Tim Phillips. IMI. For Inkjet to Enter New Markets we need to Trust in the Process.

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Tim Phillips has been involved in the development of inkjet since 2007 joining Xennia and more latterly running IMI Europe. Throughout his time in the market, he has shown a commitment to education and innovation. Ahead of IMI Europe in Berlin next month, we talked inkjet, how he came to be involved and what his view is of the future!

Tim, tell us a little of your background and how you made the move into inkjet.

I studied science at school and university and always intended to be a scientist. I did a PhD in liquid crystals, which was a mix of chemistry and physics, while I worked for the MOD (Ministry of Defence) in the UK. This part of the MOD was later privatised to become QinetiQ.

When we were privatised one of the key things we needed to do was find ways to secure new customers and business rather than relying purely on the work that came from the MOD (98% of our income at the time). At the same time, I was starting to think to myself ‘do I want to be in the lab? For the rest of my life?!’ I became interested in commercialising the technology we had, which has since become a theme for me.

So you began to move away from a technical role?

Yes, I found I enjoyed different challenges to scientific ones. I could get the best of both worlds – it was still semi-technical and commercial at QinetiQ for several years. Then I decided I wanted a pure commercial role and after a series of steps that didn’t work out the way I intended, I found myself working at Xennia within a commercial role. This was around 2007. So already 12 years ago! I found then that inkjet technology was an exciting place to be and Xennia was an exciting and innovative company.

Within this role, I had exciting times all over the world at shows and meetings. I was involved in developing and transforming the ceramics and textile industries with inkjet – something Xennia made a large impact in and was in some ways leading the market. Xennia was almost the complete opposite in culture to QinetiQ which was very 'scientific civil service'. Initially, it was the geeky scientists existing within this rule-bound culture but after privatisation, they brought in lots of corporate people from outside industry and then there was a clash of cultures - the corporate and the creative.

QinetiQ employed more than 7000 people, so it was also a bit of a culture shock going to Xennia with only 40 and a far more ‘off the cuff’ culture. At Xennia there was never a dull moment at all and it was a very exciting place to work. I felt I was in a privileged position: we were a small UK company but we could make big changes in an industry. During that time we were awarded the Queens Award for Industry, which was something we were all very proud of. With their purchase of Xennia, I think that Sensient got a great deal but it was sad to see us no longer be a UK manufacturer. Nonetheless, the technology we created at that time is still contributing now.

So your time at Xennia ended around the time the first InPrint Show was launched in ‘14?

At this time I was still at Xennia. There were conversations about acquisition happening at that time and by the middle of 2015, the acquisition of Xennia happened. In parallel, Mike Willis of IMI Europe contacted me about working with him and by the end of 2015, I agreed with Mike to come on board and run IMI Europe.

Don’t you miss your time being in a lab?

Being in a lab can be creative depending on the technology you are working on. But the downside of being a scientist is you only really become successful by specialising. If you pick the right area this can be very good and you can become a luminary in a specific technology, which is ok as long as that area continues to be of interest to people. But if you pick the wrong area then you can limit yourself. I think I found I was more suited to something broader and commercial, which inkjet can offer as it works in so many manufacturing segments.

So inkjet is broad from a science and market perspective?

Yes, it is a cross-disciplinary technology. You need people to know about chemistry and physics, software, colour, fluid dynamics, all sorts of disciplines are required and then there are the industries it works within which cover a huge spectrum. One of the very interesting angles of working within Xennia – people would arrive at our website and would ask about inkjet printing for applications that we would not have even thought of. You would have some fascinating meetings with people across a huge range of industries. It is an enabling technology and you would find yourself talking to companies doing things from magazine printing, to printing onto condoms for example! It is fascinating and certainly something that does not lack breadth and opportunity.

So what has had to develop in the market over the past 13 years for Inkjet to grow?

Every application needs a complete solution with all of the technology put together to work for successful implementation. Often, the ink was the major missing factor, as it would need to be very specific. We made this the centre of what we were doing, as this was the biggest gap and this helped grow the business.

Inkjet however often ‘fell over’ in terms of reliability. It might work well in the lab but often it was much less reliable over 1000-2000, 20,000 runs. This was a challenge. If it could not run in a manufacturing process then it would not be good enough.

You have to broaden it beyond ink. What you are trying to achieve is a reliable process – the ink is important but the other parts must then align with it. You cannot separate the ink from the other things. If you are an ink manufacturer, you might have great inks for a specific application and if someone uses that ink for a different application it may no longer be a great ink. The ink must fit within a complete process, which relies on several aspects working together. For inkjet success, businesses need to work together to produce the right result, as often a single business does not have all of the answers. It’s possible to succeed but you need that focus and preparedness to work together.

In mature industries, there is a clearly defined process and digital printing needs to fit in with this. For example, when textile print manufacturers commission printer B it must work identically to printer A. They must work in the same way in a different factory, perhaps in a different part of the world. It will not be tolerated if the production output is even slightly different. Therefore, for Inkjet to work well there is a real ‘sweet spot’ and quite a narrow path to perfection. If there is anything that is slightly out then the process won’t work at all. Often what then happens is that blame attaches to the printer manufacturer or ink manufacturer or both, but ultimately it’s the process which is at fault in my view.

