As a result, inkjet is becoming a dangerous competitor to sheetfed offset, now its main rival among the conventional printing processes after it virtually replaced screen printing in key parts of the large format sector.
Inkjet has also been able to withstand a renewed surge in laser or electrographic printing stemming from major innovations in the chemistry and manufacture of toners.
In the global digital printing market comprising toner and inkjet printing, toner accounts for approximately 85 to 90 percent in volume terms with inkjet making up around 10 percent. By 2015, inkjet’s share could rise to close to 25 percent, according to figures from The Seybold Report, Bedford, MA.
However the technological progress being achieved by inkjet is putting greater pressure on the skills of ink chemists. OEM manufacturers of inkjet printers and printhead makers who usually develop their own ink formulations are increasingly having to collaborate in the R&D work with outside ink specialists.
“You have to rely more on outside specialists working on leading edge technologies,” explained a business development manager at one inkjet printing company. “If you don’t combine with third parties, you risk taking far too long to bring new inks to the market. Often these specialty companies are relative newcomers to the market. They are frequently start-ups with a specific niche technology for which they need partners to develop.”
In addition, there are comparatively large specialist players who have established their own presence in inkjet inks. One of these is Staedtler Mars of Germany, whose main business is in office supplies but after creating an inkjet division 24 years ago now makes nearly 200 different inkjet inks for OEM printer manufacturers.
There are also a growing number of ink producers and distributors serving the expanding aftermarket for inkjet capsules for branded OEM printing machines.
Inkjet technologies are now advancing so rapidly that the duration of product life cycles is diminishing. Even in Asia where sales of mature inkjet products have tended to remain strong, demand for older printheads now appears to be slowing down.
In the first half of this year, Xaar plc, Cambridge, England, Europe’s leading printhead manufacturer, reported a 19 percent drop in sales in Asia, mainly because of a sharp decrease in revenue from China in the first six months of this year. By contrast, in Europe and the Americas, where the company mainly markets, its more recently developed printheads sales rose by 15 percent and 26 percent respectively.
“There is a lack of visibility and increased uncertainty with regard to demand from China for our Platform 1 (more mature) products over the next few months,” said Phil Lawler, Xaar’s chairman. “We now believe that sales to China will be lower than previously expected for the second half of the year.
“We believe that growth in the wide format graphics market as a whole in China has slowed significantly,” he continued, while adding that the decrease in sales had also been triggered by short-term factors like the earthquake in Sichuan province and a slowing in the Chinese domestic economy. “Competitive activity by Xaar licensees based on aggressive pricing to gain market share has compounded the issue.”
In a fast moving global market, companies like Xaar are having to rely on new technologies to provide the main impetus behind their growth, particularly since they tend initially to generate higher margins. Although Xaar’s total revenue went down by 4 percent in the half year, pre-tax profits increased by 20 percent as a growing number of OEM manufacturers bought its latest printheads.
Technological innovations are helping to push sales of inkjet presses at all cost and capacity levels. These are enabling inkjet to make further inroads into a wide range of printing segments in Europe, some of which are now gradually switching to digital processes for short-run jobs.
Competing with Offset
Perhaps the biggest drive is being made by OEMs with high-volume inkjet presses in the sheetfed market, which potentially offers the best prospects for long-term growth.
The strong attack on the offset sector is exemplified by Kodak, which is planning to use enhanced continuous inkjet (CIJ) technology to compete more aggressively in the offset market. Its new Versamark VL 5000 machine using drop-on-demand technology for non-stop transactional and transpromo printing is already able to meet the needs of printers producing between one million and five million A4 pages per month. It has an output of more than 1,000 A4 pages per minute.
Next year, Kodak is aiming to launch its new Stream machine, with an inkjet technology whose quality and capacity can rival offset machines doing runs up to 10,000 copies. It uses pulses of heat to break the ink into very fine droplets, with the excess droplets being recirculated into the ink supply so that the whole process is continuous.
The printheads in the Stream machine are based on Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) or microfabrication techniques in which the parts are placed on a common silicon substrate with an integrated circuit structure.
Kodak has speeded up the development of inkjet technologies like Stream by using simulation techniques to ensure that ink formulations match printhead design. The company claims that it has cut development time by as much as two-thirds with the help of simulation methods.
The inks in the Stream machine have pigments with particle sizes of 10-60 nanometers which enable it to reach greyscale resolutions of up to 1200 dpi and with a high level of to placement accuracy. They have a color gamut which is equal or even wider than those of dye-based inkjet inks. Because of their small size, the pigments are highly unlikely to clog nozzles.
The printheads in the machine can be combined or ‘stitched’ together to form arrays of 30-inch widths which compares well with 40-inch offset presses. The machine can also achieve printing speeds of more than 500 feet per minute.
Inkjet’s offensive against offset will gather pace in 2010 when Fujifilm is due to launch Jet Press 720, the world’s first inkjet press capable of high-speed printing on a B2 or 720mm x 520mm format. It can print high resolution images of 1200 dpi at a speed of 180 A4 sheets per minute.
The Japanese company, whose main ink-producing subsidiary is Fujifilm Sericol, sees the machine as providing the production speeds and quality needed by offset printers for short-run work. Offset, the company says, is a “process more suitable for longer print runs.”
The printhead technology for the new machine has been developed by Fujifilm Dimatix, its U.S.-based industrial printhead company, formerly Spectra Inc. Like Kodak’s CIJ printheads, Dimatix employs MEMS precision microfabrication technology.
The printheads incorporate piezoelectric element arrays which use water-based inks with anti-curling and rapid coagulation properties for printing on a variety of coated paper substrates.
Similar major advances are being made in smaller inkjet presses based on thermal ink applications. They are able to produce high resolutions but at lower capital costs than other comparable inkjet machines.
“Thermal – as well as drop-on-demand (DOD) – inkjet can provide better quality than continuous inkjet,” said Andrew Gunton, inks manager at Domino Printing Sciences, Cambridge, England, an OEM and inkjet systems company which develops its own ink formulations. “The trade-off is the printing speeds of thermal which are slower. But improvements in the thermal inks is giving the process a broader range of applications on porous and semi-porous substrates.”
Domino has recently expanded its series of thermal inkjet equipment with the introduction of a printer for high-resolution applications in mailing systems and printing of variable data on packaging.
One of the major drawbacks with thermal printing is that its restriction to water-based inks currently prevents it from using UV curing. This gives it a competitive disadvantage against similar-sized piezo DOD inkjet machines which have benefited considerably from their ability to use UV inks. As a result, they are able to offer a high level of reliability and applications on a great variety of substrates where quick drying is needed.
Xaar is using its latest Xaar 1001 printhead for use in UV inkjet presses as a major means of boosting sales in the sectors for commercial printing, label production, primary and secondary packaging and textile printing.
The printhead recently won one of the 2008 PIA/GATF Intertech Technology Awards because of its capacity for faster speeds, improved productivity and increased resolution.
The innovation is part of Xaar’s recently established technology platform, which is partly derived from a patented through-flow technology giving a high degree of control over the formation of ink drops.
It resolves the problem of printhead nozzles failing because they have been blocked by particles or air bubbles. With the new technology, particles or air bubbles blocking nozzles are quickly moved out of the printhead while the nozzle self-recovers.
The printhead has a thermal control system which gives a wide operating latitude to the fluidity of the inks so that particles can be suspended within them. As a result, they open the door to industrial printing applications using metallic, luminescent and other effect pigments.
Over the next few years, inkjet is poised to take advantage of its greater versatility, higher print quality and faster printing speeds to become an essential part of the printing processes offered by European printers, particularly those doing any kind of short-run work.