Shedding light onto the development of industrial inkjet – a discussion with David Johnson, Integration Technology Ltd

 David Johnson, Integration Technology

David Johnson, Integration Technology

David Johnson from Integration Technology will be speaking at the forthcoming InPrint Industrial Inkjet Conference in Chicago 1-2 May. With a career in engineering focused on drying and curing, David has seen and been part of the development of Inkjet starting from wide format and more recently industrial inkjet. In this interview we look at the past, the present and the future as David helps to shed some light on the matter.

So David tell us about your background?

I started in the UV industry in 1988 with Wallace Knight,which became Spectral Technology which I left in 1995 wanting to develop my career in Sales. I had already been a technical support for the Sales function and so joined Amba Lamps in a Technical Sales role.Following that I joined a small dryer manufacturer Abbess Dryers, manufacturing conveyorized gas, Infra-Red and UV dryers for the screen print industry.In 1998 I returned to Spectral Technology, then called Nordson UV as Technical Sales Manager Industrial, dealing with the application of UV in the Container manufacturing industry. In 2001 I joined the fledgeling UV company Integration Technology (ITL) when we were just a 4-person company which had been started by Adrian Lockwood, an ex-colleague from Spectral and Nordson UV, the rest, as they say, is history.

The rise in the wide format UV Inkjet industry had been forecast, but none of the traditional UV system suppliers had a suitable system, therefore, ITL developed a bespoke solution trying to cover the main requirements, it was; lightweight; able to withstand G-forces of the movement; air-cooled; small footprint: This was called the ‘VZero’ system, a name derived from the first sketch drawings of the system entitled ‘Version Zero’.

How had the technology changed and developed in this time?

Xaar was producing the XJ500 heads and ZundSystemtechnik adopted this onto their first UV inkjet wide format printing machine, they selected the VZero UV system for the curing and the UVjet 215 was created.The machine proved to be an immediate success despite the maximum 300 dpi resolution and relatively slow speeds, selling in excess of 70 machines in the first year.

Overlapping this development NUR Macroprinters in Israel produced the Tempo machine with a flat-bed table, which also utilised the VZero system for the curing.

However, the VZero was still relatively large and heavy and therefore only suitable for the largest wide format machines, with strong carriages able to handle this, so ITL set about developing a new smaller and lighter UV system for the smaller format machines that were sold in higher volumes. And in keeping with the naming culture the ‘SubZero’ UV system was born, which has proved to be one of the most successful UV systems ever made selling in excess of 30,000 lampheads, being adopted by the Gerber Solara, Colorspan UVR, UVX and 9850, Oce Arizona 250 and 350, Fujifilm Acuity, DYSS Apollo, Inktec Jetrix machines.

So you were part of the digital wide format revolution, what would you say is the spirit/vision of the company?

Solution finding.We like to think that we have always been prepared to accept a challenge, provided there is a potential commercial win in the end.

For instance, although not an inkjet application, we have developed a unique solution (patent pending) for curing a resin on the inside of pipes, this means that a pipe can be repaired in situ without the need to dig up the road.

Some of our LED systems are used in the manufacture of OLED’s (organic LED’s), this is an inkjet deposition process inside a nitrogen inerted ‘Glove Box’.

So this technology is an alternative to the traditional ARC lamp technology? Explain more

ARC lamps are still used and have a place, they provide a wide spectral output of UV light across the UV spectrum, UV LED’s have a much narrower band of output, with no irradiation in the Infra-Red spectrum so reducing heat in the substrate/media.

It is much easier for the chemists to produce a material that reacts across a wide UV band, it gives them a much wider choice of Photoinitiators with different properties, but UV LED’s allow discreet curing where shortwave UV light may damage the product and they offer a significantly lower temperature absorption in the cured surface.

Furthermore, LED UV systems are much more controllable than arc lamp system’s, with instant on/off, small area addressability and variable power to very low levels, making much more precise in their application and therefore more attractive to industrial processes.

Finally, they are more environmentally friendly having a lower energy use, much longer life and contain no materials hazardous materials (arc lamps contain mercury).

