By Lawrence Lee
Digital printing’s introduction sparked colossal change and an industry make-over, but it’s a drop in the big blue ocean compared to what’s on the horizon, transforming the way in which we think about printing and what it can do. Digital graphics printing, functional printing, and 3D structural printing are the future of printing, covering everything from smart packaging to on-demand manufacturing, and the benefits will be felt widely across our society.
Offering more value with digital graphics printing
We will continue seeing rapid advancements in digital color printing in graphic communications, including new types of inks and toners that can create higher image quality and specialized effects. But there is another large new growth opportunity beyond document printing that will come from the ability to digitally print on a wider range of materials.
Digital printing on boxes, packaging and objects enables converters and manufacturers to offer more value to their customers, including late-stage customization, personalization, and shelf-ready displays. Advances in new technologies will soon be able to deliver all the benefits of digital with the image quality and run-cost of analog printing on longer runs and a wider range of packaging media from foils and films to plastics and metals. By 2025 we will see inline digital presses in distribution centers and plants, and also specialized printers and kiosks in retail stores that will offer on-demand personalized printing on products.
Functional printing to enable pervasive intelligence
Beyond graphics printing, the next frontier in printing is functional printing. Today we are seeing applications of active functional inks that can change color or structure depending on local environmental factors such as temperature. We are also seeing early prototypes of printed electronics that enable sensing and monitoring at the individual package level. By 2025 we will see a much more mature printed and hybrid electronics ecosystem, with software that will simplify electronics design, and digital manufacturing systems that will produce a variety of sensors, circuits, memory, communications, and power options on flexible, low cost smart tags or print them directly on products and packaging.
Functional printing will give us the ability to extend intelligence pervasively to documents, products, and packages helping to make the Internet of Things (IoT) real. This will radically enhance existing services, from cold chain logistics to environmental monitoring, thereby enabling a host of new services that connect the physical and digital worlds. Print providers will no longer just deliver printed materials but also analytics that can lead to outcome-based pricing models and greater value.
Innovation and the future of print
Printed electronics: A low-cost, efficient way to embed intelligence into products and objects.
Digitally printed packaging: Hard-working packaging that adds value throughout a product’s journey.
Infographic: Benefits of digital packages
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Innovation from Xerox on Xerox.com: What does the future look like? Xerox believes that the best way to predict the future is to invent it.
More articles about innovation on Xerox Connect.
Structural printing from one to scale
Today 3D printing of parts, or structural printing, is mostly limited to rapid prototyping or specialized low-volume production based on cost and speed limitations of today’s 3D printing processes and materials. However even with today’s limitations, we can see the value of specialized 3D printed parts. Artificial implants, for instance, are not only customized to each patient, but also have highly specialized structures that mimic biological forms. Over the next several years, we will see new advances in high-speed 3D printing of plastics, metals, and even composites. This will enable large-scale manufacturing of production parts, with advantages in design, weight, and material properties over traditional manufacturing processes.
As these new technologies mature in the market, we will also see significant changes in supply chains. Sending off parts to be made in factories is currently inflexible and time consuming; structural printing enables parts to be made locally, on-demand, and in an integrated process to simplify designs and reduce components and manufacturing steps. Structural printing also offers the ability to make frequent changes across a production run to enable customization without incurring big setup costs and time.
The flexibility of structural printing will also deliver significant value in applications where distribution is problematic and making products using conventional methods simply isn’t an option. Space exploration is a great example. Astronauts on the International Space Station have already experimented with 3D printing to understand the structure and performance of printed tools. In the future, astronauts will have the flexibility to print a wide scope of tools and parts as and when needed.
Structural and functional printing together to create smart objects
Perhaps the most exciting potential in the future is in the combination of structural 3D printing and digital functional printing, where we will be able to create personalized smart products, not just parts, on demand. This value proposition is especially compelling in the consumer health and fitness industry. We are already seeing early products of smart clothing with embedded sensors and feedback. In the future we will see even more personalized applications combining structural and functional properties. Take for example custom 3D-printed orthopedic inserts; starting with a 3D scan, it will be possible to print a custom orthopedic insert that supports your foot, resulting in a convenient, cost-effective solution. Now make it smart by adding printed sensors and electronics embedded within the insert’s structural layers to communicate with your smartphone and provide analytics on your gait. And perhaps over time new functional materials could be used to offer differing levels of support as people recover from surgeries and their requirements change during rehabilitation.
Shaking up the print industry
These three different types of new printing technologies will drive big changes across the print industry as we approach 2025. Print providers will be faced with new opportunities that are too good to miss, evolving to offer a one-stop-shop for customers and potentially providing everything from initial designs to finished products to analytics and recommendations. While today this may seem a bridge too far for print providers, the latest printing innovations will also work alongside smarter software to make the market more accessible over time. Smarter design software using artificial intelligence will help guide non-expert designers and operators to use these new technologies, and cloud-based software will make it easier to collect data, perform analytics, and close the loop on marketing communications and new IoT applications that we can only dream about today.
(Portions of this article were originally published in the September 2018 issue of Digital Printer magazine.)