Unit volumes of piezo inkjet heads sold is a favorite but flawed measure of gauging the health of this segment of the industry. Up until about 2007, most printheads sold were less than one-inch in print width and typically featured between 128 to 512 nozzles per printhead. While there were differences in performance and cost, one could relatively contrast and compare manufacturers against each other. During the last four years however we’ve seen a breakthrough in larger print swath and nozzle inkjet head. Print heads of 4.25-inches wide with over 2,500 nozzles are now commonplace. This means that in many instances fewer inkjet printheads are now required to obtain even higher performance than before. This has caused the units of printheads required to decrease dramatically. At the same time, we’re also seeing demand for ever higher performance single-pass (fixed array) inkjet printing systems, many of whom require 30 to 500 printheads or more compared to a norm of typically 20 printheads or less. The growth of single-pass systems has negated the opposing force of requiring fewer printheads in mainstream printer hardware, and have kept the printhead unit volume growing.
During 2009 many piezo inkjet head manufacturers idled capacity, but in 2010 most were having to run multiple shifts to keep up with volume demands. With many of the print heads manufactured in Japan there was some concern about supply chain troubles due to the March 2011 Tsunami and related disasters, but so far there does not appear to be any ramifications for inkjet printhead delivery.
Another way for looking at the health of the piezo inkjet printhead market is by comparing the weighted average selling price per printhead over time. Until the wide swath printheads emerged, competitive market forces were causing a decline in prices per printhead. The wider print swath inkjet heads have reversed this course, and are projected to continue to drive up the weighted average selling price as the growth of single-pass printing systems continuous to outpace serial-based printing systems.
The application usage of piezo inkjet printheads has not changed dramatically in terms of unit volumes. While there has been rapid expansion of usage, the share of printheads consumed by wide format graphics printers has remained stable due to the increasing number of printheads per printer and continuing growth in the UV-curable printer segment of the market. Wide format graphics printers have consumed approximately 63 percent of all piezo inkjet printheads during the last five years, a share that is not projected to change dramatically.
Growing faster than wide format graphics printers are two single-pass printhead markets: what we’ve called publishing (or production printers) and decorative printing (mainly ceramics at this time). Their share growth has come at the expense of declining use of piezo printheads for imprinting applications.
IT Strategies estimates the next rapid growing usage for single-pass inkjet heads will be in digital textile printing. Much innovation is yet required in this area; however the economic level of interest driven by using digital printing to compress the supply chain of retail apparel sales is merging with piezo inkjets enhancements in productivity and performance.
There is no foreseeable flattening of demand for piezo inkjet printheads. Continuing interest in digitalization of printing technology to automate and compress turnaround cycles at production volume levels with ink chemistries that match the substrates required cannot be matched by another other commercially available digital printing technology.
This doesn’t mean that it will be an easy market to participate in as the demands for improved economies of scale, faster performance, and cost of engineering the printheads to match specific application requirements will continue to increase.
Dedicated divisions of large manufacturers who currently supply inkjet heads mainly to other OEMs will target their next generation of piezo printheads for internal usage. They will focus on single-pass printing technology, targeting sheet-fed graphics production printers. They will concurrently continue to supply inkjet heads for those applications where the technology and distribution hurdles are beyond their reach, including most decorative applications (ceramics, textile printing, 3D printing, etc.).
At the same time internal usage focused manufacturers will continue to evaluate whether it makes economic sense to also supply external OEMs, either for economies of scale or profit reasons. The hurdle is putting in place a support infrastructure, something that independent Xaar has become exceedingly skilled at.
The printheads that are still under development will likely continue needing more time to reach commercialization. Historically it has taken 5 years to reach the stage of printhead design, an additional 5 years to perfect manufacturing, and 5 more to reach true volume commercialization. Most of the under development heads have yet to reach the 8-year mark.