Decorating Ceramics / Whitewares

Digital Printing for Ceramics and Glass

Digital printing with inkjet technology offers significant benefits across a wide range of industry applications.

March 1, 2014

Digital technology has made rapid inroads in ceramic tile printing, and is capable of making the same impact in architectural glass decoration and other ceramic and glass applications. Digital printing with inkjet technology offers significant benefits across a wide range of industrial applications.

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These benefits include the ability to introduce new designs and products rapidly, define deposition digitally so that it can be changed every time, deposit onto delicate substrates without contact, and deposit functional materials as well as colors. In short, digital printing technology allows users to deposit what they want, where they want, when they want. This, in turn, enables on-demand printing, which allows significant savings in secondary costs such as screen manufacturing, setup time and inventory storage.

The changing competitive landscape over the next 20 years or so is predicted to favor smart, agile manufacturing using digital fabrication technology over conventional manufacturing. This will allow the introduction of new products and change the emphasis of competition away from price and toward convenience and individualization. This trend favors production close to consumption, leading to a shift in manufacturing away from remote, low-cost economies back to developed economies.


Embracing Digital Technology

What is driving the adoption of digital technology and, conversely, what can hold it back? In 1991, Geoffrey A. Moore studied the adoption of new technology in his book Crossing the Chasm. The book is mainly aimed at technology adoption by consumers, but with relevance to adoption at other points in the value chain of an industry. Moore identified that in the classic technology adoption lifecycle, after enthusiasts and visionaries decide to adopt a new technology, a distinct “chasm” developed before the technology was adopted by the majority of pragmatist consumers. Many technologies and products fail to cross this chasm and consequently have not succeeded in the mass market.

What is driving the adoption of digital technology and, conversely, what can hold it back? 

Figure 1 shows this lifecycle and indicates the adoption stages of key digital application examples. Clearly, digital graphics is a mature industry with limited growth. In contrast, digital ceramic tile printing is a mainstream “tornado” application, showing rapid growth and significant sales, which is expected to continue over the next few years. Out of an estimated 10,000 printing lines worldwide, nearly 20% have converted to digital, and 50% are expected to convert by the end of 2015.

The adoption of digital technology in textile printing is arguably just crossing the chasm to the mainstream, after having been stalled at an earlier stage for several years. Other important digital markets—such as glass printing for architecture, appliance and automotive applications, and ceramic tableware printing—are clearly at an earlier stage. The central question is: What is giving rise to the existence of a chasm in these cases, and why?

A number of reasons may identify why some industries are slower in adopting digital technology than others. One factor is the strength of market pull. How compelling are the benefits of digital technology in a particular market? If they are not as strong as in ceramic tile, for example, the market pull will be weaker. On the flip side, if the current technology does not deliver the required performance, adoption will be impeded. This was the case in ceramic tile for many years, where the maturity of the technology had not reached the point where mass adoption could occur.

Another key factor is economics: while the overall strength of the economy can influence adoption speed (by limiting investment, for example), other industry-specific factors may hold back adoption. The last identified factor is communication. If the industry players do not understand the benefits that digital adoption will bring them, this will hold back the speed of that adoption.

Technological Developments

What can digital technology providers do to ensure the fastest possible adoption of technology in potential markets? First of all, certain “hygiene factors” always need to be in place before manufacturers can see the benefits of digital processes. Most industries will not accept a backward step in speed, quality or reliability in order to gain other benefits. Hygiene factors therefore include image quality and durability on the final product, as well as productivity, reliability, and ease of use in the factory.

A significant amount of the investment in technology development by the inkjet industry is made to address these hygiene factors. Advancements in printhead technology address quality, speed and reliability; ink developments address quality, speed, reliability and image durability; and advancements in software make systems easier to use while adding new functions and capabilities.

It is important to consider flexibility in the complete digital decoration solution, which includes the required ink or fluid along with the means of depositing this fluid in a production environment (in other words, the ink and the printer). This can mean introducing a printing system onto a production line in a large ceramic factory, working with a conventional printing system supplier to introduce digital printing systems into their product range, or supplying high-performance digital printing inks for use in an existing printing system. This flexibility of approach enables technology solutions providers to work in different ways in many industries and in countries across the world.

A digital printing solution consists of a complex set of technologies, as shown in Figure 2. It requires skill and experience to integrate this technology into a printing system and ink that deliver the required performance onto the customer substrate in a production environment. It is crucial to ensure that each aspect of the technology works together consistently, allowing the transformational benefits of digital technology to shine through.

