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The State of Industrial Large-Format Inkjet Printing

Representatives of four high-production, large-format industrial inkjet machine manufacturers share their views on the current state of the industry, how technology has evolved over the past year and where technology is headed in the year ahead.

By Vince Cahill, President, VCE Solutions

Technological advances in print head, machine, ink and software design and manufacturing have driven much of the growth and change for Industrial Digital printing. Four companies - Durst, EFI Vutek, Hewlett Packard and Inca Digital - have led the high-throughput, large-format inkjet industry with their offerings of high-end industrial printers.

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  • Their manufacturing accounts for the overwhelming number of wide- and grand-format flatbed and roll-to-roll inkjet system placements worldwide. We place some other major inkjet machine manufacturers in other categories. For example, we locate leaders like Roland, Mimaki and Mutoh, in the low to medium production printer manufacturer category.

    In the past, I have defined large format as printed media of 0.6 meters (24 inches) wide or greater and grand format as printed media wider than 2.5 meters (98 inches). One of our interviewees, Chris Howard of Durst, however, indicates that his company's large-format definition, "is not so much based on the size of the printed material, but the types of products produced by the graphics provider - we rather look at relevant machines that are for the applications the customers are producing."

    From this viewpoint, applications define format. Office and label printers are narrow format. Commercial B2 format inkjet presses are medium format. Most sign and point-of-purchase (POP) flatbed and roll-to-roll inkjet printers are large format. Billboard printers are grand format.

    This article reports interviews with representatives of four high-production large-format industrial inkjet machine manufacturers about their views on the current state of the industry, how technology has evolved over the past year and where technology is headed in the year ahead. The conversation begins with an industry founder and innovator.

    Inca Digital
    Bill Baxter is the founding managing director of Inca Digital, which he established with a team of technologists from Cambridge Consultants in 2000. He led the company in building the first UV curable inkjet flatbed printer, the Eagle 44, which debuted in January of 2001. He directed Inca to win two Queen's Awards for Enterprise in 2005. During the same year, he negotiated Dainippon Screen's acquisition of the company. Baxter emphasized that in the short to medium term, advances in inkjet ink technology will be more important for driving the industry's adoption of industrial inkjet systems than changes in the print machines. Recent improvements in inkjet ink color gamut, flexibility and adhesion have increased the penetration of high-end inkjet solutions into previous analog domains.

    He cited Inca Digital's partnerships with Fujifilm for creating new ink solutions that have expanded the range of print options for their print service providers (PSP). Baxter related that Inca invented a patented system for controlling the gloss level of its Fujifilm UVijet inks. It also discovered that it could increase the gamut of their new CMYK plus light cyan and light magenta six-color print system by increasing the level of ink gloss.

    Inca Digital and Fujifilm have worked closely with print head supplier Dimatix to produce inks that are compatible with its print heads and that, with Inca's tuned electronics, match customer application requirements. He indicated that as early as 2002, Inca had begun to develop and use ink recirculation. Baxter noted that while some applications do not require recirculation to keep pigments in suspension, the printing of titanium dioxide (TiO2) white pigment is greatly facilitated by it and the start up time for jetting all inks is greatly reduced.

    During September 2012, Inca Digital added a new production facility in Cambridge, United Kingdom. This expansion doubled its production capabilities. Adding to this expansion in 2012, Inca Digital introduced the Onset s40i and s20i, which upgraded and superseded the Onset s40 and Onset s20 respectively. According to Inca, the new upgrades add, "intelligent design features that increase productivity, print quality and reliability" to its previous models. The upgraded design features for the Onset s40i and s20i include 15-zone vacuum tables that reduce bed masking, thereby shortening setup time and improving machine productivity. Both models include an auto sensing system that monitors the printer's condition, informing the operator when automated print head maintenance is required.

    New mechanical substrate height detectors provide protection against damaging print head-substrate strikes. Inca added a 'machine setup files' function to both machines that permits the capture and rapid reloading of a large number of print job control variables, enabling machine operators to change quickly between substrates. Inca also enables users to replace and align the Onset's latest 28-picoliter Fujifilm Dimatix PIJ print heads, thus reducing costly service calls and production delays.

    When considering market and application growth areas for the industry, Baxter is keen on continued expansion of large-format inkjet for POP and point-of-sale (POS) advertising displays. He also sees the industry growing to capture a greater market share in other packaging categories, such as folding carton, flexible packaging and corrugated secondary packaging. But he cautions that the current UV-curable free-radical ink technology, while more than satisfactory for many sign, display, label and some packaging applications, does not currently meet regulatory standards concerning chemical migration for food packaging.

