Landa steals the biggest print show on earth

For the past couple of months we’ve heard snippets of information about Benny Landa’s new digital printing technology nanography. Yesterday at Drupa, the biggest printing industry show in the world, while everyone else was desperately trying to finish building their stands and get their machines working ready for today’s opening, Landa revealed his technology to the world’s press.

Standing between two large digital presses with huge touch screen interfaces for their front covers, the charismatic Benny Landa claimed “its great to be back”. “It was all meant to be a big secret and surprise” said Benny, but in March an Israeli finance company had let slip that Landa Labs was preparing to launch digital presses. Since then we’ve been told that Nanography uses aqueous ink containing nano particle pigments. Ink ejectors are used to print at high resolution.

Yesterday we learnt much more. The ink is capable of being jetted by any type of ink jet printhead, piezo or thermal, but for the moment piezo heads are used. Benny says the heads are modified to suit the ink, which we believe may mean tuning for the optimum drop volume and drop break-off and perhaps ensuring materials compatibility. The printheads print vertically downwards depositing the drops on to a moving heated transfer belt. This is kept at a surface temperature of around 120C and most of the carrier liquid water is driven off. The aim is to work towards a target life of 500,000 impressions life for the belt, which will be operator changeable.

There is provision for up to 8 printheads and hence colours. The belt is brought into contact with the paper sheets or web during its reverse pass and the image, said at this stage to be like a thermoplastic film just 500 nm thick, is totally transferred to the paper. No further fixing of the image is required, nor any post treatment or coating. Duplex printing is achieved in the sheet-fed machines by printing the front and back images successively along the belt, transferring the front image to the sheet, reversing the sheet and then making a second transfer onto the reverse side. With the web press the front and back of the web is printed side by side on the belt, and the web makes two contacts with the transfer belt with a turning bar in between.

The process is claimed to work well on any type of paper – coated or uncoated – as well as a range of common plastic films and foils making it suitable for packaging printing. Benny explained that at this stage many image defects are visible as the machines are still in development. Having learnt from previous mistakes these machines will not be shipped until everything is working and the technology reliable, which realistically means 18 months time at the earliest.

Landa Corporation will be selling presses themselves, but has also announced three partners – there are more on the way – who will use the technology within their own machines. Komori, Manroland Sheetfed and Heidelberg have been announced so far. In all cases Landa will manufacture and supply the ink and other consumables, such as the transfer belt.

Landa’s strategy is as follows. Businesses aren’t buying conventional presses like they used to – sales have dropped by 50% in the past 5 years. Although growth in pages printed digitally is huge and there’s a choice of digital presses on the market, at present only 2% of pages are printed digitally. Although digital media will take over from print in commercial markets over the next few decades, other areas like packaging will remain. So overall there is still a huge potential market for digital presses. The tough economic times, the poor outlook for print against social media and the rapid obsolescence of digital technology hold the market back. By offering the same technology from multiple vendors the fear of buying the “wrong” technology disappears, just as VCR sales took off once there was a clear winning format.

The economics of the Nanographic process will also help. There is a clear aim to match the cost of ownership and cost per page of offset presses, so there will be no need for printing companies to chase personalisation-type jobs, they can use these machines for any run length. The cost of the presses is forecast to be similar to high-end offset presses of similar throughput. Full details of the initial range of Nanographic presses can be found on the Landa web site at www.landanano.com .

Although the current presses will be aimed at commercial printing and packaging markets, Benny also expects the process will move eventually to office markets too.

So, where did the funding come from for 10 years of development? Well, it’s effectively self-funded by Benny Landa himself from the proceeds he made with his previous generation technology. Landa Corporation has four units – the Landa Fund helping economically disadvantaged youth, Landa Ventures investing in technologies of the future, Landa Labs working on energy harvesting, drug delivery and personal care, and Landa Digital Printing.

There is still plenty of work to do behind the glossy exterior of the machines. The banding visible in the image indicates there is more optimisation of the ink for the printhead and perhaps transfer belt. Over the past two decades we have seen many times in the patent literature proposals to print aqueous-based inks onto a transfer surface, drive off the water, then transfer the image to paper, but none has been commercialised. But heated belts and transfer were at the heart of Landa’s Indigo technology too, so if anyone can succeed Landa can.

Far from relaxing, Benny Landa is obviously enjoying the development of this new technology. Asked when he might consider retiring Benny immediately responded “never!” “One day someone will find me lying by the side of a machine!” Let’s hope that doesn’t come anytime soon.

Drupa checklist

Being a large and growing print show, the demand for hotel rooms for Drupa seems to get worse every time.  True, Dusseldorf has a ‘Fairs Fair’ scheme, where hotels don’t exceed their rack rates for the show, but the rooms still get booked up years in advance.  I’ll be staying one hour’s drive away and still paying over the odds.  So you have to book in advance, without knowing what will be shown.  Will there be exciting new technology?  Or will it just be the demo machines from Drupa 2008 now ready for production?

