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Archive for the ‘Industrial Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: Drupa’s Focus on Industrial Printing

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

I’ve been reading a lot about industrial printing recently. I’ve seen an expansion of printing over the last several years, growing beyond its traditional role in publications and marketing toward a greater role in functional or industrial decoration.

For instance, when you look at the keyboard of your computer, you see letters, numbers, and other symbols that make it easier for you to communicate with the computer but that are not in themselves decorative, educational, or persuasive. Yet they are nevertheless printing.

If you open your computer, you will see all the printed circuitry through which your computer sends electrons as it functions. When I was a teenager and pursuing my hobby of electronics, we made printed circuits by hand with etching baths (acid, essentially), and block-out solutions you could apply with a pen. The solution would keep the acid from biting through the underlying metal, leaving a pathwork of metal that became the base of the printed circuits (a process akin to fine arts etching). Now this is all done digitally, and the inkjet printing devices that produce the printed circuit boards are still doing a type of printing.

Or look through any home décor establishment, and you will see all manner of tiles and wall-covering materials that have been inkjet printed or dye sub printed with special industrial equipment. And all of this is still printing.

Enter drupa, the Printing Super-Tradeshow

What has piqued my interest is that the main printing trade show, drupa, to be held from 5/31 to 6/10 in Dusseldorf, Germany, will focus specifically on this aspect of printing: items and processes made to be functional first, and decorative second.

To quote from an article I just read about drupa 2016, “a strong focus at drupa 2016 will be the advances in industrial printing, specifically packaging, glass, textile, ceramics, flooring, laminates, wood, wallcovering and decorative printing, as well as printed electronics” (“drupa 2016 to Highlight Advances in Industrial Printing and Printed Electronics During Show,” source: Messe Dusseldorf North America, 1/22/16).

New Technological Advances and Their Implications

The article goes on to say that “packaging production and industrial printing applications are recognized today as growth markets.” (Werner Dornscheidt, president and CEO of Messe Dusseldorf). Considering the “death of print” meme circulating through the media during the last few years, it is encouraging to see that the markets for packaging (which is in itself functional because it contains and protects, as well as advertises, consumer products) and industrial building materials (enhanced by digital printing technology) are growing. This flies in the face of the “death of print” naysayers. It also provides opportunities for advancements in custom printing technology (for instance, finding the best ways to print on a flooring tile and then bake in the pigment so time, exposure to the elements, and foot traffic won’t wear it away).

“drupa 2016 to Highlight Advances in Industrial Printing and Printed Electronics During Show” notes InfoTrends figures showing that “worldwide mass-production of decorative products accounted for just under half a trillion dollars in manufactured goods in flat glass, ceramic tiles, flooring/laminates, textile and wall coverings.”

With the improvements in dye sublimation fabric printing and inkjet direct to fabric printing it is easy to see how consumer demand is driving new developments in this custom printing technology. In addition, the growing desire for bespoke solutions (one-off print jobs) ideally positions the new digital technologies for mass-customization of interior design work.

Furthermore, although it’s not clear yet exactly how this will play out, additive manufacturing advances (3D custom printing) have allowed interior designers (as well as fashion designers) to add 3D components to their printed products.

What You Can Take Away from Messe Dusseldorf North America’s Article on drupa

  1. All of these functional printing opportunities existed before the advent of digital printing. The products were just produced using analog technology, such as offset, gravure, flexography, and custom screen printing.
  2. Producing these functional print jobs with analog technology required long press runs to make the work cost-effective.
  3. Now, with the rapid growth of digital printing, it has become economically feasible to create as few as one copy of a tile, window drape, bedspread, or printed glass window.
  4. As designers and print buyers, it behooves you to widen your definition of commercial printing. There are multiple opportunities beyond designing and producing print books, posters, brochures, and signage.
  5. The confluence of 3D printing advances, an increased interest in functional printing, and digital printing in general may forever change the paradigm of consumer buying. Instead of going to a manufacturer or retailer, you may just download a file, 3D print a physical object, and decorate or customize it with your own in-house custom printing equipment.

Custom Printing: That’s Weird. How Do They Do That?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Have you ever picked up a mug or a golf ball with a particularly interesting graphic and wondered how the manufacturer could possibly have printed it? After all, if most presses print flat images on flat substrates, just how can a graphic be printed on an irregular surface?

