‘touch’ to prepare for printing. Having an easier method to prepare artwork—automatic art preparation—for print is critical to keep up with orders.”
In regards to ecommerce companies, Makrinos says that to maintain a true web to print (W2P) model, it helps to have software automation like automatic art preparation. Having automatic art preparation software in place allows for companies “to stick to the industry standard three day service level agreement for delivery. A simple API connection allows the orders to flow through the system directly to print,” she continues.
“Automation is important in any manufacturing environment, but probably most critical in high change-over environments, like the promotional products space. For smaller run lengths, the artwork will change more frequently. If the company does not have any automation in the prepress environment, that will greatly impact the productivity on the production floor,” adds Sydney Willis, director of sales and marketing, LSINC Corporation.
What’s in a Solution
Common automation software bundled with DTO printers is a RIP, whether proprietary to the printer manufacturer or a third-party option. Other solutions are considered more add-on, for example automated artwork preparation software.
At its base functionality, a RIP “RIPs the data in the image, which tells the printer where to place the ink and how much of each color to use,” explains Moffett.
However, today’s RIPs are able to conduct a host of other functions, from creating artwork, editing images, vectoring art, and automating variable data to generating ADA compliant Braille, lists Moffett.
Other capabilities include automating jig layout printing, generating multiple-pass layer prints, and automatically generating white/varnish ink.
Beyond a RIP, Tourville says it is common for DTO printers to come equipped with design software. “The types of automation within the software include functions like variable data, which allows users to create hundreds of signs from an initial design. Also, most software comes with an automatic array function, which lays out signs on the bed automatically so the operator doesn’t need to. Operators can also create templates so that the signs are laid out the same way every time.”
Design add-ons—like Inkcups’ ArtPrep—are meant to “ease and enhance the workflow,” says Makrinos. ArtPrep can be fully integrated into a workflow and set up to prepare artwork without any operator intervention. For example, it allows an operator greater authority over creating white and varnish layers that may be necessary in a graphic as well as more control over artwork placement.
Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs) facilitate automation at the printer. “The HMI we use by JetInx converts two-dimensional (2D) rectangular artwork to a helical print file. The HMI is also used to store ‘recipes’ that can be substrate or client specific. It also controls motion and ink delivery,” explains Willis.
Walter notes that all of MPRINT’s DTO printers are equipped with color management software, which is able to be integrated into the customer-side W2P application. “The most automated processing of data we have implemented with our machines is a true W2P application, where the end customer places an order and uploads the artwork. After digital sign-off right after the uploading, the file is processed down to the color management computer and the files are ripped to specification and stored. The overarching production software of our customer pulls the appropriate files at the given time and hands it over to our machine control and we then print the parts. Print rate in this application is 300 parts per minute in single-pass printing.”
Is it For You?
When it comes to determining whether a piece of software is necessary or not in terms of automation for DTO printing, Makrinos says that at Inkcups, all the bundled software that comes with its DTO printers is “absolutely necessary”—this includes RIPs and HMIs.
“RIP software is essential to operate a DTO printer, without it you would not be able to produce accurate colors, create textures, or conduct multiple-pass layer printing,” asserts Moffett.
HMIs like the one found on LSINC’s devices are necessary, as their function is imperative in the DTO print process. “The conversion of a 2D file to one that can be applied to a cylindrical object is mandatory for running a DTO device,” notes Willis.
The need to add on automation software like art preparation is really determined by the user and their needs. “Factors that may influence their decision include the source of the original artwork—generated in house or submitted by consumers, the daily artwork volume whether ten different files a day or into the hundreds, and the complexity of the desired output,” shares Makrinos.
Now, if the automation software you may be considering isn’t packaged with a DTO printer, Tourville cautions that it can become a big investment, as it changes the way a business is run plus the cost.
However, he admits that if everyone in the business can realize the benefits of automation, the on-boarding process will go much smoother.
“Start out by using the current software you have, and learning how it can streamline some procedures within the business. Then look at getting software to automate graphic design and uploading,” recommends Tourville.
Software automation is continuously advancing as user needs evolve.
Automated loading and unloading is a trend that continues to grow. “With current hiring challenges it is imperative to use tools that can help the company do more. Some software can replace functions that an employee had to do. Robotics can also increase automation and efficiency,” says Tourville.
With jigs an essential part of the DTO printing process, Moffett believes jig layout tools found in automation software are important. Mutoh’s proprietary VerteLith RIP includes a jig layout tool, which allows for setting up a workflow that will place the artwork exactly where it needs to go, with perfect alignment. “This tool shaves off 80 percent of the time you would have spent laying it all out manually. It truly is a game changer,” notes Moffett.
Willis finds that ecommerce sites in particular are doing a better job applying customer art to virtual shapes, which gives the customer a better idea of what their final product will look like. She also says technologies being used upstream in labels, but applicable to DTO printing, are also gaining in popularity.
“For example, there are augmented reality solutions that turn a label into a video story like Living Wine Labels. There are virtual reality products that can add a digital, graphic, or video component to a printed piece,” she adds.
Bring It In, Bring It In
Whether it’s the RIP or HMI bundled with the printer or add ons like art preparation software, there are solutions available to make DTO printing even easier than before.
There is no reason why manufacturers of physical objects like coolers, speakers, headphones, and water bottles can’t take control of decorating these products by bringing the printing portion in house.
Jun2022, Industrial Print Magazine