Adoption of digital technology in industrial applications

The changing industrial landscape

Digital printing using inkjet technology offers benefits across a wide range of industrial applications. These benefits include the ability to introduce new designs and products rapidly, defining deposition digitally so that it can be changed every time, depositing onto delicate substrates without contact, and depositing functional materials as well as just colours. In short, digital printing technology allows you to deposit what you want, where you want, when you want! The changing competitive landscape over the next 20 years or so is predicted to favour smart, agile manufacture using digital fabrication technology over conventional manufacture. This will allow the introduction of new products and change the emphasis of competition away from price and towards convenience. The shift favours manufacture close to consumption, which implies a shift in manufacture back to higher cost economies, reversing the current trend towards remote manufacture in low cost economies.

Adoption of digital technology

So what is driving the adoption of digital technology, and conversely, what is holding it back? In 1991, the book “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey A. Moore studied the adoption of new technology, mainly aimed at adoption by consumers but with relevance to adoption by industries. He identified that in the technology adoption lifecycle, after adoption of a new technology by enthusiasts and visionaries, there was a distinct ‘chasm’ before the technology was adopted by the majority of pragmatist consumers. Many technologies and products have failed to cross this chasm, and as a consequence have failed in the market.

Figure 1 – Digital printing technology adoption lifecycle

Figure 1 – Digital printing technology adoption lifecycle

Figure 1 shows this life cycle with the adoption stages of key digital applications indicated. Clearly digital graphics is a mature industry with limited growth. In contrast digital ceramic tile printing is a mainstream ‘tornado’ application showing rapid growth and significant sales. Indeed out of an estimated 10,000 printing lines worldwide, nearly 20% have converted to digital and 50% are expected to have converted by the end of 2015. Adoption of digital technology in textile printing is arguably just crossing the chasm to the mainstream, having been stalled for several years. Some of the other key digital markets are clearly at an earlier stage: the key question is, why is this? What is causing the ‘chasm’ in these cases?

There are a number of identified reasons why some industries are slower in adopting digital technology than others. One factor is the strength of market pull: how compelling are the benefits of digital technology in a particular market? If they are not as strong as in ceramics, for example, the market pull will be weaker. On the flipside of this, if the current technology does not deliver the required performance, adoption will be impeded. The third key factor is economics: while the overall strength of the economy can influence adoption speed, there are also industry-specific factors that may hold back adoption. The last identified factor is communication: if the industry players do not understand the benefits that digital adoption will bring them, this will hold back the speed of technology take-up.

Technology developments

So what can the providers of digital technology do to ensure the fastest possible adoption of their technology in markets identified as having potential? There are clear ‘hygiene factors’ that need to be in place to allow the benefits of digital to be exploited: most industries will not accept a backward step in speed or quality in order to gain other benefits. We believe those hygiene factors are image quality and durability on the final product; and productivity, reliability and ease of use in the factory. A significant amount of the investment by the inkjet industry in technology development is to address these hygiene factors. Advances in printhead technology are addressing quality, speed and reliability, ink developments address quality, speed, reliability and image durability, and last but not least, advances in software making systems easier to use while adding new functionality.

Design: leveraging the digital advantage

Consumers (and the companies that supply them) don’t buy technology – they buy the results of this technology in the form of printed designs. For the industries of interest digital technology is a means to an end, not the end itself. The ultimate market pull being addressed by digital technology is a desire for varying images, natural effects, new colour possibilities, new levels of detail and other design possibilities enabled by the technology. Failure to communicate technology benefits in the language used by industries is a key factor in causing a chasm. On the adoption side, one aspect slowing adoption is the shift in thinking required to fully understand and exploit the benefits of digital technology. Manufacturers have many years of experience with existing technology, and design to the strengths (and around the weaknesses) of that technology. The initial approach often shown by a potential adopter of digital is to try and reproduce existing designs, which misses the point (and the opportunity) of adopting a new technology. A paradigm shift in design-led thinking is required by both the industry and the technology supplier for a successful adoption process to occur.

Crossing the chasm

It is clear that for digital technology suppliers looking to access new markets with identified potential, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed. Firstly, the hygiene factors need to be in place. Secondly, the true benefits of digital technology for a particular industry need to be understood. Thirdly, the design-led benefits of the technology, and the need for a shift in thinking, need to be communicated to the potential adopters. Only then can the promised potential in new industrial digital markets be realised.