Few markets are as fast paced as design. No surprise that décor printers are looking into digital print processes to better serve today’s markets. Inkjet is going to play a key role as the technology best suited for the various markets.
The décor print markets
To say it straight away: all kind of print can be decorative. There are some distinctions, however. When talking about décor print, we usually refer to print applied to a functional material purely for decorative (design) purposes. The material would serve its purpose without the print applied – print “only” makes it nicer. This includes even cases in which the print can enhance somewhat the properties of the material (like durability).
The primacy of the main purpose results in print having to adapt to certain materials, usage types and production processes. A print on a laminate needs to withstand the laminating process and the wear & tear expected from e.g. a flooring material. Inks on tiles need to bond well and withstand the high temperatures in a kiln.
There are more factors to consider. Lightfastness is an important factor as products might be exposed to direct sunlight, yet have to preserve the intended colour for years. Health and safety considerations are critical as well. In the different markets served in décor printing sometimes strict regulations exist on which substances can or cannot be used. Additionally, emissions need to be considered, even the odour of products is important.
The end material dictates the print format as well, which could be sheets, rolls, panels, planks or more. The printing device needs to accommodate the substrates and formats.
There is a multitude of décor printing applications and accordingly markets with different requirements. Some of the largest are, broadly speaking:
- Wood decoration
- Home textile
These markets can be broken down into further subcategories. In future editions we will have a closer look at some of these décor printing categories. There are several smaller and specialty markets as well.
Drivers for digital
Décor is being printing for decades. Demand pattern, logistics and design requirements kept on changing, however. Analog processes have long lead times, have fixed repeats and high set-up costs, which make them unsuitable for short runs. Digital print can complement analogue to serve these growing markets.
Designers can gain a lot from digital print. Furnishing and wallcovering designers are now designing specifically with digital print in mind. The benefits to the designer are unlimited repeats. With conventional processes the image has to repeat itself after one revolution. In digital the repeat can be endless, giving opportunity to new designs and more freedom in designs. Designer also appreciate a relatively fast supply of products, up to print on demand. Higher priced goods can be produced in short run orders. Designs can be tested as it is easier to produce samples and variants.
Producers and supply chain managers have the ability to reduce the stock keeping levels as reorders are faster and cheaper. This reduces risk of obsolete stock. It also helps if demand is higher than anticipated to replenish stock on short notice.
Printers do appreciate the possibility to store designs as files for digital print, instead of storing printing forms for future reruns. Digital presses tend to come with more automation, which reduces staffing and might require less (precious to come by) operator skills. Additionally, start-up waste can be reduced to improve sustainability.
Inkjet in décor print
When talking about digital print in décor printing it means mostly talking about inkjet. Inkjet has the width to cover large formats, the possibility to use a wide range of fluids, contactless imaging and the ability to modulate the amount of ink laydown. Not all of these features are necessary in all cases, but often several apply. Toner printing is not suited for most décor print, except for wallpaper printing and very low volumes for decals/transfer media.
Broadly speaking there are 3 classes of inkjet devices available for décor print
- Sampling / bespoke print device
- Short run to medium production printer
- High-speed single pass press
Not surprisingly, the higher the volumes the more expensive the devices get. More importantly, the faster they go, the more specialised the printers are.
A sampling, bespoke print device can be used to print many applications, as it is typically a large format printer with no or minimal modifications for décor print is used. That means it is possible to print on paper for laminates first and switch to posters or wallpaper for the next job. On the downside the output volumes are small, not all applications can be produced to the full extent (resulting in compromises in e.g. quality, durability, etc.) and the costs per print are higher.
Short to medium run printers tend to be multi-pass printers as well, but with a much higher degree of specialisation and automation. For example, Agfa launched the InterioJet, a version of the Jeti Tauro for laminate designs. Short to medium run printers include specialisation towards their intended décor print segment. They offer a much better support for the media to be printed on and inks optimised for the end use.
High-speed printers use single pass inkjet technology, which gives them a much higher productivity than the multi-pass systems. To take advantage of the full inkjet productivity the systems are usually streamlined for one application. High speed, high automation and optimised device set-up give these devices the best production costs of all digital devices, still ink costs tend to be higher than analogue processes. Accordingly, there is a certain break-even run length up to which digital is more cost efficient.
In most markets inkjet is only at the beginning of getting a wider share of the print volumes. The only exception is tile printing, where inkjet took over most analogue volume. In the other décor markets printing companies invested heavily in analogue equipment and processes are established, therefore suppliers are reluctant to change to inkjet. Challenges can be for example when multiple jobs are printed on one roll and the further processing needs to consider this. Moving to more digital print requires a change in the business approach as well. Digital print has higher running cost than analogue. However, digital print offers new design options, shorter runs and quick turnaround – which can command a premium price. Saving in logistics and lower risk, lower skills, and set-up costs should be weighed in as well.
The dynamics for digital print will drive an increasing adoption, however, without replacing analogue print in the short or mid-term. A lot will depend on the initiative of single printing companies, designers or brand managers to drive digital print. This opens an opportunity as well for outside suppliers entering the décor market with a digital strategy.