The Industrial Inkjet Story

John Corrall (L) with Akiyoshi Ohno of Konica Minolta

John Corrall (L) with Akiyoshi Ohno of Konica Minolta

I talked with John Corrall, the MD of Industrial Inkjet Ltd, who represent the industrial inkjet element of Konica Minolta in Europe.  I caught up with John to get the story from him about the development and growth of the company.

So John, how did Industrial Inkjet come about?

“Years ago I used to work for Xaar and with my role I used to visit licensees and spend time with them and help them solve their problems. After a time I started to see that people needed help to develop inkjet technology within their manufacturing. So I felt it was important to set up on my own to help. Not long after I had made this decision, I got a call from Akiyoshi Ohno from Konica Minolta who asked me (pretty much told me to be accurate) to come down to London and have dinner with him. So I sat down with him and he just announced, “Now you are running Europe for Konica Minolta”!! As I had just started my own company, Mr Ohno said fine, you will then be our distributor for industrial inkjet technologies and my life changed virtually in that instant.

And it has been an exciting time. We’ve grown steadily for 10 years now. In December we will celebrate with a big bash – we are taking the whole company away. It’s a small reward for all the hard work over the years.”John has an engineering background with Domino, Elmjet and Videojet and has amassed 29 years of experience in inkjet." 

So explain a little about Industrial Inkjet?

“Whenever I introduce the company I describe our market as a pyramid. We started out at the top of the pyramid as a simple printhead supplier. Very quickly you realise that there are not many customers who can start from nothing and develop a fully functional, reliable inkjet machine. It’s a huge investment. The market was very small and projects tended to be slow.

2We realised then that we wanted to move down the pyramid – to open out the market to many smaller customers and to speed up the time to market.  To do this you need to reduce the workload for the customer, so we started to make available system sub-assemblies and components. For example drive electronics and ink supply systems. Customers could build a prototype quickly, and more importantly could start to learn about inkjet.  With this prototyping approach they were able to get there in a matter of months as opposed to a matter of years. Customers learnt what worked and what didn’t work before they had committed to a product design. Typical customer projects went from 20 engineers down to  5 engineers and project duration went from 3 to 5 years down to months.

"So these kits expanded the market for us. This was strategically an early decision and it didn’t make a huge amount of money for us but it speeded up the introduction of inkjet into these companies, reduced customer errors, and got inkjet technology into the manufacturing line far quicker. 

"This worked until around 2009 but we will were still frustrated on our side at the very high level of technical support needed. It often seemed that the customer’s engineers wanted to change things for the sake of it. They would change proven designs then complain that nothing worked.

"The opportunity to change things came in late 2007 when KM made the decision to take a colour inkjet label printer to Drupa 2008. I was in a meeting in Japan and I offered to build the demo system in UK. Mr Ohno made a quick decision and that was that!  The demo unit worked,   so I asked whether there was any problem with us making and selling inkjet “print engines” ie the inkjet part of a machine, minus material transport or robotics. 

"This was the next step down the pyramid. We were now offering to take care of all of the inkjet part of a project – leaving the customer to take care of the rest of the production line. This radically reduces both the customers project headcount needs and his time to market. Basically our team come out and install the Print Engine  and by the afternoon they are printing.

This has been the big growth area for us over the last 5 years or so. I really like what it does as it helps smaller companies to do more radical things more quickly. Combined with our work in testing and evaluating new inkjet inks, it is continuously opening up new markets for inkjet technology. Konica Minolta often calls us the “pilot line”. Sometimes we are not just acting as a pilot line for Konica Minolta, but for the whole inkjet industry"!

So it helps create new value for companies and people?

“In a word, yes.  For example we are often adding Print engines to existing printing presses.  Its not just about the cost saving in “recycling” older machines, but Hybrid digital/analog systems typically provide the best cost-per-print over the widest range of applications.  And the customer gets this without needing to use a team of 20 engineers working for years to develop an entirely bespoke system from scratch.

So people come to us with a challenge, we give them a way to do it, we sell them the Print engine and show them what to do with the technology and with the specific application. The idea of supplying the engine simplifies the whole thing. The learning curve is greatly reduced as they are buying a module.

This is what is making the difference for our customers and indirectly for us. The challenge as always is the diversity. With the right ink and the right support you can use the same print engine to print onto labels or onto massive big paving slabs.”

We are still covering all of the pyramid. We still supply heads and tech support to large OEMS and kits of parts  to smaller companies. We supply Print engines where time to market is important. We really don’t mind what we supply – its up to the customer."

So inkjet has matured and is clearly at a point where it is being used in manufacturing – where do you see it being adopted into new areas?

“Security is really hot, invisible inks, clever software that hides text in images, - you can look at an image and not see anything then point your iphone at it with a special application and see the hidden text. Inkjet is providing new options for brand protection which retailers and manufacturers really like. We also do a lot of printing onto 3D objects. We are probably best known for this.”
Ok so the direct to shape revolution is actually happening?

“Yes this 3D revolution is happening and I believe this is because with direct to shape the economics are better. The driver  for this is that you have lost the label converter out of the process. The cost of the paper label has gone, but more importantly the profit of the label convertor has also gone. You have lost a process step – and a significant time delay in the production cycle.

The ink is more expensive and everyone knows that, but there is no set up, no downtime , so there is a lower cost for production." 

So explain a bit more about the economics?

“We have a good example from a Swedish label printer customer. He has had one of our print engines mounted on a Mark Andy press for some years now. He says that on runs of up to 50,000 of say a 70mm diameter label it is cheaper for him to do it with inkjet. For more than 50,000 he should use flexo.  Now if you look at what he is spending on ink per label, its typically 20 to 30% of his label sell price.

So if a plastic tube manufacturer uses inkjet to print direct to the tube then the cost to him is pretty much just the ink. The label has gone and so has the Label Convertor. The Break-even point is no longer 50000 but could be 10 times that or more.
And these days the quality is good enough. You always get those that pull out the stereo microscope, but it is selling, it is working, it is really happening.”

So is the end of the inkjet printed label?

“No but the colour market for inkjet label printing hasn’t really taken off. Colour label take up is not what it should be – certainly compared to toner. I don’t see it happening yet for Colour labels as the economics with inkjet don’t often stack up.

For a revolution of any sort to take place the economics must be there. Look at ceramics, it wasn’t the creative potential of digital that changed that market, it was the fact that inkjet made it cheaper to print. Simple.”

So what could be the next big area for development?

“Packaging, maybe we will see more inkjet in this area. For flexible packaging however it is tough, the demand for quality is very high and toner technology is already there.  I do see cartons and corrugated being a potential growth market. I also believe we will see more inkjet printed laminates and décor, wall paper and flooring. But for us right now we see security printing as a continuing growth area.”

Could you explain a little more about security printing?

“By security we mean brand protection and track and trace. Placing unique identifier information onto products at very high speed. For example garment swing tags or pharma cartons.

It might be a regulatory requirement or it may simply be to ensure the product is not a “copy”. Another need that we have seen recently is not to check if a product is fake but simply to check that the distribution chain is behaving itself. For example that the product ended up in the country that it was meant to. 

Sometimes its a visible barcode – containing a lot of information in as small a code as possible. Sometimes its hidden information eg invisible ink or data encoded into another part of the packaging. While we can print at upto 300metres per minute these days, the inkjet is only really a small part of the system.  We often supply the verification system – to check that we printed the right data on the right package – but that is still only the start. The whole distribution chain has to be connected  – which is a much bigger project than the inkjet itself."


Industrial Inket Exhibit as part of the Konica Minolta booth at InPrint 2015 booth#D55