FESPA is the Federation of European Screen Print Associations. It started as an annual exhibition by Display Graphics, Textile, and Specialist Screen Print suppliers of products for their customers and over time came to include inkjet wide-format print offerings by their various vendors.

FESPA is still tied to its screen printing roots, even as the markets it originally addressed have, in important cases, moved on to other technologies and forums. This accounts for the strange feel of so many shows that feature digital wide-format technology, and the way that technology tells a part—perhaps an ever-smaller part—of the story of digital’s wide-format and related industrial potential. You have the feeling that inkjet innovation may be migrating to a whole other range of gatherings related specifically to major applications like textile, ceramics, decorative, and marking.

What follows is a brief overview of some of the highlights at FESPA of those applications.

Textiles: Production Roll-to-Roll Ready to Go Global; DTG Accelerating

Major Italian analog textile machinery vendors like Reggiani and MS were aggressively in evidence at FESPA as digital production systems vendors for printed apparel in direct and transfer print, including dye-sublimation for synthetic fiber. This results from their cooperative development with printhead manufacturers and ink developers, mainly focused on demand in the Italian market for high-speed inkjet textile printing systems of up to 5,000m2/hour. Their products are now ripe for global sale. How easily they can go beyond the Italian market is still an open question due to the complexities and obstacles of the global supply chain. This is despite the seemingly obvious appeal of digital now that it is an acceptably fast high-volume and high-quality technology as a means of hugely reducing time to market in this fragmenting and fashion-driven market.

In the direct-to-garment markets, we saw uninterrupted growth exemplified in the systems at the low end of companies like Anajet and at the high end of market-dominant Kornit of Israel. Indeed, we saw additional evidence for the growth of eco-solvent printers in transfer markets for direct-to-garment print. Direct-to-garment is being driven partly as a conversion market from screen printing, allowing better response to fragmented demand and a lower process cost at shorter runs, and partly as a function of the growth of Web-to-print as a consumer demand-aggregating technology for large print providers.

Decorative Markets pushed by Latex and UV Roll-to-Roll

Companies like Hewlett-Packard, EFI, Fujifilm, and Durst are talking more and more about the use of their roll-to-roll wide-format production systems in printing products like wall-coverings, glass, and other architectural substrates, shifting the emphasis beyond just advertising to ambient decoration. HP specifically is making a play for roll-to-roll Latex over roll-to-roll UV in this context. With their new high-end roll-to-roll system, they seem to be anticipating clear user preference for Latex over UV, at least among their own client base, if not beyond.

We also saw at FESPA, as we have seen at a lot of shows in the past two or three years, small customized systems for printing three-dimensional finished promotional objects. What we did not see, but what is happening, was the development in Germany of large-scale production systems for printing decorative laminates for construction markets. Nor did we see an industrial-scale attempt to focus on digital opportunities in the huge market for industrial color marking of finished manufactured goods. Similarly, we did not see strong emphasis—except from EFI—at FESPA on digital’s most spectacular current success in decorative markets: ceramics production systems.

Corrugated Packaging and Retail Display Stand Printing

The most exciting thing of all at FESPA was what the trained eye was able to observe happening at the high end of display graphics. The production flatbed systems of EFI, HP, INCA, and Durst are beginning to attract the serious attention of commercial sheetfed offset printers and even of mainstream litho-lam corrugated box makers. There is a subtle shift here by some vendors in favor of talking about the presses as “sheet” presses rather than flatbed. One does not exclude the other, though “sheet” implies offset emulation, or at least the ambition to achieve it. This is potentially an important pathway for digital production printing to mainstream analog volume print markets in display graphics and packaging. It seems to be driven by a combination of need by large analog printers to provide very short runs, reduce process costs, and have a stake in a future that forebodes an ever-darkening outlook for analog market economics. This is analog-to-digital (A2D) in serious action, but it is offset A2D rather than screen, which is just not so important any longer in display graphics.

The bottom line is that inkjet technology’s reach is expanding ever so subtly into applications most traditional print service providers rarely see. Inkjet technology’s growth potential continues to amaze, particularly in contrast to the majority of other printing technologies that receive nominal R&D funding at best.