The digital revolution has its sights on a new challenge, and decorating three-dimensional objects offers no shortage of puzzles or possibilities.
By Debbie Thorp
Several systems on the market today can meet demanding throughput expectations. Printhead technology has advanced considerably in terms of print speed and resolution. This is evident in the single-pass industrial systems for flat/semi-flat objects that are now part of production manufacturing lines – for example, the Digapex series from Apex Machine, which offers inline pretreatment and a variety of automatic loading, unloading, and product handling options. Systems dedicated to the production of specific objects have also been shown. Sacmi has developed the ColoraCap, and EPS recently showed a version of its XD070 for plastic bottle tops at the K Show 2016 – systems that both incorporate full variable-data capability.
In the mid-range, Machines Dubuit offers the 9150 (up to 800 pieces per hour) and the 972 (up to 4000 pieces per hour).
And inkjet is capable of even higher productivity. Plastic beverage container decoration lines typically run at 36,000 units per hour. NMP’s Direct Print industrial printers can be integrated into PET bottle filling and packaging lines running at 12,000, 24,000, or 36,000 bottles an hour. The design of the systems is modular, with each color typically printed by a separate rotating carousel containing 12 printheads. The Krones Decotype R can print up to 24,000 specially shaped units per hour and up to 15,600 cylindrical containers per hour in six colors. At the next Drinktec show scheduled for September 2017, both companies are expected to show the next generation of these production systems.
One new entrant in direct-to-object printing is a company with a long history in analog printing. Hinterkopf's D240 machine is designed for production-length manufacturing applications. Courtesy of Hinterkopf.
In most installations at converter sites today, inkjet plays a complementary role. However, the German company Ritter – the first user of the D240 from Hinterkopf – has taken a radical step and decided to replace its existing screen printing lines with inkjet. Ritter has installed two D240 units to print photorealistic images with variable data onto plastic cartridges at their site in Germany. CEO Ralf Ritter has commented that “one D240 machine delivers the same output as three screen printing lines.” The company has also benefited from an energy savings of more than 450,000 kilowatt-hours per year and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 270 tons since implementing the inkjet systems.
Inkjet has conquered the challenges of printing onto a wide range of flat and semi-flat products plus tubes, cones, and even tubs – so what will be next? The answer, naturally, is more complex shapes. Software development is underway to print an image covering the whole surface area of a sphere. A parallel step is decorating complex, undulating, or nonuniform curved surfaces, such as industrial components. Implementing advanced, multi-axis robotics will be critical for this next stage of inkjet’s development, together with vision systems and innovative software for dynamic surface mapping and compensation. Further innovation in ink technology and process development will also be critical to opening new market opportunities, in systems both large and small. We also expect to see further exploration of hybrid technology devices that maximize the strengths of inkjet and screen printing together. At both the low and high ends of the market, the choices for printers and convertors will continue to expand, creating new opportunities to add value through product decoration.
Check out more from Screen Printing's June/July 2017 issue.
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