The Evolving Printhead
Perhaps your shop has been too busy for you to keep your eye on printhead technology in the past year or so. Or you’ve been remiss in attending major industry events like SGIA Expo (now PRINTING United) or ISA Expo, so you’ve fallen behind in your industry updates.
Whatever the case, you’ve missed that inkjet printheads have been going through a metamorphosis of late — which will likely have an impact on your shop and business in 2019 and beyond.
We reached out to a handful of industry sources to get the current lowdown on recent printhead changes, and what these might mean for you, the machines you work with, the applications and markets you pursue — and the industry overall.
The Heads They are A-Changin’
As with many products and tools, inkjet printheads have been changing as a result of the needs of customers — in this case, print service providers (PSPs). As applications continue to diversify, the equipment needs to be flexible enough to support those new graphic opportunities — and even some more that are still being developed.
“Within the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in nozzles and larger print heads — arrays — being integrated into the equipment,” says Reed Hecht, product manager, professional imaging, Epson America. “Printers and applications have continued to diversify — as a result, printheads have been updated and designed as systems that are scalable and can work with different types of ink technology. Customers are always looking for consistency, reliability and little to no maintenance.”
Additionally, as turnaround times continue to decrease, ensuring your printing equipment produces high-quality work is essential. Printheads need to be able to stand up to the task.
Kevin Shimamoto, chief marketing officer, Memjet Technology, says, “We see a lot of interest and focus on speed, quality and cost. We’re particularly looking at extending the width of printhead technology to enable extremely wide print solutions without stitching — we want to extend that in the future.”
The green movement — sustainability — has also had its effect on printhead technology, says John Harman, director of sales and strategy, Inkjet Technology Division, Ricoh Printing Systems America. “Printhead technology advancements have worked to address demand for more environmentally sustainable printing. New printheads optimized for an expanding assortment of water-based inks help encourage environmentally friendly ink choices without sacrificing quality or speed. At the same time, new printhead developments have contributed significantly to the more ‘nuts and bolts’ issues of increased uptime and productivity. For example, 2018 saw Ricoh’s own portfolio add flow-through functionality behind the nozzle plate to a wide variety of printheads, which minimizes settling out of particulates in the ink, a primary cause of clogged nozzles and consequent print imperfections — and, potentially, re-prints.”
2018 also saw some new variants of existing inkjet printhead technology. For example, recirculating variants of traditionally non-recirculating printheads and new dpi variants — mostly 600 dpi. “Printhead technology, both bulk and MEMs, does not have a fast-moving development cycle,” says Simon Kirk, senior product manager, Xaar. “Instead, the physical architecture of the printhead is released and for some years after that, software such as waveforms and RIPs are optimized throughout the year to get the most from the printhead.”
And, keep in mind that the printhead alone “is only a small component of any system,” reminds John Kaufman, senior marketing specialist, Canon Solutions America. “It’s really entire systems — inks, viscosity of the inks, the heads, how they distribute the ink onto the sheet and how it’s cured to adhere to the material. The heads allow you to build in high quality and repeatable quality with the inks, tying into the entire system and run at robust speeds.”
New Segments, New Applications
Once integrated into new devices, these printhead advancements are allowing print providers to enter a range of industry segments and tackle an array of applications that have, perhaps, not been previously available.
Modifications to Xaar printheads, for example, “allow PSPs to print more fluids with higher pigment content and in different resolution modes, bringing throughput gains,” says Kirk. “It also enables them to offer a wider range of inks and widens the media they can print onto. This widening of media capability — due to printheads able to cope with a wider range of inks — means a PSP previously focused on wide-format graphics using solvent and aqueous inks could now step into soft signage or even printed textiles with pigment inks or white UV, for example.”
Harman echoes the possibility of tackling textiles. “An improved ink flow-through within the printhead delivers new levels of reliability, which is the assurance many PSPs need when first embracing wide-format and textile applications. Eye-catching substrates can be expensive, which means mistakes on them can be expensive, too. New and improved printheads help ensure applications come out right the first time, with reliable ink behaviors that not only don’t sacrifice productivity or image quality, but improve those aspects as well.”
Specifically, wallcoverings and wall décor also now come into play.
“We’re seeing a huge adoption within that market segment,” Kaufman says. “The ability to print with no dot gain, no distortion and with repeatable color — and without applying heat [via] cold during — that’s a huge bonus.”
“We see packaging as one of biggest growth areas,” Shimamoto says. “Folding carton, corrugated and a wide range of solutions across speeds, image-quality substrates, for brands and manufacturers. Technology that can be customized will play an important part for OEMs to create customized segments within those areas. Beyond packaging, other segments such as shapes, plastics, woods and materials traditionally not used to produce digital — with the right precoat, they can have a solution.”