My interest is ink jet technology, and 2008 was meant to be ‘Ink Jet Drupa’, so what will this one be?  In 2008 we saw the launch of the HP web press technology, new web and sheet fed ink jet, the Fujifilm Dimatix Samba Printhead.  What could possibly be new and interesting at Drupa 2012?  Have I booked 4 nights hotel for nothing?

No I haven’t.  Here are just some of the new developments that have been pre-announced:

Delphax will be launching the Memjet-based Elan press, which prints at 250 A4 pages/min. at 1600 x 1600 doi, or 500 ppm at 1600 x 800 dpi.  It prints CMYK + 2 spot colours.

Eastman Kodak Prosper 6000 XL press using the Stream continuous ink jet technology, running at 1,000 feet/min., that’s 5 metres/sec.  The press is rated at 160 M A4 impressions/month, and is claimed to be up to 45% more cost effective than thermal DOD and 31% better than its own Prosper 5000 XL press.

Epson will be showing the Surepress X single pass label press using LED UV-curable inks.

Fujifilm will add a B2 ink jet carton press using UV inks to its Jetpress 720 sheet-fed press, and also launch an ink jet web press running at 127 m/min.

Impika are launching a range of machines, the fastest being the iPrint eXtreme at 375 m/min. at 1200 dpi and a print width of 711 mm.

KBA Rotajet 76 is a joint development with RR Donnelley and uses Kyocera piezo printheads to print at 150 m/min. at 600 dpi. Over 30 inches wide.  RR Donnelley also has the Apollo technology, which uses ink jet to form a temporary hydrophobic or hydroplillic image on a plate like material, which is then conventionally inked.  Readers of the Pivotal Resources Directions ink jet patent reports will be familiar with this technology, which may (or may not) see the light of day.

Konica Minolta KM1 is a B2 sheet-fed ink jet press developed in collaboration with Komori.  It uses new 1200 dpi KM piezo printheads to print at 3300 sheets/hour.

Landa Labs Nanographic technology should be easily the biggest launch.  Claimed to use liquid ink based on nanoparticles and ink ejectors, it is claimed it will print on to a wide range of substrates without pre or post treatment.  This past week has seen the announcement of Komori and MAN Roland as licensees.

MGI Digital Graphic Technology Alphajet B2 sheet-fed press has 6 colour units plus a varnish with a throughput of 3,000 sheets/hour at 1200 dpi.

Screen has increased the spec. of the Truepress SX to handle cartonboard, and is rumoured to have a label press with its own ink jet heads.

Timson T-Press book press uses the Kodak Stream technology on their own paper feed mechanisms, and prints on paper up to 53 inches (1.35 m) wide at 650 feet/min.  It’s aimed at printing between 5-14 million books per year.

So is that all?  Well HP will be showing their production ink jet web presses, and Xerox hasn’t announced anything but will draw the crowds with Cirque du Soleil.  Canon and Océ will be showing the ColorStream 3700 ink jet press.  And apologies for not including all of the other companies launching new ink jet products, peripherals etc.

Beyond ink jet there’s also plenty to see.

HP Indigo is launching a B2 sheet-fed press, the 10000.

Kodak’s Nexpress has a electrophotographic press with a 5th unit capable of printing gold, neon pink or fluorescent colours.

Miyakoshi will show a press using the HVT (high viscosity toner) liquid toner technology in conjunction with Ryobi.

Xeikon will show its Quantum technology as a demonstration, also believed to be based on HVT technology.

So, look out for me in the aisles, see you there!

Mike Willis

Anticipating 2012, in particular Drupa

It’s that time of year when we reflect on the past year and wonder what the new year will bring.  In the area of ink jet, 2011 has brought some interesting product launches, in particular the commercialisation of the Memjet technology by Lenovo, LG, Lomond, Xante, OWN-X and others.  At the recent IMI Europe Ink Jet Conference in Lisbon, we heard that ink jet textiles are a fast-growing application, and ceramic tile printing is also rapidly gaining market share.

So what will 2012 bring?  Well most eyes are focussed on Drupa, the printing industries trade show held every 4 years in Dusseldorf, Germany.  Although many of us in the industry associate Drupa with expensive hotel rooms miles from the city and the terrible Drupa song, it really is the pinnacle of the printing industry calendar.

Ink jet is increasingly demonstrating great potential for use within the commercial print industry.  The main applications for the ink jet web presses launched so far has been books, coupons, transpromo, newspapers on demand and the like.  But ink jet ink technology is evolving and the capabilities of ink jet are being extended.  So far Fujifilm and Screen with their sheet-fed presses, and Kodak with their web press have claimed the ability to print on to paper types used for general printing in the industry.  It’s quite a challenge, as we have been seeing at Pivotal Resources from the patent applications being filed.

