Opportunities in Surface Decorating
Screen printers were the original “specialty printers” because they could print on almost any surface or object imaginable, from textiles, apparel, and wallcoverings to industrial parts, promotional products, art canvas, tableware, glass bottles, and metal. That’s because the screens could be made to handle whatever ink formulation was required to adhere to the surface being decorated with text, images, or patterns.
Now, advances in digital printing inks and equipment are ushering in new specialty printing opportunities for wide-format graphics print businesses – particularly for surfaces used in interior design and décor.
Industrial Inkjet Printers for Surface Decorating
Most print service providers (PSPs) can use their existing UV or dye-sublimation printers to custom-decorate wood, metal, glass, and composite materials used for floors, walls, and ceilings. But it’s not always practical to switch from one type of material to another because UV inks typically need a primer to ensure good adhesion to glass or metal. Additionally, transferring printed images to large rigid wall panels requires a large-format flatbed heat press.
In recent years, digital printing equipment manufacturers have stepped up the development of special-purpose inks and printers for larger-volume runs of specific types of decorated surfaces.
For example, each device in EFI’s Cubik line of single-pass industrial printers is designed to use a different inkset, depending on the surface being decorated. The Cubik printer designed to stain planks of hardwood for floors or furniture uses mineral inks that integrate with the wood. An EFI Cubik printer to decorate composite cement fiber boards, roof tiles, and concrete for construction projects will use a different set of mineral inks. Sublimation inks will be used in the EFI Cubik printer that decorates polymer-based building materials. And a Cubik printer that can decorate plates and dishes uses ceramic inks.
Agfa has launched an InterioJet printer that uses water-based pigment inks to print rolls of décor paper for lamination to materials used to make floors, furniture, and panels. The Russia-based firm Slotex uses the InterioJet to complement the gravure printing process used to print tons of décor paper for furniture manufacturing, interior decor, public transportation, car assembly, and shipbuilding.
Durst uses a proprietary RockJet printhead in its Gamma DG series of ceramic-tile printers that can eject the larger particles used in ceramic glazes. The Gamma D series can not only print decorative color images, but also vary the thickness of the glaze layer to add visual or tactile effects.
swissQprint, which makes high-end printers for graphics, art, décor, packaging, and industrial applications, now offers a high-adhesion G ink series for businesses that want to use a Nyala printer to print exclusively on flat glass or metal surfaces. The air-cushion function on the flatbed printer’s vacuum enables operators to precisely position heavy glass panels up to 3x4 meters without having to apply force. For consistent banding-free quality output, swissQprint LED lamps can be controlled by segment to ensure targeted curing. The swissQprint registration pins ensure high-precision registration for one-sided and two-sided surface decoration.
Enter the Architectural Glass and Metal Markets
The potential demand for decorated glass is high. According to research by Global Market Insights Inc., the value of the architectural flat-glass market is anticipated to reach $230 billion by 2032. Decoral Systems uses the proprietary sublimation process they developed in the 1990s to powder-coat and decorate metals used in building construction. First, aluminum sheets or window profiles are powder coated for durability. Then they are decorated using a heat-transfer film printed with specialized inks.
According to Richard Dettman, sales director of the Decoral subsidiary Duraluxe, “People would be surprised to learn how many sublimated metals are already used in buildings throughout the world.”
Metals decorated with Decoral’s sublimation process are widely used in building facades, decking, ceilings, floors, backsplashes, partition walls, and street furniture.
So why does that matter? As more industrial inkjet systems are purchased and used to decorate building materials, architects and designers are steadily learning more about the creative possibilities for digitally decorating all types of interior and exterior building surfaces.
Here are some examples of how PSPs are benefiting.
Permanent Installations in Office Designs
ER2 Image Group is a family-owned grand-format printing company near Chicago that has been in business for
about 35 years. Its 80+ employees produce banners, soft signage, murals, wallcoverings, and environmental graphics.
In 2019, ER2 added an Applied Surfaces team to work primarily with large, global architectural firms during the design, construction, and remodeling of office buildings. “At ER2 I have put together a team of people with skills in project management, engineering, and creative services,” explains Jason Dillas, managing director, Applied Surfaces. With their knowledge of how to create emotional connections to a space, ER2’s Applied Surfaces Division helps companies attract remote employees back to the office by enabling them to see the office space as more of a destination than an obligation.
Dillas previously worked for a textile design company that utilized various PSPs to execute large interior design projects. He conceived the idea to start a surface decorating and fabrication division at ER2 because he knew the family that owned the business.
"When an architecture firm brings us into the project, we will work with the construction company and their team," explains Dillas. “Once it moves from the design phase into full-blown production, we work hand-in-hand with the general contractor on the build.”
A willingness to test unorthodox materials is essential, because many innovative composite building materials are being developed to help architects reduce the environmental impact of their projects.
“A lot of architectural design firms that we deal with are looking to us to help spec certain materials, certain applications, and certain build methods,” confirms Dillas. “In some cases, we do a ton of product development work.” The goal is to help clients tell the story of space with elements built in the most sustainable way.
“We are always testing and working with new materials that some might not consider to be printable,” says Dillas. Sometimes this means pushing the limits of what specific printing devices were designed to do.
One recent project for the Gensler architecture firm involved transforming the headquarters of Uber Freight and the regional headquarters for Uber Eats and Uber Rides. The offices occupy about 450,000 sq. ft. in the iconic 100+ year-old Post Office Building in Chicago. Fabricated elements for the Uber Freight space included:
- A mural wall of 1,800 truck mirrors installed at different angles.
