Frankly Speaking: New Print

Frank Romano
Jul 11, 2012

At drupa 2012, a number of companies brought up the subjects of printed electronics, functional printing, and industrial printing. In most cases, these new print methods and markets went beyond traditional promotional and document printing, which is mostly reproduced on paper and paperboard substrates. Let’s try to understand this new market:

Printed electronics is based on conductive or optical inks deposited on a substrate, creating active or passive devices. It will create very low-cost electronics for flexible displays, smart labels and packaging, animated posters, active clothing, and components in other products. The printing of electronics can use traditional printing methods for depositing special inks on material, using screen printing, flexography, gravure, offset lithography, and inkjet. There are still significant technical hurdles to printing RFID circuitry and chips.

Functional printing is the deposition of a printable substance that engenders an active or passive functionality beyond traditional graphical media. The resultant product will have unique form and function to sense or control conductivity, resistivity, thermo-chromic reactions, fluid dynamics, or chemical processes.

Industrial printing encompasses a wide spectrum of printed components that are part of other products or consist of final products themselves. Ink or other substances are deposited on a variety of paper and non-paper substrates with varying thickness and shape, using virtually every printing technology, for virtually every consumer, business, and manufacturing requirement. Industrial printing has existed for decades and printing processes such as screen, flexo, offset, pad printing, and gravure are used.

3D printing deposits layers of plastic or other substances to create dimensional products such as prototypes, toys, bone, skin, and more.

Key drivers for these new print markets are:

  • Shorter cycle times in industries requiring faster time-to-market
  • The need for rapidly prototyped and produced samples and proofs to test marketability and other concepts
  • Shorter job runs because of changes in styles, consumer behavior and other factors
  • Extension of the ‘on-demand’ concept to more manufacturing
  • New and higher resolution displays and signage featuring photographic quality
  • Integration of RFID (radio frequency identification) into contactless cards and logistics and other labels
  • Decreases in manufacturing cost through integrated processes (e.g. imaging direct to thick substrates)
  • Lower costs through automated systems that reduce labor
  • New opportunities for value-added print services

Industrial and functional printing are not new markets. They have existed for decades and printing processes such as screen, flexo, offset and gravure have been dominant along with electrostatics and thermal methods.

New print (general) categories include:

  • Display and signage on paper, plastic, and other materials
  • Textiles and apparel
  • Labels and tags
  • Home decor and office
  • Food and medical
  • Security
  • Electronic
  • 3D
  • Imagery (art reproductions, etc.)

Note that packaging is not included except for tags and labels.

The first flatbed inkjet printers reached users after 2000 and in less than a decade have established a large base worldwide. It is possible to verify their impact by observing the increased amount of full-color signage in retail and bank locations, on vehicles and buildings and in all areas of daily life. UV flatbeds can print on glass, textiles, wood, metal, ceramics, and more.

There is still a lot of work to be done to define these new areas and then to develop the printers for them.

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