Commentary & Analysis
“Industrial Printing” Takes Center Stage at SGIA Expo 2017
What turned out to be the penultimate SGIA Expo featured an emphasis on “industrial printing”—a nebulous but increasingly common term for what mainstream printing may be morphing into.
By Richard Romano
Published: October 24, 2017
Now that the dust has settled from the announcement about Print United (né SGIA Expo), let’s have a look back at what has turned out to have been the penultimate SGIA Expo.
One of the most common things I am asked at these shows—by exhibitors, as well as other writers and analysts—is “what have you seen that’s exciting at the show?” As with most things, the answer to that will depend on what you specifically find exciting. As for what’s revolutionary, we’re in a technology lull between revolutions. Certainly there is no brand-new technology that will open up vast new markets and opportunities, such as, say, the advent of UV flatbed printing, or digital dye-sublimation. And this is kind of a good thing; everyone is still catching their breaths and getting up to speed on those revolutionary technologies. So what we have been seeing for the past few SGIA Expos has been more evolution that revolution, as manufacturers take the technologies they have—or acquire companies that have the technology they want—and fill out portfolios, make improvements in speed and automation, and otherwise tweak their offerings. That can include adding models in unaddressed market spaces, like entry-level or mid-range machines, or even adding a new class of printer. Mutoh, for example, is launching its first large UV flatbed, which was being previewed at the show.
Fujifilm was showcasing the newest entry in its Acuity line, the Acuity LED 3200R is a superwide 126-inch (3.2m) roll printer. Fujifilm was also showing, for the first time in the North American, the brand new Inca Spyder, a 126-inch, six-color-plus-white hybrid flatbed/roll-to-roll system. Then there was the also brand-new high-productivity Inca Onset X3, boasting a maximum throughput of nearly 10,000 square feet per hour. As a preview of things to come, perhaps, the Onset X3 features a robotic handling system, one way in which the drive for automation is spilling over into hardware as well as software.
If there is a new technology revolution looming on the horizon, it involves single-pass, which is itself not new (think Memjet and HP, among others, who have offered single-pass wide- and small-format equipment for years), but is certainly the Holy Grail in terms of being able to boost throughput. At a Fujifilm press conference at the SGIA Expo, John Mills, President of Inca Digital (which itself launched the first flatbed wide-format printer more than 15 years ago) offered a glimpse into the future by previewing Inca’s Jetliner 1600, a single-pass machine—initially designed to print on corrugated top sheet material—at a speed of 30,000 square meters an hour. It is slated to go into beta at the end of 2018 and hit the market some time in 2019.
This year’s Expo has been more about expanding into new markets; the blurred lines/convergence/etc. that drove the Print United decision are now of more importance than new machinery. It’s about enabling customers to use the machinery that exists to expand into new markets, so vendors are now conscious of the fact that they have to do more than just sell a printer and leave it at that. Offering some kind of business development program or training has become an essential part of wide-format equipment sales, so print customers aren’t thrown to the wolves.
One of those “new markets” is industrial printing. One big theme at this year’s show was “industrial printing,” although if you ask 10 people what industrial printing is you’ll get 10 different answers. Traditionally (if the word “traditionally” means anything at this point), industrial printing has referred to printing that is done as part of a larger manufacturing process; think of the graphics on your car’s dashboard; the gradations on, say, medical devices like syringes; control panels for washing machines, dryers, and dishwashers; or even those “do not remove under penalty of law” tags that have terrified mattress buyers for decades. Defined that way, industrial printing has very high barriers to entry; you have to integrate printing with an entire manufacturing process.
Digital printing has lowered some barriers to entry, but there is still that whole manufacturing process element to industrial printing, and while true “industrial printers” have been able to integrate inkjet technologies to produce things like customized and personalized automotive dashboards (Sammy Hagar could have a customized speedometer that has a big X through the number 55, for example) or custom-tailored appliance panels that blend more seamlessly into the overall room décor, but even so, these kinds of applications are still largely beyond the capabilities of the average commercial printer looking for new markets and opportunities.
So industrial printing as a term and as a market niche has evolved to account for smaller-scale applications.
Perhaps the best way of describing industrial printing vs. commercial printing is this: “In commercial printing, the print is itself the final product. A postcard. A magazine. A brochure. A sign. Industrial printing is printing on the thing that is the final product. A garment. A ceramic tile. A coffee mug. A golf ball. Upholstery.” It sounds like a fine line—or a blurred line—and it is, but commercial printers sell print. Industrial printers sell objects that are printed.
In some sense, this is what wide-format printing has largely been for quite some time now, especially once the UV flatbeds started to proliferate and vendors such as Canon (especially via the Océ Arizona flatbeds), HP, Durst, Agfa, and EFI have stressed specific “applications,” a term that refers to the specific products on which you are printing. So when us writer/analyst types ask “what are the top applications for this device?” we are simply asking, in a bit of a jargony way, “what products does this print on?”
Take, for example, the Ricoh Pro T7210, which was launched at the SGIA Expo. It’s an LED UV flatbed that has a print size of 6.9 by 10.5 feet and can handle materials up to 4.3-inches thick. It’s specifically identified as an industrial printer for the décor market—think flooring, tiles, furniture, you name it. At the show, the machine was even printing on cinder blocks. (If Roger Waters ever tours The Wall again, he may want to give Ricoh a call.) One of the machine’s beta sites prints on furniture.
