25 Jan 2022

Mike Horsten is seeing graphics everywhere on every surface

After years of testing and researching, Agfa started developing speciality inks for the flooring and surfaces industry.

If you look around you, you’ll soon see that printed graphics are everywhere. On the floor, the wall and the table. In kitchens, offices and bathrooms. They are, in fact, omnipresent.

Despite this, we in the signage and display graphics sector can be guilty, at times, of forgetting that we are only a small part of the wider whole. We print, and we do it very well, but as a general rule that’s all we do. We don’t design or create, we don’t always even install. We just print.

When we talk to the retail industry we sell ourselves in terms of billboards, posters, pop-up displays, soft-signage and other appealing commercial images. I’m as guilty as anyone; despite the many years I’ve spent in print, I still think in terms of resolution, colour and substrates forgetting the importance of the design and the message behind it.

Of course we can’t lose sight of technology and how to offer the best possible solution, but when dealing with the décor market, a change of mindset is in order. For the past few months, I’ve become convinced that the name of the game should be ‘surfaces.’ We need to think in these terms, not in terms of print, or CMYK, or web-to-print. Surfaces surround us and they have a great impact in our lives, the haptic, the feeling, the view are what impact people’s lives and that’s how we can best sell what print has to offer.

What do I mean by surfaces? Well, the term applies to all sorts of applications, including flooring, furniture, inside and outside cladding, kitchen workbenches and bathroom walls. The possibilities are endless, but we need to keep in mind that producing these sorts of applications is more complex than simply printing a graphic image. In order to sell the décor, the effect and the feeling we need to reproduce the natural colours of woodgrain and stone, to understand how people interact with various surfaces and how they experience their surroundings.

The market, enormous though it might be, remains dominated by analogue gravure printing technologies. There are, of course, advantages to printing in this fashion, it’s simple, easy (provided you understand how), cheap and the quality is consistent. But there are downsides as well. Multiple expensive gravure cylinders are needed for each design, the separations for those gravure cylinders are complex, setup cost is per décor and the change of a design is a time consuming and an expensive exercise.

These sorts of downsides provide an opportunity for digital to come in a seize a wider share of the market for itself. Consumers are starting to demand bespoke designs for everything from table tops to flooring and wall coverings. Organisations like hotels and restaurant chains, determined to convey their own brand and identity, are on the lookout for new ways to get their brand in front of the customer. Digital is well placed to fulfil these needs, with Agfa’s own technology perfectly suited. Our colour system is CMYK based so we have 16 million different colours in our gamut, we can print any design and we can switch designs on the fly.

So far so good, but as I’ve already made clear, the world of décor printing is very different to that of wide-format and signage. For example, the use of graphic CMYK inks would result in low gamut quality images of wood grain or create metamerisms, a phenomenon where the colour of two objects appear the same under a particular light source, but actually have different spectral energy distributions. This is an issue because, when a different kind of light source is used, the color difference between them can be revealed.

This can cause problems for printers that wouldn’t arise in the graphics and display world, and it might initially seem as if all the great technology we’ve got will be rendered useless when it comes to décor and surfaces. Fortunately, this isn’t the case, if we make sure we use pigment colours correctly, change the inks and the way we print we can get to the same results as gravure and conform to the standards expected in this industry.

You might say that Agfa had a head start when it came to understanding surfaces. Even before the industry started developing inks and printers tailored to décor we were working with companies like UNLIN, a part of the Mohawk group, a leading global manufacturer of flooring. Partnerships like these gave us the knowhow we needed to understand the market and solve some problems before they had even arisen.

After years of testing and researching, Agfa started developing speciality inks for the flooring and surfaces industry. We found that using the same pigment colours as gravure meant it was possible to get the same or better results than more traditional printing technologies. Alongside other advances, the introduction of a special patented red ink and a new light black ink meant that printing digitally became viable for the surfaces industries. We have the best of both worlds as our technology is fully capable of printing both décor surfaces and onto more traditional substrates.

There are still other hurdles to overcome, however. To take one example, flooring companies aren’t really interested in printing directly onto a wood chipboard or any other hard surface, it’s just not the way they do things. What these companies want to do is to print onto a special paper that can later be impregnated with a melamine resin and then pressed together to make a strong sandwich like print. The finished product is called a HPL (High Pressure Laminates).

A particular challenge of creating HPLs is that the ink needs to stay where it is during impregnation, but at the same time it can’t contain a binder as the melamine would not penetrate the paper and this would not allow it to be pressed correctly, creating delamination and bubbles. Already we can see that the complexities involved in the process are greater than any you’d come up against whilst printing a banner or poster.

As I came to understand the market more fully, I began to explore potential solutions to this, and other difficulties presented by surfaces. In the end I dismissed printing with UV inks, as the UV layer would not allow the resin to penetrate the paper, sublimation inks were also unsatisfactory, as they were too slow and needed to work in combination with expensive polyester materials. I came to the conclusion that our industry simply had to think differently and reinvent the way we look at print. Industrial printing is the solution.

After years of research, development and testing Agfa’s first surfaces printer, the InterioJet, hit the market toward the end of 2020, it included a water-based non-binder ink with the correct pigment colours, colour management software and a separation engine.

It is still well suited to the graphics market as well, capable of printing more than 150 tons of paper per year, or a little over 2 million sqm. We felt this total solution approach was needed as current surfaces customers are, generally speaking, relatively new to digital printing and this approach guarantees a stable production environment. The InterioJet isn’t a huge single pass system that can simply come in and replace an entire gravure line, but it is, for sign and display folks, very much a top of the range option.

Of course, as we make more progress in this new industry, we will have to prove that our print quality, colours and reliability are up to scratch, but as we do this more and more people in décor and surfaces will opt for digital print. I’m confident that the switch to digital will happen in much the same way it did in screen, textiles and general commercial print and already I feel quite a bit of pride at the thought that all the surfaces that surround me will one day be printed digitally.

That’s a lot of surfaces. I start my day with a shower surrounded by print, then go and sit at my desk in the office, surrounded by print. I walk to the company showroom on a nice laminate and, at the end of the day, I eat my dinner and watch TV on top of the new wood grain décor furniture that I’ve bought. In a very real sense, our world has become surface print.

Authored by Mike Horsten, Global Business Manager, InterioJet at AGFA