Xaar joins the Si-MEMS printhead club

It’s been a few years since Xaar announced the development of a silicon-MEMS thin film piezo printhead to form the basis of their P4 (platform 4) product range. So has it been worth the wait? On 2 June, 2016 we got first details at the product launch and it certainly looks both impressive and competitive. Here I’ll explain why.

But first let me just explain what silicon MEMS (abbreviated to Si-MEMS) actually means and why it’s being increasingly seen as the future for piezo printheads. The use of silicon as a base for developing powerful computer chips, memory and other electronic devices has revolutionised industry and our lives. These devices are made by the diffusion and coating of materials in layers at extremely high resolutions. MEMS technology is making structures in and on silicon using similar techniques. This involves etching as well as depositing materials. Over the past decade or so etching techniques have become much better, faster and cheaper, making the mass production of MEMS devices viable. The technology is used for a very wide range of applications, and one of those is in ink jet printheads. Thermal or bubble jet heads can be considered MEMS devices in that physical processing is often required in the manufacturing process, and Memjet takes the process much further by building CMOS circuitry with the actuator structure on top.

But the other term often heard in conjunction with Si-MEMS is thin film piezo, and they go hand in hand. Si-MEMS allows a printhead manufacturer to make actuator chambers and ink passageways at a finer scale than previous techniques. The material is much stiffer too, so that the walls between chambers can be made thinner. Unfortunately as the chamber dimensions are reduced, you need to make a thinner and more flexible piezo actuator layer to flex into the chamber to displace a drop from the nozzle. Until recently ink jet devices used bulk piezo, made from wafers of the material. Thick film deposition of piezo has also been used, forming layers around 20 microns thick. For the use in Si-MEMS devices much thinner coatings are used, with piezo layers 2-5 microns thick on top of flexible diaphragm layers only half that.

For Xaar, moving to Si-MEMS offers many benefits. Perhaps the biggest one is it will finally allow them to work with aqueous inks which are becoming increasingly important for commercial and packaging printing, and are of course essential for textile printing. It will also operate at much higher linear speeds than possible with Xaar’s previous designs.

Xaar 5601 GS3p0 printhead
The new printhead consists of 4 chips mounted in a Z-shaped module. Each module can print over roughly a 4.5 inch (115 mm) width at 1,200 dpi and at 120 metres per minute. Alternately the printhead can be supplied with 2 colour inks and print at 600 dpi. Inks can be either aqueous or solvent-based and the printhead can be operated in binary or greyscale mode with drop sizes ranging from 3-21 pl.

The actuators are thin film piezo configured in roof mode, with nozzles at a pitch of 300 per inch. That equates to a pitch between nozzles of 85 microns. Each row of nozzles is offset, with each pair at 1/600th of an inch and the pairs offset by 1,200 of an inch. This allow single or 2 colour printing.

Xaar 5601Although later to the game than some of their competitors, Xaar has taken the opportunity to use the latest technology internally. For instance the connection technology used is state of the art. They have also focussed on producing a design that is easy to implement. The head has alignment features to allow easy replacement, with the final nozzle alignment taking place in software. As the head covers a wide width there are fewer ink and electrical connections reducing costs and complexity. The Z shape enables printheads to be assembled in wide arrays with stitching also taken care of by software. The heads are also reasonably narrow in width, so stacking heads together for a full colour system will be compact – Xaar claims only 200 mm for 4 colours.

The printhead has been designed with a high drop velocity – a figure of 9 metres per second was quoted at the press conference but I understand higher velocities are possible. This should allow wider spacing between printhead and substrates while maintaining print quality.

Drop placement accuracy will also be high – Ramon Borrell, CTO of Xaar, stated they were achieving 3 sigma within 5 micron at 1 mm spacing.

One of the design considerations with a high density piezo printhead is thermal management. The heat from the actuators heats the ink, and if the temperature of the ink varies then so does its viscosity and therefore the drop volume. So Xaar has incorporated its high flow rate technology which will equalise and stabilise the temperature across the printhead, and which will also keep ink fresh at the nozzles and rapidly remove bubbles by passing ink right behind the nozzles.

AcuDrp Technology
A new feature incorporated into the printhead design compensates for manufacturing variations between nozzles. It allows the printhead to be calibrated to equalise drop volume and velocity across each printhead and all of the printheads in an array. It claims to do this dynamically, so perhaps can also be used to reduce crosstalk and maximise printhead life.

