Get Educated

The opportunities in digital print education for the younger generation are low, but the importance is high.

“How did you get into the digital print industry?”  

Ask this question to anyone you chat with at the next tradeshow or industry event you attend, from print shop owners to production managers to sales reps, and the answers will vary. “My mom passed the business down to me.” “I worked at a body shop and now we’re printing and wrapping cars.” “I just fell into it.” The answer that you’ll rarely receive: “I received my degree in digital printing.” 

This is partially because digital printing is still a relatively new technology. At least, in comparison to print as a whole: Gutenberg’s press for mass producing books was developed in 1439. The first wide-format digital printer didn’t come into play until 1991. And the average Big Picture reader is in their 50s. We’re talking about education here, so I’ll let you do the math. 

But a larger reason why we don’t see print shop owners or employees with digital print educational backgrounds is simply because there aren’t many options. 

Surface Imaging at Jefferson

If you were looking for an educational program in the US specifically tailored to the digital printing industry five years ago, you wouldn’t have found one. It wasn’t until 2015 when Jefferson in Philadelphia, which unified Philadelphia University and Thomas Jefferson University, acknowledged a need for education in the imaging industry and developed the Surface Imaging Initiative. 

Surface Imaging (SI) refers to creating imagery in various physical forms, using a variety of digital printing technologies, including “direct surface imaging” on porous, nonporous, rigid, and flexible substrates, and “fabrication printing” through material deposition and technologies like laser and enhanced 3D surface printing. To enhance and improve the professional imaging industry, the SI Initiative consists of an academic degree program, the Master of Science (MS) degree in Surface Imaging, and the Center for Excellence in Surface Imaging, a state-of-the-art digital printing lab for educating students and preparing them to be future leaders in the imaging industry.

The Surface Imaging program was launched in May 2015 as an academic program where students can receive an MS degree in a minimum of 15 months by completing 33 coursework credits. The program emphasizes two main factors: transdisciplinary movements and systems thinking.

The MS in Surface Imaging does not adhere to the traditional boundaries of a concentrated discipline; it’s “transdisciplinary” in that it incorporates a variety of design, applied engineering, and business components that enrich and diversify the learning experience. The concept of transdisciplinary stems from the dichotomy of “analog” and “digital.” Among academic researchers, the word “transdisciplinary” refers to the process that can blur the boundaries and distinctiveness between specialism, to allow for multiple interdisciplinary outputs. It originated from the development of “Dynabook,” a proposal that Alan Kay, a computer scientist, developed in the ’70s that outlined the requirements for a conceptual portable educational device similar to the laptop computer and smartphone today. It’s a device for multiple interdisciplinary functions and outputs. 

In preparation for the demanding shift from specialists to versatilists (people who can be specialists for a particular discipline, but can simultaneously slide into another role with the same ease) for the near future, the SI program offers the depth of skills and knowledge for a wide range of applications. This transdisciplinary program is designed to communicate concepts through printed and/or fabricated designs, mechanical explorations, and business plans and models, and to develop desirable, feasible, and viable surface imaging industry systems that will amplify future opportunities. Predicting the future of the digital imaging industry and offering the transdisciplinary concept to our students are our most critical attributes. 

The SI program emphasizes systems thinking, which is becoming a core discipline. A system for surface imaging includes processes of ideation, prototyping, production, distribution, marketing, and sales. For example, designers start to develop ideation and prototyping; engineers contribute prototyping, production, and distribution; and business people implement distribution, marketing, and sales. One of the goals is to develop successful products or services for the imaging industry. To actualize this goal, these processes should not be considered separately, but in conjunction with a notion that each process is a part of the whole system. Therefore, systems thinking has a significant teaching value for MS in Surface Imaging students to develop successful products and services with design desirability, engineering feasibility, and business viability.

Digital Textile’s Role

This value of systems thinking is also influenced by the research in the digital textile printing industry that has been conducted at The Center for Excellence in Surface Imaging since 2000 (previously named The Center of Excellence for Digital Printing for Textile). At Jefferson, textile education is a legacy. Philadelphia University was founded as the Philadelphia Textile School in 1884 – one of the oldest institutions specialized in educating textile workers and managers. 

Digital textile printing changed from inkjet textile sample printing to complete production printing at the 2003 ITMA textile and garment exhibition in Birmingham, England. In the late 2000s to early 2010s, various printer manufacturers developed single-pass digital textile printers to increase the printing speed up to 230 linear feet per minute. In 2015, at ITMA in Milan, several single-pass digital printers were introduced to the market. Today, it’s estimated that more than 30 single-pass printing systems are installed worldwide. Nonetheless, the overall penetration rate for digital textile printing technology was estimated to be only one to two percent from 2000 to early 2010 when compared to analog technology, according to our research. Even today, the overall penetration rate is estimated to be only about four to five percent for the total textile printing volume, and the use of digital textile printing is still meager compared to conventional analog printing technologies. 

Although digital printing technology has completely developed as a full-scale commercial production textile printing system, it’s still unpopular for two primary reasons: a lack of communication and approach among machine manufacturers, software developers, suppliers, printing operators, and end users; and a lack of a new way of thinking to retrofit digital printing technologies into the pre-existing workflow.

Both of these problems are clear indications of an absence of systems thinking. One of the educational missions of the MS in Surface Imaging is to develop the skills for generating new ways of thinking and problem solving to improve the imaging industry.

How to Get Involved

The Center for Excellence in Surface Imaging is the vital part of the SI Initiative. It functions to provide and exchange information in a neutral position, to educate future leaders for the industry through the Surface Imaging degree program, and to conduct research activities. The center has been supported by various imaging industry partners, such as Mimaki Engineering, Mutoh Industries, Roland, Epson, Brother International, Ergosoft, Wasatch, Dupont, and AVA, and is currently seeking additional industry partners (manufacturers and end users). 

Surface imaging is a new holistic concept for the imaging industry, including wide-format digital printing. It’s designed to explore the unlimited potential of digital printing technologies that contain numerous opportunities for design, product development, management, and applied engineering. At the same time, it’s disruptive innovation – by observing the current state of the digital textile printing industry and optimizing it for its maximum potential. The MS in Surface Imaging program starts annually from the middle of May to August of the following year. If you’re interested in more information about the program, visit PhilaU.edu/mssurfaceimaging

As the digital print industry continues to grow and change, and new printing technologies and trends develop and prosper, it’s important that they’re supported and led by innovative minds and creative future employers. The imaging industry needs more comprehensive and well-designed educational programs for digital print to continue to expand.

Hitoshi Ujiie has more than 20 years of experience in high-end surface imaging and inkjet printing technology. His achievements combine firsthand industry knowledge with academic pioneering in new technology. He is currently a professor at Jefferson University.