Printing and industrial uses

If we’re honest, last week’s InPrint was a very small show. It didn’t even fill a single hall at the Munich Messe, and was tucked away around the back at the Eastern Entrance, which is closer to the tube station but lacks the grand entranceway with the pond full of swans and the broad driveway with all the flags fluttering languidly in the breeze, as flags do.

Frazer Chesterman, one of the co-organisers of the show.
Frazer Chesterman, one of the co-organisers of the show.

But no matter, the show appeals to an altogether more hard headed audience that can do without the swans and the flags. Most of the visitors were integrators involved in building production lines for a variety of industries. Paul Adriaansen, marketing manager for Agfa, commented: “We see integrators, people that make production lines for the clothing and manufacturing industries, for bottling lines, manufacturing of all sorts of white goods.” He added: “We also see brand owners who are looking at what is possible before they go to their production line integrators.”

Most vendors that I talked to reported that these visitors were very focussed on looking for partners. The result was that the show was not so much about new equipment being launched, but rather about starting conversations over what kind of advantages printing can bring to manufacturing.

It’s worth pointing out that some print processes, particularly screen printing, are already widely used in industrial manufacturing processes, so most of the exhibitors at InPrint were pushing inkjet printing. Typically inkjet printing is about short runs, where industrial manufacturing generally implies longer production runs. So clearly inkjet isn’t going to be suitable for every industrial application.

But it does have some advantages to offer. Most vendors start off by mentioning the ability to do personalisation, but few are really serious about this. Rather, most companies are looking at short runs or versioning. Digital printing is also good for just-in-time manufacturing, removing the cost of having to store products, which offsets the additional cost of digital printing.

Beer bottles, including these from Agfa, is a popular industrial application.
Beer bottles, including these from Agfa, is a popular industrial application.

But most vendors believe that digital can offer additional benefits to some applications. So, for example, Doug Edwards, CEO of Xaar, says: “Printing direct to the bottle saves you cost because you have taken out steps in the supply chain.” Another example is to use inkjet to print wood patterns for flooring. The digital print is expensive but it allows you to use a cheaper wood and to use just in time manufacturing to avoid storage.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects was seeing printing systems reduced to the various components – inks, printheads and software – and the degree of cooperation between the vendors. Its clear that the development of new inks – or fluids, to use the industrial terminology – is the main driver in opening up new applications, as the inks not only have to adhere to various surfaces but also have to cope with challenging conditions in the manufacturing process and the way the product is used. But most vendors agree that the ink alone is not enough. Jon Harper-Smith, marketing manager at Fujifilm Europe, explains: “The starting point should be what is the system to do, what does the ink have to do in the system and how to create the print engine to get that chemistry, so it needs to be a much more integrated approach.”

Durst showed off this Rho IP 507 industrial inkjet printer.
Durst showed off this Rho IP 507 industrial inkjet printer.

Inevitably, some of the print technology developed for industrial applications will feed back into the graphics sector, particularly for packaging printing. Indeed, it seems to me that whereas printing has been synonymous with the graphic arts, we will now have to consider the graphic arts as simply one form of printing.

Many companies that supply printing technology are already looking beyond the graphic arts, and it’s also worth noting that so too are many large format service providers. In conclusion, the potential market is huge and it’s easy to imagine InPrint becoming a much bigger show over the next few years.

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