PRINTING United Digital Experience Takes a Closer Look at Industrial Printing
Day 13 of the PRINTING United Digital Experience was focused on Industrial Printing. To go back and view all of the content from the entire event — including the sessions touched on here — visit digital.printingunited.com for educational panels and keynote addresses, on-demand content, white papers, new products, and more. The content will all be available online through the end of January 2021. You can also download all of the supplementary guides for each day of the event here.
What is Industrial Printing?
Industrial Day opened with an overview of the segment from Andrew Paparozzi, chief economist, PRINTING United Alliance. He set the stage for where the market is today, and the current business conditions.
In particular, functional/industrial printers right now are building competitive advantage in a few ways, with implementing lean manufacturing and continuous improvement at the top of the list, followed by reducing operating costs and adding new product lines. Interestingly, investing in staff training and employee appreciation efforts also made the list.
“At least in the minds of the industrial printers we surveyed,” said Paparozzi, “competitive advantage is not simply about investing in technology — as important as that is — it’s also about investing in our people.”
On the product side, decals and labels, industrial parts, instrumentation dials and overlays, and medical devices were the top categories offered by most shops that identify as functional printers, with a wide range of additional services making the expanded list as well. When asked what they would like to add, 3D printing topped the list with 23.8% noting it was something they are looking in to — no other single product was cited by more than 5% of respondents. In terms of growth, Paparozzi sees these same four as remaining strong, with plenty of opportunity still out there.
Post COVID-19, he noted, consolidation is likely to ramp up, and diversification will be more necessary than ever for those who survive as the impact of the pandemic is fully realized. That does mean a diversification of the products offered of course, but Paparozzi noted that it also means a diversification into other print categories, with nearly 40% citing the graphics and signage space, in particular, as an area they are looking to move into.
Paparozzi was followed by industrial printing consultant Ray Greenwood, to take a closer look at what, exactly, the term “industrial printing” really means. Right now, he noted, the functional and industrial print space is roughly a $1.45 trillion space, with a wide range of categories included within that number. A few highlights:
- Printed circuit boards — $89.7 billion
- Medical device manufacturing — $160.8 billion
- Automotive electronic applications — $248 billion
- Global consumer appliances — $839 billion
And that is just a small slice of the industries and applications where industrial print plays a major role in the function of the final product. “It’s pretty safe to say that wherever a hard product, or a functional product is manufactured,” said Greenwood, “printing has some involvement in it.”
A few examples of the types of applications printed under the industrial/functional banner include:
- Hard Surface Products — appliances, machine parts, tools
- Transportation (automotive, aerospace, rail, maritime) — electronics, printed parts, sensors, instruments, controls
- Medical devices — sensors, electrodes, circuits, control panels, drug delivery systems
- Consumer products — cellular circuits, displays, graphics, antennas, novelties
- Deposition printing — batteries, reactive chemical/biological devices, bio-sensors
He went on to use an example of a consumer washing machine to illustrate how much is printed. Everything from the logo, to the in-mold knobs and buttons, to the printed overlays, to the circuit boards, to the insulation are all produced using industrial printing methodologies, Greenwood said. And in addition to printing, they also use other processes that printers will be very familiar with: diecutting, metal stamping, laser cutting, and thermoforming, just to name a few.
What that means to printers used to more conventional purposes of “ink on paper,” is that the opportunities are out there, and are near limitless. In face, Greenwood noted, while most of these are produced in-house by these manufacturing operations today, the reality is that commercial printers have both the technology and expertise to actually be a better, faster, and less expensive option.
The difference, however, is that industrial print has to actually function, and in many cases transfer electrons — not just look great. So the tolerances are tighter, and the margin for error far slimmer. It might look great to the naked eye, but for industrial printing, it also has to work.
“The takeaway is that there are technical needs in the industrial printing industry that are going to be difficult to meet without experience and knowledge. And there are existing technologies widely used in other segments of the print industry that can meet those needs,” said Greenwood.
Moving Into Industrial
It might seem like a tall order for a commercial or screen printer to move into the industrial space, but it has been done before, and others can learn from those examples. Steve Duccilli, VP and brand director, Wide-Format and Industrial Printing, NAPCO Media, sat down with two such shops to learn more about why they added this service to their operation, how they made it happen, and what they learned along the way.
