The SGIA show held in Orlando this year gave evidence of continuing strong demand for inkjet printed display graphics, and increasingly also for production inkjet textile print and decorative output. Demand is good in the market, which from a vendor perspective is increasingly moving upwards in productive capacity and is to some extent consolidating production on larger systems. Larger systems equate to more concentration, so that the action revolves more and more around the vendors with the larger resources.
Press Development: White Ink, LEDs
You just cannot get by without white ink these days. That’s the message of most vendors at SGIA now. Consensus seems to be everyone should offer it, emphasized by various users at forums organized at the show. White Inkjet ink has reached a point of being much better than it was but with a little way to go. Some say white ink is 75% of the way to its final goal. Its final goal is full opacity at minimum (expensive) ink lay-down. Interim solutions at SGIA involved in at least one case doubled-up white ink stations to be able to strike twice at the speed of a single pass.
LED curing is also becoming a bigger theme at each display graphics show we go to. The value proposition that most often occurs seems to be the ability to print on thin, or heat-sensitive film. Less mention (in the U.S. at least) seems to be made of energy savings. Another less obvious benefit may be consistency of output print quality vis-à-vis curing. The curing issue here is that there is more than just a small suspicion that some inkjet users tend to leave metal vapor lamps in place beyond the date at which their energy output begins to diminish, resulting in poor cure with print quality and even potentially product safety issues. An LED lamp however is much less prone to this deterioration. At the production end of things that could really matter. One major UV-curable printer manufacturer stated that the time is not far off when 60%+ of their press production will be LED-based.
Roll-To-Roll Production Inkjet Textile Printing
Two entrepreneurial and aggressive Italian vendors of inkjet production textile presses were fully present at SGIA this year: MS and Reggiani. These two companies seem to have detected through their analog market presence what we now know became in recent years a pain point among leading apparel companies who wanted to develop quick turnaround “Fast Fashion” markets. Companies like Zara, H&M, and Forever21 found that they could speed up their response to fashion in many ways, but were stymied by the print process. Presumably seeing this, both MS and Reggiani built a new generation of production inkjet systems which crossed a threshold of productivity at around 500m2/hour and allowed the “Fast Fashion” apparel companies to drastically cut the time to market of valuable printed apparel items. It is a classic case of a demand-driven market, and of an increasing trend towards European-based applications development of production Inkjet markets. MS and Reggiani are not the only suppliers of this new market—Konica Minolta, Robustelli, and a few others deserve mention—but they are leaders. Growth in the last couple of years has been off the scale and the prospects are bright for the future.
Everyone always did and still does talk about analog-to-digital transformations, or “A2D” as a measure of demand being switched from analog technology to digital. In reality most of the digital has grown up alongside analog and more screen-printing attrition has come from offset than digital print. But perhaps there is another interesting potential out there. That brings us to Analog-To-UV-Curable inks. By this we mean that coming from the display graphics market production-level large format printing technology has been developed by EFI, HP, Inca, and Durst which prints at well over 2,000 square feet per hour and which is consequently interesting to mainstream analog production printers, specifically offset display graphics printers and even in an early phase, corrugated box manufacturers who at the moment buy in high quality offset litho print and laminate it to corrugated boxes used in retail.
Both specialist channels are deeply involved and influenced by and influence themselves the production offset market, and both are buyers now and in the future of the new production digital systems. The significance of this may be that this is a way for mainstream offset markets to get to know inkjet in a UV format, and in a very large sheet size format. Up to now offset printers either do not know anything about inkjet or else they have seen it mostly in an aqueous format. Would this market want to take UV large format presses and use them more extensively in their own markets beyond display graphics? UV inkjet in these production large format systems is certainly reaching a new level of quality, which may just fly in the offset world.
There is an increasing emphasis, in particular from HP, at recent trade shows, and certainly at SGIA, on decorative print markets. Of course roll-to-roll textile markets are in a sense decorative print markets, but beyond this there is a push towards markets like wallcoverings and decorative fleet graphics. This is a particular focus of the latex products of HP where HP is leveraging their claimed suitability of latex inks to the durability and print quality requirements of these markets. Together with print surface characteristics of latex they make a reasonable claim to call superior (at least in perception) to both solvents and UV. This trend has a double benefit in driving new and higher print quality standards than required for some display graphics markets. It is a play distinct from display graphics- and packaging-oriented markets.
The opportunities for non-consumer inkjet printing technology remain bright. Expansion into higher-volume point-of-purchase signage, corrugated retail display stands, textiles, and decorative markets are all indicative of latent user demand now being addressed with digital printing technology in ways not possible before.