The Growing Pains That Industrial Inkjet Is Going Through
Throughout 2016 InPrint Show ran a number of surveys, panels and seminar sessions with the aim of sharing insight with the inkjet and manufacturing community to promote growth in industrial printing.
What is clear from all of the information, the speed of growth within industrial printing is fast outpacing other traditional print segments. For example, results from the recent InPrint Décor Survey suggest that growth is expected to be well over 10% with many (nearly 40%) believing growth to be in excess of 15% per annum. The industry is busy and buoyant, however there remains challenges for technology and commercial development, because where there is growth, there are bound to be growing pains.
Mergers and Acquisitions Indicate Market in Development
2016 saw a plethora of mergers and acquisitions particularly within the industrial inkjet segment, suggesting a market that is growing but in a state of change, requiring support and resources to sustain healthy growth. This is likely to continue. It proves a point that larger, more established companies see the potential in industrial inkjet printing, and they want to be part of this growth market and it also underlines that companies that are innovative tend to be smaller and entrepreneurial. In particular for integration, these entrepreneurial skill sets are important in order to solve complex technical and commercial problems for end-user customers.
Integrating Inkjet isn’t Easy or Fast
When in discussion with end users who are attempting to integrate inkjet into their production, it seems that integration of inkjet is considerably harder and takes longer than they had imagined at the start.
The problem is that ‘digital’ generally challenges sectors that have heavily invested in analog technology over many years and therefore tend to have a conservative culture that is resistant to change. Added to this, many view digital as a replacement technology and mistakenly believe that conversion will therefore be easy and fast. This is down to the image that ‘digital’ has attained in that it permeates everyday life, and generally makes life easier. This makes it a challenge for the integrator who has to manage expectations by informing and educating the customer, whilst overcoming technical challenges and making a profit!
More Collaboration Required for Continued Growth
The industrial sector is challenging industrial inkjet and printing in general to meet difficult technical demands. Therefore collaboration is essential in order for effective integration. Respondents to our surveys and in our discussions felt that this is a key industry issue. They all felt that all parts of the supply chain should openly and that failure to do so only slows digital conversion and growth. There are two broad approaches to integrating digital inkjet — a closed system where the end user works with one supplier who could perhaps provide an end to end solution or the end user will work with a number of different suppliers but with one company responsible for integration.
Bridging a Knowledge Gap
The fact is that there is a knowledge and skills gap and as industrial print continues to grow, this gap is more likely to widen. This is in some part a natural result of a fast evolving market and that the structure of the market is not fully formed. Where there is not a structured market, there are very few well established channels to sell to customers who have a clearly defined need. Customers may know that they want to invest in digital inkjet but they do not know how and with whom they should be working with.
Inks are a Key Issue
Linked to a need for greater collaboration, it was widely agreed in the surveys, panels and discussions, that engineering is driving innovation for new applications. This doesn’t mean ink manufacturers are not dynamic or innovative! However, speculatively creating a new ink without an engine to drive the ink is difficult. The challenge for ink manufacturers is therefore to respond quickly to demand or strike up strategic partnerships with OEM’s to make inks for evolving applications. Better communication and collaboration and a more open approach would likely help matters!
Flexibility is Compelling
It seems regardless of the application type and manufacturing industry, it is flexibility that inkjet provides production which is deemed to be more compelling for production than personalization or customization. In an InPrint Webinar hosted last year, Ralf Ehrlich of PAS was one of the panelists. PAS prints onto home appliances with customers such as Bosch, and in the past five years they have developed digital inkjet production. They have found that whilst the capability for customization is there, this has not driven increased demand for inkjet printed white goods. The value of digital is the flexibility that inkjet has added to production in that they can run multiple jobs per day which adds competitiveness, speed to market and variability.
Economic Benefit Crucial to Speed of Adoption
Building upon the previous point of flexibility one step further, all respondents and interviewees think that if a clear economic benefit exists, particularly in the short term, then change and digital conversion will be quicker. Many discussions highlighted the ceramics industry inkjet revolution. Most of the market is waiting to see which application sector will experience the next inkjet revolution. In my opinion, ceramics is an outlier in that in there were a unique set of circumstances at play within the ceramics (that are too numerous and lengthy to mention here) that came into play that are not likely to materialize in other sectors in exactly the same way.
More Entrepreneurs Required to Accelerate Adoption
For the developing community, whilst technical knowledge is really important for effective integration of inkjet, it is most effective when knowledge is accessible to the entire supply chain. Whilst the technical challenges are not inconsequential, the developing community would also benefit with a greater number of entrepreneurial individuals to help connect opportunity, creating new value and convincing customers to take a commercial risk on inkjet. Leadership is required and people who can build teams, inspire customers and attract investment are crucial. This is particularly important for effective integration.
Top Secret! NDA's are Holding Back Progress
Lastly, a ‘bugbear’ of mine in particular is that industrial inkjet is awash with NDA’s which prevents the sharing of success that would help to grow the market. From a communication perspective, how do you convince customers to try something new when you have no tangible proof of success that can be shared with them? Of course you can share information without being specific, but I am not convinced this is overly compelling. Of course, it is understandable that customers want confidentiality but this is surely holding back progress? Solving this problem would add value and accelerate adoption as “success attracts success” and this builds confidence and trust.
Frazer Chesterman is one of the Co-Founders of InPrint. Working closely with his colleague Marcus Timson they together have spearheaded the development of three exhibitions in the Industrial Print segment – InPrint Germany, InPrint Italy and now InPrint USA.