High quality, efficient imaging – i.e., accurately transferring an image to a specified surface – is critical to the manufacturing sector. Screen-printing and digital imaging are used to apply a wide range of materials used in manufacturing, and their value stretches far beyond product marking and identification. Adhesives, anti-scratch coatings, electronic conductive inks, polymers, dyes and magnetic material are just a few of the materials that, in addition to “regular” ink, we can push through a screen or squirt through a print head.
Imaging Technology Advances
In the rapidly changing world of specialty imaging, hardly a day goes by without hearing of a new application or an improvement that helps us take better advantage of imaging technologies. The development speed is impressive; the success rate for implementation is astounding.
For example, screen printing has a long history of being capable of applying a thick ink deposit and print on almost any substrate. Being the only process that can lay claim to that ability remains the strength of screen printing today. Screen printing is also a mature technology. Still, in just the last few years, we’ve seen important advances in the screen-printing process, many of which are a direct result of the rapid integration and success of digital imaging.
Digital imaging, an emerging technology, has proven to be both a competitor and ally to screen-printing. For some applications, digital imaging has replaced screen-printing. At the same time, this competition has spurred substantial improvements in screen-printing as equipment manufacturers, ink manufacturers and other screen-printing proponents step up efforts to maintain market share. Digital technology is also screen-printing’s strong ally: Advancements in digital image management make screen-printing more efficient, more repeatable and more effective, all highly beneficial to the manufacturing sector.
In the time span of just a few years digital imaging has joined screen-printing as a primary imaging technology for producing graphics. Most graphic imaging companies that produce point-of-purchase materials, vehicle wraps, environmental graphics, etc., find that both screen and digital technologies are required to effectively meet the expanding needs of the marketplace.
Digital Alternatives Expand
As a well-established technology, screen-printing is in a state of refinement. Its extreme range of ink deposit and adhesion options fulfills a critical need, especially in the manufacturing sector. But for many applications, digital imaging will provide viable alternatives.
And while screen-printing will remain a strong player in the graphics sector, the use of digital imaging will continue to increase. The versatility and speed of digital processes will improve, and digital will command a larger share of both the graphic and manufacturing markets.
A mainstay in screen-printing environments, ultraviolet-curable inks are relatively new to digital imaging. Recent developments have increased the versatility of digital inkjet technologies, providing more durable images and eliminating the need for pre-treated substrates.
UV digital imaging requires little or no post-printing processing, and can print directly on wood, plastic, paper, laminated stock, glass and many other substrates. And because UV ink is applied as a liquid, but becomes a solid when exposed to UV radiation, it creates a durable image, well-suited for many applications. As a result, UV digital technologies are opening doors to markets that aqueous and solvent-based digital imaging systems haven’t been able to reach.
Predictions, Prognostications & Probabilities
Digital imaging must gain print speed if it’s to gain market share. Arrayed print heads that match the width of the media dramatically increase throughput. Looking ahead, we see single-pass technology eliminating the need for a moving inkjet print head. Single-pass inkjet technology is being used today for some applications, especially single-color jobs, and some manufacturers have affordable single-pass capability for wide-format color digital printing in development or on the radar screens. Today, mid-size, single-pass, full-color inkjet technology is available. One new digital device produces images approximately 63.5 cm (25 inches wide) by 24.4 meters (80 feet) long in one minute.
Digital imaging supports the trend toward personalization that’s characteristic in today’s marketing and product development. The more customers expect what they want, when they want it, the more important maximizing this new technology will be to meeting customer expectations. Expect digital imaging, especially inkjet, to become increasingly important in many manufacturing operations – and watch for it to change manufacturing:
• 3D Products – Expect to see major advancements in inkjet solutions to the challenge of imaging three-dimensional items in the coming years. Print heads (or the substrate) will move in three dimensions instead of two, and that will provide new and exciting opportunities for the manufacturing sector.
• Textiles – Inkjet capability will redefine fabric imaging. For example, with a single, textured white fabric in inventory, an auto manufacturer will be able to produce automobile interiors in a variety of colors and patterns. Cloth components will be laid out and imaged to maximize material usage. Carpets, drapes, wallpaper and clothing are among countless fabric items that will be custom imaged.
• Food – Inkjet technology is already being used to print images on food, from edible photographic images on cakes to messages on potato chips. We’ll see increased use of inkjet in the food and food packaging industries.
• Medicine – The non-contact characteristic of inkjet is well-suited to the sterile environments of the medical and food-preparation industries. Already, inkjet technology is being used to produce strips of human skin for skin grafts and other medical uses; living human cells are being “imaged” to create tissue.
Innovation is the Cornerstone
Successful implementation of innovative ideas has been the key to success for US industrial efforts. In today’s increasingly competitive global marketplace, where margins are tighter than ever, the value of innovation is skyrocketing.
For continued success, U.S. manufacturers need cost-effective production and localized customization. They need to respond quickly to shifting markets and specified needs. The days of “one-size-fits-all” are behind us. Innovations in screen-printing and digital imaging technology will lead to creative solutions and maximum effectiveness throughout industry.
Michael Robertson is President & CEO of the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association. “Specialty imaging” comprises digital imaging, screen-printing and the many other imaging technologies SGIA members use, including those they’ll tap in the future. These are the imaging processes and technologies employed to create new products and to enhance existing products including point-of-purchase displays, signs, advertisements, garments, containers and vehicles. Visit www.sgia.org.