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Ink-jet Printing -- Coming Up Heads and Tales

March 2009 By Mark Smith
Technology Editor
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GAUGING WHEN a technology is really going to take off is always a tricky proposition. Product roll-outs usually get pushed back due to unforeseen technical issues, and potential buyers tend to be more cautious than even a low-ball projection for the rate of adoption.

Both factors are again at play in the printing industry, this time as we approach the first anniversary of the “Ink-Jet Drupa.” Various forms of electrophotographic digital printing languished as the “next big thing” for nearly a decade, so it’s unfair to expect big changes in the production ink-jet press category in less than a year. There have been reports of some installations by U.S. printers, but a number of the new page-printing technologies are effectively still at the talking stage for anyone looking to buy now.

The next potential check on the status of new ink-jet printing solutions will be provided by the 2009 On Demand Expo at the end of this month. However, the absence of any given device from a manufacturer’s booth may be more a reflection of the show’s standing and the current economic/business climate than a measure of progress in its further development. What devices are found on the PRINT 09 show floor will likely be the truer indication of which technologies will actually make it to market and in what final form.

Don’t Lump Together

Thermal, piezo-electric and continuous ink-jet technologies are all represented among the devices currently being sold or announced, but yet to be commercialized. As a result, lumping ink-jet presses together as a generic product class can be less than helpful. It’s often not a straight orange-to-orange comparison between devices.

The type of ink-jet print head employed has implications for performance characteristics (imaging speed and resolution), ink requirements and capital cost. Each type of ink—aqueous, solvent, oil or UV based, and dye vs. pigment—in turn impacts substrate flexibility (support for coated papers), color (saturation, vibrancy and light fastness) and per-sheet cost. Combinations of hardware and ink also factor into other considerations, such as nozzle clogging (which is addressed through maintenance routines and redundant heads) and the life span of the imaging system.

Based on the product announcements at Drupa, there ultimately will also be two separate categories of ink-jet press configurations available—webfed/continuous and cut sheet/sheetfed. Webfed models established the high-volume ink-jet production press category and should remain dominant. The choice between material handling options is largely independent of the ink-jet technology employed.

 

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