We can also see from patent applications that other vendors are likely to join the market for high-speed printing.  For instance Ricoh has many patents on page arrays of their own printhead technology.  At present, Ricoh subsidiary Infoprint uses engines from Screen that in turn incorporate Epson printhead technology.  Canon is another potential player in this market.  It now owns Océ who make high-speed web-feed ink jet prises using Kyocera printhead technology.  But we can see from the patent literature that Canon is developing page arrays using thermal ink jet, similar to the technology used in HP’s web presses.

But lets go back to the beginning and to Memjet.  Back in April 2011 it was announced that Delphax plans to launch a Memjet-powered ink jet press at Drupa.  The technology certainly has the potential print speed and cost structure to make a breakthrough product.  But let’s hope they haven’t forgotten all the other industry needs, in particular the ability to print onto a variety of paper types.  So far we have only seen Memjet-based products working on absorbent or coated substrates.  Is there a new ink technology coming up for Memjet?  That would make it a very interesting breakthrough for this market, but it would also really improve the capabilities of the Memjet technology in desk-top and wide format markets as well.

Memjet goes wide

For a while now Memjet has posted on its web site and YouTube channel videos showing a wide format machine, which uses 5 Memjet printheads to print 42 inches wide in a single pass. We’ve also seen many of the patent applications covering this machine published and have reviewed them in our patent review journal Directions.

A couple of weeks ago Xanté announced the Excelagraphix 4200 which uses the Memjet wide format engine, and this week at LabelExpo 2011 in Brussels Hungarian company OWN-X announced their version, the WideStar 2000.

 

As usual, seeing is believing, and the speed at which a wide image emerges from the machine is impressive at 300 mm (12 inches) per second. Prints on various ink jet coated media looked excellent, on plain paper pretty good.

The OWN-X booth was busy every time I went past, with the crowds attracted to the SpeedStar 3000 label printers – also Memjet-based – that were introduced a year ago and have been selling well. The WideStar is attractive for CAD applications, including architecture, but OWN-X were printing signage and labels on it at the show to try and tempt customers.

Memjet also features in the IMI Europe 19th Annual Ink Jet Conference programme that we have been organising. Thomas Roetker, Vice President of Engineering of Memjet Labels will be talking about where Memjet has got to, and where they are going from a technological and performance viewpoint as well as commercial. His presentation will be followed by Ivan Bulaev, Head of Marketing of Lomond, who are marketing the 60 page/minute office Memjet printer, and will discuss “Taking the Memjet-powered Evojet Office into the market’.

The conference is in Lisbon, Portugal November 9-11, 2011. You can find full details of the conference and presentations at IMI Europe’s web site at www.imieurope.com We have a great line up of presentations this year from adphos, Agfa Gevaert, com2C, FUJIFILM Dimatix, Global Graphics, Hewlett-Packard, Infotrends, INGEDE, IT Strategies, Konica Minolta, Lomond, Lumen Dynamics, Memjet Labels, MGI Digital Graphic Technology, Sepiax Ink Technology, Stork Prints, Tonejet, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Xennia Technology and Xerox.

Olivetti’s thermal ink jet technology

It’s often overlooked, but Olivetti was one of the pioneers of ink jet, with a range of drop on demand technologies in the early 1980’s. They commercialised the dry spark jet technology, and had a liquid version too. Then there was early piezo technology too. But I remember well in 1990 the surprise announcement of their thermal ink jet technology. It was a surprise to HP engineers too, who I met within a few days at an IS&T conference. It turned out there had been some cross-licensing going on that not even the HP printhead designers were aware of.

Over the years Olivetti has had several different owners, but somehow the ink jet group has continued developing new heads and products. Because they are not sold in Best Buy or other retail outlets in the US, Japan or most of Europe, few people know they exist.

Olivetti were exhibitors at the IMI Europe Ink Jet Technology Showcase 2009 and talked and showed their ink jet products aimed at industrial products. Just a few days ago at the Ink Jet Technology Showcase 2011 event in Barcelona they showed even more.

First of all their MEMS fab has the capacity for 50-80,000 6 inch wafers per year. As well as ink jet printheads they also make other devices, particularly for life science applications. They have thermal ink jet printhead modules with print widths of 0.5, 1 and 2 inches, capable of jetting aqueous and various solvent fluids.

The most recent addition is a 4 inch wide module. This has 4 x 1 inch dies staggered and overlapping to allow 4 inch wide printing in a single pass. There are 2,560 nozzles at 600 dpi and the drop volume is 15-160 pl. Most incredible is the claimed drop ejection velocity of 15 metres/second, greater than most piezo printheads. This will allow a large increase in working distance from the printed substrate, opening up new applications.

