Global Inkjet Systems: Connecting the dots

Clayton Christensen, in his ‘Innovators DNA’ thesis believes that there are traits that all innovators collectively possess. Successful innovators are able to ‘connect the unconnected’ and create new value where nothing existed before. They achieve this by observing a need and then they take massive action. 

During a recent visit to Global Inkjet Systems, I had an interesting discussion about the development of GIS with Nick Geddes and Debbie Thorp and it is clear that the success of GIS has been in large part due to this ability to ‘connect the dots’.

Global Inkjet Systems are exhibiting for the first time at InPrint in November. A company born out of the innovation Cambridge inkjet cluster, the rise of the company seems to have chimed with the evolution and growth in demand for industrial printing solutions and it seems that GIS has been perfectly positioned with the right people and products.

Now employing 35 people, and without any of the debt associated with many start-ups, this company is maturing as well as diversifying its core offering to provide further value to customers across the globe.

Nick Geddes, Managing Director, GIS

Nick Geddes, Managing Director, GIS

Nick Geddes is the Managing Director and a graduate of Computer Science at Cambridge. After leaving University he began a career in the financial sector within the City of London. After 6 years he decided that the financial ‘rat race’ was not a long term option for him and wanted to return to Cambridge and join the technology sector. And it is at this point, whilst providing consultancy to Cambridge based companies, that he came into contact with industrial inkjet and GIS began to form as a concept.

Nick explains, “I realised there was a gap in the market. Nobody had a bespoke electronics platform that would drive a more sophisticated requirement for industrial inkjet and I felt I could provide the solution to this opportunity.” 

So I asked Nick to explain what is it that GIS actually does?

“Put simply Global Inkjet Systems is a leading developer of software and drive electronics for industrial inkjet. Our products drive thousands of inkjet printheads in single pass and scanning systems worldwide. We support a wide range of printheads including Fujifilm Dimatix, Konica Minolta, Kyocera, Ricoh, Toshiba Tec and Xaar.  It is a really exciting time to be involved with the development and growth of industrial inkjet as new products and applications are being developed all of the time and there are always new challenges and opportunities to add further functionality and flexibility to our products.”

Debbie Thorp, Business Development Director, GIS

Debbie Thorp, Business Development Director, GIS

Debbie Thorp, Business Development Director joined GIS 5 years ago after many years in the digital printing industry, including a stint at Xaar soon after its IPO. Today Debbie explained to me that the wider array of heads now available to the market has greatly contributed to the development of new industrial applications.

“Initially there was only really Xaar, Trident and Spectra heads available for OEMs. Today there is a wide spectrum of different heads that offer a lot more to OEMs and this is certainly helping to propel the development of new applications for industrial production more quickly.  And for industrial inkjet to be realistic, it requires intelligent electronics to enable a fully functioning printing process.”
So is inkjet these days expected to do much more?

Nick continues, “Yes. As Debbie said, in the beginning the head selection was quite limited, and inkjet was actually only required to do relatively simple tasks. In fact it was largely binary. However as inkjet becomes industrialised, and the heads are expected to operate in single pass, in wide arrays, on a variety of different substrates, at higher resolutions and at higher speeds, this places greater demand on the electronics that drive the heads and connect with the mainframe.  

As inkjet has evolved it has had a number of technical challenges. Initially inkjet was only required to jet black, and then we had to make a technological jump to be able to print greyscale. From greyscale we then had to make a huge performance leap to printing multiple colours and onto multiple substrates. Each wave has led to the formation of a number of new developers of machinery and we see a real growth in demand in a variety of industrial sectors in line with the advent of single pass.

There are parallels with other industries. For example, take a look at the communication sector. The skills, resources and technologies required to make a smart phone are huge! Compare this with the pre-smart mobile phones. They were far more simple so didn’t require the same level of investment. This technological shift is the same for industrial inkjet. It is clear that creating a machine for poster printing is more straightforward than creating a machine for industrial wood decoration or for depositing a functional fluid as part of a manufacturing process.  

In the early days of GIS, we were really focused on producing a data path to drive the heads and print a limited range of applications, but since then we have extended our product lines by adding in variable data, wider colour gamut and image processing onto challenging substrates such as curved surface correction technology print head drivers.  To enable this complex functionality we have invested a significant amount in developing the right data paths. This investment has been worthwhile as today, we are shipping systems that will process upwards of 15 Billion pixels per second with fully variable data! Whilst this is a challenge, it is one that we are meeting. “

Do customers have a choice of standard products or do you take part in the creative process of the launch of a new machine?

Debbie explains, “The approach that GIS has always taken is to form technology partnerships to develop viable production systems. For example, when a customer comes to us to create a single pass machine we discuss economics, the performance trade off, competitive positioning and then guide them through the production process with a focus on maximising performance. As you would expect, there is some commonality with all machines, but each system and each client will require a different approach.  By working together collaboratively, we create customised solutions that optimise performance for our customers and it is great to see the machine come together, to be commercialised and then go on and become really successful.” 

