House of the Future = On-Demand Architecture

From digitally printed glass covering the fronts of buildings to cork floors printed to look like hardwood, there has been a lot of activity in the digital printing space for architecture and design. At InfoTrends, our research has typically revolved around the technology, innovation, and products that enable new applications to flourish. However, we always keep end users in mind, as they are the ones who seed print providers with ideas that drive new opportunities. The Architecture Boston Expo (ABX) was just the place to see firsthand how innovations in digital printing are manifesting themselves into industrial applications. ABX is a local show aimed at architects and interior designers– offering attendees the chance to network, view the latest technology available to them for production, and educate themselves through sponsored information seminars. It was here, in this show, we were able to see how digital printing is making inroads into this industry.

This show is not what we all come to expect, there were no printers, or big manufacturing lines, but rather a wealth of product samples from the latest shower stall draining system to 3D printed architectural scale models. Digital printing was there in force with applications ranging from architectural glass, wood flooring, ceramic tiles, a range of 3D applications for short run production, and scale models of architectural projects.

One of the most common uses that we saw at the show was that of digitally printed architectural glass; from privacy to full color artisan’s decorative glass panels. Some manufacturers in attendance told us that they use a mixed technique of traditional and digital glass processes to produce product. For example, adding a texture to the glass via traditional production on the front and then digitally printing a design on the back. A studio owner that we had a chance to speak with said that when his clients realize that they can print a photo or any design of their choosing, “their minds are blown”. He did note to us that because the technology is new for most projects – the sales cycle is longer, since there is some education of digital printing needed for many designers first, as well as realizing what can be achieved with the technology for his/her designs.

In addition to printing glass, there were several different vendors in attendance that demonstrated digitally printed flooring.

One vendor in particular that stood out was, We Cork. We Cork, takes cork based floor boards and prints them to look like traditional wood flooring. The cork based flooring is based on an engineered wood base, with a cork overlay that is printed to simulate wood grain patters then coated with protective layer for durability.  Customers can customize the type of wood grain they desire and have the floor installed using typical tools. The advantage of this cork based flooring is its sound proofing, insulation, and overall “warmer” feel once installed.

In addition to We Cork, Armstrong World Industries, was also present. Armstrong is a household name in the US market, and is using digital printing to create custom tiles, laminate, vinyl sheeting, and ceiling inserts.

During our visits with various suppliers and resellers, we observed that many of the vendors offering laminates, have a digitally printed offering in addition to those traditionally produced. One such distributor is Dectone Surfaces, who illustrated the ways in which digitally printed laminates can be used for counter tops and other home surfaces. In their process of production, digitally printed images are used as the decorative layers in high pressure laminates (HPL) to produce countertops, cabinetry and vertical surfaces. The prevalence of digital printing in laminates is gaining momentum, and becoming available from many producers including famous brands like Formica, a leader in laminate surfaces, who recently unveiled their Formica Envision, which allows for the customization of their products for decorative needs. In a recent analysis by InfoTrends, we explored opportunities and vendors who provide solutions aimed at this market segment.

As we continued our quest to explore additional evidence of digitally produced decorations, we inevitably, came across digitally printed ceramic tiles. These ceramic tiles were produced in Italy using digital technology were on display at the Best Tile booth. The tiles ranged in size, and resembled the look and feel of Carrera marble. The quality of reproduction was nothing short of amazing and just goes to show the sophisticated nature of the reproduction quality achieved using digital printing. In many cases the printing is done so well, that a consumer wouldn’t be able to tell which process was used with the naked eye and would have to ask.

3D printing was unavoidable at the show. ABX had a 3D printing innovation pavilion and representatives for Stratasys, 3D Systems and Amcor all in attendance. In architecture, the most common use of this technology is for prototyping designs; however we did meet one vendor, Legrand, who was planning on using 3D printing to create a limited edition run of light switch plates. Cropping up in the 3D printing/architecture space are third party 3D printing service providers and consultants that work with architects to help develop 3D printed models. One such consultant is Munson 3D, who had an educational pavilion with various models featuring different renderings of buildings using different 3D printing technologies. Companies such as Munson 3D, will not only print the item but create the rendering and animation files associated with developing a live model.

The applications of digital printing showcased at ABX Boston offers another example of how digital printing technology is gaining m0mentum in different market verticals. Just like the print industry during the evolution of digital print, the architecture and design market is now experiencing the benefits stemming from the ability to produce custom, on-demand, and short run output. With the revenues from digital decorative printing in the Sign & Display, Ceramic Tile, Packaging, and Wall/Floor Covering markets recently surpassing $57 billion worldwide, this rapid growth is expected to continue into 2014. It is now up to print service providers, and printer manufacturers to begin the conversation with architects and designers to educate them on what is possible with the technology and how their designs, and bottom line will benefit from these innovations.

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