It has been a segment that has attracted the interest of printers, ink producers and other suppliers looking for opportunities for expansion. It has also aroused the curiosity of print buyers seeking new effective means of communication.
Not surprisingly, Europe’s biggest wide format show organized by the trade association FESPA at London’s ExCeL exhibition center in June had a record attendance of 22,000 visitors with 650 exhibitors.
It was also the most internationally diverse in the event’s 50-year history, with two-thirds of visitors coming from outside the UK, with large numbers of participants from Germany, Benelux, France, Italy and Spain. Long-haul attendance from Australasia was up 66% and North America 45%.
Sun Chemical, European market leader in printing inks, reported that its stand attracted visitors from 30 countries worldwide, 46% of which were new customers.
For FESPA, now a federation of 37 national associations in screen, digital and textile printing, the main objective of the exhibition was to broaden the appeal of the event to people who play key roles in purchase decisions.
“We (were) targeting creatives and brand owners, showing them the possibilities that can be achieved through print,” said Neil Felton, managing director of FESPA exhibitions and events.
“Visitors (should have left) FESPA 2013 with something they did not expect – the spark of an idea which they can use to drive their business forward.”
For ink producers, the show was an opportunity to demonstrate how they are responding to new trends in wide format through advances in ink technologies.
In particular, they were able to indicate their awareness of the acceleration of the merging of graphic and industrial printing in the sector, which is giving a new vision and confidence to the whole European printing industry.
The main UK print and graphic arts trade associations, including the British Coatings Federation (BCF) representing ink makers, used the occasion to announce the formation of an alliance establishing printing at the forefront of not only communication but manufacturing.
The Graphics, Print & Media Alliance (GPMA) has been created to tackle the industry’s out-of-date “old and dirty” image, the threat from electronic media, the commoditization of print, lack of training, shortage of investment and declining margins.
“Our goal is to change the traditional craft image of print into one that is at the leading edge of advanced communication and manufacturing technologies,” said Peter Morris, GPMA chairman and chairman of the packaging trade association Picon. “The industry is highly disparate. It is very clear that we need to speak with one strong collective voice if we want to achieve change.”
The relatively rapid pace in the expansion of wide format is reflected in figures from a recent survey of printers by FESPA. Over half of printers plan to buy a wide format printer in the next year, compared with 37% in 2010. In the UK, by the end of next year around a quarter of printers who previously only used litho will also have a wide format business, according to another print sector study.
Most newcomers to wide format invest in digital equipment, which was evident at the exhibition in the high proportion of new inkjet machines and equipment on display.
Orders for digital presses were boosted by the continued improved performance of inkjet printers, which in terms of speed and certain aspects of print quality are matching screen and offset printers.
Ink producers are having to develop inks which not only enable inkjet machines to work faster but also maintain high quality print. Digital inks also need to provide ecological as well as performance benefits, which is a major reason for the growing popularity of latex inks as an alternative to solvent inks in wide format printing.
HP introduced a new Latex 3000 Printer at the show with an innovative latex ink system which ensures image quality at high speeds, efficient curing at lower temperatures and use of less energy.
With large-format printers having to battle with shrinking timelines and budgets for big projects in a buyers’ market, HP’s latex solutions “cost effectively address these challenges with new levels of productivity, quality and application versatility,” said Xavier Garcia, vice president and general manager at HP’s large-format sign and display division.
Digital Printing and Glass and Textiles
While digital printing has been benefitting from much of the growth in wide format, screen printing has still been holding its own in some key segments.
“There is still some demand for long-run screen graphic work with UV curing, solvent- or water-based inks but that has been and still is declining,” said Jonathan Sexton, Sun Chemical’s sales and marketing director for screen and narrow web. “Nonetheless, larger customers are telling us screen printing will remain part of their offering. Also there are certain applications – like special effects – or which screen is the only choice in wide format because it can’t yet be done properly on a digital press.”
The technologies behind both screen and digital inks have proved flexible enough to meet the challenges of a continued increase in the variety of substrates on which customers want to use wide format printing.
Among rigid substrates, glass has become a fast growth segment. “Demand for decorative inks for glass has been rising by 5% to 10% annually,” said Mr. Sexton.
A driving force behind this decorative trend has been the fashion among beverage drinks companies to have exclusive customized glasses with their own brand logos. The design of a branded glass and its decoration can add to the attraction of a drink, particularly beers.
However, the expanding sector has been posing technological difficulties to ink producers because of the need to replace outlawed traditional heavy metal inks with organic ones, which in some cases do not have the same color strength and brightness.
Among the segments for non-rigid large-format substrates, printing of textiles has probably been achieving the most rapid growth rates in Europe – lthough from a much lower base than materials like films.
Much of the impetus behind this rise in textile printing has come from advances in digital technologies, in particularly increases in speeds and quality, while at the time there has been a greater demand for short runs and versatility in customized designs.
In transfer printing, MS s.r.l. of Italy displayed at the exhibition a fast dye-sublimation machine able to print on apparel, flags and banners at top speeds of 155 square meters per hour.
There were also launches of presses and inks for direct printing of textiles, demand for which has been growing strongly.
Sensient Imaging Technologies introduced under its ElvaJet umbrella a range of water-based inks for printing directly onto polyester fiber being fixed only with dry heat. The inks have a deep penetration with through printing to the reverse side of the fabric providing seamless color levels, which Sensient claims is “unmatched by current alternative ink systems.”
In its gaining of a growing share of the textile sector from screen, digital printing has been aided by its environmental benefits. Sensient says that its new range of ElvaJet inks use as little as one liter of water per linear meter compared with 50 to 100 liters necessary for other methods, while energy savings have reached as high as 50% and CO2 emission reductions have been as much as 90%.
Opportunities in Printed Electronics
With non-rigid substrates like fibers and film and rigid ones such as glass, wide format printers have been gradually shifting from graphics to industrial printing as a means of manufacturing.
In the screen sector, printers already have a lot of experience in printing parts of electronic circuit boards and automobile components. “These are high-value segments in screen printing which are competing well against alternative processes,” said Mr. Sexton. “In the automobile sector, dials in car dashboards are still being screen printed because car owners prefer them to electronic alternatives.”
Screen printing techniques are also being applied in the making of parts of the displays of telecommunication and consumer electronic products.
“Inks for touch screens, smart phones and tablets is one of our strongest growing markets because of the reliance on screen printing in their production,” said Friedrich Goldner, director of new print business development at Marabu GmbH & Co., the German-based producer of screen, digital and pad printing inks. “It is important that ink producers and the printing sector as a whole take advantage of the needs of the electronics industry rather than trying to combat it.”
Wide format printers in Europe, especially in screen, are starting to move tentatively into the new area of printed electronics. At a seminar at the exhibition on industrial printing, Magnus Svensson, project manager, printed electronics, at the Sweden research institute Acreo, said local screen printers have been printing basic electronic displays and sensors developed by his laboratory after only a few days training.
Other speakers at the seminar said that highly trained and qualified staff would be required if existing conventional printers are to be able to expand successfully into segments like printed electronics and 3D printing.
“At the moment, this is a technically complex area where the work has to be done by a graduate – someone who has learned how to learn,” explained Steve Jones, business development director at Printed Electronics Ltd. (PEL), a technology development company. n
European Editor Sean Milmo is an Essex, UK-based writer specializing in coverage of the chemical industry.