At last fall’s SGIA Expo in Las Vegas, SGIA President and CEO Ford Bowers had stressed, in an opening-day press conference, that one of the new missions of the association is going to be to facilitate the interconnectivity and sharing of knowledge among the diverse print communities that make up the SGIA membership. One of those communities is what is known as “industrial printing,” and to that end, SGIA recently announced that it has signed on as an Association Partner with Mack Brooks Exhibitions for the U.S. debut of InPrint. InPrint has had a long presence in Europe as an exhibition dedicated to industrial print technology, serving as a showcase for state-of-the-art functional, decorative, and packaging printing in the context of industrial production. The inaugural InPrint USA Industrial Print Show will take place April 25 to 25, 2017, at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.

“My philosophy is that we often get more out of collaboration than competition,” said Bowers, “and this partnership is testing that theory. Our job at SGIA is to help printers get better at what they do.” About 15 percent of the SGIA membership is part of the industrial printing community.

Interest in industrial printing has been growing substantially over the past several years—WhatTheyThink has recently launched a special topic page dedicated to the topic—but what exactly is industrial printing? Definitions vary, but it’s generally accepted that “industrial printing” is printing that is done as one part of a much larger manufacturing process. Those who would be considered “industrial printers” don’t typically sell finished print products to end users the way commercial printers do. Instead, they print various kinds of graphics on manufactured items that will then later be sold. Think of things as diverse as the gradations on syringes used in medical facilities; the printed numbers and other graphics—or even the pattern—on an automobile dashboard; the speed and temperature settings on a washing machine or other appliance; or even the labels affixed to furniture.

One of the definitional problems surrounding industrial printers, said Bowers, is that they don’t consider themselves printers but manufacturers. “Calling them ‘industrial printers’ may be accurate for a piece of what they do, but it’s not the entirety of what they do,” he said. “Their self-identity as printers is not exactly the same as we would identify them.”

While it may seem somewhat far afield of what SGIA has become known for—wide-format printing, specialty graphics, and other kinds of commercial printing—industrial printing has long been a substantial part of the overall SGIA membership. “We have had members of that community for decades, so there is a good deal of overlap,” said Bowers. “We began as a screen printing organization and a large part of the industrial print application sector is still screen-printed—about two-thirds of them still use screen in their process.”

Like virtually every corner of the printing industry, industrial printing has been gradually going digital, as UV printing equipment—to name but one imaging technology—can print the same kinds of materials that screen or pad printing is capable of, but can serve shorter-run, more customized applications. Think of a customized dishwasher or oven that can match a kitchen’s décor, or a “personalized” automobile dashboard. Digital industrial printing can enable these kinds of applications.

As a result of the proliferation of digital equipment, said Bowers, “What we’re seeing is a lot of blurring of segments, as digital technology has the ability to democratize printing processes.” We’ve been seeing this as small-format commercial printers add wide-format or label printing technologies, and, sometimes, vice versa. “Moving in and out of these segments is becoming an often-used strategy for people to grow their businesses, define themselves in new market spaces, and produce new products,” said Bowers.

That said, how blurry are the lines between commercial and industrial printing? Are there opportunities for commercial or wide-format printers in the industrial print community? There are some, but caveats abound, which are directly related to the definition of industrial printing.

“You’re not simply printing something and selling it as the end result,” said Bowers. “Because it’s part of a larger process, you’d have to master those other processes and the rest of the production cycle. A commercial printer going into industrial printing is much less likely than a commercial printer going into wide-format graphics.” It’s not just about buying a piece of equipment and off you go printing automobile dashboards. “The barriers to entry are engineering-related, and there are higher scientific and technical standards for ink adherence that you have to be intimately familiar with,” Bowers added. “You have to manufacture the products in a way that someone who is buying those manufactured goods needs to be comfortable with.”

Still, a lot of attention has swirled around industrial printing, despite the barriers to entry. “It’s a growth segment,” said Bowers. “Wherever people see growth, wherever they see an opportunity, their attention is drawn there. Industrial printing is expanding both horizontally and vertically, and you have a wider range of technologies that enable you to find different products and niches you can print in because of the proliferation of different kinds of digital printing.”

A good place to explore these products and niches is at a show like InPrint. While attendees to InPrint tend to be more on the scientific and engineering side (much like those who attend the Industrial Printing Symposium that has been colocated with the SGIA Expo for the past several years), there is much to pique the interest of the curious specialty graphics producer. For example, at last year’s InPrint event in Italy, a company called ToneJet was demonstrating a device for digital direct-to-can printing for the craft beer industry. This is one niche that doesn’t have to be out of the reach of the average commercial printer.

Exhibitors at InPrint USA include some of the usual suspects that sell equipment to commercial print end users—EFI, Fujifilm, Heidelberg, to name but three—but also companies that partner with those manufacturers to integrate new technologies into finished equipment.

InPrint USA will also feature a slate of educational sessions, kicking off with a an economic keynote presentation by Dr. Robert Fry, former chief economist for DuPont, who will present his outlook for the global economy in 2017 and beyond. Other conference tracks include the TCM North America Decorative Surfaces Conference, the Flexible and Printed Electronics Ecosystem, and the Global Industrial Inkjet Conference. There are also ample opportunities for networking.

“InPrint is an opportunity for longer, deeper, and higher-level discussions than you would see at your typical trade show,” said Bowers. “For our members, we thought this show would be something they could benefit from.

“If this is something that will help them be better at what they do, then we’re willing to support it.”