Your Need-to-Know Guide to Getting Started

By Scott Sowers

What does it take to get into the direct-to-glass digital printing game? While it may seem like digital printing is happening everywhere, it’s still a relatively young technology. The process of high-speed printing directly to glass didn’t exist until around 2007. Today, it’s putting the squeeze on other methods to transfer images to glass, such as silkscreening, which can be a cumbersome process.

Digital printing on glass is similar to printing on paper. It begins with computer software files that direct nozzles spraying ceramic frit-based inks. The process uses high temperatures to fuse the ink directly into the glass. The process is precise and permanent, making it popular in various glass applications.

Artistic Challenges

Fabricators considering moving into digital printing should view the proposition as a complex equation rather than just another capital investment.

“It might sound like a fairly straight forward process, but it goes beyond just buying the equipment,” says Yago Martinez, sales director with Cristacurva based in Houston. “You need the actual printer, the glass to print on, the inks and an operator.”

Joe Lindsey is the operator at AGNORA based in Collingwood, Ontario, but his non-official title is production artist. He has ad agency experience with a background in lithography and large format printing. He says, “You need innovative problem solvers because it’s a steep learning curve. Having a print background is beneficial. If you’re an expert in the software, that’s beneficial, but it won’t produce a result just because you know the software.”

Many companies pour a lot of money and technology into digital printing but not as much into formal training.

“There are courses and trainings people can attend, but I believe most companies will approach this as part of their in-house training process,” says Martinez.

Lindsey echoes the sentiment. “Even when going to the manufacturers-users group meetings, everybody is looking at each other saying, ‘How does this work? Do you have any ideas? How did you solve this problem?’ The print industry is globally supported. The company that sells us the printers is smaller than our company. What resources do they have?”

Logistics and Sales

In addition to finding a creative type to make the art happen, logistics plays a critical role in making the finished product.

“There’s a lot that goes into it,” says Adam Mitchell, AGNORA’s marketing manager. “It’s not just throwing a printer in [your plant]. It’s how you orient the line to where the glass is going after the line. We put ours near tempering because it has a direct line from the print facility.”

Entry costs are also high, and the sales potential needs to be measurable.

“It needs to make financial sense,” says Martinez. “Investing in a printer only to find out you barely use it and it’s standing by for days is not a good sign.”

Timing

Although the promise of a shiny new tool attracting the attention of flush design teams sounds tempting, fabricators have a lot to think about before adding digital printing to their arsenal. “There are many indicators,” says Martinez. “One could be a very large or profitable project that requires something you can’t silkscreen. Silkscreening can be time-consuming if your typical projects have many different patterns, colors, or glass sizes. Digital printers are slower but make more efficient use of floor space.” He says while digital takes longer to do a pass on the glass, fabricators don’t have to worry about changing a screen and ink when adding a different color.

Without having at least one project that makes the move obvious, knowing when or if a fabricator should make the jump is a gamble.

“There is no exact answer to this,” says Stephen Balik, vice president of GGI based in Secaucus, N.J. “Even If you have the capital and adequate staffing, unless you are getting a significant number of requests before buying the machine, you will be taking a calculated risk to get involved.”

Going Jumbo

Glass is getting bigger, which can further complicate printing operations. AGNORA describes glass lengths over 204 inches as “jumbo,” and they offer even larger sizes. Lindsey says, “As soon as you start going beyond 240 inches, there’s a whole range of challenges from cutting it, moving it, washing it, edgework, insulating, tempering and safety [considerations] on top of everything else. When it comes to printing, it becomes exponentially more difficult.”

Experts agree demand from clients and architects is pushing the size of panels.

“We have learned that the more you can offer, the more people will take,” says Martinez. “If you can only print 60 inches by 150 inches, your clients will work with that. But if you can print bigger, architects and building owners will want that and incorporate it into their designs. A larger printer means more space in your shop and higher investment, so I’m not saying bigger is always better. Fabricators need to analyze their needs and see what makes sense for them. The larger glass is harder to move around a manufacturing facility, and the risk of breaking it is also higher.”

Small Sample Size

Getting approvals before running the final print job on giant pieces of glass has Lindsey re-thinking the typical approach to creating samples. “I like to work with the full-size concept and scale it down,” he says. “When you’re talking about a little teeny sample and a huge project, you want to go through multiple stages to ensure the relationship’s success. You can’t get that all the time by doing a 12 by 12 sample.” Lindsey and Mitchell compare the sampling process to the way things are done in the print industry—a detailed examination of three-dimensional samples while discouraging the use of soft proofs, including PDFs.

It’s also essential to have trained eyes review the files the client provides the fabricator.

“The quality of the original file is critical,” says Martinez. “First, you see if the original file’s quality is high enough to print the full-size glass. If so, it’s not an issue to scale it down to make samples. The key is the experience and know-how of the fabricator and operator. Some adjustments and settings require certain skills, which is particularly true when a single image will be printed across multiple pieces of glass.”

The Future

Looking to the future, expect to see more glass digitally printed with marketing messages, abstract patterns, bird warnings and whatever else designers can dream up and convert into a digital computer file.

“As more people become familiar with the product, they will continue to think of new places to use printed glass,” says Balik. “Since the final property has no special cleaning requirements, and frit is suitable for moisture and sun exposure, the options are limitless.”

Scott Sowers is a contributing writer for USGlass magazine.

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