Making Functional & Industrial Printing Part of Our Daily Life

A closer look at this ever-expanding market segment



Johnny Shell


The world of functional and industrial printing (FIP) is all around us, and applications grow larger with each passing day. While many may think that “print is dead,” the fact is that many of the products we use daily would not be possible without printing.


While it’s hard to define FIP, an accepted definition is “printing where the primary purpose is to give functionality or aid in the proper usage of a product.” As I scan my desk, there are several items that fit this description. My computer keyboard is printed with alphanumeric characters and OEM branding. My computer monitor includes a printed logo as well as notations for the "on/off" switch. In my kitchen, the dials on my oven have settings, so I know what temperature I’ve set the burner to; the same is true for the keypad on my microwave, and the dials on my washer and dryer. My rear window defroster, the analog gauges, instrument panel warning lights, and dashboard control knobs in my automobile; the ceramic screen on my cell phone; the dosage gradients on a medicine syringe; solar cells; biosensors; and even the circuit boards and flexible circuits inside my computer are all printed as are the layers of silicone that are printed behind the glass of my tablet computer to make the touchscreen work properly.


Since many of the traditional print markets have been shrinking, it's encouraging to see there are areas of printing that are expanding. FIP features specialized applications that are not produced by the local printer. They are better classified as part of a manufacturing process incorporating multiple printing platforms, numerous substrates, as well as a wide range of inks and materials.


Printed Circuit on a Membrane Switch


While digital technology has all but replaced analog printing in many segments of the print industry, analog platforms dominate FIP markets and include pad printing, screen printing, gravure, and flexography. Digital technology has had an uphill climb penetrating these markets for several reasons. First, the volumes produced far exceed the capacity of digital printing unless multiple digital devices are used. As an example, there are over 6 billion smartphone users in the world today, so attempting to manufacture all those touchscreens is impractical using digital technology. Second, while abrasion resistance and durability are improving with digital inks, they still do not match the durability of a screen-printed part. Lastly, digital inks are somewhat limited in their chemistry while analog inks come in a wide range of chemistries that provide the necessary performance and durability required for FIP activities (conductive silvers, resists, dielectrics, ceramics, silicones, epoxies, etc.).


Now, it’s important to mention that there are segments of the FIP industry that have been successful in migrating to digital technology. Conventional screen printing was the most common printing technology for ceramic tile. Over the last 15 years, however, ceramic tile manufacturers have turned to digital inkjet printing to address demand for more customization, smaller lot sizes, and faster cycle times. Today, ceramic tile is typically printed with UV-curable inks using printers from such well known digital inkjet OEMs like Durst, EFI, and Roland. Digital printing of ceramic tile continues to gain popularity around the globe—including European countries such as Spain and Italy, where production is almost exclusively digital.


Printed electronics is a multi-billion-dollar industry that continues to expand into new and exciting areas. Printed batteries, RFID tags, circuit boards, membrane switches, thin film transistors, capacitors, coils, and resistors all fall into the printed electronics industry. The explosion in printed electronics has facilitated widespread, very low-cost, electronics for applications such as flexible displays, smart labels, and smart textiles that monitor an athlete’s respiration rate and heartbeat. While digital technology has made inroads in printed electronics, analog printing is a dominant force due to the volumes produced and the required durability for such applications.


Yes, digital technology is making strides in this market segment. Metallograph Conductive Thermal Transfer Printing Technology from IIMAK is used for printing conductive and dielectric traces on most films and papers. This additive process prints conductive traces using thermal transfer printers with no need for sintering or drying.


The heating element in this jacket is made from printed conductive inks, designed into the shape of an American
flag, and bonded to the inside of the team’s opening ceremony parkas and closing ceremony bomber jackets
(Source: Butler Technologies).


Keypoint Intelligence Opinion

One of my favorite sayings is “A carpenter doesn’t build a house with just a hammer; they need a drill, a saw, a screwdriver, and several other tools to build the house.” The same is true for functional and industrial printing. While digital technology will continue to penetrate FIP applications, it is my opinion that analog printing will remain dominant for the foreseeable future given the necessary production volumes and durability requirements of the end applications. Ultimately, these platforms will coexist to provide aesthetics, functionality, and durability to the ever-expanding landscape of functional and industrial printing. 


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