- Meeting spaces constructed with airport terminal or shipping-container themes.
- A large steel cylinder lined with hand-bent custom neon signage suspended above a staircase.
- A moiré feature wall that mounted 11 ft.-high perforated aluminum panels over circles of neon vinyl to create the illusion of movement as people walk past it.
- A multi-section, dimensional wall mural with a pattern of raised, interwoven parallel lines.
“The Uber project pushed the field of environmental graphics forward because it included one-of-one builds that we weren’t even sure would be possible,” says Dillas.
“We went through everything you can imagine in a project of this scale,” recalls Gary Schellerer, VP and partner of the ER2 Image Group. First, the original two-year timeframe for the project was compressed to one year after the COVID lockdowns. Second, the build involved a complex mix of vastly different textures and materials.
Working for clients from architectural firms is different than serving marketing clients that are segmented into niches such as retail, events, or experiential activations, Dillas says. For one thing, the projects differ in terms of design, engineering, and execution.
“Architectural design and marketing are completely different mindsets. Architecture is a slow burn,” he explains. “It’s not about getting it printed and out the door as quickly as possible. There’s a very high level of quality that’s involved. So, you need people who ensure the quality.”
“ER2 has always been open to challenges,” says Schellerer. “Our people have always had the ability and flexibility to figure out how to execute whatever type of application a customer requested.
“We don’t have any equipment that other grand-format PSPs don’t already have,” continues Schellerer. “But we do have the people with the knowledge to execute projects from start to finish.”
Many members of the staff have been with ER2 for 12 years or more. “They have the spirit, heart, and experience to bring projects together,” he says.
Thanks to word-of-mouth referrals from the staff of the big architecture firms, the ER2 Image Group gets a steady stream of new business through the Applied Surfaces Division. “We’re not just executing projects here locally,” says Schellerer. “Inquiries for work come from national and international projects."
Customized Building Materials
Today, many floors, walls, and surfaces in recently built hotels, restaurants, and apartment complexes are made with panels of engineered composite materials that have been digitally printed to resemble wood, marble, or concrete surfaces.
Composite materials that look like wood are popular because they don’t require harvesting trees and are naturally more resistant to scratches and water damage. A clear varnish or glaze can add a grain-like texture.
Forbo Flooring, a global flooring manufacturer, offers Marmoleum planks and tiles made from 97% natural materials in a carbon-neutral process. The surfaces can be digitally printed to resemble wood, marble, or concrete and are finished with a UV-cured protective coating.
The team of engineers and surface designers in the Wood-Skin division of Carnegie Fabrics in Milan, Italy, has developed and patented digital manufacturing processes that make rigid surfaces more flexible and enable flat materials to acquire
“The goal is to help architects and designers bridge the gap between digital representation and architectural feasibility,” explains Wood-Skin marketing manager Anna Bortolino. The company’s surface designers rely on digital printing experts to customize the look of each surface to match the client’s requests.
Duraluxe uses Decoral’s patented powder-coated sublimation process to offer aluminum sublimation panels that PSPs can use to make indoor and outdoor-durable sublimation metal prints for backsplashes, shower walls, flooring, outdoor wayfinding signs, and photo gifts.
The panels are available in eight surface finishes, including three types of textured surfaces. Bendable panels can be printed flat, then folded along pre-scored lines to make metal gallery-wrap-like prints without stretcher bars.
Regler Glasdruk, a spin-off from the Regler GmbH graphics-printing company in Germany, uses swissQprint’s high-adhesion inks for glass and metal on a Nyala printer to create custom glass backsplashes, doors, partitions, panels, and interior trims for customers in the construction sector.
In a swissQprint blog case study, company president Yul Regler noted glass is a fascinating building material but is also very challenging to print. He adds that color management is complicated and glass printing requires a high level of quality. “The prints must have no streaks whatsoever,” he says.
According to Erik Norman, president of swissQprint, a Nyala printer with the glass-printing option will soon be in use by a glass-manufacturer in Florida.
Consumer Goods: Décor, Photo Gifts, and More
You don’t need to be a full-service print provider to tap into the growing markets for digitally decorated wood, glass, metals, acrylics, or composites. With the right mix of printing and finishing equipment and e-commerce capabilities, entrepreneurs can produce and market a variety of products directly to consumers.
For example, MetalPrints.com offers photo products made on sublimated metal panels. On its e-commerce site, customers can order framed or unframed metal prints for display on walls or tabletops. Buyers can order prints on aluminum with a white or sheer finish in high-gloss, satin, or textured finishes.
Pretty in Polka Dots designs and sells decorative art and gifts printed on wood surfaces. It uses a Roland DG LEF-20 benchtop UV-LED flatbed printer to decorate and personalize its products.
At ISA Sign Expo 2023, Roland DGA introduced its new VERSAObject line of UV-LED printers that will make it easier for more types and sizes of businesses to get into decorating a variety of flat, concave, and dimensional objects up to 7.87" in height.
The inks, primers, and varnishes can be used in different combinations and layers to create smooth or textured surfaces on materials such as leather, wood, metal, glass, boards, and acrylics.
Bottom line: As the markets for signs and displays become more competitive, wide-format PSPs can continue to explore new opportunities in specialty printing. The time to get creative is now!
Eileen Fritsch is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist who has covered the evolution of wide-format digital printing for more than 20 years. Contact her at email@example.com.