Durst has long been active in various aspects of industrial printing, and I was told that one Durst customer uses their machine to print on garage doors. At the Expo, Durst debuted (in North America) the Delta WT 250 designed for packaging (also included in the broad category of industrial printing) and display printing. The “WT” stands for “Water Technology,” the company’s new water-based ink. Durst was also showing its SGIA Product-of-the-Year Award-winning Rho 312R Plus (best in the Roll-to-Roll UV [Over 80 Inches] category), Rhotex 325 (best Roll-to-Roll Direct Disperse Ink on Textile category), and Rho P10 250 HS Plus (best UV Hybrid/Flatbed High Volume Production Class printer.
Industrial printing is all about printing on products that are then intended to be sold, or given out as promotional items, and the promotional drinkware market is a potentially lucrative one, especially now at the short-run level. Think printed glass and plastic cups, wine and pint glasses, YETI cups, water bottles, and so on. Inkcups—long a player in the screen and pad printing market—was showcasing its recently launched Helix, designed for the short-run promotional drinkware market. The Helix is an LED UV printer that prints CMYK plus white and varnish directly onto cups, and can handle a wide variety of surfaces such as stainless steel, plastics, glass, and more.
Textiles are also included in the “industrial printing” category and the phrase “fast fashion” has been gaining some traction. EFI has carved out a niche in the high-end textile printing market with the fruits of its acquisition of Reggiani. Releases have been appearing apace, but at the SGIA Expo, EFI was highlighting the new Reggiani ReNOIR FLEXY, making its North American debut. The FLEXY is a 1.8-meter wide, entry level-ish device that supports a wide variety of fabrics from knits to wovens.
Epson has been a major player in the dye-sublimation market and has long championed digital fast fashion (the company held a “digitally printed fashion show” a few SGIA Expos ago and hosts an annual “Digital Couture” fashion week in New York City every summer). Last year, Epson acquired Robustelli, a developer of digital inkjet textile printers, and the fruits of that partnership have started appearing: the Monna Lisa (the second “n” is perhaps as enigmatic as her smile), a digital textile printer capable of printing on a wide range of natural and synthetic textiles, such as silk, cotton, nylon and polyester. The company was also showing the brand new SureColor F9370 dye-sublimation printer—not just the latest in the SureColor dye-sub line, but also capable of industrial-scale production (up to, the company says, 1,169 square feet per hour). So Epson is filling in the gaps to offer entry-level as well as high-end printing on as wide a variety of textile materials as possible.
Kornit was also touting digitally enabled fast fashion, showing its Product-of-the-Year Award-winning Vulcan (in the Direct-to-Garment Printers [Color Shirt—Not White] category), a 28x39-inch seven-color digital alternative to screen printing, as well as the Avalanche 1000 R-Series four-color-plus-white industrial T-shirt printer. The company was also debuting a new line of neon inks for its Allegro direct-to-fabric printer. (Neon or fluorescent inks are starting to proliferate—Roland and Mimaki have also launched fluorescent inks—and are becoming popular for applications like sports apparel and spiritwear.)
Mimaki has been theming its booths around the concept of the “Microfactory,” the idea that with today’s equipment, print service providers can offer many different kinds of printed products—again, the idea that you are manufacturing products that just happen to be printed. Mimaki used this year’s show to launch the new UCJV Series UV-LED cut-and-print devices, 64-inch UV printers that offer inline cutting capability. The four-color UCJV150-160 and seven-color UCJV300-160 also offer white ink to enable four-layer printing. Mimaki also launched a new cutting plotter, the CF22-1225, which can accommodate a four-foot by eight-foot board, and is designed to complement the JFX200-2513 UV-LED flatbed printer. Oh, it can also handle textiles, if someone needs a textile cutting option. Speaking of textiles, Mimaki has typically showcased not just textile printing but also textile finishing, and this year the company was demonstrating soft signage finishing, such as hemming, sewing pole pockets, etc.
An emerging sector of industrial printing is 3D printing. This is not printing on an object, but actually printing the object itself. Massivit was showing the Massivit 1800 3D printing unit, based on the company’s Gel Dispensing Printing technology (GDP). The Massivit 1800 can print objects up to five feet nine inches tall, four feet nine inches wide, and three feet nine inches deep at a speed of about 14 inches an hour.
For the past few shows, Mimaki has been teasing its upcoming 3D printer, but the new unit was officially launched in New Orleans. The now-formally named 3DUJ-553 uses a full-color UV LED-cure process to produce more than 10 million possible color combinations for vibrant and photorealistic three-dimensional output. It also features clear ink to create translucent objects.
As we head into 2018 and toward Print United, industrial printing—however we choose to define it—will be a more prominent theme. In The Third Wave, Dr. Joe Web and I simply refer to this as “specialty printing,” but whatever name we give it, the fact remains that this is where “mainstream” printing is going. It’s not going to be the easiest thing to transition to, especially for traditional commercial printers, but that transition is going to be increasingly necessary.