Understanding Industrial Printing
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Understanding Industrial Printing

Much of the innovation in our industry, particularly as it relates to digital technologies, is occurring not in the sign and graphics segment, but the industrial segment, where developers are working on 'better, smarter, faster' imaging solutions.

By Dan Marx, Vice President, Markets & Technologies, SGIA

There is a well-known Indian fable about a group of blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time. Each man touches the elephant on a different place.

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  • One touches the elephant's leg and declares an elephant to be like a tree; another touches a tusk and declares it to be like a spear; still another touches the trunk and declares it to be like a snake. The point of the story is that each blind man creates his own version of reality from a position of limited experience and perspective.

    The industrial printing sector is very much like the elephant in this fable: vast and unknown, and the sectors served by industrial printers mirror the single-minded experience of each individual blind man. In my involvement with industrial printing committees and advisory groups, I've noticed that most sitting around the table do not see the elephant as a whole, nor, should they be expected to. For the most part, those industrial printers serving the automotive industry may not need to understand the ins and outs of high-production printing on glass containers. In my experience, those who understand the broader printing industry are often those who are suppliers for the production or marking on myriad end products. They hold a unique view.

    But industrial printing is a thing, and only by viewing it from a high altitude can we begin to better understand its technologies, its major areas and where it is headed. For those who have read to this point and are thinking, "This isn't for me. I don't do industrial printing," it is important to keep reading, as much of the innovation in our industry - particularly as it relates to digital technologies - is occurring not in the sign and graphics segment, but the industrial segment, where developers are working on "better, smarter, faster" imaging solutions.

    In "Visualizing Digital Markets," an article he wrote in the January/February issue of the 2012 SGIA Journal, industry consultant Ray Greenwood - then an employee of SGIA - made a valiant attempt to explain the industrial printing sector through the presentation of single, highly complex diagram. In addition to defining industrial markets, the article also provided a listing of the technologies used to mark or decorate products and/or parts within manufacturing operations. Primary printing platforms mentioned in his article were:

    • Pad printing
    • Screen printing
    • Electrophotography
    • Dry offset
    • Sheetfed offset lithography
    • Web offset lithography
    • Inkjet
    • Flexography
    • Gravure
    • Additive imaging
    • Subtractive imaging
    • Coating

    In very basic terms, the imaging processes listed above are used to image onto any of the many subsets of the following:

    • Plastics
    • Metals
    • Glass
    • Paper/wood/foam
    If you take these imaging processes and substrate/media types, then consider the wide variety of ink systems used within, say, inkjet and screen printing, and then mix in the mind-boggling variety of finishing and converting technologies used to make print into product, the result - if presented visually - would be a massive, rather dense matrix. It would demonstrate that virtually all surfaces can be imaged in one, if not many ways, and that there may be one or many paths toward achieving any required, finished goal.

    When we look at this broadly we see that industrial printing is not just screen printing segment and not just a digital printing segment, but a segment that is technologically broad-based, analog and digital, and uses whatever finishing technology is needed to complete the job. This is called diversity. It is this diversity that has us looking at different parts of our metaphorical elephant, thinking we understand. It is also the reason that a company sublimating graphics onto snowboards and a company screen printing conductive inks onto circuit boards don't see themselves as parts of the same industry segment.

    What We Know
    In conducting its 2016 Industry Survey, SGIA asked numerous questions to those companies that self-identified as industrial printers. Two-thirds of companies in this sector serve local, regional and national customers; slightly fewer serve international customers. Compared to other print sectors, industrial is the most internationally focused. The median percentage of total business that is generated by industrial printing activities is 74 percent. Companies in this sector tend to be larger than their graphics-producing colleagues: The median number of employees is 63, and the median annual sales revenue is $6,574,000. Slightly more than one-third of companies have annual sales revenues of $10M or more.

    A strong majority of industrial printing operations are multi-technology shops, as evidenced by the 90 percent of companies that classify themselves as multi-technology. While companies in this segment use a wide variety of processes to image the items they produce, digital printing, followed closely by screen printing, are the top two. Litho/offset, flexo and pad printing are also used widely, as are laser-etching /engraving (a subtractive imaging process) and 3D printing/embellishment (an additive imaging process). Among finishing/post-production services offered, lamination, die cutting/laser cutting, doming, warehousing and fulfillment are all used (or provided) by a majority of companies.