You can find out more about Olivetti by following the links on the IMI Europe web site, and a shameless plug (as I also run IMI Europe) – you can now buy the conference binder with 22 supplier presentations, 6 Tech Talk Tutorials and 4 Keynotes for only €345!

Xerox Production Inkjet System

Xerox has this week shown something closer to a production version of the high-speed ink jet system they showed at IPEX last year.  The unfortunately named Xerox Production Inkjet System (PIS) is claimed to be the first waterless high-speed ink jet press, although some might say that Miyakoshi has shown high-speed UV curable ink systems before and they are waterless.

Xerox is using an iteration of their phase change inks, and points out that by not having water in the system they can avoid paper cockle and drying problems.  The phase change inks solidify on contact with the paper substrate and sit on the surface ‘just like offset inks and toner’. Our tracking of patents has shown that to achieve acceptable drop spread on the substrate, it must be pre-heated.  The paper then passes over heated shoes opposite the printheads.  With phase change inks the ink supply tanks, connecting pipes and printheads all have to be heated.

The printheads are arranged in a large 2D array and Xerox says they are automatically aligned.  Certainly keeping them all in register with the thermal cycling within the machine must have been an engineering issue.  The heads are operator replaceable and involve 2 screws and 3 connectors, taking 5 minutes.

The print speed is a very impressive 152 metres/minute, or 2.53 m/sec.  At the quoted ‘up to 600 dpi’ this would lead to a nozzle frequency of 60.8 kHz.  This may be achievable but my guess is the highest speed is at a lower resolution than 600 dpi.  Incidentally the patents talk of 3.75 m/sec.

Something else the patents talk about is printing packaging materials.  The problem then is finishing, with the substrate, creasers and cutters having to be heated to avoid picking up ink.

The system shown will print on to low-cost offset papers without bonding agents or pre-coats, says Xerox. However noticeably absent from the presentations I’ve seen was mention of coated papers.  As phase change inks rely, like toners, on mechanical keying to the substrate, coated papers are likely to be more of a challenge.

And yes, I was too cheap to fly to Lucerne, Switzerland to see the machine at the Hunkeler Innovation Days 2011 show in Lucerne, Switzerland – I’ve just attended the virtual event on-line.

You might read into this post that I’m not a great fan of phase change inks and you’d be right.  I’d like to love the technology, I guess I’ve just had my fingers burnt a few times handling the printheads!

Conventional Wisdom Often Isn’t

Conventional wisdom has taught us that thermal ink jet (TIJ) printing requires aqueous inks. After all, water has quite unique properties that are well suited to the technology. This was perhaps underscored by Hewlett Packard’s clever but complicating use of aqueous latex inks for printing on vinyl substrates. Surely if HP can’t find a simpler solution for its very own TIJ technology, there must not be one!

But recently ImTech (Corvallis, Oregon) was granted a patent (USP07763668) for a UV curable TIJ ink, claiming the use of alcohols, esters, or ketones as the driver fluid. Most of the examples incorporate about 24% methanol with conventional UV curing monomers, oligomers and photoinitiation packages. One of several suggested surfactants is included as protection against kogation and one of several black pigment dispersions as colorant.

ImTech offers two such inks for sale through distributors, in new HP-45A cartridges. Both inks are black; one is optimized for conventional UV lamps, the other for UV-LED systems. Suggested applications are in coding and addressing, and in printing on plastic cards.

The patent suggests (but does not claim) the use of similar driver fluids in non-aqueous TIJ inks other than UV curable ones.

In fairness to HP, there are other reasons to stick with aqueous inks than simple “conventional wisdom.” The driver fluids mentioned are emitted as VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) at a minimum and may also have low TLVs (Threshold Limit Values) for human exposure. UV curable inks for piezo printing and aqueous inks in general avoid these environmental issues.

It should also be noted that Xennia (Letchworth, UK) offers an aqueous UV curable ink suitable for TIJ printing, under the trade name XenInx Peridot.

Tablet and printer – a happy marriage?

In a burst of excitement this week HP launched a range of new products, including the Photosmart eStation.  This is seen as a way to get products into the living room, a wireless all-in-one which looks sexy.  Well, I’m afraid glossy black is so 2008 in the UK.  When the first all-in-ones appeared they looked like scanners stuck on top of printers.  This one does too, with a tablet sitting on a shelf at the front as well.

Yes, very convenient if you want to quickly find something on the internet and then print it out.  Maybe I’m missing something here.  But what if you have kids in the house – how are you going to find the tablet?  Ever known a kid to return something to its ‘home’ when they finished using it?  Before you can copy something have you got to hunt down the tablet, as that acts as the control panel too.

