The printing industry is expanding beyond the role of putting words and images on flat surfaces, such as paper and plastics, to manufacturing objects, ranging from components and spare parts for cars and aircraft to medical devices and even human tissue. Indeed, printers could soon form the core of clusters of small manufacturing units, which could change globalised production in some industries into more localised operations.
The radical reshaping of the printing industry is expected to offer big opportunities for chemical companies, both multinationals and SMEs. DuPont, BASF, Dow Chemical, Evonik, DSM, Arkema, Sumitomo Chemical, DIC Group, Henkel and Merck KGaA are among the international chemical companies that are already involved in supplying materials for the manufacture of products through printing. And there are around 3000 start-ups, mainly in printed electronics, many of which are materials and formulation producers.
With the potential to become manufacturers, printers or their direct suppliers will need a lot of materials that they have not used before. Currently, the printing and packaging inks supplied to printers are formulated from an average of around 50 chemicals, including resins, pigments and a variety of additives. The materials needed to support the new expanded role of printing will be much more numerous and, in many cases, far more complex.
A manufacturing renaissance
There are three main emerging manufacturing sectors – decorative and 3D effects; printed electronics; and 3D printing or ‘additive manufacturing’. All of these technologies are served by well-established printing processes, such as screen printing, gravure, flexography and lithography. But, increasingly, digital printing techniques, especially inkjet printing, are making their mark.
‘Digital manufacturing is the transformation of digital designs directly into physical products using computer-controlled tools and processes,’ explained Tim Phillips, marketing and business development manager at Xennia Technology, a UK-based digital printing technology company, at a recent industrial printing conference in Germany. ‘Digital manufacturing will be revolutionary,’ he added.
The three printing manufacturing sectors were estimated by market researchers to be worth around $40–50bn, globally, in 2014. With printed electronics and 3D printing recording annual double-digit growth rates in recent years, this total could exceed $100bn by the middle of the next decade.
Ink materials together with thermoplastics and thermosetting polymers make up the largest proportion of sales, followed by metals and organo-metallic compounds. The main thermoplastics and composites include polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) , acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polylactic acid (PLA), polycarbonate, polyamides, polyether ether ketone (PEEK), polyetherimide, and polyethylene and polypropylene. Many of these are provided as basic ingredients for, often, complex, ink formulations, particularly in the printed electronics sector.
MGI Group of France, a manufacturer of digital printing equipment and printing materials, has highlighted the increasing overlap between the decorative sector and printed electronics sector by acquiring Ceradrop, a French printed electronics start-up. Soon after the takeover, Konica Minolta, a Japanese printing systems and equipment producer with a strong position in the international 2D printing equipment market, took a 10% share in MGI. The Japanese company has been expanding downstream in the printed electronics sector by making organic light emitting diode (OLED) lighting panels, and expects its share of the market to increase during 2015 with an expansion in sales of OLED televisions.
According to data from the Frankfurt-based Organic and Printed Electronics Association (OE-A), OLED panels together with OLED displays in mobile phone, watches and computers accounted for a large proportion of total worldwide printed electronic sales of around $24bn in 2014. The other main printed electronics sectors include sensors, OPV products, printed memories, flexible batteries and smart textiles.
However, for all three sectors, there are challenges.
First, as happened with digital presses for 2D printing, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are ‘locking in’ buyers of their machines into using their own inks. In 2014, for example, a US court dismissed an antitrust case brought by DSM against 3D Systems, which dominates the 3D printing sector for stereolithography processes. 3D Systems uses radio frequency identification (RFID) to shut down its machines when they are not using its materials. DSM, a producer of photopolymers for stereolithographic equipment, claimed this lock-in practice was anti-competitive.
Another challenge is the volatility of prices for some materials and their final products. These fluctuations can quickly make materials commercially unviable even before they have been launched on the market. BASF, for example, has recently stopped its R&D in materials for printable organic photovoltaics (OPV) after average prices in the market for silicon-based PV panels, modules and cells fell by 80% in five years.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for material producers in all three sectors, however, is the arrival of new highly disruptive technologies, which could soon render other technologies obsolete. In autumn 2014, Hewlett-Packard (HP) caused a stir when it announced that in 2016 it expects to launch a printing machine that would offer cheaper materials and be 10 times faster to operate than leading existing 3D printing systems.