Partnership with GIS
Xaar also announced a partnership with Global Inkjet Systems who will supply drive electronics and ink supply systems for the 5601. Xaar’s overall aim is to minimise the total cost of ownership by reducing development and integration costs and time to market.

Product introduction
Xaar aims to be manufacturing the printhead at the end of 2016 with the first product – a textile press – appearing mid-2017. A version capable of handling UV-curable inks is due in September this year, and some manufacturers will be adopting the printhead for 3D printing with a major vendor launch in 2017. Xaar is out-sourcing the silicon MEMS manufacturing, focussing on final module assembly and testing, so won’t be investing in expensive silicon fab facilities.

So, will the Xaar 5601 printhead family succeed? It does seem to tick all the right boxes for high quality ink jet printing at speed. In terms of linear speed and print resolution it is up there with the Fujifilm Dimatix Samba and Kyocera printheads, while being easier to integrate into a process. Landa Digital claimed 300 metres/minute with Samba printheads but like others this is achieved by doubling up the printheads, which Xaar could also do. HP is running web presses at 120 metres in ‘quality’ mode, but their claimed 2,400 nozzles per inch is actually 1,200 dpi with 2 nozzles in line to get 4 grey levels.

A modest yet significant product announcement at Drupa 2016

You expect at the Drupa trade show, currently running at Düsseldorf, a certain amount of showmanship. Demos with lots of loud music, Xerox has Ministry of Sound shows 3 times a day, and the show everyone wants to hear is of course from Benny Landa about Nanography.

imageBut tucked away at the end of Hall 8a is a prototype machine easily missed. Not just the machine but the significance of it too. The machine is the Canon Voyager, demonstrated every hour with the usual display of print samples under glass close by. Canon is not really keeping it quiet, it is a public display and they have a page advertisement for it in every issue of the Drupa Daily. But that’s pretty modest compared to others.

So what’s so special about it? Well, at Drupa 2012 Landa Digital showed their presses for the first time. Instead of ink jetting the image directly onto the substrate, they printed onto a flexible belt, dried the image, and then transferred the image to the substrate. The advantage of using intermediate transfer is that the process becomes almost substrate independent, one of the concerns of direct printing. Of course there is a major problem to be overcome, as you need the intermediate transfer surface to be non-wetting at the transfer stage, yet wetting when you jet the image.

I track all of the ink jet patent applications published, and can tell you that Canon probably has the most relating to intermediate transfer, with others with IP in this area such as Xerox, Ricoh, Seiko Epson and Fuji Xerox.

By now you should have worked out that the significance of the Canon Voyager is that it also uses liquid intermediate transfer, this time using a drum rather than a belt. It’s a B2+ press capable of 3,000 sheets per hour. New fixed array bubble jet printheads print 7 colours using pigment-based inks onto a drum covered with the intermediate transfer blanket. The image is then dried and transferred to the final substrate.

Little information has been given about Canon’s intentions for the press. It is planned for a launch in 2018 and will be aimed at high-end commercial printing applications demanding the highest print quality.

Canon already has experience of producing high quality from fixed ink jet arrays in the DreamLabo photofinishing machine, although in that case printing is directly onto coated photo paper.

So with a confident Landa Digital announcing the building of factories ready for volume production of the Nanographic presses, and now Canon also planning intermediate transfer, what will we see in 3 years time at Drupa 2019. My prediction is we will see ink jet presses, both direct and intermediate transfer, vying side by side for customers. If anyone thinks ink jet is close to the limits yet they are wrong.

Mist, missing nozzles and condensation – Challenges for high speed ink jet printing

Mike Willis, Managing Director of Pivotal Resources, explains that it’s a lot more than just printheads and inks

It’s easy to focus on inks and printheads when thinking about ink jet presses as they are essential components and go a long way to determining performance and applications. When I bump into contacts next week at Drupa 2016 we’ll be swapping notes on what printheads are being used or who’s ink. This tends to mask all the other vital sub-systems and issues that need to be optimised to achieve a reliable and stable press.

Those who know me, or who have attended the Ink Jet academy course that I jointly present with Dr Alan Hudd, know that I’ve been a great advocate of taking ink supply and nozzle maintenance seriously during the concept phase of developing a new product. They are certainly key components of desk-top products, and their careful design and optimisation can lead to reliable industrial presses too.

