Emerging market in wallpapers

Emerging market in wallpapers
Personalised wallpapers represent a significant market opportunity for wide format printers, reports Gareth Ward

W hen Benny Landa declared ‘everything that can be digital will be digital’ back at Ipex in 1993, it is doubtful he was thinking about wallpapers. But almost 25 years later inkjet press manufacturers in particular are thinking big about wall coverings. It is a natural progression for inkjet: from printing photos on the desktop, to posters and now to entire rooms or walls. Each product generates more uses for ink. The time is right for wallpaper production to become digital, and if you have a printer from the likes of Epson, HP Latex, Roland DG, Mutoh, Mimaki, Ricoh you are able to produce personalised wallpaper.

There are other trends. In the 1960s/70s and into the 1980s, most homes had rooms covered in wallpapers. That has given way to painted surfaces and now perhaps to decor with a printed feature wall. The proliferation of house focused television programmes, homestyle magazines and especially websites like Houzz.com, Pinterest and Instagram, has spread the idea of interior design. Everyone wants their living space to be personalised and to project their character, and anyone can be an interior designer. This is a trend that digital printing can tap into.

Conventionally, wallpapers are a high volume relatively low cost product distributed to consumers or householders via warehouses and larger retailers. Gravure or screen printing has dominated with producers creating their own colours, often with slight variations (hence the need to check batch numbers when purchasing wallpaper), and printing is in blocked colours, up to 12 at a time.
But the trend in decoration, the desire to eliminate wastage through over production and the need to find machinery to replace the ponderous gravure lines, is all leading to digital means of production. John Corrall, managing director of integrator IIJ, believes these conditions make a switch to inkjet printing almost inevitable. His company designs inkjet presses and adds systems to production lines using Konica Minolta heads. He likens wallpaper to the ceramics market where once the ink and therefore costs of production fell below a certain point, that market switched en masse to digital printing. He says: “A couple of years ago were were doing market research into the laminate market and the spin off from this was the discovery that wallpaper production might be interesting for us.”

What he found would be familiar from elsewhere in printing: shorter and shorter production runs increasing the relative costs of each makeready; difficulty with colour management and consistency; large amounts of waste inherent to the process; high costs of machinery. Digital can change the paradigm.

This is pretty much what HP found when it investigated the market, with the further realisation that current production methods are not suited to reproducing subtle colour gradations, and suffer repeat lengths driven by the size of cylinder used. This favours high volume production, and makes production of bespoke designs expensive.

Again digital can address these issues. Six years ago HP made its first steps into the market with its first Latex presses. These, says Terence Ragunath, business development manager for the Decorations division of HP, are suited to wallpaper production.

The printed result meets required wallpaper standards designed to ensure there are no harmful substances in the ink or coatings that may come off when rubbed or that may leach into the atmosphere over time. The water based Latex inks that HP’s roll to roll presses use are suitable where UV cured inks are ruled out. Old style solvent inks are also unlikely to meet the specifications required, though aqueous, eco-solvent and low solvent inks will meet the conditions .

HP has developed WallArt software to support wallpaper design, including the ability to calculate how much material will be needed for a room and to visualise what it will look like once the chosen design is in place. However Ragunath warns that the software generally is not intuitive enough for general use. That will be a barrier to adoption he reckons, though the number of online websites offering wallpaper or murals printed to suit a room’s dimensions suggests that he is not entirely right.

The immediate opportunities for general printers to exploit start with wall murals, a cartoon character for a children’s bedroom, a scene from nature to bring the outdoors in for a living room perhaps. Inkjet printing is also ideal for feature walls where one element is enlarged for maximum impact: instead of a repeated pattern of small roses across a wall, chose a single flower for maximum impact instead.

HP has learned that the brilliant colours its equipment is capable of are not always what is needed in the home decor market. Colours like this can be too strong to live with comfortably. It makes more sense to tone down the impact. The phrase ‘fading into the wallpaper’ is not to be ignored.
According to Ragunath, HP will not be adapting its T series PageWide presses for wallpaper production although it did this for corrugated box printing. The wallpaper market is not large enough to warrant the development investment HP would have to make and secondly the ink adhesion to the surface of the substrate is not robust enough to withstand the treatment a wall might suffer from rubbing over an extended period.