HP’s new technology, Multi Jet Fusion, uses rapid heat or radiation curing to fuse plastic particles together, and is derived from a 2D thermal-offset digital printing process ,which has made HP a powerful force in conventional commercial and packaging printing markets. The process uses a heated blanket to melt pigment-carrying thermoplastic particles into a smooth film, which is transferred and solidified on a cooler substrate. Significantly, similar systems are used in all three printing manufacturing sectors.
Layered decorative printing was originally applied by screen printing with many layers of ink being applied on a variety of substrates, including curved glass, ceramic and metal products. More recently, digital inkjet printing is being used to provide a range of tactile and visual effects on mixtures of polymer and metallic surfaces.
‘[There has been a ] meteoric rise in demand for digital enhancement,’ says Amit Shvartz, vp of marketing at Scodix, which has become a leader in the digital sector through its development of a very fast jetting process for applying multiple polymers onto a single substrate. The Israeli company, which manufactures its own presses, is a typical example of vertical integration through the development and production of its own speciality polymers to respond quickly to market trends.
A key feature in printed electronic products are functional materials that are electrically active through their conducting, semiconducting, luminescent, electrochromic or electrophoretic properties. The first conductive and emissive small molecules and polymers were discovered 20–25 years ago, and some companies are still looking for a ‘killer application’ to boost the market and provide funds for R&D on more effective materials.
For material producers, however, the big technological challenge remains to produce polymers and compounds with sufficient conductivity; durability; resistance to heat and water; and colour intensity, particularly in blues. ‘The question of whether there will be a “killer application” is becoming less important,’ says Klaus Hecker, OE-A managing director. Instead, he said, market penetration will probably come from incremental effects in a wide range of applications.
In fact, many chemical companies active in printed electronics have been focusing their R&D effort on providing substitutes to existing materials rather than new products. ‘Material producers are tending to concentrate on substitution because a lot of effort has to be put into creating new materials,’ says Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, head of consulting at IDTechEx, Cambridge, UK.
There has been a search, for example, for alternatives to indium tin oxide (ITO), a transparent material, which has been widely applied in touch screens because of its high conductivity and the ease with which it can be applied as a thin film. ITO prices are subject to fluctuations because of shortages and other supply chain difficulties.
As a result of this, alternative materials – such as silver wire, metal mesh and to a lesser extent carbon nanotubes and graphene – are increasing their market share. In March 2015, BASF acquired the silver nanowire business of Seashell Technology of California, US, to take advantage of this growth.
Meanwhile, the big market breakthrough in printing could, in fact, come in 3D printing, currently with a worldwide annual value of $1–2bn.
3D printing is a way of making objects by placing successive layers of materials on top of each other under the control of an electronic data source. It is used by industries ranging from automotive, aerospace and electrical appliances, through textiles, to medical devices and biological implants. Thermoplastics are the main materials used but metals and silicas and, to a lesser but growing extent, biomaterials, carbon fibre, ceramics and graphene are also in the frame.
The sector, dominated by the US market, is fragmented, mainly comprising relatively small companies that apply technologies like plastics extrusion, and laser-centred processes, such as stereolithography and sintering. More recently, computer giants have started to move into the sector with the aim of combining strengths in software and computerised design with digital printing technologies able to handle an abundance of materials.
The frontrunner in this invasion is Hewlett-Packard, which cites its Multi Jet Fusion technology as a game changer owing to its faster operating rate and lower material costs. ‘It [Multi Jet Fusion] is designed to transform manufacturing across industries by delivering on the full potential of 3D printing with better quality, increased productivity and break-through economics,’ says Stephen Nigro, HP’s senior vp of inks and graphic solutions.
HP has been moving quickly to set up alliances to give it a strong presence along the value chain, especially in the pre-production phase. The company has done deals with the chip-maker Intel; Autodesk, a multinational software specialist in engineering design; and with Dremel, the power tool subsidiary of Robert Bosch of Germany, which will be partnering HP in a computerised 3D scanning operation.
Microsoft is a key player in a consortium developing a software format based on data definitions specifically related to 3D manufacturing and its materials.
Among material producers, Evonik revealed in June 2015 it is investing in, and supplying, polyamide 12 to the Canadian company Wiivv Wearables, which is making customised insoles with electronic sensors to provide data on movement and fatigue in feet. ‘We’re supporting the market launch of one of the first individualised mass-produced articles to be manufactured by 3D printing,’ says Bernard Mohr, head of Evonik’s venture capital arm.
However, the pace setters in the 3D segment are likely to be the players able to integrate computer design activities with digital printing processes in systems in which they can control the choice and supply of the materials.
Sean Milmo is a freelance writer based in Essex, UK