Volume 49, Issue 2 - February 2014

From “Wow” to “Now”

Direct-to Glass Printing Continues to Grow at an Accelerated Pace
by Ellen Rogers

Remember one-hour photo development and how exciting it was? You no longer had to wait a week or more for your photos to come back from the lab. Instead, you dropped off your film and an hour later you were reliving vacation memories. Soon enough, though, even that was too slow. Digital camera technologies and printers have made it possible for us to print our own photos in an instant. Printing has evolved exponentially—and not just in terms of photographs. The glass industry, too, has embraced this still relatively new technology of printing directly onto glass. It’s fast, fun, creative, and pretty much everyone is excited about it.

Doug Mangus, machine sales manager with Salem Distributing in Winston Salem, N.C., says the utilization of decorative glass in interior and exterior applications is partly behind the drive toward more direct-to-glass printing technologies.

“The technology is evolving as well,” says Mangus. “A lot of companies that had been doing screenprinting are now using this … a lot have switched because of the versatility and quick changeover.”

But new technologies often come with a high price tag. These equipment lines are no different. Plus, there’s more involved than simply plugging it in and pressing print; companies still need to understand what they are getting.

“It’s not rocket science, but it’s not a beveler either,” says Mangus.

What’s involved, who’s it for and what’s the future hold? Buckle up and hold on, because there’s a lot more to direct-to-glass printing than you may realize.

Express Yourself
New innovations and trends all have to start somewhere. In many cases the excitement behind direct-to-glass printing has been driven by architects’ desires for new ways to design and differentiate.

“Architects and interior designers are utilizing more and more architectural glass,” says Mangus, whose company recently became the agent for Cefla, which offers digital printing lines. “You can see it anywhere. I think architects are responding to consumer awareness of more and more stimulation [in what they] are looking at.”

Hal Strait, a manufacturers’ agent for a number of machinery lines, including ASI-Tecglass digital printers, agrees.

“I think architects are certainly trying to come up with new and more versatile materials that are easy to maintain. As the consumer sees those different applications they want to adapt that as well; people can express themselves like that,” he says, adding that currently the consumer demand is as great as that of the architect.

“Everyone is looking to differentiate themselves; uniqueness of design and letting them express their creativity is important, especially in the U.S.,” says Strait. “They’re starting to see digital printing allows them to do that in ways they could not do before.”

The interest, according to Tyrone Kline, market manager with Cefla America, lies in the changing demands of the market.

“Years ago painted glass was roll- or spray-coated in combination with silkscreening as far as the creation of a design element,” says Kline. “Now, take a picture with your iPhone and 30 minutes later it’s on glass.”

Kline adds, “Glass fabrication is a very [close] market and, if someone has one of these lines and is knocking it out of the park, then someone else is willing to also think outside the box and will also buy that piece of equipment,” says Kline.

“The success of these companies has created new customers in different parts of the country because they see how well another competitor is doing who has a digital printer.”

From the Inside Out
Digital glass printing has experienced exponential changes over the past decade or so since first becoming available. Mangus says that as the industry recognizes the technology it is evolving and becoming more and more accessible. One of the biggest hurdles has been the challenges surrounding the various inks.

Strait agrees that the biggest changes involve the inks.

“I think what we’re seeing and what’s different is the development of ceramic inks suitable for use in digital printers,” he says. “Flatbed digital printers have been around a long time, but the ability to print ceramic ink is what’s taken a long time.” He says print speed is also better now compared to when the lines were first introduced.

“As the image quality and speed have improved the awareness has increased and we’ve seen more acceptance,” says Strait.

There are two primary options when it comes to ink: UV-curable inks and ceramic frits.

Frit products are essentially baked into the glass, forming a bond. They are therefore more resistant to scratching compared to a UV ink. Strait says the advancements in inks are another reason for the increasing interest.

“A few years ago you had [only UV inks] and were not able to use such printed glass in all applications … Now ceramic inks are resistant to acid, abrasions, etc., and can be applied to a broad range of application types, inside, outside, showers, etc.”

Kline agrees and says a lot of the evolution ties into a desire to use the printed glass on the outside of a building. Digital printing, he says, has been around a long time and was historically done with UV inks, which did not necessarily work well in exterior settings.

“The evolution has pushed that [desire] to print with ceramic frit type inks that can be fired and put on the outside of a building,” says Kline.

Cha-Ching
Another concern is cost. That, too, however, is changing.

