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.


Olivetti to end ink jet activities

Recently there came the sad news that Olivetti is liquidating its ink jet activities and seeking a buyer.  For some years the major printer product line has been fax machines, which is a declining market.  Of course it may be a surprise to many that Olivetti was even in the ink jet business.

Olivetti has a long history of ink jet technology.  Back in the 1980’s they developed some unique technologies, such as spark jet printing.  A spark caused a small amount of carbon to blast out of a nozzle in the end of a glass tube and form a mark on the substrate.  At that time even impact dot matrix printers were expensive, and the dry spark jet printer offered a low-cost solution for the growing computer market.

Then came liquid spark jet, which I don’t think was commercialised, and work with piezo technology.  But the big step forward came in 1990 when Olivetti showed their first bubble jet printer and joined the small club of desktop printer vendors.

However the Olivetti printer range was rarely seen outside of Europe, and a lot of sales were on the back of enterprise computer installations.  As the desktop printer market matured over the past decade, the lack of a worldwide sales base meant shipments were at a much lower level compared to their competitors with corresponding higher costs.  And sometimes the stylish and quirky Italian printer designs didn’t appeal to markets used to the more conservative looking offerings of HP and Japanese vendors.

Over the last 5 years Olivetti has been leveraging its low-cost thermal ink jet printhead technology for industrial applications.  They put together a credible set of printheads, mechanisms, modules and support systems to enable OEMs to develop products using a wide range of fluids.  Although piezo technology is the choice for most non-office applications it has a major drawback – high cost.  If you want to develop a product using ink jet technology that will sell for $1-2,000 it is very difficult to use anything other than thermal ink jet.

Olivetti i-Jet was making it easy for developers to work with cost-effective ink jet technology and the options for the future are considerably reduced.  Today the industry focus of ink jet developments is in ever faster and more productive machines, some of which run to multi-$M prices.  But there are hundreds of applications for printing where a small desk-top printer to do a specific task is needed.  These range from cake decorations, industrial printing and labelling of components, laboratory applications for medical and bio-sciences and so on.

The loss of Olivetti from the ink jet world would be not just the lost jobs of a few hundred people in North-West Italy, but the loss of lots of potential products that are being developed, or could have in the future.  Let’s hope a buyer comes forward.  In any case printhead production and support will be available from Olivetti for the rest of 2012.

If you have an interest in the liquidation, the contact is:

Francesco Forlenza
President and CEO
Olivetti I-Jet S.p.A


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.