Digital Printing to Glass

Digital printing on glass has become an industry standard, enabling companies to provide higher-resolution images in a shorter timeframe. The method is nowconsidered complementary to the traditional silk-screening, typically used for high-volume glass production, such as industrial, large-panel architectural glass applications.

“Digital printing is here to stay,” says Stephen Balik, vice president of Secaucus, N.J., based General Glass International (GGI). The company fabricates and distributes architectural glass and provides direct-to-glass digital ceramic printing. GGI was the first company in the U.S. to offer digital printing when it purchased a Dip-Tech digital glass printer in 2008. “There was a long period early on where many people didn’t understand the concept. But that’s how it is with most new things,” he says.

Digital printing on glass is akin to printing on paper. It starts with software files that guide nozzles spraying ceramic frit-based inks. The method allows elevated temperatures to meld the ink directly into the glass. The meticulous and permanent process accounts for its widespread use in different glass applications.

There are two techniques for printing digital images on glass: ultraviolet (UV) glass printing and ceramic glass printing. These methods have the benefit of providing an extensive range of colors. They differ in the ink types used, the printing technique and the drying procedure.

The Evolution of Digital Printers

Direct-to-glass digital printing is a relatively new process. High-speed printing to glass came into the fold around 2007. Since then, digital printers have undergone various upgrades, including larger machines, improved resolution and faster printing speeds.

“With each printer upgrade, there has been a significant upgrade in resolution,” says Balik. “The first machine that [GGI] had was like 300 dots per inch (dpi). It’s now gotten into the thousands.”

Digital printing blends inks to color match like an inkjet paper printer. Blending colors used to lead to a grainier finish because the tiny dots of ink would “mix up,” says Balik. However, as the resolution improved, the finish became smoother.

Kevin Roth is the founder and CEO of Privacy Glass Solutions (PGS), a Coral, Fla.- based designer and manufacturer of glass products. The company also offers digital UV glass printing. Roth says PGS first dipped its toes into the UV digital printing scene in 2018. It’s currently on its second-generation printer, which is faster, cleaner and offers better ink. Roth says the printer manufacturer needs to remain unknown due to proprietary reasons.

“Our new printers enable us to do textured print,” explains Roth. “We can print braille. We can do flat, textured colors and add a metallic look. We can even spray a protective coating as we print thanks to technological improvements.”

Increased printer speed has also been a significant advancement. Balik says printing is now three-to-four times faster compared to original machines. This not only improves lead times but also cuts down on added costs.

From Solid Colors to Photorealism

According to Roth, customers now want brighter colors and more detailed images.

“They used to want a solid approach,” he says. “It’s now more about lively colors and pictures. They want more scenery and colors that blend in with the environment.

There’s also definitely more movement wanted these days.”

The ability to enhance the quality of imaged glass only became possible a few years ago, especially with UV digital printing, adds Roth. The color schemes have improved as software has advanced enough for better color matches and swatches.

Amanda Portman is the digital marketing project manager at Houston-based Hollander Glass, which fabricates decorative pattern glass and mirrors. It also provides direct-to-glass digital ceramic printing through a Tecglass printer. Her company works on specialty projects, such as printing photographs to glass.

“There’s a lot of people who like printed chicken wire glass,” says Portman. “We also do a lot of commissioned art projects that people design specifically for printed glass … Something really cool that we do is a combination of printing and backpainting. We’ll print something and paint behind it. We have a lot of different fabrication techniques. The more fabrication you can do, the more you can do with printing. It’s one thing to print on a piece of glass; it’s another thing to be able to do many different fabrication techniques on the glass.”

Portman adds there’s still a lot of room to grow regarding educating designers and architects about digital printing. They haven’t fully grasped the applications for it yet, she says. The same can be said for fabricators. Yariv Ninyo, head of business development for Dip-Tech, located in Kfar Saba, Israel, told USGlass magazine that digital printing opens doors for more work.

He adds that companies only offering screen printing could find it difficult to participate in bidding for projects requiring complex shapes, images or multiple colors.

Why Invest in Digital Printing?

That’s obvious, says Balik. You get to work on interesting projects. Of course, money is a factor, too. He explains companies can sell customized glass for much more than clear glass.

However, if a company wants to enter the direct-to-glass digital printing business, it must have a sincere interest, a thorough plan and money. It’s not a cheap venture, says Balik. Depending on the size of the machines, companies can expect to spend several$100,000 just to get in the gate.

“There’s big business there, but many people have turned to printing dots on car windshields because they couldn’t figure out how to do the artwork and the complex stuff,” he adds. “It’s all manual color matching. It’s not a traditional CMYK color scale. It can get frustrating. You also have to enjoy the process of working with the artist, but you get to work on some amazing projects.”

Roth agrees. The process of printing images onto glass is time-consuming, he explains. Patience is key. Numerous factors must be considered, such as creating a design team, learning the process and ensuring the glass used for printing is perfect.

“You can’t just get a printer and start printing,” says Roth. “You have to understand what you’re doing.

Joshua Huff is the assistant editor of USGlass magazine. Email him at
jhuff@glass.com and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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