Will digital printing be the next big thing?

Home Inside FCNews Will digital printing be the next big thing?

November 10/17, 2014; Volume 28/Number 11

Industry slow to embrace advanced technology

By Jenna Lippin

Despite some companies’ success with the technology, laminate flooring manufacturers have yet to fully embrace digital printing. Some further education, testing and investments may lead to increased usage of digital printing in years to come, but for now many producers are admiring the process from afar.

“Currently digital printing doesn’t offer pure cost advantages, but what it does appear to offer is significantly higher quality printing and design flexibility,” noted Derek Welbourn, CEO of Inhaus, the North American marketing arm of global laminate manufacturer Classen. As of now, about 10% of Inhaus’ 1,000-plus SKUs is digitally printed.

“The challenge with the higher quality printing is that once the product is manufactured into a laminate with a wear layer overlay, the higher definition of the digital printing can become lost,” Welbourn explained. “However, there is a major advantage in design flexibility both in terms of investment and development speed. No longer is there an investment required in paper inventory and cylinders; once a digital print is developed it can be manufactured into finished flooring immediately.”

Germany-based Classen has invested heavily in multiple high-speed digital printers that have significant production capacity, Welbourn said. “We are just beginning to see the design and flexibility advantages. We are also exploring alternative finishes, which can take advantage of the higher resolution of the digital printing. We believe in digital print technology both in terms of design, flexibility and future cost reductions.”

Mannington has not yet commercialized digital printing on its laminate products, but the process does allow for creation of prototypes in a faster and more realistic format. “We can now simulate almost exactly how the product will look in the final form,” said Dan Natkin, senior director, residential products. Mannington currently uses digital printing in other flooring categories.

Like many other laminate manufacturers, Armstrong still uses the “old fashioned” method in laminate production, the rotogravure process. The company does, however, employ digital printing on its trim and molding. “It has been very successful because you can get an apples-to-apples look with the floor and trim, while before it was more of a coordination,” explained Sara Babinski, principal designer, laminate flooring. “That’s where we are dipping our toes into digital printing.”

Inhaus’ Urban Loft

When it comes to digital printing benefits that laminate producers will acknowledge, advanced design and customer demand are high on the list. Travis Bass, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Kronotex USA, noted that digital printing “allows quick turnaround of high quality prints for customer approvals as well as shorter print runs to prepare actual finished product samples. Our benefit comes from the advantages [digital printing] gives the printers for trial products and better quality decors from our designers.”

Similarly, Babinski said being able to print on demand would be good in terms of supplying the customer, but also beneficial for the manufacturer as there would be less sitting inventory. She also cited print fidelity and custom design, which Welbourn also said has created a “significant advantage” for Inhaus.

“Another advantage is random designs with no repeating patterns,” he added. “You create a cylinder whenever you design a printed floor. With digital printing, because it’s data management, there is simply a picture used instead of a cylinder. The image is scanned and the printer can randomly select a chunk of data. You should have an infinite number of variations because the image will select, flip and mirror random parts. However, the challenge with digital printing is it is just too much data for a machine to crunch while still maintaining high print speed.”

Natkin had a similar assessment, noting that digital printing “allows for fewer plank repeats, creating a much more unique floor. [But] digital print is still far too slow and costly versus rotogravure printing in laminate.”

While digital printing for laminate for now is utilized by a select few, there is a belief that as the technology progresses it will become more mainstream, which in turn should positively affect costs related to the process, such as the price of ink.

“I think [digital printing] could potentially replace how laminate is manufactured today,” Babinksi said. “I don’t know how far out that would be. It would be a change of investment for different businesses that manufacture anything digitally printed.”

Expressing a similar sentiment, Natkin said, “As the cost continues to come down on digital print technology and equipment, it may eventually replace the printed décor paper.”

Welbourn noted that a big part of cost of producing laminate flooring is the price of the ink. “If a lot of people get involved and there is a bigger volume of ink flowing, the cost will come down and it can be a more competitive process.” That being said, Inhaus is refining the digital printing process and “moving to the next step.

“It never separates you from the pack for too long,” he continued. “The biggest advantage for the whole category is we are going to be able to create exciting designs and achieve design flexibility you haven’t seen. Laminate is quite good, and it is going to get even better.”

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