Where will Inkjet meet and exceed customers’ expectations in the next year or so? We ask John Corrall on Industrial Inkjet to tell us what he thinks?
Labels and Packaging are currently a key target market for digital technology, and in particular inkjet suppliers.
Being a new(ish) and relatively fast moving technology, inkjet tends to fall foul of the Gartner Hyp-cycle sometimes.
Fundamentally what goes wrong is that machine builders and ink suppliers see a market opportunity and invest heavily – but the market itself isn’t ready. Sometimes the technology itself wasn’t quite right for the application – perhaps in terms of print width or speed or simply print quality. Sometimes the technology is OK but the economics of changing to inkjet don’t quite make sense yet. Sometimes it is simply that the market itself hasn’t “bought in” to the benefits of the new technology -no one really wants to be first to buy. Arguably around 10 years ago the advance of inkjet into the label market suffered from this for a number of years. While HP with its Indigo was already successful in label production, inkjet suppliers found it difficult to make adequate sales. At the same time the market was being given a lot of publicity – with the result that more and more label presses appeared. The obvious result is disappointment and disillusionment for many – with an inevitable culling of the less financially strong players. Eventually of course the technology, economics and market acceptance all improve and the market becomes viable for those who remain. But arguably the time to make a big impact (and big profits) has gone – unless an un-tapped niche is discovered.
After the label market it seems that “corrugated” carton printing may have suffered in a similar way. There is a clear demand from the market for late-stage customisation of outer cartons – purely to reduce the logistics nightmare of stocking multiple designs of bulky packaging material.
To address this a number of players launched large expensive machines for decoration of plain cardboard (11 at the last count!), but actual sales seem to have been disappointing. In some ways the corrugated market has been a more dangerous place to invest than label printing – simply due to the size of the machines required. A “small” machine might be 1.6m print width and specifications upto 2.8m wide are being quoted. This is approximately 10x the width of a typical inkjet label press – which implies a similar multiple of both the sell price of the press and the investment in R&D required to create it. For these machine builders the potential for disillusionment seems large.
Of course, eventually market acceptance will come and the survivors will start to make a profit, but perhaps not at the scale they initially hoped.
After corrugated will come flexible packaging. Quality demands are high – at least as high as labels. Speeds are likely to be higher than for labels and print widths of around 500mm minimum means R&D investment will be somewhere in between that for labels and corrugated. The main stumbling block for entry at the moment seems to be the need for water-based inks that print onto low surface energy plastic films. Although it may be possible to meet regulatory requirements with low-migration UV inks, the market itself seems unwilling to even consider this.
There is one sure way to avoid the hype-cycle though, and that is government regulation. 35 years ago continuous inkjet printing got its big break in life when “best before” dates became a requirement. If the food producer has to comply then he has no choice but to buy suitable equipment. Today this seems to be happening once more in the packaging market with the need for unique coding for tracing of pharmaceuticals and now even dairy products. A similar situation exists with tax stamps on alcohol and tobacco. Arguably the merging of security print with packaging is still very much a “niche”, but one in which the criteria for success are clear.
If you would be interested to hear more from John, then you can watch his excellent presentation on Security Printing from the recent Virtual Summit here – https://virtualsummit.futureprint.tech/talks/iij-security-printing/