The use of ink jet for high-speed printing applications – commercial and packaging printing in particular – has required the development of page-wide fixed array printheads. Printing at high-speed with ten’s of thousands of nozzles leads to some other problems too, and I’m going to explore three of them in this blog.

Are you wondering how I know about these problems? They don’t get mentioned in public most of the time. Do I hang around in bars close to manufacturers R&D labs hoping to overhear discussions at the end of a hard day’s development? No, nothing that exciting. I read patent applications.

Ink misting
Printhead manufacturers and ink formulators try and optimise the jetting process between them, often not an easy partnership as they almost always work for different companies. But no matter how elegant the drop formation process might appear, using an optical drop monitoring system, there will be microscopic drop fragments created at the point where the tail of the drop breaks away from the nozzle. These very small, often sub-micron fragments of ink, have little momentum and drift with the prevailing air currents around the printhead. In high-speed printing the substrate passes underneath the printheads, drawing air along with it. The turbulence this creates distributes the ink mist throughout the rest of the machine.

Aqueous inks are the choice for many of the new presses under development. But these require extensive dryers within the press. At very high speeds it may be necessary to heat the web before, or immediately after, printing. Driving off the water carrier can improve the print quality by preventing excessive bleed and absorption into the substrate. But it also leads to the creation of large amounts of water vapour. Just like your kitchen windows when you are cooking, this water vapour will condense on anywhere cold enough; like the printheads and mountings within the press. And as it builds up it will drip onto the substrate and ruin the beautiful printing.

Drop detection and missing/misaligned nozzle correction
When you have tens of thousands of nozzles, you have the problem that the failure of just one of them could conceivably affect the high print quality demanded by these applications. There are some great technologies for hiding any artefact caused by a missing or misaligned nozzle – for instance by increasing the dot size each side of the missing nozzle, or substituting a different colour. But you can only play these tricks if you know which nozzles are causing the problems. Technology is therefore being developed to either check the drops in flight, or the printed image, to look for these defects. Taking into account the number of nozzles involved and the print speed this is not a trivial issue to overcome.

So when you see the impressive new ink jet presses at Drupa 2016 think of the difficulties that the engineers have had to tackle. Some of problems are not very glamorous, but they all require satisfactory solutions to provide reliable systems.

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


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!

Out with the old, in with the new – the end of an era

Mike Willis on an emotional handover after 17 years at IMI Europe

I remember watching a TV programme many years ago where an amateur writer was caught drafting his Desert Island Disc selections before he had even finished his first novel. Strange as it might seem, negotiations had only just begun with my chosen successor to take over IMI Europe, yet the first thing I began considering was how and when it should be announced to the world.

And so last Wednesday 2nd December, 2015 I stood up at the start of the final IMI Europe Ink Jet Conference that I would organise, made a few jokes, explained that it was time for me to hand over the baton to someone younger, and introduced the new Managing Director and owner of IMI Europe, Dr Tim Phillips.

IMG_3964I’m sure the audience noticed it was an emotional moment for me. The conference was held in Amsterdam, in exactly the same hotel where IMI Europe began 17 years ago! This was actually not by design; when seeking a suitable venue the Novotel was the only one with the right space, at the right price and at the right time. It felt like coming home, travelling a full circle. I had previously taken the Ink Jet Conference south, due to the dark, damp weather in Northern Europe late in the year. I was reminded of this whilst struggling with a suitcase against the wind on the walk from the train station to the hotel when I arrived.

IMI Europe formed out of IMI Inc., with friend and business partner Al Keene. I convinced him we should set up in Europe to exploit a different kind of ink jet industry. In the 1990’s the US was heavily into desktop and wide format printing, with many local manufacturers. In Europe there were clusters of ink jet expertise, including around my home base of Cambridge, UK. I’d been working within the ink jet industry, as I still do, and had been one of the founders of Xaar.

The future in my mind was with non-office applications of ink jet, and quickly we established new events covering Digital Commercial and Packaging Printing (1999) and Digital Industrial and Decorative Printing (2001), years ahead of their time. The first Industrial Ink Jet Technology Showcase was held in 2002, where suppliers to the industry could present their products and services to the emerging development community. The first Ink Jet Summer School was held in Cambridge in 1999, attracting delegates from around the world. Together with Dr Alan Hudd we began the Ink Jet Academy course which has been a phenomenal success, with over 3,000 having attended over 17 years.