What industrial markets do you operate in?

Automotive, medical devices, construction, direct to product labelling and decoration. We will follow wherever inkjet is used. For instance, printing onto syringes, saline bags, car components, flexible tubes etc. Also, we operate in the electronics industry both for curing inks/coatings and adhesives.

What in your opinion are the technical challenges for industrial inkjet?

Reliability has to be an issue in an industrial manufacturing environment if one of the nozzles on the inkjet head is lost and it is printing on a valuable product which is then rejected that is an issue. Having said that the industry is addressing this, heads are much more reliable and quite often there is built-in redundancy.

The goal is to create a robust system that does not require a computer scientist to operate it, which is reliable and can stand up to the rigours of an industrial environment, I believe that Inkjet can deliver this.

Explain more about the role of sub-suppliers?

In the flat panel display market, the big players are Samsung and LG with their Gen 8 and 9 production lines costing millions to install and obviously they are very, very risk-averse, therefore new innovations are slow to be adopted. However, there is a multitude of smaller FPD manufacturers with lower cost production lines who are always on the lookout for new technology that can save them money and/or improve their products and therefore they are much more open to new ways of doing things. This eventually migrates up the chain to the bigger manufacturers, hence the smaller sub suppliers are key to the industry and innovation uptake.

So for inkjet, industrial is harder both technically and commercially?

It has been harder to penetrate industrial compared with traditional markets, the benefits can be seen, but the hurdles are higher, especially with the ‘we always done it this way’ mindset.

So would you say it is more likely that markets which are more closely defined by consumer behaviour are more likely to adopt?

Yes, I would say so. When inkjet started to against screen printing – you could show a printer an inkjet printed sample and they could honestly say that the screen sample was a better quality. It was not until the consumer saw a benefit – that smaller production runs/variable data with less set up costs were more important than resolution/quality, that change came. Once it was acceptable to the buyer the printer was open to change in order to retain business.

Things have moved on a long way with Inkjet since those days, the quality of the print is fantastic and it gives the flexibility to do so many individual things and it can be done further down the supply chain closer to the end customer, giving them a much greater choice.

What is changing in the market? What are the next opportunities? Is IoT driving change?

Mindset is the key, getting the industry to accept change more easily will accelerate the change and I think this is starting to happen. I am in my mid 50’s and when I went to school there was one computer in the whole school, but the decision makers in these industries are of a younger generation and I believe that people are getting into these key positions at a younger age and that will generate change and drive the new opportunities making it easier for UV LED or Inkjet. So Industry 4.0 and IoT has helped. But you still have to get them to think away from how they used to do things, which isn’t easy.

Do you think that industrial inkjet has suffered from people thinking it is a replacement technology?

Yes, this is likely. To deal with this, you need to be able to talk to customers in a way they understand and this is a communication challenge when it is introduced patience is the key. There has to be an understanding that IndustrialInkjet and UV LED are still in their formative years and so the technology is not understood by the customers and the people selling it are very technical. So having an understanding of the customer's process and pitching this at the right level to get people to try new things is the challenge.

With UV, engineers understand nuts and bolts, volts and amps, but not many engineers have a background where light does the work. With UV light we talk about dose and intensity, but the engineer understands flow and pressure, helping them to bridge the gap is key.

With the success of inkjet to new industrial markets, is it now in your opinion, a commercial or technical challenge?

Much of the technical challenge has already been overcome or is being overcome. It is now about ‘productionising’ the technology and making people aware of the unique attributes that digital printing can offer. Of course, more R&D still needs to happen – but convincing and educating customers of what can now be done now with inkjet is a priority and convincing people they just need to give it a go.

To do this, system integrators need to come to the fore, these are companies that build the Inkjet heads into a system and then add the UV (hopefully for us) and deal with the materials handling. These guys will engage the smaller component suppliers, those most open to change and really start to accelerate the uptake of this exciting new technology.

Join David, Integration Technology and a the industrial inkjet community in Chicago 1-2 May!