It’s also meant to allow you to lay on your couch, browse the internet, and send things to print.  But everyone knows that when you send something to print the printer beeps to tell you it has run out of paper or ink, so you have to get up and go over to it.

So, is the Willis household likely to buy one? Well, I can see it could be useful, although it isn’t cheap.  But the answer is no.  The marriage that concerns me is not that of tablet and printer, but mine to my wife.  I can’t see the boss agreeing to this big glossy black box in the living room.  Sorry HP!

RFID Redux

A recent announcement from Wal-Mart may skirt around the impasse that is slowing the adoption of RFID. This impasse is typical of those that occur in new technologies; potential adopters consider the technology too expensive and potential investors and developers are reluctant to move forward in an unproved market. In this case, the reluctance is compounded by resistance on the part of privacy advocates, who believe RFID will provide a means for big brother – either corporate or government – to track our behavior and movements. It’s also true that large capital investments by retailers are needed, and these are not likely given the current state of the economy.

The impasse isn’t being broken by a technological breakthrough, but instead being skirted by a higher valued application. The expected application, replacement of barcodes by RFID tags, is still too costly, with tag prices remaining at $.07-$.10. Instead, the new application is the tracking of apparel on the sales floor, to ensure that all sizes and styles are on display. Stores that have piloted this application has seen apparel sales grow by as much as 14%. In-store inventory tracking is expected to improve as well. Wal-Mart is beginning to roll out this application in its stores.

So what does this have to do with ink jet? Nothing directly, but it does promise bring the subject of RFID back to the fore in the retail environment. After all, everything Wal-Mart does is then considered by virtually every other retailer. This in turn may help to break the impasse and stimulate new investment.

The expected role for ink jet remains smaller than in previous years (see The Ink Jet Blog for May 5, 2010). The printing of antennas has fallen into disfavor with increases in the price of silver, and if they are printed, it will likely be by conventional printing technology. But ink jet has unique benefits in the field of printed electronics, and the printing of RFID chips in a-roll to-roll process will be vital to driving tag costs down to the $.01-$.02 that is needed for large-scale adoption. It seems likely that printed silicon, such as that under development by Kovio, will be the first to market.

Visionaries believe that eventually, we will see RFID chips and antennas printed simultaneously with the printing of packaging. In that scenario, ink jet may play a much larger role.

Where Have All the Printers Gone?

I write the news section of Pivotal Resources’ “Directions” ink jet patent review publication. I just completed the March-April edition. If this hardly seems like news, bear in mind that it is meant to reflect the industry news at the time that the patents issued. The patents can’t be viewed and reviewed in real time, so to speak, so everything is a couple of months in arrears.

It has become more and more difficult to fill the allotted two pages with meaningful news. When I took on this task in 2002, the problem lay in describing the crowd of new desktop printers and MFPs briefly enough to allow room for anything else. Desktop announcements have slowed to a trickle, and now I must do far more research!

In the first four months of 2007, there were nineteen new desktop models. This rose to twenty-five in the corresponding months of 2008, but fell to fourteen last year and just ten this year. Of the ten, only one new print engine was represented, and most were barely noticeable revisions of earlier products.

The desktop market is obviously mature, both in terms of technology and of shipments. In fact, worldwide shipments of desktop ink jet devices fell by 15 percent, from more than 27 million in the fourth quarter of 2007 to 23 million in the corresponding quarter of 2009.

Though the desktop market is mature, IT Strategies estimate that 85% of the revenue generated by ink jet technology is still derived from desktop devices. Investment enabled and justified by this sector is a major feature of the ink jet landscape. This investment allowed the various suppliers to enter other markets, ranging from large-format printing to photo kiosks to commercial printing. Investment in ink jet by the market leaders is clearly falling rapidly.

Memjet-based desktop products are expected to join the entrenched competitors within the next few quarters. The arrival of those products will generate new buzz around home printing. It will be interesting to see whether the arrival of Memjet can help to revitalize the market and kindle new investment.

Is Memjet for Real? Part 2

In April, I wrote that the first real Memjet-based products would be shown at IPEX the following month. Indeed, the RAPID X1 and X2 label printers, manufactured by Rapid Machinery Company of Australia, were introduced at the show, as well as the Astro Machines M1 printer from Addressing and Mailing Solutions of the UK.

However, the first introduction actually occurred in April at the ON DEMAND Expo in Philadelphia, where Rena Systems showed its version of the Astro Machines M1.

These were followed in June, by the announcement by OWN-X Industrial (Budapest) of the SpeedStar 3000, a roll-to-roll, roll-to-sheet and fanfold format label printer.

Each of these is powered by the Memjet 8.66 inch (A4) wide, 5-color (CMYKK) print head, which delivers 1,600 dpi native print resolution. Top speed is 12 inches per second. One full 8 inch diameter roll of labels can be printed in just over 8 minutes.

