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Last updateFri, 15 Nov 2019 1pm
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A journey from analogue to digital to additive

Years of trade events, news and developments mean a lot of ground has been covered in our fast-changing industry. Groundbreaking developments and new introductions in terms of technology, abilities and foremost applications have and are the norm. Well, print is evolving, and while traditional technologies are still asked for, new technologies and applications are just round the corner. Sabine A Slaughter voices some thoughts on our industry.

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In the last 15 years, the printing industry moved to and accepted CtP, analogue printing such as offset and flexographic was the norm. Investments and talk about JDF, a seamless workflow at print shops and digital follow up of all orders via management systems came onboard. Only a couple of years earlier, the first inkjet printers for the large and very large format market have been introduced and their quality and speed slowly reached a point where they could be replacing screenprinting presses.

Personalisation, well, that point just popped up in conversations, and digital presses were in their baby stage. The first digital presses introduced well before the millenium were considered exotic. Add the address and the name of the receipient to a certain piece of mail or print and you have a personalized piece. Add a graphic – and a different one for each or a group of targets? Well, yes, thoughts have been voiced about this possibility, but this kind of printed product was far in the future. Over time some innovations made headlines, such as the re-writable plate for offset printing in 2004. Then came the first digital inkjet presses – in black and white and four colours. Up to then, laser, the so-called electrophotographic printing has been dominating the market in terms of digital production machines. Their quality was better and considered far above inkjet quality that still was in baby stage. In addition their speed was high and a competition for highest speed and quality was already underway.

Inline production of printed products springs to mind. Finishing machines and units directly connected to the digital production presses. By 2005, the first in terms of quality, acceptable inkjet presses were introduced into the market and direct mail and transactional printing shops were starting to look at all those inventions that "suddenly" were at their fingertips but still far away in terms of acceptance. Even at drupa 2008, although quite some time away for some, and still in the memory for others, digital printing still was in cradle stage, especially in terms of inkjet technology.

On the horizon one could already predict that toner-based digital presses will soon reach a point where the speed could not be raised much further while the quality was close to offset. This is not to say, that there are no new inventions, no new applications and especially no new twists and capabilities in electrophotography, there sure is as Gulf Print & Pack in April has shown us. However, inkjet was already making its mark on the industry. The first sheetfed inkjet production presses in B2-format were shown in 2009 at JGAS in Tokyo with several of them having been installed meanwhile.

As much as it looks nowadays that digital printing has been around for a while, it only, in my opinion, got accepted as a viable technology in 2010 at Ipex when people were not only looking at the offered solutions, but a real hunt for the right machine for the right application that printers were offering and could now be produced more efficiently with digital presses took on. This trend held on at drupa last year. It required a lot of changes in the minds of printers. While up to now, the question of an investment in a press ranged around the offset and/or flexographic offerings, digital printing meant a lot more that needs to be considered in order to implement those new machines successfully.

Digital printing and its presses mean, that in order to be successful, printers need to think about the offerings and applications they want to produce on a press in advance. Which substrates should be printed upon and what kind of ink does this require? Unlike in offset presses, ink on digital machines can not be exchanged, meaning that if a printer decides for aqueous or solvent, UV or UV-LED ink to be used in his digital press, he is stuck with his selection. Digital presses are highly specialised – theoretically every application can be printed, but the play between ink and substrate limits their usage to certain applications. So a lot of forethought and also having the right customer base for the range of applications that a printer wants to produce on his or her digital press, or an educational programme for possible new prospects of print services was and is required.

Never before in print, have printers been enabled to print such a multitude of applications and forge so many ideas for print since digital printing came along. However, the downside is that while printers have recognised the potential that comes their way, their customers have only partly understood what is going on. For example, advertising agencies have and develop ideas for campaigns. Those are forward thinking creatives that understand their business. However, most of them still have not understood that nearly everything is now possible to be printed, every kind of campaign, mixed platform campaigns, multimedia campaigns that combine different output platforms, i.e. print, internet, tv, mobile phones, tablets, radio etc. All of these different output channels can be complementary to each other and should be. And all this is possible now!

Meanwhile another (r)evolution got underway that I already mentioned in the paragraph above: multimedia campaigns, targeted advertising that aims at individual receipients. Many of the traditional print products such as books, that are not only personalised, but can also be printed in short runs, now also can be read on e-readers or tablets. New market participants appeared: electronic books alongside printed books, digital signage along printed signage and so on, electronic forms instead of printed forms. Print runs of traditional, long established print products are getting shorter and shorter, more personalised and share their exposure with new markets.

So, will print eventually evaporate? No, definitely not. Will traditional technologies such as offset or flexographic printing go away? No, neither. While some and more and more printed products can be produced digitally, more and more possibilities open up. On the other hand, there will always be demand for certain printed products that will be produced on analogue presses as their print runs are far too long to be produced efficiently on digital machines.

Goodbye and welcome to the new world of print

So what about the future? Where is print going? In order to answer those questions, we will have to look at printing and the technology that is used. Printing is a lithographic process and this is the core knowledge of a printer. Let's register this fact and not forget it.

In traditional print, we have many different applications such as book printing, label printing, packaging and many more. While some of those will and do require personalisation, fast changes and probably shorter runs that also are individualised fully or to a certain degree, some of them will not. Some will require the implementation of new communication elements, such as QR-codes and subsequent internet and landing pages that again are personalised. Others will not.

When considering commercial printing, we are talking about a trend to shorter print runs, faster turn around and many jobs that are under 10,000 print runs. While the current cross-over point to digital is between 2,500 to 5,000, new and upcoming digital presses will probably be better suited to produce those products and the cross-over point will increase. The new digital B2-sheetfed machines will definitely leave their mark in the future. However, products in bigger formats than B2 will probably stay within the analogue press range.