James Lee, director, Innovation Solutions Group, Jones Healthcare Group, noted that his company, which produces packaging for a wide range of pharmaceutical companies, among others, got into industrial printing through printed electronics, which in turn drives “smart packaging.”
“Eight years ago is when this all started,” Lee said, “and we wondered, what does a package do? It preserves, it protects, and it provides information. But then [we asked] how do we make it smart? How do we expand its feature set? We wanted to look at how can we do things like provide track and trace information, that’s really important in the pharmaceutical industry. We wanted to figure out how to engage consumers and patients in a more dynamic way. A lot of the products we make packages for, they’re very complicated and require lots of instructional use. So how do we do that?”
The answer was to learn more about printed electronics, and printing the components into the packages themselves, rather than embedding a component built elsewhere, or with another technology. The company joined a Canadian consortium on printed electronics, because, Lee said, they lacked the knowledge to design electronic products, the materials to facilitate electronics, or the equipment to manufacture actual electronics. However, on the flip side, they already had the knowledge of how to “depose materials onto the substrate” (which is the industrial way of saying “printing”), how to manufacture packaging at high speeds and volumes, and that there was a market for this type of combined product that wasn’t being met by anyone else yet. “So, we also brought something to the table,” he noted.
The company started small, with a single silver-printed circuit on plastic, and then moved up to a more complex version, and then had to figure out how to scale it up — and figure out how to print it all on paper, instead of plastic. It took a lot of trial and error, producing prototypes, and even modifying a press to better handle the substrates and reactive inks necessary for the process, but by 2018, he noted, they had a working blister pack for the pharmaceutical industry that had the electronics printed right into the final design.
“But just so everyone is clear,” Lee said, “this is not like we can process on a piece of paper. We can’t make logic processes or anything like that — we’re not printing computers. We’re printing basic electronic products.”
He was followed by Craig Miller, owner of Pictographics, who started as a wide-format printer, who has “always enjoyed getting there first,” he said, noting that throughout the company’s entire history, the family-owned business has always been one of the first to try new technologies, serving as the beta site for many new innovations and pieces of equipment through the years.
For him, the entrance into industrial print was through 3D print technologies. He had seen 3D equipment at a trade show, took some samples to his customers to see if it was something they would be interested in purchasing from him, and then talked his wife and daughter — his business partners — into making the multi-million dollar investment to make the leap from large-format printing to something entirely different.
“Technology basically opens opportunity,” said Miller. “Instead of doing all these ‘onesies’ and doing each one custom, we can do hundreds of parts at a time, and right now with our current technology, we can be competitive up to maybe 10,000 finished parts, depending on the size and the complexity.”
Part of the benefit of printing parts, instead of manufacturing them, he continued, is that the final piece is a working part, with hinges and other moving elements that don’t need any assembly — they are printed and come out as the final finished piece, which saves time, labor, and money for the companies he prints them for.
Another benefit is that “additive manufacturing is agnostic — it doesn’t care what you print.” Clients can come to him with a problem, such as need to adapt one part to work with another, and it doesn’t matter if that things currently exists — he has an industrial designer on staff that can build a brand new concept in CAD and invent the needed part to solve whatever the issue may be.
He agreed with Lee that “it’s not an easy transition,” and there is a lot to learn to get into this space. As these two companies have shown, it’s not an impossible feat, but it does require a willingness to learn new processes, new technologies, and make investments into the pieces a printer wouldn’t traditionally have on the shop floor. But it can be done — and these two are perfect examples of how industrial printing can be a successful move for some commercial and wide-format printers.
Barriers to Entry
Duccilli followed that panel with a second one, joined by Debbie Thorp, business development director for Global Inkjet Systems; and Stephanie Lerette, account manager for Fujifilm Dimatix, to talk about the barriers that have prevented inkjet adoption in the industrial space, and why there is hope that it is changing.
Part of the problem is that this segment is still very fragmented — like wide-format in its earliest days, the printhead technology, electronics, software, ink technologies, and more — all from different OEMS and providers — have to “come together and be optimized,” said Lerette. That means that each market — and even each customer within a market — might have unique needs and challenges.
Where does inkjet come in? One of the few spaces that has seen adoption of the technology in the industrial space is in ceramic tile decoration. There was an undeniable business case for this market to embrace digital, allowing manufacturers to produce pieces on demand, instead of needing to stock massive amounts of inventory, as well as being able to produce additional runs of tiles that matches the colors correctly — how many of us, Lerette asked, have been in a shower and noticed one tile that was slightly off? Digital allows perfect color matching, from the first run to the last, which is why this segment welcomed it when other industrial markets have been slow to adopt.