We’re pretty sure that these events have helped inspire, educate and train the emerging industrial applications for ink jet, particularly in Europe. We’ve found that some delegates came from companies we had previously never heard of, yet 18 months later revolutionary new products would be launched.

But the flagship event of IMI Europe has always been the annual European Ink Jet Conference, and therefore this had to be my finale. And what a conference it was this year! Registrations kept coming in right up until the last minute. We had zero no-shows; everyone came. The speaker programme was so strong that 85% of the audience were still there in the last couple of hours of the final morning. The level of speakers was outstanding, with several CEOs and Executives presenting. Delegate after delegate told me that all of the presentations were top quality, not a poor one amongst them. The feedback we received on our evaluations forms confirmed this. The atmosphere was superb!

IMG_6113So why the handover? Well over the past few years I have been increasingly frustrated. I still have the enthusiasm to do more, to launch new events in new locations around the world. My brilliant team are also keen to take the company forward to new heights. But I’m getting old and tired, and also have another company to manage – Pivotal Resources.

I also now regret, like many others I’m sure, that I spent my most productive years growing a business but neglected spending enough time with my children as they grew up. I’m not going to make the same mistake with my grandchildren.

So that’s why it was time to find someone younger with the right skills and expertise to continue with IMI Europe. But you haven’t seen the last of me. I’ll still be around as Chairman of IMI Europe for at least the next few years, and will be continuing with the Ink Jet Academy course and Pivotal Resources.

Over the past two decades with IMI Europe I’ve made so many friends within the industry, which has built up into a close-knit community, and I’ve had a fantastic time. I wish you all continued success and hope you will continue your loyalty with Tim in the future.

Where did 25 years go?

Mike Willis, Managing Director of IMI Europe, reminisces about the beginnings of a leading ink jet printhead manufacturer

You’d think that, like the day you get married, your children are born or your cat dies, you’d remember the day you set up a company. But the problem is founding a company can be a long drawn out process. When do you count from? The day official documents were signed? The day you got funding? Opened bank accounts? Moved into the premises? Probably joining the payroll is what most employees would remember.

But sometime in early May, as best as I can remember, 25 years ago, four of us with two investors and the help of Cambridge Consultants formed a yet to be named company. The name came a month or so later.  We couldn’t come up with a name internally and so the lead investor got a marketing consultancy to come up with one. Xaar.  None of us liked it. The concept was that it sounded like something Russian – perestroika was big news at the time – and it was spelt like it was from California. We learned to like it more when told that without a name there would be no bank accounts and therefore no pay at the end of the month. And we joked that it was short for ‘biz-xaar’.

The Xaar team one year from start. from the left David Paton 3rd, Steve Temple 5th, Mike Willis 7th and Mark Shepherd 11th.
The Xaar team one year from start. from the left David Paton 3rd, Steve Temple 6th, Mike Willis 7th and Mark Shepherd 11th.

Xaar was set up to exploit a new ink jet printhead technology developed at Cambridge Consultants in 1986. Two of the inventors joined Xaar, David Paton (sadly no longer with us) and Steve Temple, who for 20 years served as Technical Director. Mark Shepherd had joined the team in the early days of the CCL development as an experienced process technician and quickly rose through the ranks of the new company. I’d project managed the development at CCL, leaving the others to concentrate on the technology. Once an MD had been appointed to Xaar I adopted a business development role and sold the first licence to Japanese company Brother.

You have to remember that ink jet was still in its infancy at the time. In 1990 we had trouble convincing manufacturers of impact dot matrix printers that ink jet would soon wipe them out. I’d also been ridiculed by an expert from one of the investors for predicting that the sub-$1,000 laser printer was just a few years away!

Mark Shepherd blows out the candle on Xaar's 1st birthday
Mark Shepherd blows out the candle on Xaar’s 1st birthday

The focus was very much on office printing as that’s where the action seemed to be. The same was true of other developers of ink jet printheads. US company Spectra, now known as Dimatix and owned by Fujifilm, was the main competitor. They were developing a colour printer for Apple, but then had to downsize when the contract was pulled.

