Drupa 2016 – no surprises? What have the ink jet engineers been up to?

Mike Willis, Managing Director of Pivotal Resources believes this year’s show will be evolution not revolution

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So far pretty much all of the pre-announcements of digital press technology at this year’s Drupa trade show are similar to those made in 2012. So what have the industry suppliers been doing for the past 4 years?

Back in 2012 many ‘launches’ were, in reality, technology demonstrations. There is nothing new about this; I’ve seen the same thing since the first Drupa I attended in the 1980’s. At the last show the big story was Landa Digital’s Nanography. A few print samples were shown, demonstrating potential for the process but far from saleable print quality. This year Landa is back with what should be machines close to being ready for sale.

The same goes for Xeikon, who demonstrated their liquid toner press in 2012. This year we are promised a full colour version. And there are many other examples of this: demonstration at one Drupa, commercialisation at the next.

So why does it take 4 years from showing a working prototype to having a machine ready for launch? What on earth do engineers get up to for 4 years? Well, for a start there may be many changes made to the machines over that time in response to 3 factors:

Feedback from customers
At the last Drupa, potential customers will have made comments on what they liked or didn’t like about a press. This feedback may provoke extensive revision of a machine. As an example, we know from Landa Digital that the large touch screen controls on the side of the presses were not liked, and the panel is now more conventional, and at the delivery end of the machines.

Process development
Building an ink jet press is relatively straightforward. You just source ink jet printheads and ink and most of the job is done! Well, there are still a few people who think that way, but most have learnt that the reality is very different. There are a wide range of areas requiring careful design and development, such as head mounting and alignment, nozzle maintenance, ink supply, data paths, drying or curing… the list is long. If the process involves fundamental new technology, like the Landa Nanoinks and intermediate transfer belts, they don’t develop themselves either, but require considerable work. There are many other issues that are special or critical for high-speed single pass printing too, but I’m saving that for a later blog.

Changes to the design
As demonstrations for a Drupa show come closer and closer corners are cut to get everything working. After the show a major ‘post mortem’ takes place. Are we using the best technology now? With hindsight what would we do differently? What changes should we make to meet the manufacturing cost budget? Now we are aware of the competition what changes should be made to remain competitive?

I’d like to point out that the engineers don’t get 4 straight years to do these redesigns and developments. Ideally it’s much better to get to the next Drupa having been through beta testing at selected customer sites and to have made further revisions in the light of operational experience. So allow perhaps a year for this and we are down to 3 years.

So a development engineer’s job is pretty tough. And it’s going to get worse. The next Drupa is 3 years away, not 4. So if you meet an ink jet development engineer at the upcoming Drupa be sympathetic!