Relatively new for the woodworking industry, digital printing offers opportunities for high-speed, high-definition imaging onto a variety of substrates, including solid wood, panel products and decor papers. Another feature of these finishing systems is that large production runs, mass customization and custom runs all can be performed with ease.
Digital printing can be used in a wide range of applications, including flooring, furniture, wall paneling and ceiling products. This method is particularly ideal for trade show exhibits and retail environments, where one-off displays are typically changed with high frequency.
“The POP market is where Durst has most of its installation base worldwide,” noted Roy Pagan, business development manager - Industrial Imaging Solutions at Durst U.S. (Durst digital printers also are sold by Stiles Machinery Inc.)
“Digital printed flooring and panels, although not new to Europe, is still in its infancy stage in the U.S. market. This will, however, drastically change in the coming years as this industry struggles to stay profitable and inventive,” he said.
The versatility of the machines, along with their capability for high quality, high resolution, and high output, are also helping to contribute to their growing popularity in woodworking, added Thomas Peter, managing director for digital printing at Dieffenbacher.
Dale Dozeman, national sales manager at Cefla North America, agreed. “The limits are primarily those of imagination,” he said. “As the technology expands we will wonder how we did without it.
“Think about CNC machining centers,” Dozeman added. “They used to be for the ‘big guys.’ Now, even small and medium shops use the same machine for one-off production. Digital printing is likely to expand in a similar fashion.”
Advantages and Limitations
A number of benefits, both production and environmental, exist with these machines according to the manufacturers. Among the production benefits are: batch one processing for design change, single pass/continuous production capabilities and high design definition/resolution.
“All of the above,” Peter said when asked what he sees as advantages of the machine. “Plus,” he added, “flexibility in the whole process, short delivery/time to market and it is easy to repeat the same designs, with the same quality, months later,”
Also noted by Peter and Pagan is the ease in design development and repeatability, resulting in reduced inventory needs for pattern stocking.
“With manufacturers trying to reduce inventory and keep up with customers ever-changing demand for the latest look, digital imaging provides the ability to manufacture one-off runs of a product line. At the same time, it is providing a solution to run a full production line of the same SKU,” Pagan said.
Putting it into perspective, Dozeman said, “Consider what you can now accomplish with office equipment in regard to flexibility and productivity, versus even five years ago. Printers have expanded their capabilities in speed and quality, exponentially.
“Now apply those capabilities to the shop floor: simplicity, image quality and range of production options. On top of that, you can make money on the first part. That’s what digital printing brings to production,” Dozeman added.
Along with the printer’s capabilities, machinery manufacturers also tout its environmental benefits, an aspect of keen interest to today’s woodworkers.
Because designs can be printed directly onto substrates, there can be an immediate reduction in decorative paper usage, along with all the associated costs, noted Peter.
Added Pagan, “Today many companies are forced to purchase minimums of prefabricated woodgrains. The yields, when processing them for the final product almost always leave the manufacturer with waste that cannot be reused.
“Digital is able to provide the ability to print grains that are perpendicular on a sheet, thus resulting in a much higher yield. In addition they also have no need to order minimums of a specific SKU,” Pagan said.
“Digital printing will also have an impact on raw material usage,” Dozeman added. “We can make a poplar veneer look like rosewood. And, the rainforest gets to keep the trees.”
Another environmental benefit of the machines is their usage of low-VOC finishing materials. Machines in the market offer both UV-cured and water-based applications.
On Cefla’s machines, for example, “The inks are UV-cured using high-efficiency lamps,” Dozeman said. “Therefore, no drying ovens are needed,” resulting in a smaller footprint.
“The use of water-based inks also provide an environmentally safer way of transferring pigments to board,” Peter added.
But despite all the benefits of these machines, there are some limitations.
Perhaps the biggest limitation with digital printing, Pagan said, is the current “inability to replicate the wood flip” in which the woodgrain appears different based on the viewing angle, as found with real finished veneers.
Another limitation noted by both Dozeman and Pagan regards topcoating.
“The limitation that people will bring up the most is the fact that if the top layer is severely damaged, the print is no longer visible,” said Pagan. “Although this is can be true, depending on how it’s damaged, the fact is that any flooring that’s damaged would have similar issues.”
Dozeman also commented that ink quality and the need for a topcoat for wear performance can be a concern, as can the line speed for high-output production. However, he added, “As research and chemistry advance, both of those issues will be successfully addressed.”
“Surface quality is critical to the look of the final product and should be a primary consideration when evaluating whether digital printing is the right approach for a job,” Dozeman said.
“Highly-absorbent material will obviously affect the quantity of ink and finish appearance. With the proper substrate preparation you can put a photo-quality image on virtually any surface,” he added.
Many of the companies also have developed surface preparation and/or surface-fill processes “which will allow large-scale producers to engineer virtually any low-cost substrate into high-value products,” Dozeman said.
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“Although we can image on just about any substrate without a pre-coat, the key to applying a base is more for color consistency and/or color vibrancy,” Pagan added.
As with any investment in technology, before purchasing a digital printer, the wood products manufacturer should first “be confident that there is a sustainable market for the new digital products,” said Peter.
“Companies considering adding digital printing should review their current customer roster and opportunities in the market,” added Dozeman. “It would make sense to survey a cross-section of clients to see if the technology interests them. Panel size, volume and lot sizes will also have an impact on the format and speed of printer that makes sense for their business.”
Pagan agreed. “The printing is just one small part of the process; having a good understanding of the entire workflow is key. Well before printing is even considered a good digital library of your images needs to be established.”