It seemed to me that the way forward for Xaar was to licence the technology for mass markets, like the office, and to develop and manufacture printheads for graphics and industrial applications. Sadly the investors didn’t agree with my view, nor many of my other ideas, disagreements leading to my leaving within 18 months of the start. For some reason I still remember that day very clearly!

As with many changes in life, with hindsight the move was positive. I’ve spent the last 25 years advising most of the major players in the business around the world, and many smaller ones too.  Through IMI Europe I’ve been organising conferences and courses for 15 years, contributing to the leading position that European companies have in commercialising industrial ink jet. Amazingly our Ink Jet Academy course, run in partnership with Dr Alan Hudd, has had over 3,000 attend from over 800 companies. And Xaar has managed without me just fine, becoming one of the leading printhead manufacturers and a major local employer.

 The next Ink Jet Academy course will be held at the IMI Europe Ink Jet Summer School 2015, Munich June 22-23. You can also get the latest information on industrial ink jet printing at the upcoming IMI Europe Industrial Ink Jet Technology Showcase, Munich June 24-25, 2015. Details on both at www.imieurope.com.

3D printing – the only way is up

It was back in the early 1990’s at an IMI Ink Jet Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts that a couple of young students talked to me about work they were doing at MIT Labs. This involved jetting an adhesive in a pattern onto a powder bed. After each layer had been imaged a further layer of powder was spread across the bed and imaged, and so on. Eventually you could blow away the loose powder, revealing a 3D object. I wished I’d accepted the invitation to take a look at it now!

The MIT 3D printing process, ink jetting adhesive on to a powder
The MIT 3D printing process, ink jetting adhesive on to a powder

Since that time 3D printing has changed from being a novelty process to a major industry. It is still very much in its infancy in terms of the scale of production and the exploration of what it can do. It has become an easy source for media articles, with the most outlandish claims at times. The frenzy has grown so much that I read a story last year in a 3D printing magazine entitled “How to hype your 3D technology”! Many expect it to lead to a new industrial revolution, transforming the way we develop and manufacture products, in the same way that manufacturing changed from hand production to machines 250 years ago.

There are many different 3D printing technologies, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. At present no one technology can satisfy a broad range of requirements, so normally you select the best process for a specific application. In many cases the restriction concerns the materials that can be used. For instance some just work with a particular polymer, others with metals, rubbers or ceramics.

Autodesk aims to become the 3D printing industries ‘Android’

Many of the fundamental patents for the different processes have now lapsed, which has led to a broadening of the industry. On May 14, 2014 Autodesk, the leader in 3D design and modelling software, announced plans to launch its own 3D printer. But perhaps even more significantly it will allow others to make their own versions of the printer or they can use Autodesk’s Spark software to drive their own designs. This business model is expected to drive up the numbers of 3D printers, just like Google have grown the smartphone market using their Android operating system.

Estimates vary as to how big 3D printing currently is, but it is at least $2B and growing fast. Therefore a lot of companies are exploring how to engage with this fast growing industry. There are a great number of opportunities, from building new processes to developing new materials.

So how do you begin to explore the wide range of process, materials and capabilities 3D ink jet printing has to offer? One way is to attend the 3D Ink Jet Printing course, part of IMI Europe’s Summer School, June 16-20 in Milan. Dr Alan Hudd of Alchemie Technology, an expert in ink jet functional materials, will describe the processes, applications and markets for 3D printing, and then explore in depth the functional materials that can be used. The course concludes by describing the processes and issues relating to new 3D printing applications.

A new hybrid UV ink jet ink technology

Another interesting presentation at the 21st European Ink Jet conference run by IMI Europe was from FUJIFILM Speciality Ink Systems.  Jon Harper-Smith described a new hybrid UV ink technology that they have been developing.

A trend in ink jet is towards higher resolution printheads, which tend to require low viscosity inks.  At the same time the range of applications for ink jet is growing, and with it the range of substrates that users wish to print on, requiring increased functionality of the ink which tends to increase the ink viscosity.

Conventional UV-curable inks consist of monomers, polymer/oligomers, and other additives.  Basically the functionality comes from the polymer/oligomer and the viscosity from the monomer. It is hard to balance these to achieve the required performance.  In addition all of the volume of the ink is left on the substrate surface, which can lead to undesirably thick layers for some applications.

