Inkjet is at a Crossroads. Phil Jackman.

Phil Jackman.jpeg

But according to Phil Jackman, unlike Robert Johnson, Inkjet should not sell its soul to move forward. However it must become better at selling its virtues.

New markets for Inkjet are clearly considered to be the holy grail, however as Phil Jackman notes, some markets are not always aware of what digital can do and what is truly possible with this innovative tech. 

So Phil, does Inkjet lack momentum in new markets?

No. There is plenty of momentum for inkjet and this is propagating plenty of new market opportunities. For example, at FESPA only 7 or 8 years ago it was a show that was mostly about printing signage and graphics onto vinyl but now the momentum and the markets have shifted. Signage has become softer, and digital print machinery is able to serve new markets including corrugated and industrial applications such as interior decor and flooring. Momentum is certainly not lacking but perhaps being able to scale up on an industrial level may be.

Right now, it is more of a case of what the machine and the ink can really deliver.

FESPA is no longer merely a signage show, it is also a textile show and an industrial show with applications beyond signage and showcases some clever use of tech. 

For example, at FESPA, Sun chemical were showing SunMotion which is a novel, changeable image technology for advertising signage and displays. This uses invisible fluorescent inks which are printed onto flatbed machines. When applied to retail fridges, beer pumps, shelves in supermarkets etc. they are really eye catching and proven to generate a healthy uplift in sales of the products they are promoting. Alternating between2-3 images makes it really cost effective, but it makes a big impact and consumers really take notice. It is a really clever way to capture peoples’ attention. 

For industrial markets like packaging and decor, we see early market action but limited large scale production, why is that in your view?

Wide format applications in new markets are low hanging fruit when the chemistry and machine inherently fit the process needs. The desire for inkjet in a larger scale is there but the barriers to entry are more challenging, mostly due to the R&D cost and risk associated with developing bespoke hardware for niche markets. It will certainly take a while to cross that chasm.

Are traditional markets such as the industrial decor market structurally unable to change quickly? 

The supply chains of many industrial markets are conservative, but the challenge is not just resistance to change. It’s also about playing to strengths of what digital print can deliver. Existing analogue production has evolved to be high capacity and very cost efficient. Attempting to get a direct digital replacement for this is really difficult from a commercial and technical perspective.

Where inkjet has really found itself more successfully so far is where machine speed is slower and the production itself is closer to the end of the supply chain. This is a better fit for inkjet where it can be nimbler and play on its print-on-demand strengths with fast job changes.However, there is a lot of investment in developing large machines with high capacity but I’m personally not so sure it’s the right way of thinking for some industries.

Why?

I am not sure whether we (the Inkjet community) are always solving the right problems. The technology we produce doesn’t always place digital print far enough down the supply chain. I don’t mean direct to consumer but certainly close enough to add some ability to enable rapid response to changing consumer demand. Bringing the print process closer to where the product is being used can be more efficient and effective. Analogue print processes are great at what they do in being very efficient over long runs, but inkjet is often tasked with being a digital version of that existing analogue process, without accepting compromises. Enabling the digital print to do something different, to be more dynamic and to generate new market opportunities is the key to success, I think. On-demand, late(r) stage customisation is a great example as you have shortened the supply chain significantly and this has value in terms of removing cost, creates a more desirable product (with added value)and also speeds up time to market.

 So, you mean cutting out the middleman?

 No, not necessarily cutting out the middleman but rather truncating the supply chain. Where a converter might have traditionally purchased rolls of printed media, and they then purchase a digital printer and print their own, they can effectively shorten the supply chain.

 But as we know with the success of retailers such as Lidl, Aldi, and Primark, there is always a market for the cheap, long run, single design products.

 So the digital print value in your view is really focused on the high end?

 Yes, I think it is really, but not entirely. There are many possible insertion points for digital print in a supply chain. Some that complement the existing analogue processes (making short runs more economical) and some that are more disruptive (adding value via late stage versioning and personalisation). Most people who invest in digital print technology want to take the short-run cost out of their analogue process, but digital print can do both.

 What major market do you think will be the next market to go digital?