“They [printers] are certainly more affordable,” says Strait, speaking of the various lines on the market. He says his company, and many others, offer a variety of machine sizes and different models for different capabilities. “Having options is important to fabricators,” says Strait. “Their interest in a machine may not be for high volume; they want the right quality and right capabilities.”

The cost of the machine may be a consideration, but, according to Kline, it’s not necessarily the machine’s price tag that’s the biggest concern.

“I think all machinery suppliers will be in the same neighborhood in price. The real variable we’re hoping to see come down, for example, as the technology improves and the demand grows, is in the inks,” says Kline. “The inks are proprietary so when they become available locally/domestically, when there are inks approved by the OEM, that cost element will go down which means [fabricators] can offer a product that is even more cost competitive.”

In a Search
Still, it’s new technology and that comes with challenges.

Mangus says one issue has been finding the best route to market for the finished product.

“The biggest challenge will be getting to market; it’s going from the ‘wow’ factor to the ‘now’ factor. How can companies present it and get a return on their investment? It requires a lot of due diligence to push through.”

He continues, “One [solution] I see seems to be pairing with an architectural/design firm, someone who can specify the products.”

Before jumping on board with a digital printer investment, experts advise that fabricators should take time to think about their current operations and whether the addition is really something that can be justified. Mangus, for example, says the technology is ideal for the medium to large fabricators.

“I view digital printing as a value-added option; it would be hard for it to be a core of any business. But, I think five to ten years from now could be different,” he says, likening the process to tempering. “Tempering ovens 15 years ago were so different and now anyone can do it. As technology improves the accessibility improves.”

Speaking of fabricator interest, Strait adds, “They are trying to come up with ways they can add value, additional products and additional revenue.”

What’s Next?
Architects continue to push design capabilities; fabricators continue to evolve in search of new value-added options and technologies. So, what can the industry except to see from digital printing in the years ahead?

“I think through advancements of substrates, inks, etc., there could be all types of applications, one being coatings for solar projects,” says Mangus. “You can apply a thick solar coating and all of a sudden the curtainwall produces energy for the building.”

He continues, “I think it opens a new market for everyone in the glass industry. So whether it’s in your shop or not, it opens a realm of possibilities that transcends through the industry. If you don’t have it you can still sell it and I think it’s something everyone is excited about.”

Strait believes that as the development continues to mature the industry will continue to see improved quality in imaging and lower prices.

“I think when you start putting images on glass you’re adding to the function of glass and you can provide solar control; you can have an opportunity to use interior glass more as a marketing tool because you can easily generate new images, etc. for commercial branding and that’s opening up and driving new demands.”

Kline says the market will also continue to see increasingly faster throughput.

“You can take that image and have it out in a short period of time and what will help drive that is [getting it] done in an even shorter amount of time.”


All or Nothing?

Before direct-to-glass printing was all the rage, screenprinting was the most common way to apply images to glass. Will the growth of digital printing technologies be the end all for screenprinting? Not necessarily.

Hal Strait, a manufacturers’ agent for a number of machinery lines, including ASI-Tecglass digital printers, says direct-to-glass printing won’t likely eliminate screenprinting, but there are a number of pros and cons.

“If you compare direct-to-glass printing to screenprinting there are a number of pros. You don’t have to create a silkscreen and you don’t have to store and clean screens. The changeover is essentially zero with direct-to-glass technologies,” he explains, “you just send the file to the machine and you’re there.”

While the time it takes to screenprint alone is faster compared to printing digitally, the screenprinting process all together can be more time-consuming. As an example, Strait says if you’re doing a simple bus stop enclosure, “six images will take all morning to make and then there are frames to clean, etc., and you don’t have any of that with digital printing.”

The disadvantages for direct-to-glass printing, though, include slower print times and inks that are currently more expensive than those used in screenprinting.

“The cost of the screenprinter and digital printers are nominally in the same ballpark,” says Strait.

Tyrone Kline, market manager with Cefla America, sees screenprinting, though as a great complement to digital printing.

“They all have their place,” he says. As an example, you can take an image with a cell phone and print it to glass. Next the glass is backpainted.

“The backpainting is what will make the image pop,” says Kline. “You can have a spray roll coater or a screenprinter to do full flood [coverage] at lower cost, so digital printing can be a complement to what’s already out there.”

He continues, “Years ago roll coating was typically the decorative method and that complemented screenprinting so now companies can install digital printing and it gives you [another complementary technology] to put out a final product.”

 

the author: Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. Follow her on Twitter @USGlass and like USGlass on Facebook to receive updates.


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