Industrial printing at InPrint

Last month I spent some time at the InPrint show in Frankfurt, Germany, which is shaping up to be one of the more interesting annual events, as far as inkjet technology goes.

These samples from the Colorgate stand show the interest in direct to object printing for packaging.

To be honest, this is not the easiest show to get a handle on. This is partly because it’s hard to define what exactly industrial print is but mainly because it’s really more of a networking event than a chance to display new bits of kit. This in turn reminded me just how small and interconnected the inkjet industry really is. Mike Utley, marketing manager for Xaar, summed this up neatly by saying: “There’s an eco-system of providers here. We have competitors here but they have also recommended people to us so it’s really quite a networking show.” He added: “And we have hard sales leads which is difficult for us because we only do components.”

Other vendors echoed similar sentiments. Richard Hulme, Sun Chemical’s Global Sales and Product Manager for SunJet, noted that the aisles were busy and that the company had picked up some good sales leads. Andy Darley, Head of sales and projects at Graph-Tech, says: “This is the first time we have been to InPrint. It’s been very good. We have had a lot of people looking for an integrator to supply print modules. We have had people wanting to work with us for standalone printers for different applications.”

There was a strong emphasis on packaging, much more so than I remember from my last trip to InPrint. Darley says: “Packaging is the growth area. But I think there’s been a bit more interest in print to shape. People are starting to understand how digital printing can bring value to different markets and product opportunities.”

Heidelberg showed these customised vent covers from Smart cars.

There were plenty of samples around. Heidelberg, for example, showed how it used printing to customise vents from Smart cars. Annette Gansert, Product Manager for digital print solutions, explained: “The automotive industry is very interested in this kind of solution for directly printing on objects. We have here so many applications and they are coming from all sorts of industrial sectors.”

She adds: This includes decoration such as cars, furniture, every kind of industrial sector. Some are looking for personalisation but most are looking for an easier way to print to objects instead of having labels. They don’t want a step in between which means labels so directly printing on objects is the logical answer that our customers have.”

There were several direct to shape printers aimed at bottles and cans. Tonejet, for example, showed its Cyclone, which prints to drinks cans. I’ve already covered this in more detail but essentially it uses an electrostatic drop on demand system with concentrated pigmented inks in an oil carrier liquid that can produce a very thin layer of less than 0.5 micron. Simon Edwards, Vice president sales and marketing for Tonejet, says: “Our cans cost 20 times less than a UV printer so it’s more cost effective. Our objective has always been to produce a can that feels like a conventionally printed beverage can.”

The Hinterkopf D240.2 prints directly to bottles, cans and aerosols.

Hinterkopf has also looked at printing direct to cylindrical objects. It has developed the D240, a multi-pass inkjet machine that’s capable of up to 1200 dpi resolution. It can print to plastic, aluminium, steel and glass for applications such as sealant cartridges or aerosol cans, which it can produce at a rate of around 150 per minute.

Xaar showed off a direct to bottle printer developed by its subsidiary EPS, which was announced in October as the Rotojet but this name had been dropped by November – which apparently is nothing to do with KBA having used the RotaJet name for its series of high speed inkjet presses for several years! Nonetheless, whatever EPS eventually decides to call this machine, it’s a compact unit that neatly showcases Xaar’s ability to jet ink over longer throw distances. Most of these systems hold the bottle horizontally so that the ink can be jetted downwards but this EPS machine can print vertically, so that the bottles can travel upright through the machine. It can produce 800 pieces per hour.

There’s no question in my mind that direct to object printers are going to take a chunk out of the label printing market, albeit mainly for short runs at the moment. But this technology will develop further and anybody that’s thinking investing in a digital label press should be looking at these machines as an alternative technology.

Mutoh, Roland and Mimaki all showed their small, industrial flatbed printers. There’s nothing new in these and they all based on existing large format UV-curable printing. Mutoh did show a new rotary jig to print directly to bottles, which can print 360° around the bottle. Mutoh’s marketing manager Nick Decock said that it was still a case of having to prove that inkjet was a valid alternative to established technologies like screenprinting, adding: “We do see some opportunity in direct to shape for functional panels.”

Fujifilm used Productronica to show an inkjet solution for printing the covers on membrane switches, such as these.

The show was co-located with Productronica, which also showcases technology aimed at manufacturing. The difference seems to be that whereas people go to Productronica to find solutions to current manufacturing problems, InPrint is more about discussions of things that might turn out to be useful sometime in the future. Most of the exhibitors reported that that people visiting Productronica also popped along to InPrint.

Decock, for example, noted: “We have had some crossover from things like tiny electronic parts, people from the toy industry, people that we don’t regularly see at a sign and display show. And we have learned things from here. The sales follow up are quite technical.”

I too came away from InPrint feeling that I had learned things. It is really quite a unique event, free from any competition, mainly because so few people understand what industrial printing is. Overall, I had the impression that the visitors have become more knowledgeable about inkjet printing since 2015 when I last made it to InPrint. Certainly, all the vendors that I spoke to felt the conversations they had with customers and the sales leads justified exhibiting at the show, which is not always the case at printing tradeshows.

Somehow, the show is managing a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, it’s still mainly about graphics printing, albeit that it is mostly graphics printed as part of another product, which explains the packaging bias. But it’s also a show that wants to be more about the wider aspect of inkjet technology, which is more about jetting fluids rather than ink, where inkjet actuators could be used to precisely position adhesives, for example, as part of a manufacturing process. Tradeshows normally reflect what’s happening within a given market. Yet, InPrint is also helping to incubate and grow the industrial print sector, not easy given that most manufacturers are only just waking up to the possibilities that digital printing can offer them.

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