In large format printing we see a lot of changes in the market place. Static printed signs are still around and will be if only for safety reasons like on motorways etc. However, walking through Dubai airport or any other airport in the world, through train stations, or cities, one cannot help but notice the increasing presence of digital signage. Those signs can communicate with the customer, they can display a multitude of messages one after the other. During the recent snow storms in the US, Nemo and Sandy, digital signage was used to inform travellers of road closures, of the progress and state of the storm. In advertising, personal messages can be displayed by combining RFID and location information if need be. This is not to say that large format printing is going away. It will stay and this for a long time. Think about remote areas, areas where there is no electricity, static information that refers to everybody etc. Those are only some of the uses where large format printing is required. In addition, individual items such as beds, wallpapers etc. with and without logo, certain designs etc are upcoming areas where large format printing will put its mark on.

Textile printing is another area that will be very profitable in the future. The digital revolution has already reached this area and many machines are available to print individual designs on those substrates. Not only for advertising purposes but also to display individuality in households on curtains, settees etc.

Let's look at packaging: This is an area where mostly long print runs are produced. Digital printing will change it to a degree where shorter reaction times, shorter turns arounds will lead to fast product changes. However the high end luxury market will still persist and require knowledge and skills to produce outstanding products that people are willing to pay for and are highly sought after. The same applies for label printing although the current digital offerings and maybe some of the future might change this impression. Within the label area, hybrid printing, the combination of analogue and digital printing will play a certain role for some time to come.

Getting back to packaging, there is one technology that has only come about in the last years and that should not be forgotten: 3D printing. If one takes the home and office inkjet desktop printer market as an example, then there is some "danger" for the packaging market ahead. A short recap: Inkjet printing at home took on when a price barrier of at the time 1,000 US $ has been reached, and more affordable home printers were available. First of, the consumers have started printing of letters, with better quality even photos and even nowadays the speciality photo printers in the consumer market are still going although the digital format on phones etc. has caught on.

I would like to predict something likewise happening when 3D printers for the consumer market become more affordable. We have already seen the first 500 US $-machines that have entered the market. So how should this affect packaging? Well, let's think about what can be produced on and with those machines, especially when the multi-material, multi-colour printing is fully established:

- Tools: Yes, you can print a hammer or a wrench etc on a 3D printer. And it can last for some time.

- Tableware, household items: Sure, you can 3D print a cup or a saucer.

- Clothes: Another thing that already has been realised by 3D printing

- Shoes: Yes, even shoes have been 3D printed and athletes are already wearing those high tech shoes. At least prototyping of shoes is already partly established

- Houses: Yes, you heard right, houses – full houses can be 3D printed

- Furniture: There is no boundary to your individuality

- Cars: Another thing, that up to now has been mass produced and in future can be individualised up to the individual colour or even individual logo or name

These are just some examples of 3D printing. And how should this affect packaging? Well, imagine breaking a cup at home – but instead of having to go to a shop in order to buy a new one that has a nice packaging around it, you just throw on your 3D printer and print a new one. Oops – that was it for tableware, household items and cutlery in nice packaging design. I am not saying here that every single item will be printed at home. Especially high value items, handicraft will still be bought at shops and they will reflect their value in the packaging that surrounds them. Let's take this step even a bit further: How about organic items such as food? Nowadays there are already some restaurants that "print" their food. Food printing is already used in some bakeries, pastries and confectionaries. However, those are b2c shops that still require packaging. But what if and that's not taken from too far away, meat and other food could be 3D printed from cells that have been grown in labs. Not only would this counteract the famine that is persistent in some parts of the world, it would also mean, that we do not have to go to the supermarket to buy those products. We just acquire the needed "ink" and print our food. But this are not the only uses for 3D printing: medical applications such as joint and bone replacements, even tissue replacements are possible and currently under research.

3D printing is also called additive manufacturing or industrial printing and will change a lot of production and assembly processes in the future. Multi-material printing whereby several items of materials can be printed "on demand" can result in a one piece printed item such as a mobile phone or a car or maybe the mixture of pharmaceutics that your doctor(s) have prescribed in one pill. Not possible? Well, sorry to say, it is and it will change our lives. As an industry expert has once stated at a conference: Everything that can be put into a liquid state can be inkjetted, eventually. So there we are – and the basic knowledge of all this is based on lithography.

So is that all that we can do with the knowledge that was first instilled by Gutenberg and his press? No, no and once again no. There are a multitude of other things and applications that require lithographic knowledge and are produced by presses: Solar panels, printed electronics, RFID, semiconductors are just some of the applications that require a knowledge of lithography. And this, every printer has. Will one or the other technology disappear? No again. All of our current print technologies, offset, flexo and screen printing, digital printing (toner and inkjet) will exist next to each other. In our diversified specified environments, each of those will complement the other as each has a certain usage and applications or efficiency that serves to enhance current and future print offerings.

New applications and ideas are welcome for the multitude of digital presses as their potential has not yet been explored fully and they can do and produce a lot more than we currently demand from them. They are asking to be explored to be tried to be tasked with new applications that we currently can not yet think about. Inkjet printing is still in cradle stage and waits to be explored further. Multi-platform output will exist alongside as print is now part of the communication mix that conveys all kinds of messages. In addition to the current traditional print applications we should however, not forget about our core knowledge and skills as those can not only enlarge our offerings but also offer new business and with it new income sources.

Happy rebirth Print – to a bright and shining future!

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