The silent revolution: how inkjet can transform manufacturing

It’s a technology that has been in your home and office for the past 20 years, and in the past decade it has begun transforming industries. Isn’t it about time you considered it for your manufacturing business?

There’s a technology that has been commercialised since the 1970s, yet it has only been in the last decade that it has begun to transform manufacturing. Ever wondered how Amazon has such an enormous range of books for immediate shipment, or if not immediate then within 1-2 days? Or, if you go to a Zara store the latest fashions are available in your size, and refreshed with new designs every few weeks? Perhaps you’ve recently sourced ceramic tiles for a remodelled bathroom and been surprised at the range available – even convincing wood and metal effects.

How can they do this? Amazon can maintain low stock levels yet offer almost instant fulfilment with digital print. Many other industries can do the same using industrial digital printing.

How can they do this?
Amazon can maintain low stock levels yet offer almost instant fulfilment with digital print. Many other industries can do the same using industrial digital printing.

The book production, fashion and the ceramic tile industries have been transformed by the application of digital printing using inkjet technology. That’s in addition to point of sale and in-store graphics for stores, billboards and building wraps. Inkjet is proving a very versatile way of applying digitally-defined images to substrates. The next candidates likely to be transformed by inkjet are the décor and product manufacturing industries. Yet despite having such a major impact, industrial inkjet printing and decoration gets hardly any of the exposure that 3D printing gets, hence the ‘silent’ revolution. Newspapers print stories about the latest 3D printing application at least weekly, but when did you last read about the impact of digital printing in manufacturing?

The basic principles are the same as in that humble inkjet printer you use at home. However, today’s commercially available inkjet printheads can use a range of inks based on water, solvents, or UV-curables, allowing printing to take place on virtually any substrate. Inkjet is non-contact, so non-flat surfaces can be printed. There is no impact or pressure, so even very thin and delicate surfaces can be used. Laminate flooring, worktops, panels, wall coverings and furnishing textiles are likely to be the next to be touched by the inkjet revolution. Even the automotive and aerospace industries are getting in on the act, promising a whole new level of customisation in the future.

So what does inkjet do for the customers who purchase products?
It helps streamline distribution channels by allowing responsive manufacturing rather than produce for stock, allowing a faster time to market and reduced waste and inventory. Therefore customers can decide what they want to buy, and get it, rather than select from what’s in stock. Manufacturers can streamline production and significantly reduce costs. Inkjet decoration can be implemented on-line.

What has enabled this revolution is the availability of the necessary components. A wide range of both industrial-grade inkjet printheads and different ink types are available. Data control and printhead drive cards allow printing on webs, sheets and non-flat shapes. Ink supply systems are available to maintain the ink in optimum condition. Drying and curing systems specific to inkjet allow control at a wide range of production speeds.

So, whether you manufacture toothbrushes, kitchen appliances, footwear, power tools, cars, trains or aircraft, this new way of applying ink to surfaces has the potential to make a disruptive change to these manufacturing processes.

Mike Willis, IMI Europe