For Industrial Inkjet to Grow in Complex New Markets - it could be a Case of the Tortoise and the Hare

Roland Biemans

Roland Biemans

I’ve known Roland Biemans since 2006, back in the FESPA days when he was at Hollanders Printing Systems. With a software and design background, he has also marketing expertise and experience with Aurelon, HPS and Kiian Digital before going onto form LMNS which is a consultancy that helps manufacturers to integrate industrial Inkjet. Here, we caught up with him to talk Inkjet, it’s progress and potential. And what just might be holding back progress.

We talk of industrial inkjet reaching, but not crossing the chasm. Would you agree?

Yes, I would. Industrial inkjet is not yet seen as mature enough. Yet.

In some segments we may have crossed, but in many we are still at an early stage. I divide the challenges into the technical and the commercial side of things. I am convinced that much of the problem is of our own doing in that we do not always innovate the right technology for the right job at the right time.

Please explain more...

There have been a couple of well-known companies that have been selling the promise of the future by early introductions of single pass machines into markets that still don’t utilize the potential after as long as 10 years since those early promises. The inflated expectation has not even materialized into early adoption, let alone crossing a chasm. Which is a shame, really, because the core technology and the basic concepts of those machines are often truly amazing and have an enormous potential. But the market introduction was simply too early, and marketing and sales pitches were, frankly, a display of overselling and underachieving.

In the textile market, for instance, there have been many to claim we would replace conventional systems by digital alternatives, simply by offering machines that would be as fast or faster, as cheap or cheaper and capable of matching or exceeding traditional volumes and qualities that screen-printing workflows offer. Now, more than a decade later, the single pass machines have not been sold in the quantity claimed at the time.

The enthusiasm at the start was just not matched in the progress at all, mainly, I think, due to the fact that the value proposition was and often still is incorrect. Why would anyone forfeit the advantage of digital by only focusing on a replacement of something that proves to be in no need for a digital alternative? An investment in a new technology should at least add value, not just lead to a competition on price to match bottom-line margin.

So, in your view inkjet should not be a replacement technology?

No, not at first, and I don’t get why our industry is so fond of trying to sell their products at the expense of the traditional analogue method. The models are so different, why should they have to be priced the same? They’re doing different jobs!!

If I look at our industry and in particular to Europe, then we have been shifting a huge Co2 footprint over thousands of miles since the ‘80’s as production shifted to lower cost regions such as Asia. In our drive to lower the end-product price, we generally cut on cost of labor and that introduced a high impact on our long-distance logistics and, subsequently, the environment.

Production cost is now increasing, as it once did in our own region, because of an increased awareness of global eco-footprint as well as higher labor cost. Generally, this is countered by trying to optimize production, which is logical, but this doesn’t mean single-pass inkjet printing will always be the answer. Selling this new tech to achieve the same or higher production volume proves to be hard. And it does not stop bulk shipping goods from Asia to Europe, for instance.

Digital is the default method for making one-offs and limited editions. 1000 x 1 piece as opposed to 1 x 1000 pieces. The market is indeed demanding more individualized products and less waste. Surely, we can sell to this demand?

Shifting everything to those far away countries is logical for mass production of singular designs, but not when we consider that we are in Europe. If you want to keep jobs here and create tech here, you need your market here too!

If you are just looking for a cheaper place for mass production then you are transporting to other parts of the world and in the meantime not investing in local markets. You don’t need to have high volume – you just serve it locally and keep the jobs in the same region which in any case is better as opposed to finding the cheapest worker in the cheapest job.

What should Digital be used for?

Inkjet itself is an Industry 4.0 Technology. Part of its value is its ability to add flexibility with its fast response to local demand. It can do what analogue cannot. Surely that in itself is a compelling case for adoption?

As Henry Ford said, if you asked people what they wanted before the car was invented, they would have said ‘a faster horse.’ And if you ask a mass producer what they want, in this instance, they will say better, faster or cheaper. And I don’t think inkjet suits this argument!

It has unique attributes to offer that are far more compelling, but production has to be closer to the market in order for this to be realized. Not out at the other side of the globe as it still lacks speed to market.

Digital workflows can span various different segments and applications. All with their own specific requirements. Customization, precision, integration: these are the things I think of when looking at digital.

Do you think that inkjet generally makes sense for manufacturing?

Yes, but not as a replacement tech. At some point, we’ll convert, but for most segments, inkjet today is an added value printing process.

If an industry segment has a more or less simple and uniform production flow, where all steps in the process are in the same location, and under control of the very same production company, digital can be disruptive, even in high volumes. The example that many in our industry are rightfully using is ceramics. Once the digital printing systems were stable enough to guarantee continuous industrial production as “just” one step in a closed-loop cycle, it quickly became the technology of choice.

The ceramics industry example is, however, not applicable to any and all printing segments. Similar to what Helmuth Haas recently posted as an explanation of why the textile industry is slow to embrace the digital promise, we have always questioned the simplicity of the replacement argument when compared with the complexity of the textile supply chain.