Or think about functional or industrial printing, in which the graphics are intended for informational rather than design or promotional purposes. How can a commercial printing supplier put a logo and text on the face plate of an appliance or a piece of electrical equipment when the surface is uneven?

Printing on Industrial Control Panels

I read an article today on Screen Web. “Printing on Porcupines” by Tamas Frecska (3/18/03) raises some intriguing issues in describing how to print on control boxes and other industrial components.

When you think about it, there are three options:

  1. pad printing (a direct printing option)
  2. decal printing (an indirect method, which is not as attractive or durable as the other options)
  3. and screen printing (a direct printing option)

Pad Printing

The first option, which I have described in prior blog articles, involves transferring an image from a gravure custom printing plate onto a silicone pad (like a bulb), and from the pad onto an irregular substrate (concave, convex, spherical, cylindrical, or uneven). For example, you would use such a process to print an image on a spherical golf ball. Since the silicone pad is flexible, it will compress as it is pressed down onto the golf ball, and the silicone surface will conform to the irregular surface as it deposits the ink.

Frecska’s article notes that such a technique might be appropriate for printing on an industrial control panel or box; however, the silicone pads are somewhat fragile. Therefore, the printing process would quickly damage them. The bolt heads and other protrusions on the industrial control panel would tear up the pad and require its frequent replacement.

In addition, silicone pads cannot be stored for long (and they quickly degrade, unlike custom screen printing equipment, for instance).

Finally, according to Frecska’s article, pad printing inks don’t adhere well to powder coated metal surfaces.

Printing and Affixing Decals

Frecska’s article goes on to note that decals would be another option for decorating a control panel with an irregular surface. For instance, you might print one decal for a logo, and then another decal for pertinent numbers or other information about the control panel. Then you would apply these to the powder coated metal individually. This way you could avoid all the metal pieces that stick up off the surface of the control panel.

The problem with this approach, according to Frecska’s article, is that in some cases regulatory agencies require that such functional printing be permanently attached to the surface of the control panel (or other industrial item). Adhesives of any kind are apparently not considered adequate. Therefore, you might even need to add rivets to the adhesive labels, which would not be efficient.

Furthermore, if you decide not to produce a series of individual small labels but rather to diecut holes for the protruding bolts and tags in one large label so it will lay flat, this process can become very expensive.

Screen Printing

In such a case as printing on an irregular surface of a control panel or box, custom screen printing would be ideal except for the fact that the bolts and other protruding elements of the control panel face plate would tear the screen. Or they would keep the screen from laying flat against the control panel or box. (For custom screen printing to work, the screen must maintain adequate contact with the substrate.)

So “Printing on Porcupines” by Tamas Frecska proposes an innovative solution. Cut holes in the screen to accommodate all the protruding parts of the control panel, or other industrial equipment, on which you’re printing.

Frecska notes that such a process would need to be manual (some custom screen printing is automated). However, he does not see this as being a problem since the print runs for such components are usually very small (100 to 1,000 copies).

Why This Is Relevant

You may wonder how this pertains to your work, particularly if you never produce design jobs for industrial or functional printing.

More than anything, an article like Frecska’s “Printing on Porcupines” can challenge you to ask the question, “How did they do that?” when you see a printed product that intrigues you.

In addition, this expanded mindset might lead you to consider not just one option, but rather multiple options, for custom printing your job. The more printing techniques you understand, the more options you have, and the more likely you are to find the most economical and most effective printing process for your particular project.

Finally, an article like “Printing on Porcupines” can open your mind to just how broad the field of custom printing really is. It extends well beyond promotional and educational materials into a huge realm of industrial or functional printing opportunities.

Nothing can benefit your career, or your craft, like keeping an open mind and expanding your awareness.

Book Printing: How to Approach a Functional Print Job

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

I always prefer to work with people who are more knowledgeable than I in their particular field. I consider these to be my gurus, and in the field of custom printing I have a number of resources for whom I am grateful. They have been a huge help in the following job.