Most significantly, I have been able to confirm that some of these devices are currently shipping to customers.

Each Memjet printhead consists of 70,400 ink jet nozzles, each less than 100 microns in diameter (roughly the width of human hair). These produce up to nine hundred million 1.2 picoliter droplets per second. The printheads are made of silicon in a semiconductor fab and driven by Memjet’s proprietary, “systems on a chip” print engine controller electronics, firmware, and software.

There continue to be strong indications that a Memjet-based large-format printer will appear at trade shows this fall, but it appears that we will have to wait a bit for the much-anticipated office printers. Certainly a phased rollout of a new technology by a new company makes sense. Speculation concerning an OEM customer for the office devices centers around consumer electronics firms like Sony and Panasonic, as well as computer manufacturers like Lenovo. This, too, makes sense, as Memjet will supply not only printheads and ink, but other subsystems and even print engines ready for private labeling.

Digital newspaper press for $20,000

It sounds unreal, but at IPEX 2010 Riso showed a digital duplicator that prints A2 sheets at 100 pages per minute in a single colour.  The machine being shown was a prototype and the intention was to judge market potential.

The machine is effectively a stretched (sideways) version of Riso’s existing range.  Even the projected price of $20,000 is double that of the existing half size A3 machine.  The machine was demonstrated, and by comparison to the large digital and conventional presses at the show, this unassuming press just immediately started and printed.

Duplicator technology is over a century old, and used to be the province of schools and churches.  In my youth you typed a stencil.  My first job was with UK stencil duplicator manufacturer Gestetner.  The company founder supposedly watched a kite fall into a puddle, and then someone walked over it.  He noticed the water came through where the shoe had pressed much more than it did elsewhere.  So a stencil – a thin coated film – could allow ink through wherever the film was broken, for instance by a typewriter.

In the 1980’s came thermal stencils, using a thermal printhead similar to those within fax machines to melt the image on the film.  This brought stencil duplicators into the digital age.

The print quality shown was excellent – both on newsprint and a white ‘office’ type paper. Sure you can’t match a high-quality laser printer, but the beauty of this process is that it’s low-cost and fast.  Inks are fast drying without any need for a dryer.

The drawback? Well, like conventional presses you are printing from a master.  So there is no electronic collating, this is high-speed printing of the same page.  But add some off-line finishing equipment and you can easily collate, fold, stitch and trim.

So, what could it be used for?  Well, there are three other qualities that I haven’t mentioned.  Firstly it is relatively light at 152 kg, so you can easily put it into a small truck.  Secondly it has a low-power mode consuming only 400 watts.  Thirdly this is a robust process, not a sensitive laser printer process that needs a controlled environment, nor a fussy ink jet system.  So guess who has shown an interest?  The military!

Whatever Happened to RFID?

Just a few years ago, RFID technology and printed electronics were expected to march in lock step towards a market for 80 billion tags worth $5 billion in 2010. Ink jet printing of first antennas and later the simple integrated circuits for radio frequency identification was expected to drive the cost of a tag down to $0.06 by now and ultimately to $0.01. This would enable item-level tagging for retail and drive a host of new applications from instant grocery check-out to microwave ovens that would understand how to cook prepared foods and refrigerators that would reorder expired milk. RFID tags would quickly replace bar codes, and RFID would lead the way into printed electronics, with ink jet carrying the banner. Companies sprang up or geared up to exploit the  opportunity.

It is hard to say which has been the more disappointing – the market or the technology. The world’s largest retailer, WalMart, is a microcosm (if it can be a micro-anything) of the RFID situation. In 2003, the company said it would require suppliers to use RFID on cases and pallets by 2007. Item-level tagging would follow by 2010, and, in one test, HP and Lexmark supplied individually RFID-tagged retail ink jet printers to WalMart in late 2005. But by 2008, the average cost of a tag was still well over a dollar and barely 2 billion were produced, compared to 10 trillion bar codes. Item-level tagging has been all but abandoned, though most of WalMart’s largest suppliers do tag their cases and pallets and the retailer saves tens of millions of dollars annually as a result.

Today RFID suffers from a lack of standards and infrastructure and is mostly confined to asset management and tracking and to niche applications such as automated road tolls and car key security. To gain broader acceptance in distribution, it will need major investments in infrastructure, and today’s economy won’t support that, even with the promise of future cost savings. Beyond that, retail RFID must overcome public perceptions that it is a way for Big Brother (governments and corporations) to pry into private affairs by tracking people and goods beyond the sale. Many companies have abandoned RFID, and especially the development of printed organic chips for it.