Of course, there are many examples of inkjet working well and there are also examples of where it has not worked so well. For example, if you compare digital textile in 2014 to now with regards to speed, quality and cost it is a night and day difference.

But if you compare direct-to-shape (DTS), this hasn’t moved as much. There are other examples where they haven’t made enough progress to see this adopted in a realistic way.

So has DTS just lacked investment?

For DTS it does depend on how you define success. DTS inkjet is always likely to be fundamentally slower than a label printer. So it has to be clear why you are doing it. There are also technical challenges that don’t exist with a label printer. You have to be clear that you want to print directly onto the shape and that this is better than a label in your case. Is it easier to print onto shapes? No, it isn’t!

So is personalisation a big factor for Inkjet development and growth for DTS. Is this where the value lies?

No, in my opinion, it is not happening to any great extent. Just think of can printing and ask yourself, do you need to print digitally directly onto a can, rather than printing a label or sleeve? I think that is the type of question where the answer depends on who you speak to. Sure printing directly cuts out plastics which cuts out a process, so it has value in theory, but it is probably always going to be slower.

What about textiles and the t-shirt market for instance? The technology for the personalisation of t-shirts is fundamentally different from that in mass production printing textiles on a roll. Printing textiles with a specific individualised garment only makes sense if people make money doing it. The same goes with mural wallpaper versus ‘conventional’ wallpaper. Most people want a nice range of designs made for them by a designer that they can choose from, rather than designing their own. The consumer doesn’t care how it is printed.

Wide-format printing of point of sale graphics is output that is only required for 2 months or so and digital works very well for this and for things like the fast fashion market. People are talking about giving consumers endless choice and constant updates. But maybe this is fast becoming an outdated view – maybe we don’t want the world to be throwaway if it all ends up in the ocean!!

So is Eco making a return as an issue?

The environmental issue does seem to be waking up once again and largely driven by the consumer.

With the environmental factor in mind, in your view does all future inkjet printing need to be aqueous?

The demand for aqueous as ‘environmental’ is dubious in my view. Aqueous inks still have a lot of petrochemical components in them. So in terms of its eco-credentials, it is only a difference of degree from UV and Solvent. There is no guarantee that an ‘aqueous’ ink is necessarily any better for food safety or the environment. There is no legal definition of the word ‘aqueous’, and generally, inks are referred to as such if they have some water in them, but this might be only 10-30% of the total! A bit like saying I am in the car industry and our car is great because we are using recycled plastic for the gear knob, but the rest of the car might be an environmental nightmare! Greenwashing is relevant here. If you give something a green veneer and then hope to sell on this, then that isn't ideal. The fact is, all industrial production has an environmental impact so surely we should be taking a big-picture view of the entire process and trying to make this more efficient and environmentally friendly?

It’s clear that at the moment aqueous is regarded as some kind of key to the packaging sector, especially in food packaging. It feels as though the wind is against UV and other ink types. Is there a sound technical argument for this? It remains to be seen but aqueous inks have issues with adhesion, reliability etc which also need to be addressed.

What in your view could be the next market for inkjet?

A great question and one that is impossible to answer. There have been interesting applications developed to great success, with ceramics and textile being the obvious ones in the last 3-5 years. Also, there has been some emerging growth to the mainstream, but inkjet I think is still in a largely pre-market phase in a lot of applications. There have been some interesting projects, some clever technology but no mass-market revolutions other than the ones we are well aware of.

What needs to change for another market to adopt inkjet then in your view? There needs to be both the market desire and the available solution for adoption to happen. For example, many people view the flooring laminates market as a good one for digital, with the run-length pressure being similar to textiles and huge volumes making it attractive to producers. But maybe the market pull just isn’t strong enough – people don’t replace their flooring every few months like they do with garments or advertising banners.

The market decides how to use the technology. We as technology developers do not get to decide. The market will try out new technology and find out how useful and desirable it is and there are examples where the market has used the technology in a way the originator did not foresee or sell!

In terms of the stimulus for adoption is problem-solving a more powerful motivator for adoption or new performance potential?

Genuine problem solving is a no brainer – the number of ceramic tiles being broken when printed the old way meant a non-contact printing method was adopted with unbelievable rapidity once the technology was ready. This is the most powerful motivation for trying something new. As for new potential, people find this harder to visualise and practically-speaking, much harder to justify to the people holding the purse strings.

What is happening at IMI Europe’s event in Berlin in Oct?

Our Digital Print Europe event in October is about looking ahead for the next few years and specifically previewing Drupa. We are taking a look at some of the advances in key markets – commercial, packaging, textiles and other industrial printing. We are also looking at the business landscape with consolidation and mergers & acquisitions being a theme. There is also new technology and potential new markets like the large area electronics market: we are now involved in a conference called innoLAE (Innovations in Large Area Electronics) in partnership with the University of Cambridge which is potentially an exciting outlet for inkjet printing.

For further information on IMI Europe’s Digital Print Europe in Berlin 8-10 October check out the website.

Marcus Timson