Simon Edwards. The Resurgence of Inkjet
With over 20 years in the digital printing industry, Simon Edwards, Product Manager at Global Inkjet Systems (GIS), has an experienced view of digital printing development. In this interview, he gives his insight and opinion as to where Inkjet is on the curve of adoption, what has changed over the last year since he joined GIS and some of the previously seen technical challenges that are being solved now.
So Simon, all the evidence is pointing to the fact that Inkjet has reached an impasse? Do you see this?
I would probably say that it has slowed rather than reached an impasse, but now think that new technical breakthroughs have happened so opening up the next level of opportunities. We are seeing a strong resurgence in décor, packaging and direct-to-shape for example. There are a lot of OEMs building machines for these markets, which are really starting to grow. I have a feeling that some of these machines will be revolutionary in their sector.
What has changed?
We are seeing new printheads with higher resolution and new capabilities. Previously, the heads were capable of moderate resolution and speed, which limited adoption in some sectors. However, with these new heads, we see increased throughput and print resolution allowing for the increased print quality necessary for products in these sectors.
Previously, the user’s commercial model was high margin and low to mid output, in sectors where the price per print could be high. Now with the new 1200dpi printheads, we can increase throughput while maintaining high margins, opening up digital printing to new markets. We are seeing some of the similar patterns (from OEMs) that we saw with the ceramic revolution - this time it’s with panels, flooring, wallpapers and textiles.
What about packaging, is anything happening here?
The packaging sector does present Inkjet with big opportunities, but a key consideration is the type of inks involved for printing onto flexible packaging film to ensure that ink migration does not happen - especially within the food and beverage sectors. Although water-based inks are suitable for this type of packaging, they often do not provide the performance needed for non-porous films. Adhesion is important and although UV inks can provide this, there are challenges in market acceptance for primary packing. Electron beam (EB) curing inks are one solution, but with global legislation becoming tighter for the food sector, ink companies are working hard to develop the required inks that offer the flexibility, are chemically acceptable and offer the adhesion required for non-porous substrates.
Has anything changed in relation to the innovation process?
Yes, we are now seeing many more ink chemistry companies working closely with printhead manufacturers and developing strong partnerships with OEMs and companies throughout the innovation chain. This is critically important to the success of real industry-changing products.
With more complex components and challenging applications, there has been an increasing need for collaboration between vendors and OEMs. Just sourcing components and working in house can mean that time and money can be lost when building printing systems.
We are currently working on a number of projects with multi-level partnerships from different parts of the market, which increases the chances of success while reducing the development time. We are also seeing companies coming to us for guidance at a much earlier stage in their development cycles than in the past, meaning that knowledge is shared sooner and as a result costs are actually reduced, and revenue is seen sooner.
So, does GIS work with everyone in the market?
As working with all tech providers just isn’t manageable in our view, we focus our attention on what we believe are the most commercially viable products, though naturally if a customer has a particular requirement, then we will find a way to make it work.
Direct-to-shape seems to have grabbed everyone’s attention 2014-17, then it disappeared from the radar. What happened?
Direct-to-shape is still very much a part of the future of industrial Inkjet. There’s a need for a deep knowledge of image management to massage the data in a way that produces a smooth and colour consistent output.
The challenge is in understanding how to get the image printed in the right way on the surface of an object, from a data point of view and the selection of the most appropriate printheads. It will take a while for the market to get confidence with direct-to-shape printing and find the right products and most cost-effective markets.
What do you think is the biggest challenge or problem at the moment?
Always begin by identifying the correct ink compatibility for the application. People assume the chemistry is there - but the reality is that every application has a different ink-related issue. Inkjet has to work with challenging substrates, varying temperature and environmental conditions, jetting dynamics – all complex issues, so getting it right is important. Developing a bullet-proof ink compatability probably has the longest lead time.
How has software helped the development of Inkjet?
Software can make all the difference to a successful application. Our software and drive electronics can optimise the performance of a printhead and overall jetting dynamics. It is possible to model ink flow characteristics on plastic and non-porous materials and accommodate for these in the data used to print the final image.
We have software tools that allow you to change the amount of ink laydown and how it is printed, and if we don’t have the tools right now, we can create them based on our deep understanding of the fundamental jetting dynamics. You can model the flow characteristics, then with the image data, influence the performance of how the ink is laid down to modify the final image to gain the most optimal performance - people are surprised with just how much we can do.
The high-speed printheads need high-speed data management and the software can help here massively. It can also accommodate for some of the machine imperfections - there is intelligence we can build in with corrections that improve engineering imperfections. You can’t fix it entirely, but you can certainly get a fair way with image compensation.
What should we look for in the future from GIS?
As advanced tech developers, we have recently launched our new Ethernet-based product platform that has smart embedded software along with a new print server and user interfaces, changing the way people build systems. The Atlas product range was developed with an open platform allowing our customers to develop their own software clients to interact with our server, Atlas Server, or they can use our Atlas user interface software, Atlas Professional or Atlas Production.
We are also investing in developing linkages between our platform technologies and other printing infrastructure within our data path. Good examples of this are vision systems, PLC controller integration, curing systems, basically anything where a close coupling with the print process can improve overall machine performance. It’s all about achieving the most optimal outcome by bringing all the elements together.
So in summary how do you see the industrial inkjet Industry?
We are truly seeing a real growth in the breadth and depth of use of industrial Inkjet in some very large markets that have been held back from benefiting from the value of inkjet. Ultimately it will come down to smart partnership and intelligent systems.
Simon Edwards, Product Manager, has been with Global Inkjet Systems (GIS) since 2018. GIS is the global leader in developing tailored software and system components for industrial markets, with over 12 years of proven innovation in the field. With continuous investment in R&D, our collaborative partnership approach offers OEMs and system builders the control and performance you need to print faster, smarter, better – visit www.globalinkjetsystems.com for more information.