Hybrid_dropsFSIS's hybrid inkThe new ink consists of solvent, to adjust the viscosity, and a special hybrid polymer to create the functionality.  After the drop reaches the surface, the solvent (which can be aqueous or a volatile organic solvent) evaporates to leave a smooth even film.  This is then cured using a UV light source as usual.

The ink is free of monomer, which is important for food industry applications. Because the image is flatter than normal UV-curable inks   the print quality is claimed to be higher, and this should suit consumer applications such as labels.

Alternative sources of thermal ink jet technology

With the apparent demise of Olivetti in Italy as a source of thermal ink jet heads, it was very interesting to learn of developments from Taiwan at the recent 21st European Ink Jet Conference run by IMI Europe in Lisbon, Portugal.  One of the speakers, Dr Daniel Lan, Managing Director of IUT, described their experience in developing thermal ink jet technology.  This began at ITRI in 1993 and R&D led to the formation of three manufacturing spin-offs.  IUT has manufactured 11 million ink jet printhead cartridges over 13 years, and since 2004 a major shareholder has been Asus.


Dr Lan explained that what they have been able to offer in the past has been restricted by patents, particularly those from HP.  Although they were convinced their technology worked around IP restrictions, the cost and timescales of challenging any legal action was prohibitive. But that may change next year when in late 2014 a significant number of fundamental patents, including matrix addressing, over-edge ink supply and nozzle densities greater than 300 dpi expire.

In addition IUT is developing some new printheads.  Special materials are being evaluated to allow solvent inks to be used.  And 2 and 4 inch wide heads are being developed.  These are intended for fixed array single pass applications.


SII Printek launches continuous flow printhead

SII Printek has been making ink jet printheads using the shared wall architecture for many years. More recently they have adapted these designs to use every other channel, so-called isolated channel technology.  This enables a large increase in drop frequency, for instance 35 kHz, and also aqueous-based inks, although the number of useable channels is halved.  It also led to being able to produce 3 different drop sizes per nozzle, giving a greyscale capability.  Although less well known than other ink jet printhead vendors, SII Printek has a broad customer base.

Isolated channels – many benefits

The latest development announced at the IMI 22nd Ink Jet Conference, Arizona February 1st 2013 is continuous circulation technology.  This is implemented in conjunction with the isolated channel technology.  Like other vendor’s printheads using continuous flow through the actuator chambers, the priming is fast, fresh ink is always passing the nozzles, and the temperature of the printhead becomes much more uniform, leading to increased stability.

SII Printek 512 JetFlow printhead

SII Printek ‘s product announcement is the 512 JetFlow printhead with 512 nozzles in 2 rows, a native resolution of 180 dpi, drop volumes variable between 20-150 pl, and drop frequencies in excess of 36 kHz.  Oil, solvent aqueous and UV inks can be used.  The new head is targeted at ceramic tile and textile printing, and digital fabrication.

This was one of the many new introductions at the IMI 22nd Ink Jet Conference, proceedings are available at www.imiconf.com

HP launches low-cost ink jet page array to compete with Memjet

We’ve already had one big new technology launch with Landa Digital, but 2013 looks like it goes down with 2.  Today HP has announced their latest ink jet technology development – a page-array printhead – together with the first printers and multi-function machines that will use them.  These machines are designed to be very competitive to  colour laser printers – twice the speed at half the cost.

The spec. is 70 pages per minute in “General Office quality mode”.  The printhead resolution across the page is 1,200 dpi and there are 42,240 nozzles.  HP’s pigmented inks are used which in conjunction with Colorlok paper should produce strong colours by “crashing” the colorant on the paper surface.

The printhead uses the HP SPT thermal ink jet technology with surface heaters, and generates 6 pl drops at 10 m/s.  If the printer is printing at 1,200 dpi along the page at 1,200 dpi then the drop frequency  is around 16 kHz.  The printhead is intended to last the life of the machine.  The printhead is made from 10 dies in a staggered overlapping architecture.

A big issue with page arrays is nozzle failures.  The new machines have a scanning optical drop detection system which uses a back scatter technique.  This operates while a test pattern is being ejected by the nozzles.  If nozzles have failed then other nozzles are substituted to hide the defect as much as possible and avoid visible banding.  Nozzle maintenance is via a cleaning web wrapped around a wiping roller.