A Modular Approach

Inkjet modules are the building blocks of digital printing solutions, from which a particular system can be configured to user requirements. This means that manufacturers can build a complete digital solution with reduced cost and time to market. Such a strategy has enabled several key ceramic players in both Europe and Asia to introduce digital printing systems into the market more quickly and easily than would otherwise have been possible, leading to great market success for these partners.

The key modules include the print engine that is responsible for depositing the ink onto the substrate; fluid controllers that manage ink pressure, temperature and flow; and print software that manages the image path from input file to specific data going to each printhead (see Figure 3). Software is a fundamental part of the overall solution, as robust and powerful software functions and controls are vital for a successful solution implementation. For example, image randomization is an important function in ceramic tile printing, meaning that no two tiles are exactly the same, giving a more natural effect.

Another vital component for reliable system performance is the ink used to deliver the ceramic pigments onto the tile itself. For companies used to making traditional screen-printing inks, ensuring jetting reliability while maintaining functional performance can be a great challenge. This is where years of experience with inkjet inks can be beneficial.

Advanced recirculating inkjet technology, in combination with reliable pigment dispersion technology, can be essential for high-reliability digital ceramic printing. This technology ensures that ceramic inks are kept in constant motion in the system, overcoming the tendency of the dense ceramic pigment particles in the inks to settle. Pigment settling can block inkjet nozzles and pipes, which reduces system reliability. Ink recirculation requires not only a printhead that allows recirculation of ink past the nozzles, but also management of the fluid in the rest of the system to ensure that ceramic pigment particles are held in suspension—both while printing and when the system is idle.

Leveraging the Digital Advantage

Ultimately, consumers do not buy technology—they buy the results of the technology in the form of printed designs. For décor industries, digital technology is a means to an end, not the end itself. The market pull that is satisfied by digital technology is a desire for varying images, natural effects, new color possibilities, greater levels of detail and other design possibilities unlocked by new developments. The benefits of the technology are design-led, and failure to understand this is a key factor in causing a chasm. Production companies are often focused on cost reduction, which can be a side benefit of digital printing, but is not where the added value is greatest.

Technology adopters require a shift in thinking to fully understand and exploit the benefits of digital technology. Manufacturers have many years of experience with existing technology, and they design to the strengths (and around the weaknesses) of that technology. The initial approach often shown by a potential adopter of digital is to try and reproduce existing designs, which misses the point (and the opportunity) of adopting a new technology. A paradigm shift in design-led thinking is required by both the industry and the technology supplier for a successful adoption process to occur.

What does this mean for technology adoption in markets like tableware and glass? In many ways, the technology requirements are similar, as tableware and most glass decoration applications call for high-temperature firing inks with similar issues to those in ceramic tile. In some cases, glass can be decorated with inks containing organic pigments, which allows simpler printing and processing technology. However, in these cases, image durability and lightfastness is not always sufficient for the application, limiting the technology to indoor use or where the printing image is protected in some way. Examples include decorating the polyvinyl butyral (PVB) film in laminated glass (so the image is protected by the lamination process) and architectural applications where the printed image is not exposed to excess UV light or abrasion.

Some glass applications, including architectural and automotive, also call for the handling of much larger substrates than is the case for ceramic tile. A further technological difficulty in the case of ceramic tableware and automotive glass is the need to cope with curved surfaces, which is an issue for digital printing. In tableware, which is currently decorated with printed decals, a digitally printed decal is possible, although the decal transfer process itself does not change.

While technology developments in these areas are progressing, the adoption of digital technology into these markets has been slow, indicating perhaps that market pull is not as strong as in ceramic tile, where the industry was keen to adopt a technology that allowed new design possibilities, significant inventory reduction and increased yields. The requirement for printed glass is much smaller currently than for printed tile, which makes the investment in new technology harder to justify. If digitally printed glass was readily available, it may be adopted by consumers more extensively, but this remains to be seen.

Tableware remains a significant market that can potentially enjoy all the same benefits as tile, but producers currently exhibit little interest in adopting the technology (again indicating the existence of a chasm for one or more of the reasons previously mentioned). The expectation is that the adoption of digital technology in these adjacent industries to ceramic tile will remain slow until there is a change on the demand side of the equation.

Crossing the Chasm

It is clear that for digital technology suppliers looking to access new markets with identified potential, a number of issues need to be addressed. First, the hygiene factors need to be in place. Second, the true benefits of digital technology for a particular industry need to be understood. Finally, the design-led benefits of the technology—and the need for a shift in thinking—need to be communicated to the potential adopters. Only then can the promised potential in new industrial digital markets be realized.   

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