Up until the moment that inkjet is mature enough for industrial level manufacturing, digital printing is suited well for low-volume production of customized goods in a local market, using the benefits of quick production and delivery. For this, you don’t need super-fast single pass machines.

So, there is a dis-connect between how we perceive what inkjet can do and how it is best applied?

Yes, I believe that and find it a little frustrating.

If a company can deliver what they promise in single pass then that’s great, but besides the very few authentic success stories, there seems to be a tendency to exaggerate the benefits and possibilities. Don’t get me wrong: as LMNS, we’re constantly showing all these fabulous possibilities and inventions of print when we run our presentations and workshops and we enthusiastically promote our industry whenever we can, but we always include a word of warning about practical application and the technology needed to achieve results.

I think the Inkjet industry, in particular for textile, has been trying to push machines into the wrong markets, using the wrong metrics. I have compared it in the past with Formula 1 and ordinary cars. When looking to buy a car that will take the whole family and your dog to the countryside, a two-seat sports convertible may not be your best choice.

There are countless print shops and production companies that invested in systems that ultimately did not perform as advertised. Not necessarily because the tech was bad, but it simply wasn’t fit for purpose. The perception has been that inkjet hit maturity level, while the companies building printing systems where often very inward-looking and, with a considerable disregard for the application requirements, presented a solution that only remotely seemed up to the task.

For textiles, at the last ITMA (in Milan in 2015) there were launches of pigment Inks onto cotton - has this development helped?

Yes, there was a lot of talk and many claims were made. This drew a lot of attention. Unfortunately, most were not ready and the majority of newly launched formulations didn’t properly work. It has helped pushing development forward, yet, at the same time, we’ve seen loss of confidence with potential early adopters of digital printing systems.

Making an entirely new ink formulation that works in an entirely new market, on a new type of substrate, takes time. And unsurprisingly, the Inks at first didn’t live up to the expectation! It appears some companies back then just wanted to be the first to say they had a solution. I get the point that being the first company with a breakthrough ink is advantageous, but why risk an early sell-out in a market that has so much potential?

If you’re going to boldly promise so early on to a vested industry that your new digital solution will take over, you better understand what you’re up against. Then you better make sure that you have tested and approved all that is needed. Think of color depth, gamut, resistance to rubbing and washing, cost of heads, price per square meter and your service level, should anything go wrong, say, when a head gets clogged, nozzles don’t produce any drops anymore and the remote customer is standing still.

By now, we have recirculating print heads that limit the possibility of ink blocking. As a prerequisite, particularly with pigmented ink that also includes a binder in its formulation, recirculation is the key to a successful implementation. The combined efforts of an ink manufacturer, the print head manufacturer and the print system integrator are needed to fully address the needs of the market. It was clear that many simply “forgot” to go the extra mile, in an attempt to being first to market.

I think an approach of targeting a different segment, the digital first low volume customer around the corner, could have been the sweet spot for early adoption. Instead, we have seen the instant price fight on inks, while trying to convince those that may not have seen digital as an added opportunity, but rather as a threat to their existing workflow.

Would you say that traditional industry is just resistant to change?

Yes. It is the Kodak example of wanting to sell more film instead of investing in their invention of the digital camera. That was clearly a mistake, but whilst it may seem illogical to us now, traditional industry covers generations of families, with huge set-ups of machinery and presses that last a long time and have proved to function for decades.

Culture and relationships have been sustained and invested in over a long time. Volume and margin models have been used for so many years and contracts are based on these. Investing in new and unfamiliar technology may disrupt all of that. It is quite natural to hesitate when it poses a risk to your operation.

So, if digital is sold as a replacement then you will compare and contrast with the conventional method. There is a steep learning curve and high-tech may be less accessible and understandable when something goes wrong. It is not merely a matter of exchanging a print head if the print’s off. All of a sudden there’s electronics, software, filters and what not.

And if the manufacturer that is trying to sell the high-tech equipment is not familiar with the industry and is seen as a rookie outsider entering new territory, quite naturally they may be met with a considerable dose of reservation, conversely with a possibly inflated bravado as an answer to that.

In the past, there have been manufacturers that simply tried to convert a system into something it was not originally intended to do. When being honest about it, it may help both supplier and buyer to come up with novel ideas to make it work, but when it is presented as the state of the art, it is counterproductive and it could lead to an even greater disconnect.

So, to summarize, Inkjet is certainly making progress, but it might be a lot easier if we would focus more on its unique value proposition, and less on what we think customers and markets actually want to hear. It may be a case of the tortoise and the hare, but the tortoise with the right approach, and the right value proposition will win every time in my view.

At ITMA this year, I hope there is less talk and promises and more actual evidence of digital Inkjet performing a role that really plays to its advantages. Then we have a real chance of solid growth.

Marcus Timsoninterview