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.

Ink jet textile printing – a recent development?

When was the first ink jet textile printer developed?  2002? 1995? 1988?  Actually, a lot earlier than that.  In the early 1970’s a small consultancy in Cambridge, UK was asked by the large chemical group ICI to come up with a new way of printing textiles – digitally. They adopted continuous ink jet technology and built a prototype that printed 2 colours over a 10 inch wide web of fabric.  And it worked (just).

Patent GB 1,354,890 “Improvements in or relating to pattern printing apparatus” filed 26 August, 1970. The inventor was David Paton of Cambridge Consultants who went on to co-invent what became the Xaar technology.
Patent GB 1,354,890 “Improvements in or relating to pattern printing apparatus” filed 26 August, 1970. The inventor was David Paton of Cambridge Consultants who went on to co-invent what became the Xaar technology.

But it was just too far ahead of its time and the project was abandoned. The developers at Cambridge Consultants bought the IP, and the project leader span off an ink jet business soon after.  He called it Domino Printing Sciences.  Cambridge Consultants went on to pioneer many other ink jet technologies and spin-offs, such as Xaar and Inca Digital. The textile printer may not have made it to commercialisation, but the project spawned a large cluster of ink jet activity in Cambridge.

Perhaps the first commercial use of ink jet textile printing was by the Japanese company Seiren, who in 1989 began building several hundred scanning head printers using piezo drop on demand printheads for in-house production. By 2000 Seiren had gross annual sales of over $100M, supplying automotive upholstery, swimwear and apparel.

Today, after a couple of false starts, the ink jet textile industry is thriving. According to SPGPrints, the digital textile market for 2013 was 310 million m2, and is growing at 24% per year. Yet it is still only around 1% of the total printed textile market of 30 billion m2. However, in 4 years time it is forecast to more than double to 733 million m2.

Ink jet textile printing offers rapid fulfilment of new designs, essential for the fast moving fashion industry, but also a key part of the professional interior design market too. The bulk of the medium and high volume ink jet textile machinery manufacturers are based in Europe, with some of the large players located in Northern Italy. So when IMI Europe decided to hold their annual Ink Jet Summer School in Milan this year it was natural to propose an Ink Jet Textile Printing course.

Running 18-19 June 2014, three experts within the industry will give delegates a thorough overview of the ink jet textile industry. Thomas Poetz, of 3T Consulting will describe the markets and applications for ink jet textiles, the drivers for growth, the main players, and how the industry is likely to evolve in the next few years. Dr Simon Daplyn, Ink Sales Manager at Xennia Technology will describe the various ink chemistries that can be used, and the pre and post processing required. Finally, Paolo Torricella, Product Manager at Reggiani Macchine, just up the road in nearby Bergamo, will teach delegates about building machines, the issues of selecting printheads, architecture options such as scanning and single pass printing, and the system design issues of implementing ink jet in production environments.

Anyone with an interest in this increasingly important ink jet application is welcome, and full details can be found at www.imieurope.com.