    He points out that the packaging industry is actually "20-30 industries" each with its own requirements and demands. "They are different worlds with different ink and machine suppliers. It's hard to break into specific industries with their own unique regulations and requirements", Baxter said. But that is the challenge for the industrial inkjet community. He delineates other application requirements for adhesion, abrasion resistance, expanded color gamut and lower cost, as challenges where improving ink chemistry will drive the growth of industrial inkjet printing.

    He acknowledges that current print head technologies from Fujifilm Dimatix, Kyocera, Ricoh, Xaar and Konica Minolta are "very good" and continue to improve. They are meeting the market's demand for high quality, high-resolution output printing at an ever-quickening pace. The availability of grayscale capable heads enables not only high quality images, but also reduced ink use and better control of desired image surface finish. He comments that PIJ head manufacturers have recently been focused on opportunities with "textile, ceramic, label and commercial printing." He forecasts that "single-pass inkjet printing will begin to take market share from analog print, and in the next few years from label, corrugated, flexible and folding carton packaging." And also indicates that, "Fujifilm's JetPress, Screen's Truepress JetSX and other B2 format single-pass inkjet printers are already showing the way."

    Baxter cautioned, however, that print head designs would have to keep advancing to match the requirements of emerging ink chemistries. He emphasized that print head development is not easy, quick or inexpensive, mentioning that developing a new PIJ print head costs $50 million to $100 million. He added that, "Hewlett Packard spent $1.4 billion on its Edgeline TIJ technology" which it built "on the back of its office technology." Most print head manufacturers, however, do not have the resources of the office inkjet vendor's resources and have proceeded with their developments "in a more measured fashion" to keep up with market demands for "better, faster, cheaper" heads.

    Hewlett Packard
    Harel Ifhar is HP Scitex's strategic marketing manager. He and his group investigate and analyze the needs of PSPs that have acquired HP Scitex equipment. The HP Scitex Strategic Marketing Group develops technological and business solutions for their PSPs to offer their customers including brand owner companies. He touted HP's access to its large customer installed base for providing his group with an on-going source of market information and data, "straight from the field" that helps them to determine which technologies and opportunities deserve HP investment and development.

    Ifhar indicated that HP's relationships and exchange of information with its customers and corporate brand owners advances the adoption of new technologies and business innovations. He also cited HP's one-stop shop solution that provides its customers for a wide range of high value industrial print systems including large format latex, flatbed, roll-to-roll and high-speed drum inkjet printers. These also complement the HP Line of narrower format web presses and DesignJet inkjet proofing and short-run devices. In addition, HP offers Raster Image Processors (RIP) and other software and inks for total functional integrated systems.

    Ifhar noted that customers are ordering, "Much shorter print runs from their print service providers." Whereas in the past customers might buy 500 to 1,000 copies, they are now buying only 100 to 200. Customers are also expecting faster turn around. "The time from design through proofing and approval to delivery of a print job has dropped from about four weeks to a few days," he said.

    Ifhar also has seen great demand for the variable information, personalization, and targeted marketing that digital printing can provide cost effectively. Brand owners and advertising customers of print are focusing their market appeals to localities and neighborhoods with signs and POP/POS displays and to individuals with personalized mailings. Wineries and gift stores are using digital printing to personalize gift packaging. Advertisers are also using digitally printed 2D barcodes on POS/POP displays so that shoppers can scan the codes with their smartphones and obtain detailed product and sales information. Localized posters can direct customers to the nearest store carrying the advertised product.

    Ifhar remarked on the profound changes that the Internet has brought to the print world. He pointed to the growing role that web-to-print is playing for print service providers. It has enabled customers to design their copy themselves or quickly approve service provider art. It has greatly simplified print ordering and processing. It can improve cash flow for PSPs since they often receive credit card payment with orders. HP is tapping into the Internet revolution with its investments in "the Cloud." HP Scitex is using this resource to facilitate data and software transfer and support. HP's Cloud software enables its customers' equipment operator to communicate directly with HP Scitex service personnel from virtually anywhere via smart phone or computer. According to Ifhar, HP's Cloud-based PRINT CARE software helps to keep presses up and running. It also can monitor a press remotely with Internet connection to an onboard camera.

    For the coming year, Ifhar indicated that HP Scitex is designing its systems for maximum versatility, so that system owners can print many different types of jobs, coatings and substrates on the same equipment with the same versatile ink systems. HP is also targeting the POP/POS market, responding to its demand for high quality and high productivity. It is also incorporating workflow control capability into its machines for current or future use. He predicts continued growth for industrial inkjet in its various packaging market segments, greater use of inkjet for interior decoration and design, wallpaper and wall panorama prints. He also sees print service providers adopting and realizing the business potential of the Cloud. He expects HP Scitex to make use of grayscale piezo print heads in the future and to overcome the challenges inherent with single-pass printing.

