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Industrial Direct to Product Decorating in the Digital Age
by Sigi Knappik, New Business Development Manager, ITW Trans Tech

Technology Feature

What is product decorating in a digital age?
Product decoration using industrial inkjet is the capability to print directly onto a wide variety of substrates with permanent, high-resolution imaging. This is accomplished through the use of piezo inkjet technology that allows for the full gamut of digital advantages.

How long has this technology been in existence?
Piezo inkjet technology has existed for decades. Not until recently, however, has its benefit to the industrial market become apparent. When most people hear inkjet, they think of the desktop printer that makes their reports look good. First there were the "shades of gray" versions and then later the color printers. The color printers opened up new opportunities to quickly and easily make documents look better than ever.

Product decorating is another market that is being transformed by the latest in industrial digital inkjet technology. Taking a loot at how products are currently being decorated and how the manufacturing world is changing, the benefits of digital inkjet become more obvious. Several popular methods of decorating products today are pad printing, screen printing, labeling, and offset. All of these processes are limited by the fact that they are analog technology. Many of today's manufacturing processes are limiting run sizes and dealing with multiple changeovers. Any changeover for an analog process requires breaking the machine setup, readjusting the equipment, and restarting. Often, machine restarts require that parts be printed during this time until the desired quality is achieved. Welcome the advent of industrial digital inkjet. With digital inkjet, a company can make a print run of any number of products and have each part be a unique or different image. For a medical manufacturer this could be a huge advantage, particularly with new regulatory initiatives like e-pedigree, for instance. Not only can the product now look unlike anything thought possible but each part can be uniquely traceable. This print capability is not possible with analog processes. Think of the possibilities: customization, bar coding, unique designs, and serialization. The question is now "What do we want to do?” rather than “What can we do?"

What is industrial digital inkjet printing and what can it be used for?
Industrial digital printers are piezo-based systems that are designed to print directly to the part without the use of primers, when paired with appropriately formatted UV inks. Adhesion of the fluids must meet industry standards for durability and aesthetics. The systems are not graphics printers; rather they are designed specifically to work in industrial environments and meet application needs.

With traditional processes such as pad printing, screen printing, hot stamping, and others, the operator must set up jobs with the proper screens, clichés, pads, inks, dies, and so on. This process may take several minutes to over an hour for more complex jobs. Decorating multiple colors with analog processes also requires multiple screens, plates (along with drying time), and/or multiple machines to complete. Digital printing allows for all jobs to run directly through software. Switching to another job requires selecting a new artwork and pressing START. If an error is detected in the image, corrections can be made on the computer.

There are two types of systems currently available: scanning (flatbed) and continuous styles. The scanning systems typically are set up by a user or an automated system filling the bed with product while the printhead then prints the entire surface area in a back and forth scanning motion. Continuous motion systems are quite different. These are set up to print products that are in continuous motion under the stationary inkjet heads. What advantages do piezo electric digital inkjet systems offer?
Both system types previously mentioned offer low cost per print, flexibility, small run capability, customization, and aggressive ROIs. Individual system benefits are as follows:


  • High-speed printing capability
  • Variable print widths and color configurations
  • Continuous or in-line operation
  • System integration for turnkey solutions
  • Remote diagnostic link
  • Large print area for individual or multiple parts
  • Scanned image application for simultaneous printing or multiple parts positioned in a fixture
  • Easy integration with a conveyor or robotic load system
  • Remote diagnostic link
Who could and should be using this technology?
Customers are just scratching the surface of the immense benefits that are offered by the industrial use of digital technologies. Every segment of a business is enhanced by this technology including operations, marketing, and finance. Some of the scenarios where companies have adopted industrial digital inkjet printing include (but are not limited to) the following:
  • Printing multiple products where multiple artwork changes are needed
  • Looking to lower decoration costs
  • Small run capability
  • Improvements in throughput
  • Integrated barcode and/or variable data
  • Desiring an environmentally safe system
  • Wanting a distinct advantage over their competition
  • Looking to decrease downtime during set-up for job changeovers
  • Looking to enhance branding opportunities
  • Multiple colors including spot colors, white, and full process colors
  • Looking to reduce or redeploy labor resources
  • Needing high-resolution imaging of products
  • Looking at product line extensions, new product offerings, or new concepts
  • High-end, quality graphics
  • Staying ahead of the technology curve
  • Reducing expenditures in consumables
  • Looking to enhance their offerings through innovation
  • Looking to streamline production to on-demand or just-in-time manufacturing
  • Looking to reduce on-hand inventories of parts
  • Looking for consistent, high-quality image without a degradation of quality
  • Desiring a flexible, multi-use system for parts decoration
  • Customization
  • Needing durable, vibrant fluid that can be handled directly after print
  • Looking for the ability to make changes quickly to avoid requiring downtime in production.
How does industrial digital inkjet work?
First, artwork is created using an offline graphic design program like Freehand™, Illustrator™, or Photoshop™, for example. These images are then run through a RIP (Raster Image Processor) software package that assigns the CMYK drop pattern for the images. The RIP image is downloaded to the print system for job assignment. Colors are blended on the fly to produce final image colors. Color matching can be obtained by going into the native artwork or RIP and manually tuning one or more colors to obtain the desired color on the substrate. Compare this to analog processes where colors and ancillary additives are manually mixed.