GIS occupies an interesting space between OEM’s and various industries – where has your technology made new things possible?

“One example is that GIS was one of the first to offer technology to create infinitely variable, seamless ceramic tiles. We met this demand and it was very popular, to the extent that it has now become mainstream and everyone is taking this approach. This means that every single tile you print can be different which really starts to show off the potential of digital technology within industrial decoration.”

So you have seen a number of revolutions within industries, which sector do you think will tip to digital next?

“The décor market has great potential - for laminates and wood decoration. We are experiencing a lot of interest and activity in this sector and it could well be the next market to move to digital. Quite to what extent is difficult to predict, but the interest is certainly high. Textiles is another rising star - and we also believe direct to shape will become an important market as the drivers seem to be very compelling from brands and retailers. A number of major product introductions have been made in this area, but again it is difficult to predict the timing and scale of adoption. For example, nobody was able to predict the speed of the revolution in inkjet printed ceramics!”

So what is the most important driver for inkjet adoption? Is economics the key?

Nick answers, “A lot of things have to fall into place in order for digital to take off. Although variable data is such a key digital value proposition, most industries tip to digital when the economics truly stack up as many industries still view digital as a replacement technology. To some extent this is a misconception which is holding back adoption. For packaging print innovation it is clear that Coke is a pioneer but despite the considerable success of the My Coke campaign we have not seen a huge tip to digital because it takes time for people’s comprehension to align with the creative potential. For this to happen it is not as simple as simply pressing a button. A number of stars must align first.”

As you have already mentioned, ceramics has pretty much tipped to digital, what led to this?

Debbie answers, “For the ceramics industry the shift to inkjet for ceramics was such an easy decision when inkjet was compared with analogue technology. The economic drivers were powerful as inkjet represented such a huge saving when compared with screen printing – ROI was typically less than 12 months. It's an extraordinary market – probably unique in its “drop-in replacement” of existing technology. The economic arguments for using inkjet have been embraced worldwide – from ceramic tile centres in Spain and Italy through to China and Brazil.  When this extraordinary revolution started, the Xaar 1001 print head was perfectly positioned with its recirculating ink capability and jetting reliability. Now the market is more diverse with Fujifilm Dimatix, SII, Toshiba Tec all competing for a share of this market.   The question everyone asks is – what is the next market for inkjet that will be as big as ceramics? The conditions that drove the success of the ceramics market do not really exist as far as I know in other markets, so we should not just assume we will see such a revolution mimicked by other industries. Textiles and packaging are markets hotly tipped for growth, but each sector has its unique characteristics, culture and drivers. Having said that, we should see shifts occurring over the next year or so, but to what extent is difficult to predict.”

What about the future? Are you still connecting dots?

Nick explains, “Up to now GIS has probably been viewed as just an electronics producer but we do so much more than that. We are constantly developing new ideas as we can see new demand opening up. We launched the Ink System Components in September 2014 in response to the difficulty some companies experience in developing reliable ink systems – particularly ink systems needing pressure controlled adjustable recirculation for printheads like the Xaar 1002 and the Fujifilm StarFire.  We were finding that projects were being delayed getting into production. Developing the electronics and software to support ink systems seemed a natural extension of our existing business, but we’ve gone further and also provide a lot of customisable components such as header tanks, pressure control modules and pumps. The products have been very well-received and we have just taken the decision to open up access to our ink system components beyond our existing customer base. So now, you don’t have to be using GIS printhead drive electronics to purchase our ink system components. We will be explaining more about what we can offer in this area at InPrint.     

Nick adds, “We have invested heavily in expanding our engineering teams in the last 18 months. One area of focus has been developing a new User Interface, called Atlas. Atlas will have its worldwide launch at InPrint. 

Global Inkjet Systems new Atlas System

Global Inkjet Systems new Atlas System

What is Atlas?

“Atlas is a user interface/machine control software development kit that companies can customise and rebrand – it will accelerate technology design and cut development time. It also solves the tangible problem of product differentiation. We have customers that want to develop new product lines or extend existing ones and they often have an interface that is completely different, with diverse features and requirements. The first thing about Atlas, beyond its standard functionality, is that customers can easily rebrand and customise the interface. This allows their software engineers to focus on other value added features as GIS has done a lot of the core work already. Atlas can be further customised and enhanced using the full software development kit, which allows customers to completely re-skin the user interface and add their specific machine control components. Customers love the concept. It shortens their time to market and it really engages the imagination of their software developers. We will be rolling out the various features and options of Atlas in stages and customers will be able to use as little or as much as they need of its capability. InPrint attendees will be able to see Atlas running on our stand – it is a major new product launch.”

Global Inkjet Systems exhibit at InPrint 2015 on booth #G38