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Rise of the Robots

(October/November 2018) posted on Tue Nov 06, 2018

The use of robotic technology in the inkjet printing process could change the dynamic of decorating complex industrial components.

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By Debbie Thorp

Using inkjet for product decoration is now well-established for tubes and conical shapes. The technology for wrapping an image around the complete cylinder or cone is understood and used by inkjet system manufacturers such as EPS, INX, Machines Dubuit, Martinenghi, and many more. The next step is to use robots to open up opportunities to decorate more complex, multidimensional products such as industrial components (car dashboards); retail products (motorcycle helmets); or even much larger structures. So far, most inkjet robotic systems are only partially decorating the object – other existing technologies offer full coverage. 


Existing Technologies

Today, complex objects are typically decorated by IMD (in-mold decoration) or by decoration techniques such as dipped coatings, pad printing, heat transfer, decals, or hydrographic dipping.  

IMD is a process of decorating injection-molded plastic parts or components. During the plastic injection-molding cycle, the decorated or patterned film becomes an integral part of the final product. The film is inserted in the open mold and held in place. When the mold is closed, plastic resin is injected into it, encapsulating the film permanently within the finished part. IMD requires good mold design and construction for accurate placement and reliability, and often employs robotic automation as part of the process. Advances in IMD technology now enable high-quality decoration across surfaces, regardless of texture, shape, or dimension. Developments in film technology enhance the formability, increase the depth and durability of the image, and prevent image distortion across complex curves. 

With decals, a printed substrate is transferred to another surface upon contact, usually with the aid of heat or water. Decals can be used for items such as appliance instrument panels and can provide high-quality graphics on a wide range of materials. 

Pad printing is also used to print onto irregular shapes, transferring a 2D image onto a 3D object via an indirect offset process. The image is transferred from the etched artwork (cliché) by a silicone pad onto the object. Pad printing is widely used for decorating objects such as golf balls, toys, medical devices, appliances, and control panels.  


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