Inviting Innovation

Does it bother you when someone says “literally” when describing something figurative rather than literal? Do you twitch when someone says “very unique” or describes something as unique when it is merely rare, or simply to create the perception of rarity? There is the potential for the same misuse of the word “innovation.” Not every product release is innovative. Some are just “new and improved” and that’s okay.

For Inkjet Innovation Week, Inkjet Insight wanted to focus on true innovators and their innovations, so we started by talking with an international group of experts about what makes something innovative rather than just new. 

“I might have read too many press releases but ‘new’ usually just refers to a minor iteration of something that already exists,” said Nessan Cleary of Printing and Manufacturing Journal.True innovation means something that genuinely advances the market, usually by disrupting the market or solving a serious problem – such as introducing inkjet printing into the production of ceramic tiles.”

Pat McGrew of McGrew Group noted that the ability to jet ink was observed in the 1830s, but it took years of experimenting and testing to create a practical implementation that enabled inkjet-based products.

“To be innovative, a technology needs a practical implementation,” she said. 

Ralf Schlozer of digitalprintexpert agreed.

“A true innovation has a lasting and perceptible economic, social or scientific impact,” he said.

Kelly Lawrence of Lawrence Innovation shared another favorite definition: innovation = invention * commercialization.

“Innovation is the intersection between target market desire, market viability and technology,” she said. “In other words, an innovation must solve a customer problem better than the next best alternative and improve the customer’s condition while being economically viable.”

We tend to think of innovations in terms of things, or the results of an innovative development process, but the business model itself can be innovative, or the creation process.

“Innovation can occur at different levels in the supply chain, at the equipment OEM level through technology, the peripheral supplier level through supporting equipment and supplies,” said Jeff Wettersten of Karstedt Partners. “It can occur at the printer or user level, the enabler/distribution level and the end consumer level.”

Looking at the spectrum of production inkjet, packaging and labels, industrial systems and custom inkjet integration, we see innovation happening across the supply chain and through to the way that end users are buying, creating and using inkjet for their business. 

The way the printing industry has innovated around collaboration in response to the pandemic has had a lasting change on business models.

“Video conferencing has gone from ‘no way’ to the new normal and enables efficient interactions between global supply chain partners from printing equipment manufacturer to ink and coatings manufacturer, to raw materials manufacturer, to drying equipment manufacturer to converter to printer,” Lawrence said. “It’s much easier to get all the players impacting the print process in a meeting to discuss and overcome the challenges.”

The changes in business model extend to how OEMs provide remote service to their customers, remote demonstrations and participation in 3D rendered trade events like Printing Expo (https://www.printing-expo.online/). 

Eric Holdo of Avalon Ridge Technologies sees custom solutions as a hot-bed of innovation.

“Having worked with several clients over the years to use inkjet hybrid components as retrofits to new or old analog processes, you see that good integrators are indispensable,” he said. “It’s the garage innovation mentality that makes some of these custom solutions so cool and in the end, hyper-useful to the industries and processes they serve. The price tags may favor the custom solution, or at parity with a commercial press, but at the end of the day, you get exactly what you need to get the job done.”

Mary Schilling of Inkjet Insight, who works with numerous OEMs and integration partners agreed.

“In the custom markets the inks, and printheads and drop configurations can be specialized for new and challenging substrates and client requirements, seeding new ground for future presses to follow,” she said.

Cleary sees innovation in several areas.

“We’ll often see something new in a dedicated press, which gives the developer complete control over all the elements from media transport to printing and drying/ curing,” Cleary said. “But usually the same technology can be repurposed to fit existing set-ups to cut costs for customers and drive wider adoption. What I find more interesting is when print technology is retrofitted to a non-print environment, for example, adding a printbar directly to a manufacturing production line for labelling or decoration – and this is something that I think we will see more of.”

McGrew is a big fan of the many “DIY” and integrator-built solutions that use inkjet.

“Adding heads to converting machines, analog machines and packaging lines, and even cutters, folders and gluers opens options for production by eliminating steps,” she said.

In a DIY environment, there is much more flexibility to innovate because you have a customer base of one. When designing a solution to appeal to a broader market, many times the need to provide incremental improvements to existing customers takes precedence over creating an innovative or even disruptive advance in technology.

Schlozer sees the fear of endangering existing revenue streams or business models as a roadblock to innovation at many companies. There is also the challenge of justifying the cost of development.

“There’s no reason why anyone would adopt a more expensive way of doing something, but there’s almost always a cost to developing something innovative,” Cleary said. “That innovation has to be funded until it develops to the point where it is cheaper than the existing approach. Just because we can develop an inkjet system, doesn’t mean that we should, if it’s just adding cost for no benefit. This is sometimes seen as inertia or an unwillingness to try new things, but most people will quickly adopt something new if they see it as offering benefits or taking away problems.“

So where are we expecting to see innovations come to market? 

Print quality is certainly a key focus of R&D investments with OEMs raising the bar on resolution, color gamut, dot formation and quality control.

