Developing the future of industrial inkjet: An interview with Archipelago

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Cambridge in the UK has earned a reputation of being a globally leading centre of innovation and excellence for the development of inkjet. In this blog, we interview Guy Newcombe, CEO of Archipelago Technology Group, located in Cambridge, about key developments in industrial print technology and discover more about his vision.

What’s your experience in digital printing?

My first experience was over thirty years ago – a vacation job with Domino Printing Sciences. That introduced me to the world of inkjet and to the Cambridge technology scene. I had the good fortune to meet Domino’s founder, Graham Minto, and was struck by his vision and commitment.Then, in 1989, after completing my doctorate and a research fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, I joined The Technology Partnership (TTP).While at TTP I became Head of Printing Technology. My main project there was establishing their subsidiary, Tonejet, which we launched in 2007.By the time I left TTP in 2012 to set up Archipelago, I’d become very familiar with the whole range of inkjet technologies.

What, in a nutshell, did you learn from that experience?

Without doubt, that I was extraordinarily lucky coming into the world of digital printing when I did. On a personal level, 30 years might be a long time, but in the history of technology it isn’t. Digital printing is a young industry – young in more ways than one, since the industry acts as a magnet for new talent. If you want to be energetic and creative with technology, digital printing is a good place to be.

What does Archipelago do?

We focus on two areas. We use our knowledge of inkjet to help companies improve their inkjet businesses. And we develop technology to print functional fluids – technology that we licence to users.Many manufacturing operations need to dispense precise (nano and micro-litre) quantities of viscous liquids. Conventional metering systems can’t deliver volumes that are small enough; inkjet systems can’t deliver viscous liquids: our Powerdrop technology is designed to solve the problem – dispensing viscous, tailored fluids (paint, adhesives, pastes, polymer precursors, and food ingredients) in precisely controlled quantities.Crucially, the technology provides benefits that impact directly on the bottom line ─ notably greater reliability and reduction of waste.

The company’s called Archipelago because…?

An archipelago is a sea containing a group of islands. Think of the sea as our core technological expertise and of each island as a specific technology. Powerdrop is one of our islands, but we’re developing other technologies too ─ for example, PowerAqua (for supplying electric power in wet environments).

What differentiates Archipelago from the rest of the inkjet world?

Our approach to creating new ejection processes is always to start from the fundamentals of the processes and then to engineer complete decoration and fabrication processes on that basis.This focus on the fundamentals turns out to be crucial from an operational perspective. The world of inkjet has been bedevilled by systems – often well-established systems – falling over, without their producers necessarily knowing why. Our understanding of the fundamentals, supplemented by use of highly precise measurement, helps us to avoid these traps. It means we can produce more efficient technology.To speak more technically: many inkjet systems inadvertently introduce a charge into the ink. This can lead to all kinds of problems – for example, corrosion of electrodes, electrolysis of ink, and drops landing on the nozzle plate. Our technology is designed to overcome this problem. It therefore promises to provide end-users with a much higher degree of reliability.

What do you hope to achieve with Archipelago?

Our goals follow very naturally from the competitive advantages we’ve just discussed. First, we aim to become recognised as the go-to company for fixing inkjet problems fast. Our experience and reputation is crucial here: clients whose technology needs fixing want to work with people they know and who can be trusted to work professionally and discreetly.The second aim, more overtly, is to be the market leader for game-changing inkjet technology, especially concerning the ejection of viscous liquids. Taking the ‘ink’ out of inkjet, if you like.By ‘market’ we’re talking here not only about inkjet manufacturers but also about an array of industries that use, or could use, inkjet technology. Think chemical companies, manufacturing companies, food packaging companies, and coatings companies.

How do you see the geography of digital print and of Archipelago’s business – where are the happening places?

At present, there are clearly three centres of expertise. There’s Japan, with its very conducive traditions of precision engineering, micro-fabrication, and long-term investment. There’s the US, which has been able to exploit the legacy of Kodak, Xerox, and Hewlett Packard.And there’s the UK – the greater Cambridge region, in particular: the cluster of technology firms there has made it possible to assemble teams with the requisite range of skills. Consequently, Cambridge has become established as a global centre of industrial inkjet.For Archipelago, the regions that feature most in our thinking are various parts of northern and western Europe – Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Northern Italy – and the US.

Where do you see the greatest opportunities for inkjet in the future?

Three categories of applications stand out. First, using inkjet to dispense viscous liquids in large quantities. So we can use inkjet to decorate aircraft and trains, for example – the kind of thing that Airbus’s paint shop in Hamburg is working on. Conventional methods waste vast quantities of paint. That is obviously unsustainable. Developments in inkjet offer the means to reduce this waste.Second, inkjet will increasingly be used not merely for decorating objects, but actually as a means of manufacturing objects. The ability to eject glue with a composite opens the way to producing lightweight engineering structures by means of inkjet technology.The third opportunity may sound rather boring, compared with that, but is in fact hugely important economically. It is the use of inkjet to repair civil engineering structures. How to repair structures such as bridges, pipes, or sewers is a real problem: usually we can’t simply replace existing structures with new parallel structures, but repairing structures already in use presents technical and economic headaches. Developments in inkjet promise to provide solutions – and the potential market for them is massive.

Your vision for inkjet is clearly very diverse. Behind the actual applications, what are the underlying themes?

A major theme underlying our work at Archipelago and what we see as the opportunities for the industry concerns the reduction of waste. Development of non-contact coating prevents over-spray, in contrast to conventional spraying processes, which are hugely wasteful (typically they waste between a third and a half of the paint used). Likewise, additive engineering reduces waste: it cuts stock-holding and it enables products to be manufactured at optimal locations – the places where they’re needed. And repair obviously tends to be less wasteful than replacement.The good thing about a mission to reduce waste is that everyone can see it’s a good idea – you don’t meet people who think that what the world needs is more waste!

The potential sounds exciting, but what are the barriers to the broader application of inkjet?

You can get at what the barriers are by considering the case of the clothes industry. People have been talking for a couple of decades now about using inkjet to print clothes, yet today it is still only a tiny proportion of clothes that are produced in that way.Why is that? The answers lies, not so much in the technology itself, as in the supply chain: Incorporating inkjet into an industry’s supply chain will often require the re-engineering of that chain. The corollary is that inkjet has been most readily adopted in those industries that can do so without re-engineering their supply chains – for example, wide-format printing of objects such as posters or tiles.So it’s clear that the main barrier to adoption is the difficulty of re-engineering industry supply chains.

If you think about the opportunities and the barriers together, where, in a nutshell, does that leave the future of inkjet?

The future lies in applications that don’t require the re-engineering of supply chains. Though there’s much talk of the potential of mass customisation, that’s going to be hard to achieve. The challenge there is logistical rather than technological. The more achievable wins lie in large-scale additive manufacturing, where the drivers are reducing waste and modernising infrastructure.Repairing sewers may be considerably less sexy than mass customisation of consumer products – but it remains the case that where there’s muck, there’s brass.

For further information contact:

Guy Newcombe

guy.newcombe@architechgroup.com

Tel: +44 1223 459160

Archipelago Technology Group, St John's Innovation Centre, Cowley Road, Cambridge.  CB4 0WS, UK

http://www.architechgroup.com/