Dare to Go Digital

Digital printers for glass present exciting opportunities along with new challenges
Katy Devlin
May 1, 2013

New York City Middle School 114 features a large multicolored public art glass installation designed by artist Mary Temple, and fabricated using Alice directto- glass printing from GGI. Temple’s vision for the project was to print bands of colors that appear to be interrupted by the shadow of trees, even though there is no window or light source in the lobby that could result in these shadows. The 370-inch by 108-inch unified image is made up of 20 panels of 1/4-inch tempered glass, digitally printed with two unique colors. Because the shadow pattern extends across all of the panels, the joints between panels had to line up perfectly, according to GGI officials. Photo by Etienne Frossard

Digital printing has changed the face of the decorative glass industry since the technology hit the market about a decade ago. Early adopters such as GGI, Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope and Skyline Design brought some of the first machines to the United States six years ago, and digitally printed glass products quickly found their way into landmark projects.

“The industry is now seeing exponential growth in application of this technology to commercial, private and municipal projects, both interior and exterior,” says Alysa Hoffmeister, vice president and general manager of Dip-Tech North America, a supplier of digital ceramic printers. Dip-Tech alone has about 200 glass printers in factories worldwide, she says.

The explosion of growth in digital printing on glass has been matched by rapid technology innovations more like those found in the electronics sector than the glass equipment business. Digital printing “is still in its infancy,” says David Balik, president of GGI, and advancements are quickly coming down the pike in terms of inks, durability, size capabilities, print speed and resolution.

While digital printing offers exciting opportunities for the glass industry, the technology brings with it complexities and challenges. This article explores those opportunities and challenges, looking at trends in the market, developments in the technology and factory floor-level tips to working with the machines.

Digital decorative demand

“Anything that can be digital will be digital, and glass is no exception,” says Dip-Tech CEO Yariv Matzliach. “Every year, more and more building designs are adopting colorful digital printing on glass for decoration, aesthetics and functionality.”

Digital printers for glass offer fabricators the ability to digitally print virtually any decorative design on glass, with shortened lead times, helping to meet the quickly growing demand from the design community. “The market for decorative glass is growing as architects, designers and other audiences desire and demand more color and quality in these products,” says Chris Mammen, president of M3 Glass Technologies. “Not only do we want to meet and exceed their ever-growing expectations, we also want to expand and even create new market demands in other areas, such as printed stone finishes and even energy savings.” M3 Glass invested in a digital printer late last year, bringing its Mprint capabilities to the market.

Kevin Anez, director of marketing and product management for Viracon, agrees, adding that digital printing allows for creative designs in addition to improved performance. Viracon introduced its DigitalDistinctions digitally printed products in November. “Now, an architect or building designer will have the freedom to use colors, patterns and images to develop a truly creative and distinctive building,” Anez says. “A digitally printed pattern or image offers both aesthetic and performance value. Enhanced solar heat gain coefficient values can be obtained by adding a pattern or image to the glass.”

The offices of the IFT Rosenheim research institute in Rosenheim, Germany, feature corridor glass with an opaque, colored print design, printed with organic UV inks. Lang+Lang fabricated the glass, using a Durst digital printer.

Digital printing also offers fabricators the option of easily and quickly completing large and small orders. “Most of our orders are custom, for one or two [lites] at a time. However, we also wanted the ability to do large quantities if we came across those jobs,” says Lewis McAllister, executive vice president of Coral Industries Inc. “It sounds impossible—it is not.” Coral invested in a digital printer about three years ago.

Heinz Wiedmayer, international sales manager of industrial applications for printer supplier Durst Phototechnik AG, says the driving force behind the explosion in popularity of digital printers for glass is the value-added nature of decorative glass. “Fabricators are looking at a value- added product. Most glass fabricators make products like insulating glass, tempered glass, etc., and the competitiveness on pricing is high,” he says. “A décor glass product, and specialty glass product, allows a fabricator to achieve a respectable margin.”

Fabricators note that the rising popularity of digital printing on glass has not necessarily come at the cost of other decorative glass options. Rather, the decorative glass market as a whole has seen demand from end-users and designers rapidly increase. “There is a whole world of decorative options. It’s a very popular field. More [customers] want it, and more [fabricators] want to do it,” Balik says.

Denise Lang, marketing manager for Lang+Lang GmbH, agrees. “In general, glass becomes more and more important for architecture due to its brilliance, simple cleaning and clarity. The design function allows the customer to create his or her own individual atmosphere,” Lang says. Lang+Lang GmbH, a full-service printing and finishing supplier, purchased a digital printer in 2009.

Trends and technology

Since its inception, digital printing on glass has seen constant improvements and advancements, many “to offer high resolution, high quality and higher printing volumes per hour,” Lang says.

Wiedmayer says that speed, resolution and size, in particular, are paramount in printer improvements. “Digital printers have changed and advanced over the years. The new generation of printers from Durst utilize the most modern print head technology for high-resolution 600 DPI prints; speed of print up to 900 square feet per hour, which can be crucial in production capacity planning; and size of print up to 98-inch print width with indefinite length capacity,” he says.

The 2012 expansion of the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass., included a digitally printed custom glass installation from Skyline Design. Steffian Bradley Architects partnered with designer Suzanne Tick to create artwork from images of New England landscapes for glass throughout the building. For the 25- foot by 12-foot custom glass mural in the atrium, Skyline applied its Eco-etch process on the front of the glass, and AST digital glass printing with Vitracolor on the back, creating a shadowing effect for perspective and depth. Photo by Robert Benson

As with other types of glass products, bigger sizes continue to be a trend. “Size is obviously something that people want. Glass in general is getting bigger and bigger—oversized glass is a bigger thing,” Balik says. GGI has one of the largest, if not the largest, digital printing size capabilities in North America, he says. “We can do glass up to 110 inches by 169 inches,” he says. Even larger sizes are possible in Europe, Balik says, where jumbo printers are allowing for sizes up to 3 meters by 6 meters (about 120 inches by 140 inches).

