Understanding Inkjet is key to growth. Changlong Sun. Ricoh Europe.

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Changlong Sun is the Inkjet Strategic Business Development Manager at Ricoh for the Industrial Print Business Group. He is a bilingual PhD with project management and product management capability coupled with substantial expertise in inkjet printing, printing & coating materials, colour management, and polymer chemistry within the inkjet sector. He has become a key member of the commercial team at Ricoh’s Industrial Print business making the transition from the technical role. In this article, we talk to him about his experience in print, his view of inkjet and his innovative work with Ricoh. 

Changlong, please explain a little about how you got into Inkjet?

I studied colour and polymers at Leeds University and did my Masters in Colour Science and Coating Materials. After completing this I then moved onto a PhD for Advanced Materials, which was focused on the offset printing ink transfer process. With my studies, I also spent a lot of time in the lab with inks, blankets and plates so this led me to work for a packaging company, Chesapeake who sponsored my PhD. They are now called Multi Packaging Solutions (MPS and Chesapeake merged). They were keen for me to not only focus on litho, so we also included flexo and gravure printing as well. As a result, I gained a lot of experience in analogue printing. 

After my PhD, I stayed in the Digital Print Centre for Industrial Collaboration and I worked with industry with inkjet on developing solutions for customers. One of the projects was developing inkjet for label printing, as they wanted an inkjet printer to be able to print multiple designs for multiple supermarkets.

Then in 2008, I began working for Crown Packaging, a metal packaging company south of Oxford and I became the project manager focus on digital printing and colour management. We worked on the inkjet-printing process for can production.

I worked on the now famous ‘Share a Coke’ campaign. The project had started with bottles and they then wanted to look at digital printing onto cans with different peoples names. This was somewhat limited due to the number of plates on the can decorator. We focused on the EMEA and Asia-Pacific regions. However, there was no available machine on the market that could deal with the speed at this point as the fastest. At that point, the fastest could achieve approximately 100 units per minute and this was just not fast enough.  

How did Share a Coke come about?

Share a Coke started in Australia in mobile motor-vans. They used a small printer and then gave personalised bottles out to people nearby. It created a lot of interest and became popular and they wanted to do the same in Europe and America. They used Indigo to print the labels, which was OK for plastic bottles. We then looked at cans and all of the different can suppliers and found a way printing multiple names with analogue on cans and implemented those solutions across EMEA manufacturing sites including Greece, France, Turkey, UK, and plenty of others.

The time that I had at Crown was really useful for my experience in Inkjet and specifically packaging. Then in 2014, I took the opportunity to join Ricoh who had decided at this point that they wanted to set up an Inkjet Technology Centre in Telford, UK. I was the first recruit!

Graham Kennedy was already at Ricoh Europe and suggested they should set up this centre in Europe. A senior member of Ricoh came over from Japan and I started focusing on developing inkjet for Ricoh in EMEA. I went out and saw customers with Graham and attended many of the shows, and we began building our technical team for industrial Inkjet and began developing projects.

What was your role?

I started as a technical sales engineer. This made sense with my background with inkjet at Leeds University. Long Lin was my professor there and other students included Simon Daplyn at Sensient and Andy Hancock who set up Mexar both are still innovating for Inkjet. 

I went out into the market to see what was required from a print head perspective. We had global goals to extend industrial printing so we needed to talk to customers to discover how we could help with new project opportunities. When you are talking to people, listening to their problems and understanding their goals is how you get the best information and most of our projects were initiated like this.  

I was also involved in early discussions with Graham for Coloreel - we supplied the print head and they also discovered that we could help with more than only the print head as we could help also with the manufacturing as our GM in Telford is a manufacturing expert, which helped!

What has changed in the market since the beginning of the IP business at Ricoh? 

The size of Ricoh’s dedicated Inkjet team has extended significantly and we now have projects running and developing, most notably Coloreel, Olbrich and Hymmen. Our ink manufacturing team based in Stirling also helps with our developments as having the right ink is extremely important. For example, they developed, in only a few months, the oil-based Inkjet ink for wallpaper, which provides a compelling production solution for inkjet in wallpaper production.  

At Telford, we have a large centre for development and have new accounts for developing - it is a considerable change and we are having a big impact on the market in the EMEA region. Ricoh’s print head technology for industrial printing has a superb reputation and I keep hearing positive things that Ricoh is making a big impact on the market. 

Why is growth occurring?

First, demand is growing. There are opportunities and people feel good about Ricoh’s products.

Secondly, people are confident as they see Ricoh as a complete solution provider and this is appealing as it simplifies the process for customers whilst reducing the risk. Many people initially start talking to us about print heads but when we show them the module, the systems and the manufacturing capacity then they tend to want more from us. They understand they can save time and money by working with Ricoh. The power and knowledge of Ricoh can deliver a lot of value as we have specialists and experts across a lot of areas to deliver complete solutions. And this is crucial.

Additionally, we have support from the parent company, Ricoh, and we have a flexible approach in local regions and this enables us to move very quickly. Sometimes large organisations move slowly, but we can move fast which is what the market needs and what customers want.

What are the key challenges for Inkjet in your view?

Analogue culture is a key issue for inkjet. The manufacturing world has an interest in inkjet but is also reluctant to try out something new, as they are very conservative. This kind of thinking still dominates the manufacturing sector. When you get a large organisation that is heavily invested in analogue they will not simply jump into investing in new digital technology, as they want a proven tech model that achieves virtually the same thing as analogue. This is a challenge for Inkjet as its value proposition is different from analogue in almost every way and the mainstream market does not yet understand this.

Secondly, as a result, the analogue industry does not fully understand the key value of digital. They always say, here is my current print, and can you match this? They always want digital printing to be the same as analogue printing. I think this is wrong as digital enables different things. In my view, to get the best from a digital technology such as inkjet you have to accept the drawbacks, as you cannot have all the advantages of analogue with an inkjet machine. This is frustrating, as it always seems that the discussion focuses around matching digital to analogue and this is a shame.

The third is the challenge of a digital technology working within analogue manufacturing which not fully focused on the print element. For industrial print, the printing is only one small but significant part of the whole production process. Just think you have the material, the artwork, the feeding process and then printing. After that, the cutting must take place and all these processes have to cope with the fact that digital is a new technology. The print is only a part of the entire production process so it’s more complex for digital print to work within a system that is not designed for it. For the Pre and post-process - you still need to cope with the existing analogue manufacturing system and this is a challenge.

What is your view of the next market for Inkjet?

Recently, I visited ITMA in Barcelona and the textile industry is taking on inkjet in a significant way. The decor sector is another big opportunity and we are well invested in the flooring and wallpaper sectors.

Flexible packaging will take on digital but slowly because whilst single pass capability is available, and the quality is almost there, the ink is still a challenge. However, this is gradually changing. The packaging industry has already started adopting inkjet in the corrugated sector and this is in part as the level quality required is similar to POS. Once inkjet in corrugated is widespread then I think the next market will go. The décor sector is ahead of packaging but the packaging sector overall has a much bigger potential than any other market! I think we will see more developments across the board for packaging at Drupa 2020.


Marcus Timson