Functional printing is growing in relevance for more traditional spaces such as apparel and packaging, and during a session at PRINTING United Expo, which took place Oct. 18-20, in Atlanta, Georgia, panelists discussed the changes it is bringing, such as the transformation of the printed product and the opportunities being presented for market differentiation.
Adam Peek, senior vice president of sales at Meyers Printing; and Michael Wagner, chief innovation officer at Butler Technologies; provided insight during the session entitled “Printing’s Role in Increased Product Functionality,” which was moderated by Dan Marx, senior content editor at PRINTING United Alliance.
Both Meyers Printing, primarily a packaging printer, and Butler Technologies, a printer and solutions provider, see functional printing as a way to solve problems.
Peek explained, “A silver ink company reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, you have a press I think would be really good for this one application. By the way, here's how many millions of dollars it's going to be.’ And the owner, who I report to, said, ‘Let's give it a shot.’ That was kind of what got us in — having an attitude of, well, there's a problem. It's sort of like Vanilla Ice. He said, ‘If there was a problem, yo, I'll solve it.’”
Even though functional printing is a solution for many situations, the technology used can vary. For example, Butler Technologies primarily uses flatbed technology because it needs to lay down heavy ink depositions in one pass, and because some of the products can be quite large.
“We have some very large-format screen presses, and they're able to hold pretty tight deposition, plus or minus one micron,” Wagner said. “That's also very critical when you're trying to print functional inks — making sure that resistance is consistent across the sheet.”
On the other hand, Meyers Printing uses a roll-to-roll flexo printer because they have two applications with millions of parts that don’t require as dense an ink deposition as Butler Technologies’ jobs require.
Notably, both Peek and Wagner touched on the opportunity for digital printing to enter the field.
“You'll see on the floor single pass digital printing for graphics,” Wagner said. “When that happens for conductors, if it ever does, then that will change the game for screen printing and functional banks.”
For CPGs specifically, Peek highlighted that RFID tags are being used mainly for customer convenience — think how fast ecommerce companies like Amazon deliver packages — and inventory tracking. And the use of this tech is growing, he said.
But other types of packaged goods utilize functional printing in a more interactive way. For example, the 19 Crimes wine label and LEGO have used augmented reality to get customers engaged.
“But I've actually seen the NFC technology take a backseat in terms of packaging to QR codes,” Peek said, “because QR codes were this annoying thing, and then we had COVID and everybody became aware of QR codes. And now it's way easier to just put a QR code [on it] to have it do the same thing.”
According to Wagner, functional printing for apparel must meet high standards in terms of durability, since it might be used for anything ranging from professional sports like the NFL, to healthcare settings, to the military.
Another thing the panel pointed out was that you don’t necessarily have to buy a brand-new machine to get into functional printing.
“It depends on what appetite you have for capital equipment investment,” Wagner said. “As we grow in certain product lines, we may have a strategic partner that handles a part when we don't have a piece of equipment. And then when the business builds, we can support buying pieces of equipment and bring them in-house.”
In terms of the future of functional printing, there’s a lot of opportunity in medical monitoring.
“A lot of people don't like that, they don't want ‘the man’ monitoring them,” said Wagner. “But it's in your best interest to be able to have somebody that's an expert in medicine know if you're exercising properly or if you're about to have a stroke or a heart attack.”