Ink jet hasn’t fared much better, as other print technologies proved more cost effective for antennas and for many other aspects of printing electronics as well. Ink jet still excels in applying the active (semiconducting) materials, but organic semiconductors are still too slow in electrical response. Start-up Kovio promises to print silicon by ink jet; combine that with Conductive Inkjet Technology’s catalytic inks, and ink jet technology could still cut the price of RFID tags to $0.02 to $0.04 – if the needed infrastructure and item-level demand ever develop. Yet emerging standards call for chip complexity well beyond the capability of ink jet printing. The promise envisioned in 2004 may never be realized.

The problems of developing ink jet sheet-fed presses

At Drupa 2008 Screen and Fujifilm both showed prototype B2 ink jet presses.  These will be launched at the forthcoming IPEX trade show at the NEC, Birmingham, UK 18-25 May, 2010.  Up until now all ink jet printers aimed at commercial printing have been web-based.

We already have the smaller format B3 format digital presses, in particular from HP Indigo. These are based on Indigo’s Electroink process which is a variant of electrophotography.  So why have we never had B2 versions?  Well, having spent the earlier part of my career designing and developing photocopiers and printers based on the EPG process, I can tell you that the cost goes up rapidly as you increase the process width.  Although it is possible to build wider machines, with multiple process steps the products would be very expensive.

Fujifilm Jetpress gripper drum

In theory ink jet is better suited to increases in width.  You just stack more printheads across the machine and the costs should be proportional to the width. However there is a snag.  The ink jet printheads have to positioned very close to the substrate and the substrate needs to be moved precisely.  This means that conventional gripper drums used within offset presses can’t be used, as the grippers would collide with the relatively fragile printheads.

From the patent literature we can see that the Fuji Jet Press 720 uses a variation on a gripper drum, but this only works on the leading edge, so there is also an internal vacuum system to help keep the substrate flat around the drum.  The vacuum is switched on and off with the rotation of the drum to allow the substrate to be gripped and released.

The Screen SX paper transport - a series of vacuum tables

Again from patents we believe that the Screen Jet SX uses a series of flat trays that are circulated around the lower part of the machine by chains.  The paper is fed on to the tray by an offset-type feeder, and is held flat during the printing process using a vacuum system.  The chain drive can’t move the tables past the printheads with enough precision of speed, so a series of linear motors take over for this part of the travel.  A vacuum picker system then lifts the sheets into the output stacker.

So why bother with sheet feed if a web-based paper feed is easier?  Well, the B2 sheet paper format is the most popular with commercial print shops.  They are used to the capability of quickly changing paper from one job to another.  They also have an existing investment in finishing equipment around the B2 size.  So we expect to see a lot of interest in these new machines at IPEX and will keep our blog readers posted.

Lexmark’s Vizix Technology

No one would have placed Lexmark among the leaders in desktop ink jet technology.  The company focused on being the low-cost producer of desktop printers – until now.  Lexmark’s focus is on consumables, and it found that buyers of its low-cost – often bundled – printers just don’t use many ink cartridges.  The company reduced its emphasis on that market, but lacked the technology to compete with the other desktop players in performance and print quality as well as consumables costs.

That changed with the company’s announcement last fall of its Vizix printer line, which feature fixed printheads and ink tanks.  This is Lexmark’s first venture into fixed, life-of-the-machine printheads, and it represents something of a breakthrough for the company, especially considering its modest investments in research and development.  It spent less than 7% of revenue on R&D in 2004-2007, though this has increased to nearly 10% in 2008-2009 (actual spending remained flat).  It ranked eighth to tenth among printer companies in patent applications in 2005-2008 and fell to fourteenth in 2009.  It has been in last place among desktop vendors.

 

Lexmark has said very little about the new printheads, but patent research suggests that they feature reduced actuator stack height, making them more efficient.  This is achieved through improved, thinner protective layers with better cavitation resistance and lower thermal expansion.  It also appears that thin-layer photoimageable nozzle plates are used to allow wafer-level processing of complete heads, leading to improved registration of layers.  The photo shows a cross-section of one channel, with the actuator stack at the right, offset from the orifice at the left.

Lexmark has used its ability to sell ink in tanks (rather than integrated cartridges) to reduce some ink prices and to join Kodak on the “cheap ink” bandwagon.  TV ads trumpet the $4.99 “500-page black ink cartridge”.  They don’t mention that devices that can use the aforementioned cartridges are priced at $199.95 and up.  Black cartridges for the mid-range Vizix devices sell for $15.99, and no page yield is mentioned.

Still, the important point is that Lexmark and its OEM customers are very much in the game, with competitive technology and print quality.  Rumors that Lexmark would exit the ink jet business were clearly unfounded.

Is Memjet For Real?

