Ink-jet Printing -- Coming Up Heads and Tales
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.
Thermal and piezo-electric ink-jet both fall into the drop-on- demand (DOD) category, meaning a drop of ink is only produced when needed for printing. Continuous ink-jet (CIJ) models produce a steady stream of ink drops, with only the drops needed for printing ejected from the head, and the rest captured by an ink return system.
DOD ink-jet heads have a cost advantage because of their engineering and mass production. Compared to the mechanical nature of piezo heads, the heating required for thermal units restricts the ink formulations they can support and their firing speeds.
The Versamark CIJ product line—previously offered by Scitex Digital and now again part of Kodak—launched the color ink-jet production press category. Its top-of-the-line Versamark VX5000 Plus model produces 3,272 ipm (81⁄2x11? format) at 300x300 dpi or 2,180 ipm at 300x600 dpi.
Kodak added piezo DOD technology to its offerings with the Versamark VL2000 series (246 fpm or 1,090 ipm at 600x600 dpi) last year, and recently expanded the line with the faster VL6000 (492 fpm) and VL4000 (410 fpm at 600x360 dpi) series. These products are designed for transactional, transpromo and direct mail applications.
In a recent presentation to investors, Kodak CEO Antonio Perez said development of the company’s Stream CIJ technology has been stepped up by three to six months, and a full-color press implementation is now expected to be ready “at the beginning of 2010.” The technology is being positioned as “offset-class quality,” with printing speeds expected to be in the 500 fpm range at a resolution greater than 600 dpi and comparable to 175 line offset print quality.
Earlier this year, the company announced the first installation of the standalone print head version of the Stream technology. Cyril-Scott Co., a Consolidated Graphics company, in Lancaster, OH, installed four heads in-line with a web offset press to produce personalized direct mail.
The main wave of ink-jet press introductions arguably started with the Truepress Jet520 from Screen (USA). It uses piezo DOD heads and water-based pigment inks to print at up to 720 dpi and 420 fpm. Total Printing Systems, a short-run book manufacturer in Newton, IL, and Flagship Press in North Andover, MA, which serves publishers in the educational and high-tech markets, are two U.S. printers among the installed base.
InfoPrint Solutions soon jumped on board by launching its own branded version of the print engine: the InfoPrint 5000. Last month, the company announced it would begin offering higher-speed models in the second quarter of this year, matching the 420 fpm output of the Screen press.
Screen, meanwhile, was one of two companies to show sheetfed ink-jet presses at Drupa. The Truepress JetSX piezo DOD machine (shown in Germany) used water-based pigment inks to print a maximum 20.8x29.1? sheet at up to 1,440x720 dpi with a rated speed of 1,600 sph.
Another early market entrant was Océ North America with its Jetstream product family, starting with the 1100/2200 water-based piezo DOD models. The line has since been expanded to five presses, ranging in speed from 328 fpm to 492 fpm at 600x600 dpi, and 656 fpm at 480x600 dpi in the case of the Jetstream 3000.
The company’s latest innovation is the introduction of MICR (magnetic ink character recognition) ink-jet capability. Direct Group, an integrated direct marketing solutions provider, has been an early adopter of the technology. It installed two Océ JetStream 2200 systems at its facility in Swedesboro, NJ, the latest including the new optional MICR printing unit. Direct Group reported having reached full capacity on its first press after only six months of operation, serving clients in the financial services and education sectors. It is looking to extend the capability to applications in the telecommunications, retail, automotive, insurance and nonprofit sectors.
While continuing to emphasize industrial applications for its ink-jet technology, last year Agfa Graphics further extended its Dotrix Transcolor line by introducing the Dotrix DGNews model, designed for variable data printing on newsprint. Transcolor is targeted for complex variable data printing in the transactional, transpromo and direct mail markets. These piezo DOD systems use UV-curable inks to print 484 ppm at a maximum 300 dpi resolution.
HP says it is still on track with its plans to commercialize the HP Inkjet Web Press toward the end of this year. The first beta unit was delivered last December to O’Neil Data Systems in Los Angeles as scheduled. Taylor Corp. is still slated to be another U.S. beta site.
The company has positioned the thermal DOD technology as a platform for ongoing product development, with the first model being a 30? press capable of printing 400 fpm (2,600 ppm) at 600 dpi. It was originally shown printing uncoated paper with a bonding agent applied but, at Graph Expo 08, the company announced it will offer a coated paper for use with the press.
The other new sheetfed ink-jet press shown at Drupa was the Fujifilm Jet Press 720. However, Fujifilm Graphic Systems U.S.A. says the press will have a different name when it makes its U.S. debut at PRINT 09. The machine uses piezo DOD heads and water-based inks to print a maximum 28.3x20.5? sheet at 1,200 dpi and a 180 ppm (A4) rated speed.
While it’s not exactly in the same product class, RISO Inc. is already on the second generation of its sheetfed ink-jet printer line. The HC5500 ComColor printer outputs 120 ppm and produces what the company characterizes as “communication color” quality.
Xerox Corp.’s position in the production ink-jet printing segment is still to be determined. The company has said it intends to compete in the market “when the time is right” and that it will not duplicate existing technology, but offer a solution with “superior image quality on a wide array of substrates.” What it has shown so far is a technology demonstration of “cured gel ink” that converts into a liquid in the print head. It is the consistency of peanut butter when it hits the substrate, where it is hardened by a pulse of UV light.
Ink-jet technology is also finding its way into the digital printing arena in other forms. MGI USA has now officially launched its JETvarnish spot UV coater that uses DOD print heads to apply matte or gloss varnish to sheets up to 20x29?. The company has indicated that it also intends to adopt ink-jet imaging for its digital color presses, which are capable of printing on paper and plastic.
Even though it’s still relatively early days for this latest wave of ink-jet presses, the expectation is that these technologies will already be industry workhorses by the time Drupa 2012 rolls around. Still, there’s an outside chance the show’s theme will turn out to be “Ink-Jet Drupa, the Sequel: Now the Presses Really Work.” PI