What’s the next big thing in ink jet? Ink.

I started out in the ink jet industry in 1982. That seems a long time ago now, and it was almost the beginning of what has become the ink jet revolution. For many years things moved quite slowly. Ink jet technology was something of a curiosity, demonstrated by printing onto butterfly wings or egg yolks. You could do anything you wanted, providing you could develop your own ink jet printhead, ink, control electronics, ink system and everything else!

Fast forward to the past decade. Now everyone had heard of ink jet thanks to its success for desktop printing in full colour and at high quality. It would be great to use for manufacturing processes, printing on demand, no changeover time, no need to print large quantities of stock, all the things a factory manager dreamt of. Even better, a whole infrastructure has built up. Printhead manufacturers can supply printheads, ink suppliers have inks to print onto a wide range of substrates, data paths and drive electronics are available off the shelf, and more recently ink supplies too. The company I jointly founded – IMI Europe – helped build the industrial ink jet printing industry over the past 15 years by offering a wide range of educational courses and conferences.

So now we are in a world where the industry is relatively mature, right? Well, not really. Compared to the conventional printing industry for commercial printing, textiles, industrial and functional printing – the use of print in all aspects of manufacturing – ink jet is still a fairly immature technology. I’m sure to some people that may come as a surprise. Ink jet currently seems invincible on the applications it can address.

But the reality is it still has some way to go for widespread adoption. Yes, it is already part of many industries and applications, but to go further many improvements still have to be made.

Certainly there are improvements to be made with printhead technology, but in my mind the most progress in the future will be in ink jet ink technology. The breadth of applications for ink jet will increase, and so will the demand for specialised and dedicated ink jet inks and the materials incorporated within them.

Maybe in 10 years time it won’t be ink jet printhead manufacturers who have the hold on the industry, to which ink jet inks are designed. Maybe the situation will have been turned on its head, and the end users and ink companies will determine what’s needed and what the capabilities of the printhead will need to be.

Obviously this presents a great opportunity. There are currently only 10’s of ink jet ink companies in the world so it’s unlikely that the capacity to develop all the requirements for the future is already in place. The scope for innovation is endless.

20 years ago in Cambridge, where I’m based, many small pharmaceutical companies were established. Few people believed these small research teams could possibly compete with the established giants. But they were wrong. The small teams were innovative, fast moving and captured the attention of investors who foresaw a potentially large upside. In fact the giants began to change the way they worked and began emulating the smaller teams! And bought them up of course!

I now spend most of my working hours reviewing ink jet patents. At present it’s still the big guys – HP, Epson, Fujifilm, Agfa and co – who dominate the ink jet ink patent innovations. But will that change? Compared to printhead development and manufacturing, the development and capital investment is relatively small. What’s needed are the skills and the understanding of what’s going on with ink jet, why it’s special, what are the limitations, and what are the problems that need solving.

From the patents we can see that many challenges are being addressed. We’ve seen the launch of hybrid UV inks to allow much thinner ink films to be deposited for packaging and other applications. For many applications aqueous inks are preferred and developments are underway to formulate inks for non-porous surfaces. The packaging and décor industries need metallic and “effect” inks to supplement CMYK, and white inks too.

We are seeing the first commercialisation of liquid ink intermediate transfer with the Landa Digital machines and many other companies are developing similar technology for commercial, packaging and industrial applications. These processes require innovative chemistry to overcome the fundamental problem of initially being wetting to the transfer substrate, but then forming a non-wetting image for transfer to the substrate. The advances being made in ink design and development are accelerating, and there will be much more to come.

So, the future is bright, the future is ink!

Mike Willis
Managing Director
Pivotal Resources Ltd