Inkjet printing is not the only technology suited to wallpaper printing. Xeikon has come up with a wall decoration package of software and hardware to accompany its single sided 3500 electrophotographic presses. There is no problem with the toners used as these have been passed as food safe, but the reel is slightly narrower than the wallpaper industry is used to. Its production speed comfortably exceeds current inkjet machines, which has led to adoption by WallVision, a €60m turnover Swedish company that ships under premium brands around the world. It now has two Xeikons which sit alongside conventional production lines.

However, despite the appeal of Xeikon’s technology, inkjet printing is going to be more widespread and is more suited to entrepreneurial start ups that will steer the market for the immediate future.
HP is not alone in having technology that is suited to this market sector. Epson’s SureColor S series presses are being used in wallpaper production in a number of locations where printers have teamed up with interior designers as a way to generate demand for the print. This market is not averse to paying a decent margin for a product that is personalised, tweaking the patterns that the interior designer has come up with to suit a client brief. This is a powerful argument in favour of digital over analogue print processes.

Then there is the absence of a repeat pattern which will excite designers working in this market. However for the printer working on interior design can be a frustratingly lengthy process. The large interior design firms working on residential projects may make a pitch and secure a contract months ahead of construction led alone decoration. The printer’s involvement may only be needed at the very end of the project even though he was appointed 12 months or more earlier. Private commissions or commercial work can have a faster turnaround. Restaurants, bars and coffee shops are opting for faster decoration refreshes driven by the availability of digital printing and suitable materials.

The Epson SureColor printer is highly suitable for wallpaper printing. It can offer nine colour printing, uses eco solvent inks that are durable, safe and have a wide colour gamut. Printing edge to edge is essential for wallpaper printing. The sharpness of the finished product makes the machine highly suitable for mural printing. Paul Restarick, Epson Europe specialist, points out that the take up reels are controlled under tension to prevent stretch across the printed paper. Any stretch across the width will make it difficult to achieve the matching that is necessary when joining the drops together.

This is a function also of the paper used. Some papers are apt to stretch, something that may not be noticed until the material is applied to the wall when a seamless joint at the top of the roll may be far from a match at the bottom. This has ensured that Duramark materials have gained recognition for their reliability and quality.

There are different substrates with varying characteristics for different styles of wallpaper, some with tactile finishes, some designed for rapid removal and repapering of the wall. Another consideration in this market is how the substrate and ink will react when paste is applied to the reverse of the paper. Some inks have been known to run when water has migrated from the back of the paper to its surface. It is not worth hoping that an untested product will do the job to jeopardise a lucrative contract.

Roland DG’s eco solvent presses are a good entry point for the wallpaper printer. Online business wallpaperink.com selected the Roland DG when embarking on an online wallpaper business six years ago. Demand rose quickly and it added to the fleet of machinery, with both HP and Roland DG machines. Much of its production is of room sized murals selected from a gallery of licensed images and sized to fit the dimensions of the customer’s room. Allowance is made for any doors, windows and so on, the design printed and wrapped for delivery around the globe.

The end customer receives the chosen mural in a sealed PVC bag, along with a wallpaper seam roller, pencil, tape measure, smoothing brush, knife and fitting instructions. There is also an installation video to ensure that there can be no confusion as to how to use the product. Murals intended for a children’s room will also be laminated as an extra step for durability.

However the impact of using Epson, HP Latex, Roland DG, Mutoh, Mimaki, Ricoh or other low solvent or latex printers is going to be relatively minimal in volume terms compared to the production capacity of a gravure press. It is this that has made conventional producers reluctant to invest. It is this that IIJ with Konica Minolta is hoping to address. Konica Minolta has proved that its printhead technology can be effective in textile printing, a market that is a close cousin to wallpaper printing and where Konica Minolta has a substantial market share.

Corrall reckons that a commercially effective printing machine will need to be 1.4 metres wide to print rolls two across, will need to run at around 70 metres a minute and will need to be effective on almost every stock that is available. Only then will the tipping point for wallpaper production to become a digital sector be reached. And should the commercial wallpaper producers switch to digital production, the impact will lift demand for digitally printed wallpaper from smaller niche producers. This is not a question of if. It is only a matter of time.

Source: Australian Printer

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