I have been asked this question many times in the three years since Memjet founder Kia Silverbrook announced the technology and plans to introduce a product before the end of 2007.  Demonstration units made it seem at the time that a product was indeed imminent, but promises of products in 2007, 2008 and 2009 have not been met.  Some have even suggested that the announcement was a hoax.

All that may be about to change.  Next month at IPEX (Birmingham, UK), Impression Technology Europe has announced that it will introduce the RAPID X1 label printer with Memjet technology.  The Rapid X1 is a roll to roll printer with an 8 ½” wide 5 colour print head and a maximum print resolution of 1600 x 1600 dpi.  Maximum print speed is 12 inches per second at 1600 x 800 DPI.  The RAPID X1 is manufactured by Rapid Machinery Company of Chatswood, Australia.

Impression Technology Europe is a distributor of products manufactured by Impression Technology Pty Ltd of Sidney, Australia.  These DTG branded products are textile and garment ink jet printers.

Silverbrook Research, the parent of Memjet, is also located in Australia.

There are some indications that yet another Memjet-based label printer may appear at IPEX, and rumor has it that Memjet-based large format devices may be coming this year as well.

It appears that the Memjet strategy has changed from licensing the technology to supplying key components, such as printheads, drive electronics, and ink.  The company may also supply print engines for the home and office sector.

That Memjet is serious was shown late last year with their hiring of Len Lauer, former COO of Qualcomm; he left that position to join Memjet.  He had been rumored to be joining communications giant Verizon as its CEO, showing that he has major management talent.

Ink Jet IPEX?

Held half way between Drupa trade shows, IPEX is a big printing industry event that you cannot ignore.  Coming up in just 2 months time 18-25 May 2010 at the NEC, Birmingham, UK the advance of digital printing is going to be very apparent.

I’ve been attending IPEX shows since the early 1980’s when there was almost no digital printing.  Xerox was selling high-speed production copiers and had a printer version.  Delphax was promoting ionography, and Bull magnetography.  In those politically incorrect days I was aghast to see strippers peforming on the Polychrome plate stand – the challenge of attracting an audience to a commodity product hasn’t gone, but the method has changed!

But the most exciting IPEX for me was 1993 when Indigo and Xeikon first showed their products.  Industry pundits were predicting the demise of offset printing by the year 2000.  The buzz about the place was enormous.  As usual the initial growth of new technology was grossly overestimated and it would be around a decade before a significant market penetration for digital colour had been achieved.

So what about ink jet?  Well, the Drupa show in 2008 was tagged ‘Ink Jet Drupa’ and certainly the new technology demonstrated was impressive.  Ink jet had finally shaken off the image of desk-top products – good quality but unreliable.  But with a few exception, the really impressive stuff was there as prototypes.  The expectation for IPEX 2010 is that we will see commercialised products and they will be working.

Kodak will be showing their Stream continuous ink jet technology, now incorporated into the Prosper range of machines.  Printing 200 metres/min. it has a duty cycle of 120 M A4 pages/month!  HP’s web press prints at 122 m/min. but has a wider web width and so similar productivity.

But perhaps the most interesting machines will be ink jet sheet-fed presses.  Fujifilm and Screen showed non-working prototypes at Drupa 2008 and we have been closely monitoring the patents published by both companies to understand better how they work.  At the moment the Fujifilm 720 press looks more interesting from a process point of view.  To enable printing on to a wide range of paper stocks, both machines use a colourless fixer or print improver liquid with is printed before the image.  This reacts with the ink to considerably improve the waterfastness, and the precipitate the colorants on the substrate surface giving brighter images.  The Fujifilm patents describe a further twist.  The ink contains not just coloured pigments but transparent polymer beads.  After printing these are fused on to the substrate in a process similar to the hot roll fusing of toner technology.  The result is likely to be good adhesion and gloss even on smooth coated substrates.

We will be commenting further on technology at IPEX, and of course reviewing it after the event.  And the IMI Europe Ink Jet Conference, to be held this year in Lisbon 27-29 October, will be featuring both the technology and markets for ink jet digital presses.

Kodak’s Stream inks

As most people know, Kodak has been developing a new continuous ink jet technology over the past few years and is now exploiting it as the Prosper digital press platform.  Kodak has just posted on YouTube a presentation by Jim Chwalek on the ink technology used.

There are two main points.  First the use of Kodak’s milling technology to produce nano-particulate inks leads to strong vibrant colours.  Secondly, as continuous ink jet is being used it is claimed that there is no need to include large quantities of slow drying wetting agents in the inks that drop on demand heads need to stop nozzles from clogging.  This enables Kodak to print high quality images directly on to glossy papers without mottle and bleeding.

Certainly the print samples that Kodak has been showing are impressive.  It will be very interesting to see how this ink technology compares with the pre-coating ink fixer or image improver technologies that Hewlett-Packard and Fujifilm are using.