And due to an increase in nozzles and larger printhead arrays, says Hecht, “You’ll likely see physically smaller products that are capable of faster production level print speeds. This offers PSPs the ability to produce larger print jobs in-house with less capital equipment expenditure. Also, you’ll likely see print capacity increase as more of these production printers are adopted into smaller print shops.”
Heating Up, Drying Up
Beyond those markets just referenced, a host of other industry segments look to also be particularly appealing to print providers in 2019 and beyond. Others, meanwhile, might be on their way out.
As print technologies become more productive, precise and reliable, “we expect to see wide-format PSPs continue to extend their reach into print-as-manufacturing-process applications, as well as textile and promotional printing,” Harman says. “Industrial printing often requires reliably produced minute details, which some modern printheads are designed specifically to deliver. At the same time, textile and promotional printing provide unique challenges, from soft and stretchable substrates to irregularly shaped media. Technology has improved to allow printers to intuitively — often automatically — overcome these obstacles.”
A majority of jobs fall into the banner category, Kaufman says, and printhead plus system improvements can only aid in that segment: “These will help PSPs produce more volume banners, help them reduce costs and become more profitable.”
In addition, he says, the changes will enable PSPs to assist their retail customers with branding issues. “Retailers have to become more inventive and refresh their brand, and their entire environments. And as retail chains and stores look to reduce their footprint and physical presence, maybe local popup stores and local goods will become more popular, leading to a need for even more in-store graphics and wall décor.”
Shimamoto, meanwhile, touches on the latest fad found on many a city block — the craft brewery. “Print technology is expanding from the print shop into a manufacturing environment,” he says. “For instance, we have our technology in-house at craft breweries, allowing them to customize their labels. Digital label technology has been out there for a while, of course, but now it’s easier, better and there’s a broader base of customers to target.”
Some markets, however, might no longer be quite as attractive for print providers.
“There has been a move to personalized clothes and items, and [it’s now] more common to achieve this through online customization,” Kirk says. “These online businesses commonly have their own print shops and use a variety of print methods, but I am seeing this service being contracted out less and less because the cost to offer this service to the end user is increasingly being squeezed by competition. Where this work may have been a small earner for [PSPs] to fill runs or keep machines running between long run jobs, [they] may see this demand reduce and the margins erode.
“I think it’s also fair to say that the demand for solvent-based outdoor signage is still falling,” Kirk continues. “Equally important is the environmental pressure to reduce solvent printing. Solvent print is still a big market, but more and more — in Europe mainly — there is consumer pressure to ensure as much of the supply chain as possible has as low an environmental impact as possible. PSPs will need to keep in step.”
Harman explains that market and region differences have an impact on which industry segments experience difficulties.
“It’s important for each PSP to regularly evaluate the segments and markets they choose to participate in,” he says. “A good way to measure whether a segment is drying up — or heating up — in your market is by taking a look, segment by segment, at how your business is performing.”
He adds: “As environmental concerns become more pressing and more top-of-mind for consumers and regulators alike, PSPs should look to continually assess the environmental impact of their materials and inks, both as a way of fostering environmental sustainability and as a way of staying out in front of regulations. It’s best to change now, on your terms, rather than wait and potentially be forced to scramble to achieve compliance. Additionally, PSPs need to be just as vigilant in keeping an eye on how they perform in their various markets, so they can understand what needs improvement, what works well, and what may need to go to the wayside to drive greater success.”
“Diversifying into other technologies should be appealing to service providers in 2019,” Hecht says. “As they expand their capabilities with new ink technologies, and faster speeds with new printheads, they should be able to take on additional work and offer their customers additional services and products based on this new ink technology.”
On the Drawing Board
Finally, what’s on the printhead “drawing board” for 2020 (and beyond) that print providers should be aware of?
“You’re going to see more frequent revisions and tech breakthroughs when it comes to printhead technology as we move forward,” Kaufman says. “It comes down to how can we help our customers achieve the highest print quality possible while reducing costs — how do we help our customers become more profitable? It’s a critical piece of the entire solution.”
Printhead technology continues to move toward MEMs technology, says Kirk, “where a smaller drop brings higher resolutions, simultaneous channel firing brings higher productivity, and ink compatibility brings wider media offerings. Be on the lookout for new printers using the latest printheads that will mostly be new variants of existing architecture boasting new compatibilities or new print modes — and which will further drive wide-format graphics throughput optimization for PSPs.”
Inkjet’s future does indeed appear to be bright, says Shimamoto, thanks to printhead advances: “We’re continuing to see improvements in speed, quality and costs — addressing wider printheads, smaller drop sizes, longer printhead life, coating developments and the modules that accompany printheads. All this will then allow OEMS to develop a variety of solutions, meeting the needs of more mainstream markets as well as markets that haven’t been touched before.”