Agfa Graphics' Tom Cloots Discusses the Industrial Printing Segment
MORTSEL, BELGIUM—March 5, 2014—Today’s manufacturing industry has developed a preference for additive processes—think of 3-D printing, a topic of preference in almost every industrial trade magazine. 3-D printing already finds its application in the distributed manufacturing of specialty products, otherwise cut out, lathed from, or assembled with bulk raw material shipped to remote manufacturing plants.
However, the use of print technologies borrowed from the graphic arts industry already started many years ago in industrial areas with e.g. fiberboard decorations that could mimic wood textures to produce furniture appliances that looked like real wood for half the price. And whereas the traditional printing industry is increasingly challenged by electronic delivery and online availability of information, this new industrial printing market is not. Today’s estimates of the print value market size differs on the source used but is ranging from 40 to 80 billion Euro’s. All sources however do concur that a future potential of 100 billion Euro and above is well within reach. The reason is obvious: the market growth of industrial printing is not determined by the demand of information, but by the increasing number of consumers for utility products and appliances.
Industrial printing applications are indeed widespread and involve all situations whereby one or more printing steps are integrated in the manufacturing process and thereby contribute to the functionality of the end product. Gravure, flexography and screen printing are the prevailing technologies today but will be replaced by digital if this can reduce the overall cost of the process and/or provide more application possibilities. Of all digital technologies UV inkjet has the highest potential to meet these conditions.
One example are the sign and display and label printing markets where inkjet technology stands for a huge saving potential by virtue of its faster job completion and the good adhesion of UV inks to difficult substrates. Since UV inks cure immediately and remain on top of porous substrates, up to 30 percent savings in ink consumption can be achieved. In this application Agfa Graphics’ UV inkjet formulations are characterized by a high color gamut and available in CMYK with special light colors, including white, varnish and if needed a primer that can equally be applied by inkjet.
Perhaps the most typical industrial printing application is that of product decoration, either for functional or cosmetic purposes. Examples are office and kitchen furniture items made of fiberboard covered with melamine-impregnated paper and a protective layer before being pressed together at high temperature. Typically the paper will be gravure printed with the desired texture and supplied by third parties in large quantities of 50,000 square meter or more. Inroads from UV inkjet technology may come from the need of smaller run lengths or ultimately the desire of the furniture manufacturer to incorporate the printing into his manufacturing process and to print directly on the fiberboard.
Just as on fiberboard, inkjet can also be applied directly onto other industrial surfaces like e.g. tiles, textiles, electronics, consumer objects or even glass and plastic containers. As to the latter, the capability of orienting the printheads in a horizontal position and the rapid UV LED curing allows the print process to be completely integrated in the automated production line of packaging products like for example butter containers, tubes or even bottles.
Expanding these possibilities of UV inkjet, backed up by the customized UV ink formulation know how of Agfa Graphics you may soon find similar industrial printing applications used on your kitchen appliances, windows, the dashboard of your car and other mass utility products.
This survey of industrial printing would be incomplete without also mentioning marking and coding applications, as well as the use of “smart” inks.
Marking and coding goes hand in hand with the automation of industrial processes (tracking products along the production line or at the warehouse) and also with the increasing necessity to add legal information (expiration date, safety code) on the products. This is where UV inkjet is already the vested application with Agfa Graphics providing high-density neutral black inks with curing speeds of more than 100 meter per minute on coated and non-coated stock, as well as on plastics.
Future oriented is the industrial printing sub-segment of functional inks. Here we are talking about ‘printed’ electronics applications such as human-machine interfaces (touch surfaces, keyboards,…), smart sensors or packaging (RF-ID and NFC antennas) and other products based on the deposition of thin layers of conductive material on rigid and flexible substrates. Our experience in the field of conductive polymers and Ag particle technology puts Agfa also in the driver seat for the development of so called smart inks. In this class of industrial printing applications it is clear to everyone that the most important system component is the ink formulation.
In all other industrial printing applications, previously discussed, inkjet formulations are of the same importance, yet hardly recognized as such.