The industrial evolution
To the outside world, IMI's ink-jet conferences might seem rather like a geek-fest, with topics steering well away from sales and marketing pitches and firmly towards the development and direction of technologies. With anything related to ink-jet up for discussion, there is rarely a specific paradigm; what might seem to be an obvious trend one year can quite easily veer off into something entirely different within the space of a few months. One interesting and no less intriguing aspect to all this is the fact that many manufacturers, through coincidence and not deliberate alignment, are heading in the same direction.
If we are to accept and digest trends from the past two years, then it doesn't take rocket science to ascertain that, in general commercial printing terms, we have witnessed sufficient development and innovation to last us for some time to come. There are improvements, tweaks and modifications to inks, print-heads, electronics, firmware and other essentials to be made but, for all intents and purposes, the graphics arena is now well served with mature technology with which most users are comfortable.
According to Mark Hanley of IT Strategies, whose talk opened proceedings of this year's IMI bonanza in Lisbon, the narrow-format market is in a rather different position, with digital print not replacing analogue pages; instead, it is being used to create new value. Unlike the display and industrial sectors, production print presents another view entirely, yet there could be a lesson to be learnt here – the drive by manufacturers to move the graphics market across from old to new technologies is, in many cases, sheer folly. After all, the true benefit of digital is, in the words of Xennia's Tim Phillips: "To simplify mass customisation by using ink-jet."
We tend to forget the place that digital technologies have in lower volume and customised applications, but the increase in developments for the industrial market sector endorses this in an obvious way. While many of those in the graphic arts want to ramp up production to challenge existing analogue processes head-on, manufacturers in other markets are more eager to promote the use of ink-jet in arenas where smaller run lengths and flexibility in content are of primary importance.
The general focus of those at IMI moved well away from established markets and into segments where demand necessitates a move into digital procedures. Inks were a major topic and, while this came as no surprise, the surrounding issues took in application onto industrial products such as 3D panels, white goods and curved surfaces, with particular reference to rheology and viscosity based around UV-curable chemistries. Deposition into more eclectic areas was also covered, such as solar cell metallisation and masking, PCBs, OLED displays and directly printed electronics. What this means in simple terms is that ink, as most of us know it, has gone beyond the remit of enabling colour to be put down onto a surface and is now moving into the realms of specialist formulations, including resists, optical coatings and bio-materials. As a result, the principles relating to performance require a focus far beyond colour gamut and durability, as expected in the graphic arts field.
Given the shift in what can, and will be, produced using ink-jet and the fine tolerances that are required to realise the shift into more critical industries, it was to be expected that the relevance of pin curing would be made clear, along with the growing popularity of LED lamps, not only for their reduced running temperatures but also their ability to be housed in compact units well suited to integrated print-head arrangements. With this industrial growth echoed by manufacturers, all of these developments have to be added to existing enhancements being made for the display, textile and ceramics sectors. At the same time, an eye to the future is required, as potential areas for ink-jet continue to manifest themselves.
Judging from the delegates at IMI's 21st annual ink-jet printing conference, there was a representative mix from all walks of the digital print industry. Yes, there was a plethora of developers and chemists but there were also marketing folk and those involved in business development. This diverse audience proves that there is something about this technology that appeals to everyone involved in production processes; it is excellent that we happen to have IMI, with its enthusiasm for organising and staging such a comprehensive series of events.