In this blog, we talk to Jean-Loup Duran from Ahlstrom Munksjo about the development of materials for digital wallpaper production, the challenges, and the opportunities.
Hello Jean-Loup Duran – please introduce Ahlstrom Munksjo
Ahlstrom-Munksjo is a large company that manufactures Nonwoven across a wide range of industries, from automotive interiors, medical clothing, to high-pressure laminate flooring, to wall coverings and more specifically digital wallcoverings. For wallcoverings, a range of materials extends across all types of customer needs.
Tell us more about the wallcovering business that Ahlstrom Munksjo operate in?
Our aim is to change the world of decoration and introduce new designs and revolutionary thinking. We want to create momentum and a new digital opportunity in the marketplace that will benefit everyone – printers, designers, manufacturers, distributors, and consumers.
We specialise in non-woven wallcoverings, and whilst we have a number of products for the analogue space, the fastest growing area by far is in the digital wallcoverings. Now our focus is solely on non-woven production with a mixture of natural and synthetic fibres. Depending on the effect and properties you want to get you can have more of one or more of the other.
How have things developed for digital wallcoverings?
Up until the end of 2016 digital wallcoverings was more of an opportunity business for Ahlstrom. We developed our own strategy for digital and developed the right product range and are really focusing on digital. The dynamics and model are quite different to analogue.
Digital will just get bigger and bigger. Of course, analogue will always be there – but the industry is moving and all of the advantages digital can bring in terms of flexibility, on demand and its speed to market links perfectly with how people live now. Consumers generally need everything now, you want your own product, and you don’t want anyone else to have the same product or the same design whether this is for home or retail. This really links with how people conduct and consume their life and digital wallcoverings aligns with this.
How is digital different to analogue?
We are seeing real growth for starters, and for digital it is fast. But it is a different business and is really only possible to focus on the short term. We have found that to build the business properly, you need people dedicated to it who do not have the same responsibility in analogue. For example, as soon as we started to properly focus on this digital business, it started to grow in terms of delivery time, quality etc. etc.
Non-woven has some really good properties. Non-woven doesn’t shrink, it is strong and stable, easy to apply and take off, and we were able to bring something new to the market. This is why it really works.
Who does Ahlstrom compete with?
For digital it is not a simple question to answer. For example, one might think that a coating company would compete with Ahlstrom. To some extent, they would be right, but we also classify them as a customer as they buy our products and convert them by placing a coat onto them and modifying it and then they resell them. So, in this rapidly forming market, they could be a competitor but they also buy and convert our product. It works out for the customer at the end of the day and this is the most important thing.
Is HP your major OEM partner?
Of course, we enjoy working with HP and for latex, HP is one of our major partners. HP is superb at creating their own market and this has direct benefits for us, but when you are in a developing technology sector, you cannot confine yourself to only one OEM – you must keep up with any new technological developments. Therefore we work closely with others such as Xeikon and Konica Minolta. I also think this is an interesting new development as the Industrial Inkjet machine that I know has also been covered on this blog.
How important is it for you to connect with designers?
Yes indeed, designers are really important. If you are serious about accessing new markets and growing your business, for a product line such as wallcoverings it is really important to make sure you spend time with designers, to help them to bring their designs to life. There is a lot that a material manufacturer can do to help. This is another reason that digital printing is different to analogue. In digital we believe the substrate takes more importance to be part of the final product such as the design because it is a developing market whereas with analogue it is stable and doesn’t require the same amount of work.
Working with designers can help unlock new business opportunity whilst bringing something new for a designer to market and it really works. It is a very collaborative market and we work with designers, architects, printers, and manufacturers all of them really. You really need to be flexible, and collaborative!
What do you see as the biggest challenges for digital wallpaper production growth?
Two different things we regard as challenges for Ahlstrom:
1) Digital is a new business and therefore it is forming. I think the biggest challenge is adapting to this new characteristic and accepting that it is totally different to analogue. Digital is different in terms of delivery lead times, quantity, and for developing products for a new technology. We are succeeding at adapting to this well but we continue to work very hard and collaboratively.
2) You have to convince the final user that the quality is as good as analogue. Digital is different but it must be good. When you print with a latex ink, then obviously you cannot do this with the ink working perfectly on any surface. Therefore the material and substrate must provide a solution for the ink. There is a lot of work with the substrate people to bring solutions to the market and therefore it requires time, effort, patience and hard work from us, and our ink partners.
There are some new inks to give structure or be able to work in the same way in different materials which are exciting and again providing new possibilities.
For example, if there is an embossed design onto a wall-cover, this is possible with analogue printing because you can put more ink in some places and you can give it a real embossed effect. However, you cannot do this with latex inkjet printing because it stays flat. So digital needs to work together to make sure this embossing comes from the substrate, and not from the printing to help create the right effect.
So the material must do the work in order to gain the same effect.
What about the issue of the creative industry understanding the potential of digital printing more effectively?
I agree with the vision of Pure Digital that inspiring and educating the creative industry is really important. If designers knew the possibilities, then designing for a digital product would be more effective for production, and also the end customer.
Collaborating between suppliers is really important, but we also think that we need to educate the printers as well as they can see their current markets decreasing and profit being harder to generate. But printers need to know that digital wallpaper production isn’t exactly the same as sign and graphic digital printing.
A wallpaper substrate isn’t going to behave like a graphic substrate. It requires learning. And a core concern for the wallpaper production market is quality. This remains a paramount issue.
Printers must print to a high standard. If they do not, it will be bad for the whole market if a poor quality product is released. So it is not as simple as buying a machine digitally printing wallpaper. This is from software through to finishing. Digital can and does look great. But it is challenging to print and printers need to know this and accept and understand it also takes work.
What is your view of the future? What kind of growth do you think you will see with digital wallpaper?
I think that it is too early to predict a growth rate for this. All I can say is that if we take the UK market we see growth at 13-15% a year. This is for sure the future there is no question because we all know this is a global market with low growth on the analogue side. This is real and we know it. Why? With digital, because you do not have stock and have on demand then designers and producers like this as it liberates them to express themselves creatively and push the boundaries.
For example, you can print a unique design on a feature wall in your living room or your restaurant and with non-woven, and you can change it easily.
You can be more efficient, the machines are smaller so premises also do not need to be so big and we do not require stock in the same way. This is how your business model can change and grow. Analogue will remain but a new digital business model will continue to grow and production methods will simply change in line with demand: a new market is definitely forming.
People say they have been printing digital wallpaper for the last 10 years, so it is not that young anymore – however for me it still behaves like a brand new market and it goes in new directions and at a fast pace – it is exciting, it is the future and we at Ahlstrom are happy to be a part of this new revolution.
Sales Manager - Nonwoven - Digital media
Office: +33 4 76 45 35 15