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    Among the printing sectors SGIA measures, industrial printers are the most likely to purchase equipment. For instance, in 2015, 89 percent of companies made a production-related purchase of $5,000 or more. Of that number, 85 percent made a production-related purchase of more than $50,000. For 2016, purchase plans were also high. Updated 2016 figures will be available from SGIA later this year.

    Among the vertical market areas served by this sector, transportation industries, medical and appliances are the most served. The market area seen as growing the most is medical. Among the product areas served by industrial printing companies, the most popular are ceramics, glass and sheet plastics. The product seen as growing the most is containers.

    For calendar year 2015, industrial printing companies reported an annual median sales growth of 12.4 percent. To improve their competitiveness in production, many looked to lean manufacturing and/or continuous improvement strategies. They also looked strongly at reducing operating costs and adding new product lines. To improve competitiveness in sales and management, many reported developing new areas and increasing their Internet presence.

    Strong Area of Interest
    For many parts of the industrial printing sector, digital printing technologies are just beginning to establish a foothold. Developments in inkjet technology, particularly where it has delivered higher print speeds, are bringing long-discussed possibilities into the realm of today. In the past couple of years, single-pass inkjet systems have been introduced that offer a competitive alternative for some specialized and/or inline solutions for industrial printing and marking. That, coupled with the fact that product versioning is resulting in shorter run lengths, even increases the competitiveness of the opportunity.

    This also holds true in the printed packaging industry, where several equipment manufacturers have introduced (or will introduce) full-color, single-pass systems for printing corrugated cardboard. These systems will deliver the same benefits - short runs, full color, simpler process, lower labor costs, less inventory - to an area that is ripe for change. While most of the printed packaging produced today is done using analog methods, most print professionals in this industry segment can see the profound changes digital printing will bring, not only to corrugated, but also folding carton, flexible packaging and other areas.

    The timeline for analog-to-digital changeover in different industry segments is variable depending on the "readiness" of the technology, the receptivity to change among those using the analog systems, the opportunity for niche opportunities or increased margin. In the display graphics and signage segment, the changeover took nearly 15 years. In the ceramics printing segment, the changeover took about three, driven by shorter runs, higher customization, just-in-time delivery and the elimination of the need for over-production. Further, digital imaging devices for printing ceramics integrated efficiently into existing production lines. Over time - and at different speeds - other industrial segments requiring the decoration or marking of parts will follow the path of the ceramics industry.

    For industrial printing companies - whatever their primary product segment - attention to ongoing changes in technology and its implications is paramount. Whether bleeding edge, leading edge or surfing the adoption wave, forward-looking companies can and will change, while others will hang their hopes on the present/past.

    Another Kind of Elephant
    If you've drawn any conclusions from this article, it is my hope that at least one of them is that the industry is highly diverse, perhaps even frustratingly so. As stated earlier, I've presided over meetings where representatives of the industrial sector sat around a large table, attempting to describe what industrial printing is. There's another metaphor involving elephants, and that is the concept of "the elephant in the room," which means the thing everybody knows but nobody wants to mention.

    In my opinion, the elephant in the room, for the purposes of this article, may be that industrial printing - the whole elephant - may be too big and too diverse to talk about monolithically, and to treat it as such tends to remove the nuance and, again, diversity that makes industrial printing what it is. The question is: How do we talk about industrial printing in a way that captures effectively the imaging technologies, materials and finishing technologies used, the concerns and challenges of these businesses, and the realities of companies who in most cases do not classify themselves as "printers"?

    The question for you, is this: How, as an organization, does SGIA work to "see the whole elephant" of industrial printing and serve the remove the blinders that may prevent one sub-segment (e.g. high-production textiles) from learning from another (e.g. ceramics)? How can best practices be used to "lift all boats" in the broader sector? What information do industrial companies need that they cannot gain on their own? My email address can be found at the end of this article. If you'd like to offer answers to these questions, please do not hesitate to reach out.

    Dan Marx, Vice President, Markets and Technologies at SGIA, works to raise awareness of existing and emerging imaging technologies and helps printers and their customers identify and adopt new technologies as a way to access lucrative market areas. In his more than 25 years serving the needs of the printing industry, he has authored numerous articles for industry publications worldwide, presented at a wide variety of industry events, served as an enthusiastic ambassador for innovative technologies. He can be reached at dan@sgia.org.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, March / April 2017 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2017 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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