Looking ahead

I thought it would be useful to start the year with a story looking at the ongoing themes that I’m aiming to cover in more detail on this website throughout the course of this year. 

Under the covers of the Mouvent LB701 UV press – the black boxes at the top are the printhead clusters.

The most obvious of these themes is the continuing take-up of inkjet presses, which can produce large volumes at relatively low cost per copy. The main weakness has been the poor choice of substrates but over the last year we’ve seen a number of new presses that can print to offset coated media. Mostly these have been used to replace multiple dry toner machines but some are also starting to challenge offset for work now. Inkjet machines still lack the sort of image quality that we associate with offset, at least at the higher production volumes, but each new generation of printheads moves the bar a little higher and I’ve no doubt that we’ll see new presses this year that offer faster speeds with even more substrate flexibility.

This is especially true in the packaging sector where many press vendors have worked hard to develop new models, partly because they can but mostly because they see little real growth in the commercial print sector. Heidelberg has already installed its first Primefire 106 models and we may even start to see Landa presses shipping in number this year. HP has developed several inkjet presses for printing to corrugated materials and Koenig and Bauer has just announced a partnership with Durst to develop a corrugated inkjet press.  

It’s also worth noting that flexo printers are increasingly looking at fixed colour palette inksets, which dramatically cut makeready times and hence overall costs. This is largely driven by the need to keep flexo cost-effective against digital printing. But ironically it’s also helping to pave the way for digital by limiting the tremendous colour range that a flexo press can achieve with spot colours and making digital seem more acceptable to brand owners. Nonetheless, most wide web flexo press vendors have now redesigned at least one of their presses to achieve the greater tolerances that extended colour gamut printing requires. 

The nature of some packaging itself is also changing as consumers and regulators demand that packaging should be more sustainable and less harmful to the environment, and that there should be less packaging overall. This is going to have a fundamental impact on the plastics industry and is already leading to more paper-based packaging. This plays to the strengths of inkjet presses, making water-based inkjet inks more suitable for a wider range of packaging. It also means that any new packaging materials will have to take into account printability with inkjet inks, rather than the other way around, which is going to make life a lot easier for the press vendors.

The Durst Alpha production textile printer.

Textile printing continues to grow but it still seems to me that the technology needs further development. This is a sector that has seen rapid industrialisation in recent years, which only demonstrates that there is a strong demand for more inkjet printing to fabrics. But the range of inks is still limited, it’s not easy to print to all types of fabrics and the post processing is still too much of a bottleneck, not to mention the overall cost of investment, especially in the higher volume machines. Nonetheless 2019 is likely to bring further incremental advances in all these areas and I suspect that the Itma show in Barcelona in June is going to prove most interesting to anyone interested in industrial textile printing. 

I’d like to think that we’ll see further developments in workflow software. The basic concept of a prepress workflow that could combine and automate many prepress functions gained prominence back in the mid-90s when the first CtP systems started to appearing. But with the widespread use of toner and inkjet presses this seems to me to be increasingly limited. Digital printing works best when the printing is more tightly integrated into the selling and postpress stages. So workflow is no longer just about getting jobs through the platemaking and printing stages but most also include job submission and scheduling to get the jobs into production as well as a seamless way to finish and dispatch those jobs. At the moment this involves integrating different systems together with individual customers expected to bear the cost of this integration and I just don’t think this is sustainable in the long term. Instead, MIS, Web-to-Print and imposition systems should all just plug into a front end. We’re either going to see more acquisitions or more partnerships as the various developers finally figure this out for themselves and take a more proactive approach to this. 

There’s also a growing interest in workflow software in the additive manufacturing world. For now, too many of these vendors are busy competing against each other and it’s holding back the development of true workflow software, which needs to be able to work with a broad range of hardware. But eventually, additive manufacturing developers will come to realise that they have to work together to develop standards, just as happened in the commercial print sector back in 2000 when the major players came together to develop the JDF concept. I have little doubt that this will happen, if only because so many companies from the graphics world are also involved in 3D printing, including HP, Xaar, Ricoh, and many of the people currently developing 3D printers started off building digital printers. 

Ricoh’s main offering to the additive manufacturing market is this AM S5500P 3D printer.

There are also plenty of signs that 3D printing is being adopted much quicker than expected by the manufacturing sector. Thus we’ve seen GKN announce a new additive manufacturing centre in the UK and Nottingham University set up a additive manufacturing research facility at the end of last year. And just before Christmas I visited a new facility that Siemens has set up – I’ll cover this in more detail in next week’s featured blog.

In the meantime the technology is continuing to develop apace, particularly in metal printing with HP and Stratasys both announcing metal 3D printers last year, but equally lots of vendors are looking at other materials, such as ceramics and various polymers that are all equally useful in an industrial manufacturing context. I still feel that the additive manufacturing world is more or less at the point that digital printing had reached around the year 2000 with the launch of the iGen and Nexpress printers, which were able to consistently produce good quality images, backed up with effective front ends and the early web to print software. 

Finally, I’ve had a lot of feedback over the last year from people who have been on the same journey as I have, starting off in the graphic arts but moving increasingly into the industrial manufacturing space. I’m sure that throughout this year we will see a lot more stories on industrial print and additive manufacturing as the technology in these areas continues to improve. But it remains my belief that advances in one area will benefit others, partly because there is a lot of common technology, especially in terms of inkjet and research into fluids, inks and coatings, but also because all these market sectors are part of the same push towards greater industrialisation.

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