Printing and Design Tips: April 2013, Issue #141

Custom Printing: What Is Industrial Printing?

I just had my mind opened by an article entitled "Industrial Print Has Awesome Potential. But What Is It Exactly?" I read the article, written by Marcus Timson, in the 2/8/13 edition of A very interesting read.

So What Exactly is Industrial Printing?

Timson's article defines it as "print that does not have the primary purpose of carrying a promotional message. It is print that is part of a manufacturing process. That either enables the function of a product or that enhances its appearance or decoration."

As I make a cursory visual scan of my office desk, I see a number of items that fit this description. And I'm sure I'm just scratching the surface. For instance, all the keys on my computer keyboard as well as my calculator have been printed with alphanumeric characters along with function keys and branding ("emachines," for instance). The monitor is an Acer, and its bezel includes a screen printed logo as well as screen printed notations for the "on/off" switch, volume control, etc.).

Why Does Industrial Custom Printing Matter?

All of these electronic gadgets would be useless without this custom screen printing work. The notations don't promote anything (except, perhaps, the logos), but they convey vital information, information absolutely essential for the use of the equipment.

Timson's article goes on to note that industrial printing may not necessarily be done with ink. For example, the seven layers of silicone screen printed behind the glass of a tablet computer, which allow the tablet touch screen to operate, fit the category of industrial custom printing.

Another reason industrial printing is important is its potential for growth. Since many of the venues for print, such as magazine printing and newspaper printing, have been shrinking of late, it's encouraging to see areas of commercial printing that are in fact expanding—such as industrial printing.

Industrial Custom Printing Embraces Multiple Technologies

Industrial printing is "process agnostic," according to Timson's article. It depends on screen printing and inkjet printing, and I would assume that flexography has a place in industrial printing as well.

About a year ago I visited a local custom screen printing operation, and I was intrigued by the geographic globes and molded plastic machinery panels the vendor was producing. He had screen printed the underside of the tinted, semi-transparent material, and had then heated and molded it into intricate 3D forms, such as spheres (the globe) and contoured control panels.

With the definition of industrial printing noted in Timson's article, we can look at electronic printed circuits in a new light. The electrically conductive paths in the circuit boards are screen printed onto the plastic base material. This also qualifies as industrial printing.

What About Coding and Other Marks?

Think about the MICR printed alphanumeric characters on the bottom of your checks. These are not just ink; they are magnetic ink.

Essentially, Mark Timson has expanded the definition of printing from ink or toner on paper to the application of "a functional fluid that actually enables the product to work or that codes, marks, or provides some kind of functional contribution to the product itself."

This Includes Architectural Design, Too

Timson mentions doors, ceramics, and glass in his article, and includes an industrial drawing of a modern house, with call-outs showing all the various ways industrial printing has contributed to the final living space. He even includes textiles such as wall coverings and window treatments: all manner of small print runs on "unusual surfaces that play a decorative role."

Why You Should Care

I think that opening one's mind to the concept of industrial custom printing is an important step. It's a new way of seeing printed products: a new lens, if you will, through which to view printed material. I for one am looking at my keyboard, monitor, even the microwave, with different eyes. I am seeing what had been invisible, or at least I am seeing those commercial printing applications to which I had become inured through constant exposure. I am also seeing the artistry. There is room for aesthetics in this arena of printing. Clearly the industrial designers have applied design principles to their work (for instance, think of the artistry of an iPod, iPhone, or iPad).

The other reason I'm intrigued and encouraged is the persistence of print. As long as consumer products need markings, labels, or even packaging, there will be room for ink, toner, and other fluids printed on plastic, fabric, glass, wood....

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]