Specs of the Functional Print Job

A client of mine is producing a print book of color swatches, in many respects very similar to a PMS swatch book or a color book you might find at a paint store. It contains 60+ leaves (120+ pages), and its only binding is a single screw and post assembly (one screws into the other, holding all pages together at one end of the print book). Each page has a full bleed color on one side (a process color build) and black-only, descriptive text on the other. The size is a little over 1.5” x 3.5”. So it’s very small.

Approaching the Experts for Advice

This is really more of a functional or industrial printing project than a commercial printing project. It’s a bit out of my area of expertise, so I chose two trusted advisors at two separate book printers to provide estimates and advice. What I like about them is that they always challenge my specifications for job estimates. This actually makes them particularly valuable because they always see things slightly differently from me, and they come up with novel questions and solutions.

As a functional print job, this project posed a few novel issues to consider:

  1. What will the clients do with the product? How will they handle it? What is its purpose, if not to convey information or a brand?
  2. Will everyone get the same product? Or will the screw and post binding be removable, and will some print books be altered prior being sent to my client’s clients?
  3. How long will the color swatch book be useful before it needs to be replaced by a new edition with new colors?

The Answers Lead to the Printing Process

After discussing the project with my client, I learned that some clients will get different iterations of the color book. For some end-users, my client intends to pull out some of the pages and replace them with other color swatches.

What This Means

  1. First of all, this is why the print book has a binding mechanism that can be disassembled and reassembled. In prior years, my client had been using plastic screw and post assemblies for binding, but apparently they broke easily in disassembly. So my advisor at one of the print shops suggested metal screw and post assemblies and worked this into his price. These would last longer and could be disassembled and reassembled more easily. My client could swap out pages without distress.
  2. The end users of this color book would need to use the books regularly. Therefore, protecting the heavy ink coverage on the pages would be important. The natural oil in the user’s hands might cause problems with ink rub off. I asked my two advisors to look into this. The verdict is still out.
  3. Since the press run is short (100 sets of sixteen books), the product is ideally suited for printing on an HP Indigo press. Fortunately both printer/advisors have access to this equipment. Based on the need for color fidelity, I made it clear early on that only the best digital press (the HP Indigo, in my opinion) would do. (This reflects the industrial printing nature of this product. More than with many other kinds of commercial printing jobs, in this case color accuracy and consistency over the entire press run are crucial.)
  4. An HP Indigo does not coat the printed product in-line. Both vendors would need to subcontract this work after the Indigo digital press had completed printing the press sheets. Outside work slows down the schedule, but, more importantly, it also raises the price. However, given the nature of digital printing (in this case with liquid toners), I wondered whether a cover coating would even be necessary.
  5. The client had requested rounded corners on the job. The samples she sent me showed this had been done in prior years. When I received pricing from the vendors, I heard two different stories. One vendor would do the diecutting for $160.00. The other would send it to a subcontractor, and the overall price of the job would go up significantly compared to the cost of a square-edged printed product.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

  1. At this point I have no final answers, just questions. Fortunately, I have two respected advisors who will tell me the truth about the job. So the first point I would stress is the importance of developing strong professional relationships with commercial printing suppliers, and using them as resources for their expertise.
  2. Consider the function of a print job. Making it pretty is useless if the colors are not faithful or consistent throughout the press run. Conversely, keeping the price down by omitting the cover coating (such as a UV coating) makes no sense if this omission will allow fingerprinting and skin oils to damage the product.
  3. Consider how long the printed product needs to last. Is it a brochure that will be read and discarded, a print book that will be kept for decades, or a functional printing product that must endure harsh use and be color fast for a number of years?
  4. If you have a tight budget and no definitive answers, have your printer list the component prices of the job in a “menu” format. Perhaps some things can be sacrificed (like the rounded corners in my client’s job) to meet the budget. At the very least it will show you what components of the job are the most expensive. If you see what elements of a job need to be subcontracted, you can in some cases replace these with in-house procedures your printer can do himself. This will save money.
  5. Always get printed samples. In my case, I will get HP Indigo digital samples for my client. She can put both a UV coated and an uncoated sheet (hopefully from her own color book art file) through some stress tests to see if she really needs the cover coating.
  6. When in doubt, return to suggestion #1 above. Develop professional relationships with experts in your field. Do this before you need their help.

Custom Printing: What Is Industrial Printing?

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

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 industrialprintshow.com. 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, 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 multiple technologies, including 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 as well. 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….

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