 Corrugated feels like it will experience big growth due to the recent availability the of high productivity sheet-fed inkjet machines for post-print. Is it about to tip? I guess it will provide strategic growth for inkjet in the packaging world.  This technology is now available for this market.

 What about Flexible packaging? 

 This is slightly further behind. It is emerging but is much more difficult technically and quite diversified with regards to substrates and application. Inkjet must compete with and replace gravure & flexo, which are highly evolved and very efficient. Inkjet in flexible packaging is difficult to crack really. I have conducted some research with flexible packaging printers - generally, they have some long run lengths and it is relatively cheap to produce - inkjet must have a good value proposition aligned to it in order to be competitive. It will happen but it is difficult from a commercial and technical perspective. Printing with inkjet onto films for food packaging requires some very complex chemistry.

 Overall, what is the single biggest problem/challenge for Inkjet?

 People’s initial expectations of what digital can do can be quite prohibitive. Wanting it to do everything that analogue can do, but with instant job changes for short runs and at a similar price. It is the wrong mindset. It is only when customers appreciate the unique aspects of digital and build a business around the strengths of what it can deliver will its adoption be accelerated.

 Labels are a good example. Inkjet has been around for ~10 years and it still commands a far lower percentage of market share of printed labels than was originally expected. It has simply taken a far longer amount of time to reach that point. Whilst more new inkjet presses are now being sold than analogue each year, the majority of labels are still produced on analogue presses. The digital label desire is not as great as people expected. Existing analogue presses can still serve most label applications, so the economics are not perhaps as compelling as is necessary for rapid transformation, at least from the established producers.

 Perhaps, new business opportunities will identify a niche that can only be fulfilled with inkjet.  

 Hybrid machines (utilising analogue and digital techniques) have made an impact by bridging the gap as they aim to offer the best of both worlds. 

 Is economics really the major underlying issue?

As inkjet presses achieve higher productivity, that is wider and faster machines, the economics become more visible. The value of short runs and prototype samples is obvious but, with increasing productivity and run length potential, the price point per print needs to reduce as it strives to compete head-on with analogue. Having a revised cost model may be required - it is not just about what the printer can do but how digital as a process can enable change within the entire supply chain. Streamlining the business because you can print on demand in a quicker fashion should require changes to the customer & product mix and provide efficiencies in workflows and materials inventories. It’s too easy for converters to compare cost per print and dismiss digital. You really need to unlock the potential for what digital can deliver for your business and your customers and how it can streamline and add value. The virtues of digital print are not always fully appreciated. 

 Is Inkjet, therefore, a key technology for Industry 4.0?

I think it will help enable I4.0 - being able to print on demand is a useful asset in this methodology. Having an analogue machine in an I4.0 environment doesn’t make as much sense due to the extent of human intervention required to start up a job. Inkjet could very much be linked into I4.0, even through a cloud, and therefore become fully automated. 

The front-end design element could be automated and de-centralised rather than having an internal design studio that laboriously processes artwork. Potentially customers could upload their files themselves into a print queue to be printed by their supplier. I guess a good analogy is Moonpig that print personalised cards on demand. The printed product ends up wherever the customer requests to send the particular card with probable minimal human intervention. Customers don’t know how it’s produced and frankly, the end consumer doesn’t overly care. If print shops have integrated workflow and automation, and then have a digital printing machine at the end of this, it closes the loop perfectly.

 Overall though, I think confidence is important. Traditionally print is assessed with a magnifying loupe and qualified by humans. When people get full confidence in the technology and it is automated and reliable, then transformation can occur.

Many industrial manufacturing processes that are now automated with minimal human interaction had to transform. With old methods and systems in place it won’t revolutionise. It needs the processes and structure to be updated to get the best out of things. Digital print itself won’t do it. There is also a human factor about mindset and confidence, but that will come in time.

Right now, we may be at a crossroads, and who really knows which road to take in terms of adoption? What is vital is that digital doesn’t sell its soul as a replacement technology. Whatever path it takes should be one of righteousness and sell on the virtues of digital, as opposed to demonising the negative points of analogue,is the right road to take.

Marcus Timson