“In continuous feed inkjet, more manufacturers are mastering dot level, rather than whole sheet, priming as well as gamut expansion with orange, green and violet,” Holdo said. “Ink chemistry will continue to evolve accommodating things like direct-to-product, production level manufacturing.”

Schilling agreed that ink breakthroughs have been opening new markets for many OEMs.

“Ink development that enables compatibility with a wider range of media is critical to the growth of inkjet,” she said.

“Water-based inkjet has struggled in the film labels and packaging area due to challenges in achieving ink dry time on a polar substrate without distorting the film or increasing the total cost to print beyond market viability,” Lawrence said. 

However, new, high-quality aqueous inkjet presses have recently come to the flexible packaging market.

“Ink chemistry changes along with smaller drop sizes are opening up more substrates for packaging and industrial,” Schilling said. “Wide print widths have also advanced inkjet for packaging as well as in direct to board printing.”

“There’s clearly a growing move toward corrugated inkjet presses, and there are a small number of flexible film inkjet presses – though the pandemic seems to have slowed these down,” Cleary said. “There’s also a growing trend towards direct-to-object printing, but I think the most interesting developments are in more industrial printing solutions, such as for flooring, wallpapers or leather. All of these things are dependent upon further development of ink.”

While we do see OEMs releasing incrementally faster presses, or increasing the quality on presses that are already near the top of their speed class, much of the development focus is on opening new markets through better substrate compatibility and enabling inkjet integration into more types of manufacturing processes.

As noted earlier, development is not just about the hardware. Software plays a major role in inkjet quality and performance. There have been recent breakthroughs in the handling of large files, color management and automated, in-line quality control.

McGrew said she is looking forward to seeing more migration automation, auto-configuration on the presses, and continued evolution in color management and checking. 

“It’s still early days in the adoption of AI and machine learning in workflows, but new features come to market in a regular cadence,” she said. 

How do customers benefit?

Innovation must bring economic benefit – not only for the producer of the technology, but for the end-user of the solution.

“It’s tempting to think that individual technology breakthroughs will lead directly to greater take-up, but that’s more likely to result from a complex web of circumstances,” Cleary said. “For example, the growth of digital photography really benefitted as much from the development of broadband internet access as from continual iteration of digital camera technology. Any breakthroughs in printing are more likely to come from improvements in process automation than inkjet technology.”

However, packaging is one area where inkjet innovations are already driving value for customers.

“Inkjet offers the advantage of low cost short runs that can be executed very quickly. This enables start-up brands where the cost of packaging was previously too high a barrier to entry,” Lawrence said. “Inkjet enables brands to experiment with their consumer engagement messaging on the label or package as consumer demands change. With the significant increase in e-commerce, the digitally printed label or package may be the only point of engagement with the consumer.”

Innovative packaging is creating the opportunity to build customer loyalty and for cross selling relevant products.

“The value of inkjet is much more than the print itself,” Lawrence said. “It’s become a viable alternative to traditional advertising with the potential to post more significant returns.”

The ability to economically support short runs along with versioning and even personalization opens up customer/converter opportunities for distributed manufacturing or micro factories.

“Mass production cuts the cost of manufacturing but leaves a logistical problem – getting the raw materials to the factory, and the goods from it, which distributed manufacturing can solve, whilst also cutting the environmental footprint,” Cleary said. 

Holdo also sees value to the customer in updated manufacturing processes,

“Inkjet in textile printing will continue to grow as more economical sewing/cutting robots begin to process the materials at faster speeds, eliminating the transportation costs of fabric from one country, and assembly in another,” Holdo said.

There are many aspects of inkjet sustainability seen as an added benefit, from the ability to avoid the wastage of mass produced products to reduced water use and inks with fewer volatile organic compounds. However, not all inkjet innovations have reduced the VOCs in inks. Some piezo systems have actually increased them. Of course even polymer based aqueous inks are less toxic and more “de-inkable” than UV inkjet. Sustainability is another potential driver of custom and retrofit systems.

Some notable beneficiaries of OEM innovation in the past year have been integrators and their bespoke customers. There has been a push on the part of many inkjet technology suppliers to provide better service and more pre-configured components. This is enabling print bars spanning wider widths in compact frames with streamlined electronics. Some initiatives are focused on opportunities for retrofitting analog presses with inkjet capabilities while others tailor their offers to adding inkjet to the manufacturing process. The list of players in this market is growing, and the time to market for custom solutions is shrinking.

Not all of these experts agree on what innovation is, or where it is happening, but the discussions I have had the opportunity to participate in have been fascinating – ranging from commercial print to printed electronics and bioluminescent inks. One key point of debate is whether reducing costs for those using inkjet is considered innovative in its own right.

To join the discussion, register for Inkjet Innovation Week, June 14-18, held at 11:30 EDT each day on https://inkjetinsight.com/. There will be ample time for live questions and the opportunity to submit questions at registration. With 10 experts covering five distinct facets of inkjet innovation, this is a don’t miss virtual event.

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