Growth Dynamics for the Competence Center in Inkjet Printing


The Institute for Printing of the School of engineering and architecture of Fribourg is a real success story

The Institute for Printing (iPrint) benefits from its partnership with iPrint Center, a global center of competences in inkjet printing, supported by INNOSQUARE. In 2017, iPrint Center will be moving from blueFACTORY to the Marly Innovation Center (MIC), which is better suited to its industrial processes. Thus at MIC, iPrint will be able to develop its potential as an international leader of research and education in inkjet printing.

Since its installation at blueFACTORY as main academic partner of iPrint Center, the institute iPrint has grown steadily. Its turnover, 90% of which comes from its order books, more than doubled from CHF 800,000 in 2015 to CHF 2 million in 2016, while the number of employees increased from 12 to 25. The institute now has 30 printers, up from nine in the previous year.

iPrint is active in graphic applications, additive manufacturing and applications for life sciences. iPrint Founder and CEO, Professor Fritz Bircher points out that it is difficult to separate the three sectors: "Several of our strategic industrial partners work with us in all three areas." It's work that demands strict confidentiality.

At a time when 3D printing is already well established, it's worth asking what the institute can offer that's new. "3D printing is a big part of what we do, but it doesn't give us a basis for differentiation, since “everyone” is doing it; there are a dozen known processes. Our specificity is to propose 3D printing with inkjet, which offers a high degree of precision that other technologies cannot achieve. Inkjet is our USP”, maintains Professor Bircher.

The four pillars of the institute

Industrial collaborations make up the first of the institute's four strategic pillars. "We develop long-term partnerships with leading national and international companies worldwide, which is an important element in our positioning. Collaboration with SMEs is also key to our success, as the impact of much of our work will be felt in Switzerland. Through Applied Research & Development (ARD), working principally, but not exclusively, with Swiss partners, our aim is clearly to enable Fribourg companies to develop new business opportunities. To realise our ARD objectives, we are forging partnerships with other institutes, including the ChemTech Institute of HEIA-FR, INNOSQUARE Plastics Innovation Competence Centre and the Adolphe Merkle Institute. These relationships constitute our second pillar," explains Professor Bircher

Training is the third element. "There is no course on digital printing, so we offer highly interdisciplinary inkjet courses that cover all aspects of digital printing. We are the only ones in the world to offer one-week practical courses; these have proved to be very successful, attracting printer manufacturers, print systems integrators and ink suppliers from all over Europe, the United States and even South Korea. This year, nearly 100 people attended our courses, which have been evaluated by experts from major companies. As with research, we are in the process of negotiating long-term partnerships with companies to meet their training needs. These courses reinforce our positioning and are an excellent means of promoting our services. People who follow the courses have been known to come back to us afterwards, looking for our help in solving problems. We have set up a number of international projects in this way.”

Finally, the last pillar of the structure; fundamental research. "It's a must for a competence centre that aims to play in the Champions' League. We work in partnership with the faculties of physics, chemistry and medicine at the University of Fribourg as well as with the Adolphe Merkle Institute and other research institutions."

Moving to a new address soon

In order to continue its development, iPrint needs larger premises, which is one of the reasons for its move to the Marly Innovation Centre. The other is more technical. "We use inks and solvents. In terms of safety, MIC's equipment is better suited to our current work." iPrint will therefore be moving in the spring of 2017, taking full advantage of completely redesigned facilities to consolidate and professionalise its work and give it new impetus. The move also demonstrates the complementarity of Fribourg's numerous dedicated innovation sites.

An infinite variety of applications

Professor Bircher concludes, "I am convinced that inkjet is an advanced manufacturing process that will play a very important role in the future of the Industry 4.0. Many industrial sectors are beginning to use these technologies in all scales of operation, starting with decorative elements and one-offs. You can also print very large objects, such as aeroplanes; when you cannot move such objects, you can move the printing system. Added to this are all the specialised inks that make it possible to functionalise surfaces, for example, by printing the electronics component directly onto parts. And finally, there is tissue printing in for medical use."

Rédaction : Charly Veuthey Traduction : Jane Fox Photo : Markus Peissard