“What we’re finding is that where we had a very fast, rapid growth in ceramics,” said Thorp, “we haven’t seen that in some of the other technologies. We get very excited about things like printing on tubes — and developments in that started about 10 years ago — but for those big production machines, it’s really only in the past couple of years that we’re beginning to see penetration. We’re actually seeing more adoption at the low end, promotional goods. And that wasn’t the original vision — the original vision was ‘let’s take inkjet and replace screen.’”
So, what, then, is the next major industrial market that inkjet will have a meaningful impact on? Thorp noted that if someone has a crystal ball and can tell her that with certainty, please let her know — there are just too many factors in play to make a strong prediction. That said, she believes there is an “awful lot of hidden inkjet” out there, with companies looking to keep their IP in-house, which means figuring out how to use the equipment, and investing time and money into the process that no one is willing to talk about.
Lerette noted that she doesn’t believe the space will see another full conversion like ceramic tile has experienced. “Inkjet would have to bring something so tremendous to the table that you see this overarching need to switch,” she said. However, there are a few markets where she sees it starting to make some in-roads, even if it’s not a full conversion, the biggest of which is textiles, which have many of the same pressures and trends that originally drove ceramic tiles to convert. The second big industrial space where she sees inkjet making strides is packaging, specifically corrugated and flexible packaging, where inkjet can bring more efficiencies, late-stage customization, and shorter runs that give brands more flexibility.
The Interior Décor Opportunity
To round out the day, Denise M. Gustavson, editorial director, Print and Packaging, NAPCO Media, took a look at one of the fastest-growing industrial opportunities: interior décor. With work-from-home at an all time high — with no signs of letting up, as the pandemic continues to maintain its grip worldwide — and businesses using this opportunity to renovate while buildings sit empty, the custom décor space has exploded. But what are the true opportunities beyond just printing wallpaper?
Gustavson was joined by two print service providers (PSPs) who have made inroads into this segment of industrial printing: Aaron Kirsh, president, Astek Wallcovering; and Ryan Lombard, managing partner, PCI Graphics.
While wallpaper is undeniably the primary application in this space, but the reality is that there are opportunities from “floor to ceiling,” said Lombard. That can include floor coverings, floor tiles, printed ceiling tiles, textiles, cut logos, silicone edge graphics, window graphics, tabletops, and more. In other words, there isn’t a surface in an interior space that can’t be printed on by a creative PSP.
Kirsh noted that fabrics are big, especially for upholstery projects, with demand strong for window graphics as well. And it’s not a small subset of projects, either — he noted that they’ve worked with everyone from HGTV re-creating the fabrics used in the Brady Bunch television show as the network renovated the house, to high-end residential requests from people working at home looking to improve their own spaces, to the traditional commercial requests of businesses seeking to create inviting and eye-catching interior spaces.
So, what’s holding this market segment back? Surprisingly, one big one that Kirsh noted is freight costs — the cost to get the finished products to the consumers has seen spikes, especially in a post-COVID world, which in turn can make getting custom décor pieces less attractive for many.
For Lombard, one of the biggest obstacles has been the limited access that COVID has created, especially to spaces. “A lot of spaces we used to be able to just walk into are now limited access,” he said, “we’re having to get somebody to meet us at a venue, escort us in to a space — we never would have had to deal with that before — and of course the distancing requirements the day of install.” At the end of the day, he noted, his people have just adapted to the hurdles, and have found ways to keep working in this new normal.
Looking forward, how this market will evolve is still somewhat hard to predict, given the volatility of the past year, and the fact that there isn’t much of an end in sight. The general thought is that by mid 2021, things will start to see real improvement, and the markets will pick back up. The extended break has re-focused thoughts about spaces, how spaces are used, and what they should look and feel like. As the economy improves and budgets return, it is a good bet that interior spaces will only continue to be re-imagined into more welcoming, engaging environments, which is opportunity for every PSP targeting this market.
Industrial printing is not a market that can be casually entered, but for those willing to invest the time and money into learning how to approach it, and into the equipment to best serve it, industrial printing can be a very lucrative business. These panels provided just a glimpse into some of the opportunities and challenges. To view the full sessions in their entirety, visit digital.printingunited.com.