Tuning in an image Several factors can be adjusted through software and system settings to obtain the desired image quality. The fact that all of the adjustments are electronic eliminates the mess compared with analog print methods. Operators manage a variety of tasks, including

  • Managing print queues
  • Ensuring proper standoff between the substrate and the printhead
  • Conducting start-up/shut-down and routine maintenance
  • Adjusting machine settings to maximize print quality
Digital operators must be well versed in the technology and operation of the machines, typically requiring a higher skill level technician than other print technologies. Be sure to partner with a company experienced in digital product decoration that offers an extensive operator training program.

What is a printhead?
The printhead takes the signals from the software driving the system and releases the ink onto the substrate. The printhead is located very close to the surface of the substrate and ejects very small droplets measured in picoliters. For reference, a picoliter is one trillionth of a liter! Looking at a printed image and realizing how small the drop sizes are provides some indication as to how quickly the software and printhead must function in unison to print quality imagery at speed. What is important to note is that the printhead, in conjunction with the software, is what creates the quality imagery that is possible today. Select a supplier that has designed the printhead and the ink in concert with each other to achieve the highest quality images.

Spot color versus 4-color process
Some analog systems will print 4-color process (CMYK) as well, but as soon as the color changes, a new setup is required. This is not the case with digital. Here the color in the images is already processed from the RIP file. Hundreds of parts in a batch could be processed and each one printed with a different image. These systems are able to achieve over 90 percent of all PMS color shades.

Markets – Who is using this technology today?
Manufacturing firms in industries such as ceramics, solar, industrial printing, digital label presses, and deposition for electronics are utilizing industrial digital inkjet already. Other industries with products suitable for this process are automotive, medical, sporting goods, ad specialty, consumer goods, electronics, apparel, glass, and many more.

Can I integrate this technology into my current production line?
The beauty of industrial digital inkjet systems is that they were designed to be integrated into automation. After all, what good is a high-speed piece of equipment if the automation doesn't match? Some currently utilized integration options are listed below:

  • Robotic load
  • Pick and place
  • Part transport shuttles and conveyors
  • Waterfall feeders
  • Vision inspection systems
Additional transport methods can be used as well to meet specific application requirements. A capable integrator will be able to assist in choosing a proven transport to meet specific job requirements.

The multi-department benefit factor Industrial digital inkjet is a unique process such that the benefits offered can be realized in three distinct areas of any business. These three areas are finance, marketing, and operations. How can this process benefit multiple departments? Let’s start with marketing. How many times has marketing been heard saying, “This would look so much better if only we could make it look like …”? Marketing is always looking for an opportunity to make its company’s products more appealing to the buyer. In order to achieve the desired “look” for a particular product, the production process may become very complicated and ultimately, costly. The more colors or designs that are added, the more costly a traditional product decorating process can become. Imagine offering the ability to print virtually any color and any pattern on a product. Suddenly marketing has a new opportunity to sell additional product. Think of the possibilities: bar coding, unique designs, serialization – all done in conjunction with full color capability.

Operations also can reap large rewards from digital inkjet. As mentioned earlier, in a typical analog process there can be many setups. Each setup leaves room for error and takes time. With digital inkjet, the setups are electronically stored and can be recalled for future production runs. There are no inks to mix, no print plates to make, and virtually no cleanup. The last point about cleanup is important for industries like medical where cleanliness is paramount for quality manufacturing. Since the process creates virtually no waste it is environmentally friendly, emitting no VOCs. Lastly, finance can realize benefits from industrial inkjet. Since smaller product batches now can be produced economically, inventory levels can be reduced. The efficiency of these systems also may create an opportunity to redeploy personnel within the organization as the system requires fewer operators and may take the place of several analog printing systems. Considering the speed and capability with which this equipment can decorate products, the return on investment often can be achieved more quickly than expected.

Return on investment
An aggressive ROI is essential to companies evaluating new technologies. The numerous benefits of a properly designed digital inkjet system help companies identify and realize cost savings, increased sales, improvements in productivity, as well as a streamlined operation. These many advantages equate to return on investments that can be as low as a few months. The net result is a system that improves profitability while opening new opportunities that have not existed until now. Partner with a supplier that can help quantify and document the tangible benefits to the bottom line.

Can you afford to ignore industrial digital printing?
If you have products that fit the general profile for this decorating technology, the simple answer is no. There are many different methods available to decorate products today, but none more effective at combining financial, operational, and marketing benefits into one package. Products can be decorated more quickly. Inventory levels can be reduced to levels not previously possible. Long and cumbersome setups can be eliminated. Serialization, bar coding, and unique customized designs are now easily created. Reduced total cost per part is achievable through lower cost per print and higher throughput. The advantages are so plentiful that it makes sense to review how this technology may benefit your company today.

Sigi Knappik is new business development manager for ITW Trans Tech in Carol Stream, Ill. He leads the company’s marketing programs and can be reached at (630) 909-5786. ITW Trans Tech designs, fabricates, and supplies innovative technologies for decorating flat and three-dimensional products. Equipment includes pad printing, laser, and industrial digital inkjet printing, as well as consumables such as silicone pads, printing plates, and standard and specially formulated inks to provide complete product decorating solutions for a wide range of industries. For more information, visit