Core disciplines required in development of inkjet printing
Inkjet technology has been used for more than 30 years in consumer inkjet printers. During the last five years big breakthroughs have occurred in scaling inkjet technology in terms of productivity and reliability. The advances have reached such a level that we are now at a stage where commercial printers and graphic arts services providers will soon no longer be able to thrive profitably without a digital printing component in their operations. With offset print job run lengths rapidly decreasing and the frequency of jobs increasing, we will reach a stage where only end-to-end digital production from job order processing to printing will become a requirement. Digital printing will not replace offset print volumes during our foreseeable careers, but it will capture the high-value work that is needed to run a profitable business. Inkjet technology plays a key role in that journey.
Inkjet technology development may not be all that far removed from rocket science. Firing tens of thousands of ink droplets per second per nozzle, at a volume as low as two-trillionths of a liter per droplet, across an array of 100,000 or more nozzles, with consistent and repeatable reliability, truly is magical. This magic hasn’t happened overnight; it’s the result of billions of dollars of investment and decades of research. Just like the semiconductor industry, inkjet technology has doubled its performance in productivity just about annually. The investments in maintaining this rate of advancement have correspondingly also grown and it’s not unusual to see investments of $100 million or more in a new generation of inkjet technology.
What makes this a resource-intensive technology is that it is a complex, multi-disciplinary science. It is marriage of mechanical and electrical engineering, chemistry, and physics, controlled by software that has been fine-tuned to address an ever-greater range of applications that can be printed digitally. Over the last decade Fujifilm has amassed all of the key elements by acquiring and merging each of the pieces that were needed to optimize the development of inkjet printing systems.
Fujifilm’s investments in non-consumer inkjet technology will enable several billion dollars worth of inkjet printing systems and inkjet ink to be sold annually through a broad range of partners as well as under its own Fujifilm Graphics Systems Division brand.
Fujifilm Inkjet Investment History
In the early 2000s, Fujifilm recognized that the world of commercial and graphic arts printing would inevitably become a mostly digital world in terms of expenditures on equipment and supplies. As the world’s fourth largest toner-based printing technology company, the natural inclination was to try to further leverage its investment in toner-based technology and increase its productivity performance capabilities to address the needs of commercial and graphic arts printers.
It must have become apparent during that time that while dry toner-based printing served and continues to serve a valuable role, there where some physical and economic limitations that would prevent it from ever fully matching the performance parameters of offset technology from Fujifilm’s perspective. During this discovery process, it was concluded that inkjet technology would best complement dry toner for meeting the needs of high-volume commercial printers.
At the core of any inkjet printing system is the inkjet print head technology. The inkjet print head is the heart of the press and tends to control the price of the final hardware system, especially in single-pass printing systems that can have upwards of 50 print heads.
The application performance is driven by the inks—the fluid that determines output quality from substrate compatibility to print quality. Both of these disciplines require advanced science—a euphemism for saying they require significant time and investment. To reduce the time required for internal development, Fujifilm went on an acquisition journey.
In a short span of time in 2005-2006, it acquired one of the leading independent inkjet print head manufacturers in the world, a company called Dimatix, followed by two of the world’s leading inkjet ink manufacturers, Avecia and Sericol. Dimatix’s advanced print heads are used in a broad range of applications by many of the leading printer manufacturers in the market, including several companies that many would perceive as direct competitors of Fujifilm. Similarly, this is true for Avecia and Sericol’s inks, now grouped under the name Fujifilm Imaging Colorants.
With subsequent investments, Fujifilm cumulatively invested more than $1 billion dollars during the last six years in inkjet printing technology designed to serve graphic arts service providers and commercial printers. At the core of this investment has been print head technology.
A New Future
Inkjet technology is on a journey to match analog printing technologies in terms of output quality and performance. While it has achieved this goal in some areas and is on a path towards matching or exceeding analog printing technology in other areas, inkjet printing’s real advantage is in its ability to create new print applications. The Fujifilm J Press 720 is wider than most toner-based printers, allowing for greater productivity in the creation of new print applications such as consumer photobooks, just-in-time large format point-of-purchase advertising, and soon even highly versioned and customized packaging.
Because the ability to create an end-to-end digital workflow, products such as the J Press require a rethinking of how commercial and graphic arts service providers operate their businesses. The operations of a traditional offset commercial printer are focused on long-run length jobs in part because the sales person commission structure is rewarded on high print volumes. Since digital printing technology thrives on low-volume, high-frequency print jobs that, until now, have been antithesis of what commercial printers needed, it will most likely require a different operational infrastructure than the one for which commercial printers strive in analog operations.
What most commercial printers and graphic arts service providers will focus on first, however, is print quality. The output quality of samples provided by Fujifilm to I.T. Strategies look as good as any other standard bearing printing technology, whether this is offset or the best output quality toner.
One can expect Fujifilm to continue to develop further technology improvements, substrate compatibility expansion, and operation automation. Fujifilm is a conservative company; hence, we trust it is in its interest to prequalify buyers—who will, like Fujifilm, see this as a partnership journey; ones who will use a lot of ink, creating high-margin products.
As stated upfront, inkjet technology is akin to rocket science in complexity. Fuji-film’s full resources as a multi-multi-billion corporation are in place to help forward-looking commercial printers and graphic service bureaus transform their business, helping them move to digital printing with production inkjet printing technology and new business models required to thrive profitably in what remains a $100 billion plus retail value of graphics output business in North America.