    Ifhar believes that HP Scitex's print systems (ink offerings, software, workflow and media solutions) provide customers with "A to Z, end-to-end integration from job submission to completion." Looking forward, he and his team will continue to "analyze the print service provider and brand owner ecosystem, recommend which innovations HP should invest, bring business innovations to its customers and continue to leverage the power of HP."

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    Scott Schinlever is senior vice president and general manager of EFI Inkjet Solutions, including Vutek and Rastek. He has full P&L responsibility for EFI's inkjet business with a strong market analysis and strategic planning background and approach.

    Schinlever touted the success of its new LED UV-cure GS3250LX printers with more than 60 installations. LED curing offers a number of advantages over mercury bulb UV curing. LEDs can last significantly longer than mercury bulbs. While Schinlever would not provide a definite lifespan for EFI's LED curing systems, the company warrants them for three years. Typically, mercury bulb UV-cure systems can operate anywhere from 500-2,000 hours before requiring replacement. Also, they begin to lose strength and continue to do so over their lifespan. Turning a mercury bulb on and off frequently will reduce its lifetime. They require a warm up period to reach an effective energy level. They also generate considerable heat, which can adversely affect heat sensitive substrates.

    On the other hand, LEDs can be turned on and off frequently without deteriorating their longevity. They provide low-energy UV curing that can be used with most heat sensitive materials. EFI added a unique form of nitrogen blanketing to enhance the effectiveness and speed of its LED UV-cure printing systems. The EFI blanketing system effectively eliminates the problem of oxygen inhabiting polymerization at the ink's surface. The EFI blanketing mechanism does not use nitrogen from a pressurized bottle, but instead extracts nitrogen from the ambient air, which is composed of about 78 percent nitrogen, 20 percent oxygen, almost one percent argon with a smattering of, CO2 neon, helium and other elements. The EFI blanketing system removes much of the oxygen and other components from the air; the remaining nitrogen is redirected to blanket and cover the print surface during curing exposure. This process permits the printed surface to cure more thoroughly and eliminates the surface tack associated with some LED cured prints.

    In addition to its new LED-cure GS3250LX printer, EFI Vutek also recently introduced the HS100Pro flatbed grayscale printer for primarily POP/POS applications, with pin and cure technology where LED is used for pinning in combination , with pin and cure technology where LEDs are used for pinning in combination with mercury/UV lamp final curing.

    EFI Vutek uses Seiko 508-nozzle PIJ heads on its industrial print devices. Schinlever hailed the price-performance and print quality advantages of these heads as a key element in their success. (EFI Jetrion uses the Xaar 1001 on its LED UV-cure label printer.)

    Schinlever also pointed to EFI inks, EFI Pace MIS print management, EFI Monarch ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and EFI Fiery RIP software as important parts of EFI's integrated print and seamless workflow solutions. He observed that with EFI producing almost all of its own inks, its Seiko heads with competitively favorable print quality/price performance and its print systems' grayscale capabilities as elements contributing to EFI's ability keep cost of ownership down for its customers. He believes that wide-format PSPs are lagging behind in exploiting the potential of the Cloud and sees their adoption of the cloud as "still to come."

    He sees growth for the industry with commercial printers, architectural applications and POP/POS, and customization for the next few years and projects the arrival of single-pass inkjet printing for going beyond packaging applications into POP/POS in five to 10 years. He foresees digital continuing to take market share from analog printing.

    Durst Image Technology LLC

    Chris Howard is senior vice president of marketing and sales at Durst Image Technology, LLC - the USA division of Durst Phototechnik AG. The company introduced a number of advances in the past year. Howard points to Durst's introduction in 2012 of "the P10 series of Rho printers that offer the most productive small droplet (10pl) print platforms in the market."

    "We also have introduced two additional variations of our award winning Rho 1000 platform, one to address the needs of the corrugate display segment and a second to offer a jumbo roll to cut sheet solution. The Rho 1000 continues to show our customers its platform flexibility to meet their changing production needs." He indicates that the P10 distinguishes itself in utilizing, 
"a new Durst Quadro Array generation with 10 pl silicon nozzle plate technology, which has driven the capability to combine the highest quality along with high productivity." The Rho 1000 stands out with its "multiple developments around our fully automated workflow solutions."