The size challenge for GGI was not necessarily getting a printer that could handle larger sizes, but rather having a large enough oven to process the glass after printing; digital printers that use ceramic inks require tempering. “When we bought the machine in the first place, we got the biggest machine we could get and an oven to complement it,” Balik says. “Our older oven was 84 inches wide. After we bought the printer, we saw we needed to get a bigger oven.”

Digital printer manufacturers are also updating their inks—developing new colors and making improvements. “Dip-Tech developed image processing software, which is designed specifically for a transparent medium but also enables digital mixing of the ceramic inks,” says Yariv Ninyo, vice president of business development. “This not only drastically increased the range of colors and possibilities of the images and text that could be transmitted from the computer and onto the glass, but it also allowed the designer’s images to come to life precisely the way he envisioned.”

New inks are also making their way into the market that simulate texture. Durst has developed a new color, Satinato, “which simulates the acid or sandblast effects, adding further value to the prints,” Wiedmayer says.

Conductive inks that add electrical functionality to glass and skid-resistance inks that add anti-skid properties to the glass have also been introduced to the market.

Fabricators say they expect rapid improvements to continue. “I think the trend with digital printing is the same with any other kind of technology—there are always going to be improvements. Just as digital phones and cameras continue to be more sophisticated, digital printing technology will continue to be more sophisticated,” Balik says.

Because the technology is advancing so quickly, the depreciation schedule for a digital printer will not follow the same trajectory as that of traditional glass machinery. Some retrofits, such as software upgrades, are possible; however, others are not, and companies have to make decisions about when to make upgrades to their current machines, and when to invest in the new version of the machine. “You have to make the decision about when to upgrade and when to buy,” Balik says.

Investigate before you invest

Investment in a digital printer presents fabricators with challenges and concerns that differ from more traditional equipment purchases. “It’s a whole different ball game,” says Charlie Rizzo, president of Skyline Design. Skyline purchased its first digital printer six years ago. “We’re used to doing these types of decorative projects every day, but the learning curve was still very challenging. The printers present different challenges every day,” he says. “A lot of people have been caught up in the excitement of the technology. It’s important to know before making an investment that a lot goes into having a digital printer.”

Above all, fabricators should do extensive research, not only to find the best machine to meet their requirements, but also to ensure that a printer is a smart investment in the first place, sources say. When looking at more standard glass fabrication equipment, like glass washers or insulating glass equipment, “one does essentially the same thing as the next,” Rizzo says. Not so with digital glass printers. “A lot of the different machinery has nuances. You have to study the market,” he says.

Ceramic inks allow for exterior applications, such as the decorative façade at Columbia College in Chicago. The glass is i-Glass, from Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope, and was printed using a Dip-Tech printer.

Mammen agrees. “This is a significant investment for us, so it was important that we get it right. Our growth into the decorative glass market these past few years has been built on quality, so we needed to make sure that we are able to offer our customers the best possible printed glass product, something that sets us apart.”

Several fabricators say trade shows offer a prime opportunity to compare printers side-by-side, and to receive all necessary information prior to purchase.

One primary consideration during this stage is whether a company wants to print glass for interior and exterior applications, or solely for interior projects, sources say. Printers that use ceramic inks allow for interior/exterior use; printers with organic inks are primarily for interior projects.

Additionally, companies should ensure they have sufficient work for the printer prior to purchase. “The payback is going to be too long for a company if it is just using it for one job per month,” Rizzo says. One major reason behind this is the considerable human capital required to run the printer; companies will need experienced technicians to work and service the machine, a sales force to ensure orders and a design team. “The capital expenditure is one thing, but then there is also the manpower to operate [the printer],” Rizzo says. “If you’re not keeping that equipment running all the time, you’re paying people large salaries to make samples all day.”

While some companies might already have experienced employees to work the machine, others might need to hire additional technicians. Digital printers are complex machines that require calibration and color correction, Rizzo says. “There are nuances to the equipment, and you need to have really good technical people. … You need people to make sure the colors are calibrated, and who are able to service the machine at an elementary level,” he says.

In addition to pre-production and fabrication services, fabricators will also have to be able to immediately handle post-installation services and replacements. “You have to be able to quickly get replacements done and back to people. The service angle is critical,” Balik says.

A design staff is also critical. “You have to have an artwork program—someone to create artwork, or to create files from a designer. This is another skill-set person that you might not already have on staff, and you have to have the work to keep them busy,” Rizzo says.

Changes in the architectural community have made glass company designers even more important. “Many architectural firms have had to let go of their graphics staff [during the recession],” Rizzo says. “The burden has been placed on designers to transmit graphics who might not know file sharing.” Glass companies working in digital printing have to be able to provide support to complete these tasks. “Be very proactive in your support system,” Rizzo says. “Your infrastructure has to be solid. With all the deadlines in a project, if you’re not offering good service, you’re not going to be successful.”

Finally, fabricators need to have an architectural sales team to get digitally printed products specified. “We still have a long way to go with education. The awareness and recognition is growing, but is still low,” Balik says.

Katy Devlin is editor for Glass Magazine. E-mail Katy at kdevlin@glass.org.