What Defines Functional Printing?

The phrase “industrial printing” is becoming more and more an all encompassing term used to describe the printing process utilized by the manufacturing sector which has evolved over the last couple of decades. Throughout the world we are seeing a continued expansion of printing technology beyond product decoration, and this expansion, spurred by manufacturing, is pushing the role of print to the limit. From the advancing capabilities of industrial printing machines, to the development of versatile inks and print head technology, there are now many new and exciting solutions to traditional hurdles.

It’s fair to say that all of these changes and additions to the industry have created new segments in the market, and sometimes the lines can be blurred.

One such segment where confusion occurs is functional printing. The definition of functional printing varies (depending on who you are talking to). The concept of print ‘providing a function’ has been around since printing’s inception. Traditional methods such as a highway sign visually warning us those two lanes are about to merge, a watch dial, or the markings of a tape measure all provide a function. Are these examples of “functional printing”? Well, technically yes, but functional printing can include more than tics on an odometer.

Among the many breakthroughs that are occurring within the printing industry, is the ability of a printed substance to actually perform a function, such as ink that illuminates, or conducts electrical current. Yes, illumination and electronics are very far from being new technologies, but the ability to effectively ‘print them’ is still an industry at its infancy, redefining the role of print providing a function.  These growing capabilities are opening new doors for industrial manufacturers and process engineers charged with ever changing market demands and ink manufacturers are glad to follow suit. The manufacturers who stimulate this growth are at the forefront of these new developments. Robin McMillan (European Marketing Manager of Industrial Inks at Sun Chemical) believes that functional and industrial print are “two sides of the same coin”. More specifically, he prefers to talk about ‘Functional Industrial Specialty Print’, which he describes as: “a group of markets where printing is used as part of a manufacturing process or as a functional part of the end product.”

This partnership between manufacturers and industrial printing is just one example of how the definition of functional printing will change and develop as it ‘creates and competes’ to meet the needs of such a wide range of industries.