Functional inks for PPE

By Otis Robinson 02 July 2020
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Otis Robinson speaks with Dante Ercoli, director of sales and business development at Web Industries, about the company’s new functional ink printing capability.

Dante Ercoli, director of sales and business development, Industrial & Consumer Division, Web Industries

Functional ink refers to printed coatings that register change when exposed to reagents such as moisture, sunlight, or other environmental factors, says Dante Ercoli, director of sales and business development at Web Industries, a provider of precision converting and outsource manufacturing services. The inks can help to communicate a promotional message or convey a change in a garment or substrate’s condition, through fading into a different colour, releasing an odour or triggering an increase or decrease in temperature. The coatings are custom-made to suit the application, Ercoli says.

“If there’s a coating that can go on a textile, the chances are we can find a way to apply it,” he adds.

In early March, Web Industries announced the availability of this new functional ink printing capability from its personal & home care business unit. According to the company, the capability enables two- or three-part ink chemistries (of up to eight colours) to be printed on nonwovens, paper, tissue, films, or textiles to signal a change in material condition.

“It is designed for personal care items including incontinence wear, diapers and feminine hygiene products, but also has potential uses in industrial applications,” the company says.

The endeavour was forged by the joining together of Web Industries with Zeres Inc, an Ohio, US-based manufacturer of water-based inks and functional coatings – a move that Web Industries says directly supports its functional ink capability.

“We are working together to develop functional ink solutions for our customers,” Ercoli says. “There’s a growing market for functional ink coatings. Consumers are going to see more and more functional ink applications in the years ahead.

“We are currently working with several consumer product companies on functional ink applications. One involves a component used in diapers. In that case, functional ink provides a unique type of wetness indicator that signals the need for a diaper change. A second application involves a feminine care product.”

He adds that Web Industries is ushering in a ‘new age of printing’ for its customers with the announcement of its functional ink. However, contrary to trends in digital printing, Web Industries applies its functional ink coatings using flexographic presses. Although there are ongoing trends in applying functional inks using digital printing methods, Ercoli says there’s a flexibility that comes with using flexographic presses.

“We can apply solvent-based and water-based inks using the same press. The flexo presses can be four or five times faster than digital presses.”


The announcement of the functional ink offering coincided with ongoing lockdown measures, which meant big change and adaptation for the company, but personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages allowed Web Industries to step in to offer a helping hand.

Headquartered in Marlborough, Massachusetts, US, Web Industries also operates throughout six US-based and three EU-based plants, offering “custom-tailored solutions for customers in the medical, personal care, home care, aerospace and industrial sectors”.

“The pandemic led to sharp cutbacks in the aerospace manufacturing industry, which is a major business sector for Web Industries. We’ve had to pivot to focus more on other business units; we are now making components for PPE such as masks, at our Ft Wayne, US plant and gowns at our Omega manufacturing site in France,” says Ercoli. “In addition, we’ve announced plans to hire 125 new employee-owners (the company offers outsource manufacturing, and claims to be 100% employee-owned) at our Holliston, Massachusetts plant, where we will soon increase our production capacity for Covid-19 test strips to over 50 million per year.”

In a press release, the company implied how its functional inks could doubly help add value to manufactured PPE. Functional coatings can passively monitor environmental conditions and can be incorporated into a wide variety of industrial components, thus functional inks could help to indicate exposure to potentially harmful chemicals or bio-agents. In turn, this may represent a massive value addition to the ongoing production of Covid-19-related PPE production.

“[However] we’re not currently involved in any applications of this type – it’s probably a little early in the pandemic for that, as there are more immediate needs for standard PPE that still need to be met,” says Ercoli. “But we are committed to developing new solutions and are open to discussing options with potential partners in the medical or hospital sectors. Post Covid-19, we could imagine companies using functional inks to create smart fabrics and develop advanced applications in wearable technologies and healthcare alert systems.”

Nevertheless, functional ink applications may still hold massive potential for the sector. Courtney Robinson, business development manager at the company, says: “The ability to build chemical or bio-reactive markers directly into PPE or other product components can provide an added level of awareness and safety for first responders and other users.

“For instance, a tailored coating could be applied to specific areas of single-use hazmat suits that would change colour to indicate the presence of specific levels of a contaminant. By providing passive monitoring during an emergency situation, these ‘sensing areas’ would allow the wearer to focus on their specific task while knowing that their exposure to harmful chemicals or bio-agents was being assessed.”

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