Unlocking industrial printing for growth opportunities

Industrial printing has become ubiquitous in everyday printing as special print finishing effects are being used for more and more products: metals, ceramics and glass, floorings, furniture, wood, textiles as well as automotive components, motorcycle helmets and sports equipment. In an interview, Dr. Markus Heering, Managing Director of the German Association of Printing and Paper Technology, part of the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association VDMA, talks about the growth opportunities for press manufacturers in industrial printing, the technological challenges and the diversity of applications in this market. Dr. Heering, what distinguishes ‘industrial printing’ from commercial or packaging printing? Dr. Markus Heering: We talk about industrial printing when printing technology is integrated into industrial assembly lines and when printing materials may have more functions than just pure graphic design. Alongside windows and sunroofs, all kinds of different switches and surfaces in the interior of cars, planes, ships or yachts can be printed. If you look, for example, at the automotive industry, you can see this in components such as dashboards and radiator grills with special finishes. Even just these few examples illustrate the wide-ranging spectrum… Heering: … and they make up only a minute selection of the various applications. When you go on a skiing holiday, you see printed skis, snowboards and helmets. In the skateboarding park, you see printed skateboards. In ball sports, you have printed balls. In buildings there are printed curtains, bedding and floorings in the form of more and more custom-printed laminate or carpeting. Alongside all this, tiles, plates, cups, bowls and all kinds of other ceramic products are produced. These days nearly every second tile is produced using a printing process or given a special finishing effect using printing processes. Other applications are flat and hollow glassware and façade element surfaces. How does such an abundance of applications fit in with a printing technology that is often optimized for long print runs and short cycles? Heering: It all depends on the case in hand. In the field of printed electronics, in many applications a high added value is created, but volumes are hardly large enough to utilise a modern printing press to its full capacity. In the area of floor coverings, ceramics and in the glass industry it looks completely different. In the ceramics market alone, we are talking about an area to be printed annually, which is moving in the double-digit billions of square metres. In addition, industrial printing is gathering enormous pace in numerous other segments. This means there are opportunities here for press manufacturers to offer solutions with state-of-the-art technology, and, as such, to grow with the market. Can this growth be quantified? Heering: According to Smithers Pira forecasts, global turnover will rise to more than 100 billion US dollars by 2018, which would be a five-fold increase in market volume within 10 years and more than double the turnover in 2013. Market analyses foresee in some cases clear double-digit growth in all the application areas mentioned. Which printing processes are required for industrial printing? Heering: The majority of applications today require ink jet printing. Although pad printing, screen and flexo printing also play a role and in some cases digital printing and analogue processes are the perfect team. Manufacturers of floorings, textiles and ceramic products use the ink jet process to print new patterns in shorter runs to test the customer’s response. They can then print longer runs of especially popular designs rapidly and cost-effectively using analogue processes to meet the demand. When demand drops, they can then print the odd order here or there using ink jet again. Ink jet is also the method of choice for customising mass products. What are the technological challenges in industrial printing? Heering: Printing technology is often integrated in large assembly lines as a process step. On the one hand, high availability and reliability are crucial, which is why many manufacturers rely on long-standing, tried and tested analogue processes for which there is a wider range of materials available. On the other hand, interfaces need to be connected to increasingly networked, digital process chains as part of "Industrie 4.0". There are also the issues of further developing inks for presses and printers to ensure the necessary precision and functionality in such applications, the ability to guarantee accurate colour reproduction on all kinds of backgrounds and eliminate the migration of hazardous chemicals into food, toys or clothing. Does the German Association of Printing and Paper Technology of the VDMA support its members in addressing such issues? Heering: We have set up an ‘Industrial Printing’ task force to collectively explore these challenges and develop a research roadmap. On this basis, we can then plan specific projects for pre-competitive collaborative research. This means our members can jointly establish and research the fundamentals and use this groundwork to adapt their processes and products faster to market demands. http://dup.vdma.org