    Howard also indicates that the development of piezoelectric print heads with MEMS fabricated silicon nozzle plates has "enabled higher nozzle density with smaller droplet ability and greater accuracy. The continuing trend of the shift from evaporative-based inks to polymerizing ink sets have allowed manufacturers to build printing platforms that have greater production speeds at higher quality."

    Along with improved UV-cure inks, Howard also focused on the central roll of print head improvement, "Piezo drop- on-demand technology developments with higher frequency and accurate smaller droplet deposition will drive the market," he said. In addition to print head development, he sees, "the need for highly developed and accurate printing platforms that will be necessary to take advantage of the further advancements in print head technology. This will also include system integration (both software and hardware) to build efficient workflows, particularly in the high volume printing segments."

    Howard also noted Durst's pioneering leadership in advancing ink recirculation to improve print head function. "We have always utilized ink fluid recirculation in our Quadro Array technology, which assures a unique reliability of the system."

    While looking to the future and the promise of high production from single-pass printing, he points to Durst's expertise in this area. "We already utilize our single-pass technology in the ceramic tile, wood and label printing segments with press widths up to 47 inches. These systems are integrated into production lines. Certainly the large-format segment will see developments in single-pass printing platforms, however the technical challenges arise around nozzle redundancy and cost per nozzle."

    He still sees, however, future applications and markets for scanning head printers. "Of course the large-format graphics segment is the largest driver for this type of printing, we also see for glass and textile markets the requirement for continuing to utilize traverse print platforms."

    Howard cautioned that non-inkjet digital display technology, "will have the most disruptive impact to the graphic arts printing industry." In addition, Howard said, "Continuing development of some toner based technology will continue to impact the narrow web market as well." Looking to the future, Howard forecasts that, "Inkjet will continue to enter into industrial manufacturing processes, which will derive growth areas - segments such as flexible and rigid packaging, glass and wood processing, printed electronics and other areas that require mass customization within the production cycle. For the graphics segment, we see the continuing trend of higher productivity systems."

    He predicts, "in the next two years we will see the higher production systems continue to have impact on the analog print technology currently employed. Within five years, we foresee the adoption rate of single-pass large format systems having an impact on the offset and packaging industry."

    Durst has also been a pioneer in inkjet ink development. According to Howard, in 2003, Durst was the first company in the world to supply the color white in addition to the CMYK inks. As production speeds and ink use volumes increase, digital system print providers will be looking for ink volume discounts to improve the competitive position against analog print providers. Howard observed, "as production speeds increase and subsequent print volume is manufactured on a platform, certainly the ink price becomes a more important factor for the use of inkjet." Currently, the cost savings of inkjet versus traditional print technologies in the short to long run digital print space is sufficient, however, as the printer platforms go up in the run length curve, the ink cost will have more of an impact in the break-even calculations customers use.

    The last decade has witnessed large corporations acquiring most of the primary large-format inkjet device manufacturers. Dainippon Screen acquired Inca Digital in 2005. EFI bought Vutek in 2005 and Rastek in 2008. HP acquired Scitex Vision in 2005. At this point, Durst stands alone having grown its integration capabilities internally.

    As Bill Baxter emphasized, the growth of the industrial inkjet solution depends first on improvements and advances with ink chemistry and then deposition system adjustments to deliver the chemistry. We will continue to see improvement in and greater adoption of LED curing. Cost effective nitrogen blanketing systems, such as the ones used on the EFI Vutek large format and EFI Jetrion label printer can reduce the cost in replacing mercury UV bulbs and the environmental hazard related to their disposal.

    Print head manufacturers continue to improve their technologies, making heads faster, more refined, more reliable and accurate, while expanding the range of fluids many can tolerate. They are also making larger and higher native resolution heads that integrators and OEMs can assemble into large arrays for faster large-format, scanning-head and single-pass systems.

    Large-format industrial inkjet printing continues to grow for POP/POS applications in part because it is well suited for this application and is delivering effective high quality products. Currently, however, digital solutions only supplies about 16 percent of that segment's square meters of print. But inkjet growth in this segment will continue at between 10-20 percent per year depending on market conditions for the next decade. As ink chemists develop solutions for other packaging segment, our interviewees will have more to say.

    Vince Cahill is president of VCE solutions, which provides consulting services for Fortune 500 and other companies operating in the analog and digital printing and fabrication industries. He also was a principal in The Colorworks, in which he has a 25+ year career in specialty graphics. Cahill has served as CEO of Datametrics Corp., as well as principal and technology developer for Newhill Technologies, as well as principal of Specialty Materials. He is a longtime volunteer with SGIA, serving on various committees. Cahill has contributed several articles to the SGIA Journal.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, November/December 2012 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2012 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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