The role of inkjet printing in the smart factory

To most people, inkjet printing means a desktop device printing on A4 paper. Yet, digital inkjet printing holds the key to unlocking mass customisation at mass volume prices. Jonny Williamson reports.

The vast majority of businesses have switched on to the productivity, efficiency and flexibility gains digital technologies can deliver. The growing awareness and adoption is reflected in the almost 80% of UK manufacturers who expect ‘Industrial Digital Technologies’ to be a reality in their operation by 2025. This digital transformation of industry encompasses a wide range of hardware and software, from blockchain to virtual reality. That same study also revealed the most common technologies found in UK industry, namely additive manufacturing; robotics & cobotics; the industrial internet; artificial intelligence & machine learning; and augmented & virtual reality.

What isn’t mentioned is digital inkjet printing, a technology uniquely capable of delivering one-off personalised items at the speed and cost of mass produced goods. Once considered to be a ‘nice-to-have’, the ability to offer customised products has risen to become a key growth differentiator. One in five consumers are willing to pay 20% more for a personalised or exclusive product, a study by Deloitte found. Furthermore, personalisation can increase marketing spend efficiency by almost a third and lift revenues by 15%, according to McKinsey Digital.

 

Meteor industrial inkjet solutions - image courtesy of Meteor
Meteor industrial inkjet solutions – Image courtesy of Meteor

Jetting off

For manufacturers, the obvious use for digital inkjet printing is to create customised labelling and packaging. Yet, the potential applications are almost limitless, says Eric Worrall, Vice President of Products and Services at Global Graphics Software.

“I’ve worked with companies that use inkjet printing to decorate everything from ceramic tiles and wallpaper to fabrics, and seen it used to decorate aircraft tail livery and entire cars,” he explains. What’s really exciting, Eric continues, is the word ‘inkjet’ has become something of a misnomer. “It’s no longer just about jetting ink,” he explains, “The heads in modern printers can accommodate a wide variety of different fluids, including binding fluid used with powder to create 3D objects, and a fluid capable of producing the copper wiring in automobiles.

“A company in Taiwan has even began using the technology to produce OLED television panels,” he adds. This ability to produce an item, as well as to create effects on the surface of materials, has led to digital inkjet printing being used in almost every sector of manufacturing, albeit on a relatively small scale. Global Graphics Software is at the forefront of efforts to drive adoption into the mainstream.

A global reach

The Cambridge-based business is one of four operating subsidiaries of the Global Graphics group, which develops and manufactures integrated hardware and software solutions for graphics and industrial inkjet printing. Current other members include Meteor Inkjet (also based in Cambridge), Belgium-based HYBRID Software (acquired in January 2021), and Xitron (based in Michigan, US). The HYBRID acquisition is one of several major announcements made over the past 18 months, despite lockdowns and supplier disruptions.

In 2020, Global Graphics Software received a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in recognition of the technical breakthrough of its new screening engine that corrects quality defects that occur due to the physics of jetting ink onto substrate. More recently, in September 2021, Meteor expanded its manufacturing, lab and office space to meet growing demand for its products and services. According to Meteor’s Managing Director, Clive Ayling, the new space, (adjacent to the company’s existing site) provides purpose-built facilities to capitalise on growth opportunities and “paves the way for future innovation.”


Meteor printhead drive electronics -image courtesy of Meteor
Meteor printhead drive electronics – Image courtesy of Meteor

 

Lower costs, more agility

One such opportunity is the growing interest surrounding the reshoring or near-shoring of production.

“Businesses have become much more aware of the benefits delivered through digital processes, even though they could still be done with traditional methods, because it’s not only commercially more viable to do so, it also allows you to greatly reduce your batch sizes,” Clive explains. “You no longer need to keep warehouses full of stock or have the space to store offset rollers, or wait for goods to arrive via cargo ship. You don’t need to have a minimum six-week reaction time. You can do it all now – quickly, efficiently and at a price that’s competitive.”

Like so many areas, this is an issue that’s been accelerated by pandemic related disruption and business pressures, particularly within the supply chain. “Extended supply chains and just-in-time manufacturing don’t provide the flexibility, agility and resiliency needed to operate now and in the future. If you suddenly lose half your orders, digital printing allows you to very quickly pivot to new work.” At a time when financial pressures are at the forefront of many a business owner’s mind, not having to tie up capital in finished goods based on best guesses of where demand is heading will likely come as welcome news. With digital inkjet printing, there is no wasted stock as everything is made to order.

A common language

What’s important to note, adds Clive, is that this isn’t about replacing existing processes, necessarily, it’s more about acquiring additional manufacturing capabilities and integrating them into existing workflows. “Our intention is for print to become a standard component within a smart factory set-up,” explains Eric. “The challenge in doing that is that the printing industry has developed its own language and set of standards, and manufacturing has its own. We need to talk the language of manufacturing and ensure our systems can communicate with the rest of the factory.” This interoperability is absolutely vital, Eric says, particularly as digital print doesn’t happen in a separate room detached from the assembly line. “Digital inkjet printing is fully integrated into production, so much so that if something downline doesn’t pass the quality inspection, it can be rejected and instantly re-ordered,” he continues. “ “Another factor is that print operators are highly skilled, knowledgeable individuals. It takes years of experience to achieve the correct colour management or the right level of output quality. Those skills just don’t exist within manufacturing. That’s where Artemis comes in.”


The OPC UA standard connects the print subsystem to the production line - image courtesy of Meteor
The OPC UA standard connects the print subsystem to the production line

Quality control 

Artemis is Global Graphics’ new cloud based data collection hub which combines advanced artificial intelligence with vision learning to effectively fill that skills gap. Artemis can provide varying levels of assistance depending on who’s using the system, from enhanced automated control and print operator guidance, to trend analysis and predictive maintenance scenarios. “Thanks to Artemis, production managers can focus on looking after the factory, the printing element is all taken care of via sophisticated software and automation,” says Eric. With the eyes of its competitors still fixed on the printing industry, the stage is set for Global Graphics to have a significant impact in the manufacturing world – to the benefit of the entire group, the OEMs it supplies and end users.

“Digital inkjet printing has been around for a while, but we’ve now reached the stage where the technology is capable of producing high-quality, finished goods that are completely unique and at scale,” Eric notes. “That has happened at exactly the moment when customers now expect to have a hand in specifying or designing the products they buy, and when businesses are reassessing when, where and how they manufacture and the associated labour involved. Everything has sort of aligned.”

Future solutions

Having a manufacturing operation within its group, however, means Global Graphics faces the same challenges as the rest of industry. “Unsurprisingly, recruitment is tricky,” Clive reveals, “despite being based in Cambridge and the steady supply of tech-savvy graduates and engineers here.”

As an electronics manufacturer, the shortage of chips has presented another problem, and it doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon. Ironically, Clive concludes, digital inkjet printing is a key part of the solution. “One of our fastest growing markets, and has been for a while, is the manufacture of printed circuit boards. And here we are trying to source PCBs,” he notes.

“Integrating inkjet printing into the production of PCBs brings manufacturing costs down, increases the flexibility of your factory and enables you to bring production closer to your end market.  “We’re part of our own solution, it could all be done in the UK, we just need to open our minds and think outside the box. And the time to be doing that is right now.”


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