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Archive for the ‘Industrial Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: The Many Faces of Functional/Industrial Printing

Thursday, October 20th, 2022

Photo purchased from …

I had an “Aha” moment this week when I read that 3D printing was one of the fastest growing venues for functional or industrial printing.

I hadn’t really thought about it before. But producing objects with 3D print equipment exemplifies the definition of functional printing.

Functional (or industrial) printing is a component part of manufacturing. Its essential quality is that what is printed helps make the product useful, that the printing is part of the intended functionality of a device. Whether it’s a clock face, a circuit board in a computer, or the dials on a clothes dryer, printing is integral to the process.

Within this context I recently found an article online entitled “Key Areas in the Functional and Industrial Print Market” ( This article lists nine segments of the current printing environment that fit this description. All of them are growing.

  1. Decor and laminates
  2. Ceramics
  3. Electronics (including displays and photovoltaics)
  4. Glass
  5. Aerospace and automotive
  6. Biomedical
  7. 3D printing
  8. Inkjet printed textiles
  9. Promotional and miscellaneous items

I don’t believe I’ve seen as comprehensive a list before. When we look more closely, we see that many of these depend more on analog technology than digital technology for various reasons. However, we can also see that some of the items are actually quite appropriate for digital technology.

Digital Options

Let’s start with textiles. From time immemorial people have been custom screen printing bolts of fabric that have then been cut and sewn into finished garments. This works well for producing huge runs of fabric, but the initial set-up activities as well as clean-up activities are labor intensive and therefore not conducive to short runs. So smart clothiers have played it safe. Once they have had a reasonable certainty that a specific product will sell, they have produced large manufacturing runs. All the way down the supply chain the manufacturers have then stored excess inventory (some of which, presumably, eventually became obsolete, not to mention expensive to store). This entire production process had also been time consuming. Producing only one item quickly (such as a prototype) had not been practical.

However, with the advent of digital inkjet technology, it has become quite reasonable even to wait for a clothing order before inkjet printing the patterned fabric that can then be cut and sewn into a single (or five or ten) garments. Smaller fabric inkjet print shops closer to the clothing buyer have been able to replace some of the larger shops that had depended on custom screen printing bolts of fabric.

Digital printing is also ideal for certain 3D objects. In addition to component parts of shoes, jewelry, and even houses, which are jetted (or extruded) layer upon layer into a 3D solid using spools of plastic filament wire, this technology is being used to produce body parts for medical use as well as food. In addition, metals of various kinds are increasingly being used in the 3D manufacturing process.

According to “Making Functional and Industrial Printing a Part of Our Daily Life,” (Johnny Shell, 05/09/2022), ceramic tile printing has been another venue for digital technology. Initially, custom screen printing was the preferred technology for long runs of ceramic printed tiles, but as consumers demanded more personalized designs produced within tighter schedules, inkjet custom printing has taken over much of this work.

Analog Processes

For some uses, analog is still best, depending on two things: the length of the press run and the required durability or special qualities of the commercial printing inks.

Consider computers. Shell’s article mentions the explosive growth of “printed batteries, RFID tags, circuit boards, membrane switches, thin film transistors, capacitors, coils, and resistors” (“Making Functional and Industrial Printing a Part of Our Daily Life,” Johnny Shell, 05/09/2022). The growth of printed electronics has “facilitated widespread, very low-cost electronics for applications such as flexible displays, smart labels, and smart textiles that monitor an athlete’s respiration rate and heartbeat” (“Making Functional and Industrial Printing a Part of Our Daily Life,” Johnny Shell, 05/09/2022).

These functional printing applications depend more on analog technologies. This is due to the exceptional variety of analog inks in contrast to digital inkjet inks. More specifically, analog inks are not only more durable, but they also can be formulated with “conductive silvers, resists, dielectrics, ceramics, silicones, epoxies, etc.” (“Making Functional and Industrial Printing a Part of Our Daily Life,” Johnny Shell, 05/09/2022).

Sometimes even the printing technology itself makes a difference. Apparently, screen printing is better suited than digital inkjet for “producing the fine lines needed for printed circuitry” (“The 2022 State of the Functional and Industrial Printing Segment,” by Dan Marx).

Utility Is Key

In all of these cases, a few general approaches (or mindsets) and an incredible amount of specialized knowledge are essential, not to mention equipment (which can create a high cost of entry into functional and industrial printing).

First of all, in terms of approach to the custom printing work, flexibility and repeat testing are key. If a particular ink must withstand both high heat and intense cold, depending on the location of the product (let’s say an automotive dashboard in a car sold in both Florida and Alaska), the ink must be formulated for maximum durability. Or if the ink must adhere to an unusual substrate, or if it must be a conductive ink, all of this must be taken into account. And everything must be repeatedly tested under appropriate conditions.

Unlike graphic commercial printing, industrial printing depends on consistent use over time in diverse conditions. (For instance, my fiancee and I were given a computer keyboard a few years ago. The keys were backlit, with clear keyboard letters to allow the interior light to come through. The effect was stunning, especially in the dark. However, the ink used to print the keys was not very durable, and as the paint flaked off and the letters changed shape, I was not happy. I replaced the keyboard just recently when it started malfunctioning electrically as well. The replacement keyboard is less flashy. But it seems to be much more durable. Little things matter.)

The Takeaway

If you are a graphic designer, art director, print buyer, or production manager, how can the aforementioned information help you? Maybe you’re a print designer, and you only produce books or maybe only marketing materials.

Personally, I think that it helps to expand one’s view of commercial printing by understanding the different facets of a huge industry. I know that I used to think of printing as putting ink on paper, and then toner or inkjet ink on paper, in order to educate readers or to persuade them to do something. I really didn’t even consciously see all of the printed information on cars, computers, and household appliances as part of the custom printing arena. But they are, and very much so. And then I really didn’t realize that the various layers of silicone in computer touchscreens could also be “printed.”

On the one hand, if you are a graphic designer, you may want to know that your skills are transferable from what you’re currently doing to functional or industrial printing, just as design skills for print can be transferable to on-screen design for the internet. (After all, products as well as publications need to be designed.)

On the other hand, understanding which technology to use for various functional printing goals may benefit you as well. (For instance, based on the need for durability and the required press run, either an analog process like custom screen printing or a digital process like inkjet printing may be preferred. Understanding this approach may serve you well in whatever segment of commercial printing that you pursue.)

So my final suggestion is that you keep studying, keep reading about all the various segments of commercial printing. It will empower you in whatever you do.

Custom Printing: Industrial Printing on Wood

Monday, April 12th, 2021

Photo purchased from …

About 30 years ago, when I was an art director and production manager at a nonprofit educational foundation, I worked with a designer and a book printer to reproduce the color and texture of a marbelized, textured paper. This was for an annual report, and the goal was to use a single paper stock for both the marketing portion of the book and the financials. We used a white coated press sheet for everything and printed a photograph of the marbelized paper as a background for all pages of the more elegant marketing section of the annual report. (We also moved the photo around a bit to vary the pattern from page to page.) (more…)

Custom Printing: Functional Printing in the Hospital

Monday, November 18th, 2019

About five years ago my fiancee and I had a house fire. Being a student of printing, and initially having extra time on my hands, I noticed printing samples in all the hotels we lived in. I found printed maps on the walls, informational brochures on the hotel room tables, and pad-printed or screen printed letters and numbers on the stove and microwave. (more…)

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. (more…)

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? (more…)

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. (more…)

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 A very interesting read. (more…)


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