So, a big surprise?  Well, not to the companies who subscribe to our Directions ink jet patent review service.  We’ve been reviewing patents relating to this technology over the past year so we could see what might be coming.  To find out more about Directions you can visit our new web site www.inkjetpatents.com.

You can find out more about HP’s technology from their White Paper.


Memjet’s new pricing model

Years ago I worked for an IT consultancy.  I had an ink jet background, which led to me being continuously baited by almost everyone else that laser printers were for businesses and ink jet was for kids to use at home.  Unfortunately some of that attitude still prevails with IT staff in many companies, both large and small.  Even today ink jet is still perceived as blocked nozzles, paper feeding problems, and continuously changing ink tanks.  As if!

Many vendors have tried to enter the networked printer market with ink jet devices.  True, sales of scanning head printers into businesses is growing, but they are increasingly competing against colour laser printers which are still getting cheaper each year.  Colour laser tends to be faster than ink jet, or it was until Memjet came along.

We’ve talked about Memjet’s 60 page per minute desk-top printer before.  It is actually a fairly simple device, particularly compared to colour laser printers, and much faster.  There is a single page-wide printhead, simple paper feed, four ink tanks and that’s it.  No need for the complexities and multiple consumables of colour laser printers.  The current generation of Memjet printers use aqueous dye-based inks, which means there is some sensitivity of image quality and optical density to the paper used.  But what so many people seem to forget is that to get the best out of any printer – including colour laser printers – you should choose an appropriate paper type.  It’s not like there is no choice!

So how will Memjet get their printers into the market? Retail outlets attract customers who print 6 pages per month, not 60 pages per minute.  The Memjet printer is well suited to SMEs who use dealers for business equipment.  In what Memjet hope is a “win-win” offering, customers will be offered an “all-in” pricing model.  For a fixed monthly payment ranging from £49-£149 per month you get all of your printing costs paid for – machine, inks – everything except the paper.  It doesn’t matter whether you print in black and white or colour, or what the area coverage is, the cost is the same.  What happens if you exceed your monthly page allowance?  Just like a mobile phone contract you are charged for the extra pages.  The printer hooks up to a phone line, so tells the dealer how many pages you have printed, and when the ink is running out.  For the customer they have fixed printing costs, for the dealer a regular income with consumables supply.

I’m the one on the right!

At the Memjet UK launch last week, slogan “Speed Wins”, guests could have their photo taken with Olympic Gold Medal cyclist Victoria Pendleton.  The photos were of course printed out on a Memjet printer, and I attach a print sample.  Thankfully there was a suitable delay between the camera flash and the print coming out so we could have a little chat.  Evidently the weight of carrying the medals around is taking it’s toll on her handbag.  The downside of being an Olympic athlete!

Lexmark Exits Ink Jet Business

Lexmark International announced on August 28. 2012 that it is exiting the ink jet printer business.  The company will continue to provide service, support and consumables for owners of its ink jet devices, but will discontinue R&D and manufacturing of ink jet devices, effective immediately.  This action is expected to save $95 million annually, while resulting in 1,700 layoffs, including 1,100 in its Philippines manufacturing facility and 550 at its Lexington, Kentucky headquarters.

This is not really surprising, as Lexmark has been attempting to sell the ink jet business for some time, and rumors of its exit abounded.  Still, it is a shock to see a major player exit the market after more than twenty years of participation.  The company had already abandoned the low end of the consumer market in 2008 and launched a line of improved business-class ink jets in 2009.  But like its rivals in ink jet, Lexmark was unable to convince businesses – especially corporations – to abandon laser technology for ink jet.  Ink jet printers made up only 5% of the company’s hardware revenue in 2012 to date.

Lexmark has also tried to find other applications for its ink jet technology, with very limited success.  It’s only major success came with OEM customer Dell, which most recently carried two Dell-branded Lexmark ink jet models.

It would seem to make sense for a printer company that lacks ink jet technology, such as Samsung or Seine (Ninestar of China), to acquire the Lexmark ink jet business, but with the consumer printer market in decline, apparently no one came forward.  Perhaps someone will acquire Lexmark’s portfolio of ink jet patents, which numbers about 1,000 and is for sale.

Just last week, Kodak indicated that it does not consider its consumer ink jet line a core business and is likely to sell or close it.  Kodak entered that market in 2007.

 Tom Ashley

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.

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.

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.

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.