Turn it off and turn it on again

So, 2023, a brand new year, all shiny and squeaky clean complete with a fresh slate, full of possibilities and good intentions. What could possibly go wrong?

Many nations marked the start of 2023 with firework displays complete with crowds out celebrating, a welcome improvement on the last couple of years when Covid-19 and the need for social distancing forced most people to stay at home. It’s too early to say that we’ve beaten the pandemic and most countries still have a significant level of infection but at least in Europe the mass vaccination program is allowing life to return to something like normal.

And yet there are many dark clouds, not least the continuing war in Ukraine. The war itself has become an existential battle of survival between Vladimir Putin’s version of corrupt autocracy and the West’s ideal of democracy. There is no end in sight to this war as the Russian strategy is clearly to continue the war long enough for Ukraine’s allies to grow weary and abandon the struggle, as they did with Afghanistan.

The other major issue facing the world is the threat of recession with Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the IMF, pointing out that the US, European and Chinese economies will all slow down together this year. She added: “We expect one-third of the world economy to be in recession. Even countries that are not in recession, it would feel like recession for hundreds of millions of people.”

The Financial Times reports that many economists believe that the UK will be hit much harder than other countries by this recession, mostly as a result of Brexit. A recent survey found that two thirds of Britons now believe that Brexit was a mistake and that there should be a second referendum to return to the EU though there is almost zero chance of this happening.

Britain may be one of the wealthiest, most industrialised nations in the world, yet there are British families using candles to avoid high electricity bills, and many others are turning to DIY healthcare because of a shortage of GP appointments and a sense that the health service is overwhelmed. The fact that so many public service workers are involved in industrial disputes and that the government has no idea how to deal with this has contributed to a sense of crisis. The government’s only plan is to cling on to power until the next election, likely at the end of 2024, while the opposition has no plan at all.

Happiness is coming soon…hopefully.

All this makes it difficult for journalists such as myself to predict how the year will unfold since manufacturing innovation tends to be driven by a healthy and confident economy. Still, we can sketch in the broad strokes.

So it’s likely that this year will continue to see growth in digital labelling though the market seems to be mainly short to medium runs and most label producers prefer hybrid solutions with extensive converting capabilities. I would expect this year’s European Label Expo to demonstrate a trend toward wider narrow web presses – around 450mm or wider – which is suitable for some packaging applications such as pouches.

Most press vendors seem to believe that packaging offers the best long term growth but this depends on developing more sustainable materials. I’ve seen some interesting paper-based pouch materials for narrow web presses. And there are a lot of inkjet corrugated printers in various stages of development, some of which will become commercially available this year. But we’re still some way off the holy grail – easily recyclable plastics that can be printed with water-based inks – which are needed to really stimulate the market for digital packaging presses. That said, I was very impressed by the flexible film samples that Toyo showed me at last year’s Japan Inkjet Technology Fair and which were printed on Miyakoshi’s MJP30 AXF inkjet press.

I’m confident that this year will certainly see more textile printing systems introduced. This is partly just common sense because the ITMA show returns to Milan this year and is bound to lead to further printer announcements. But also because I’ve already discussed some of these new printers in off-the-record briefings with their vendors. Clearly the direction of travel in textile printing is towards pigment inks that will offer good texture and feel, as well as good wash fastness, but without the need for washing and steaming cycles to fix the inks. This reduced water usage is good news from an environmental point of view but will also cut the level of investment needed in new digital production lines and reduce the production time.

We will continue to hear more about industrial printing – and I hope to cover more of these stories this year. This is the cutting edge of inkjet printing technology as vendors have to develop new technologies, such as recirculation in printheads, to get around individual problems. But each industrial solution tends be tightly tailored around specific needs and often the end clients prefer to keep quiet about these projects so it’s a difficult area to report on.

Additive manufacturing will continue to go from strength to strength. This technology has proven itself in terms of prototyping and tooling and is increasingly being used in short run production. It’s still very early days and many of the established technologies may not last the course. For now, 3D printing is still dominated by the early adopters but as more manufacturers start to look at this technology so there will be greater demand for faster throughput at lower cost, much as we have already seen in every other print market from books to label printing.

Quantica’s Novojet 2.0 printhead should be ready to ship later next year.

I still believe that inkjet technology offers the most cost-effective way of scaling up productivity but I expect that we will see a new generation of printheads developed to accommodate the needs of 3D printing, since additive manufacturing build materials have very different properties to printing inks. Adapting those materials to be less viscous will only get this technology so far and explains why binder-jet is still so prevalent but a new generation of printheads could lead to more material jetting solutions, which is surely the next stage in 3D printing.

As well as new hardware there’s also bound to be an increase in cloud services as vendors look to gather more data from their customers and then sell this back to them complete with further analysis. Data will continue to become more important as more processes are digitised. We can also expect to see more automation, both mechanical such as through increased use of robotics as well as more process automation through software and artificial intelligence.

However, aside from the technology itself, the major question this year is will printers and other manufacturers want to invest in the midst of a recession? Some just won’t have a choice, having already deferred long overdue upgrades during the uncertainty of the pandemic. Others will see that investment in more efficient processes is necessary to cut running costs and survive long enough to outlast their competitors. 

Ultimately, for some people recessions create opportunities so the trick is to see where those opportunities lie. As the IMF’s Georgieva noted: “2023 will be a difficult year for the world. The silver lining is we can use it to transform economies and accelerate change that’s good for our climate, good for growth.”

In the past, too many people have worried about whether or not they could afford to invest in environmentally friendly solutions. But the question now is, can we afford not to? At the very least, every vendor is going to have to be more careful about how they use their raw materials and every manufacturer should be looking to cut down on waste to save money. That also means rethinking long supply lines that snake around the world, which makes for unnecessary transport pollution and has lead to human rights abuses plus, thanks to the pandemic and the Ukraine war, we have a new-found understanding of the strategic vulnerabilities this creates for both countries and manufacturers.

New Year, new resolutions

A new year comes with New Year resolutions, the promises that we make to ourselves to do better this year than last. For me, the last year was full of personal problems and long running health issues coming to a head in a way that compromised my ability to write all the stories that I would have liked to have written. I’m still recovering – that’s a story in itself – but my main resolution for this year is to get back to work fully, which should lead both to a lot more stories and to a wider range of subjects here on Printing and Manufacturing Journal

Unfortunately, the other half of my work – writing stories for magazines on a freelance basis – which is the bit that used to earn my main income before the pandemic, is still subject to my continuing recovery. So while I’m expecting to be able to take on more work this year, I’m also hoping to expand the content licensing aspect of this site and would be interested to hear from any other publishers that might want to reuse content from Printing and Manufacturing Journal – which should offer a cost-effective way of covering a wide range of stories.

At this point I also want to thank all the people who have made donations in support of my work, and who have helped me to make it through the disruption of the pandemic. It’s made it possible for me to take an unbiased and purely journalistic approach to these stories and that’s obviously resonated with readers. It is quite humbling to find that my work has found readers around the world and I hope that this site has proved of value to you all.

In the meantime, regular readers will have noticed that I’ve updated the design of Printing and Manufacturing Journal. It’s not been practical to test how this works on all platforms and devices so I would like to hear from anyone who is having any problems reading the site following this redesign or any suggestions on ways that it can be improved. For now the site is only available in English as the translation plugin that I used previously does not work with the new system and I’m still looking for an alternative.

Otherwise my intention is to take advantage of the easing of travel restrictions and to get around more and to meet with more people. In the end, even though manufacturing technology continues to fascinate me, it’s people that make it all work and we lose something of ourselves if we forget this.

Happy New Year!


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