Why All the Buzz about Single-Pass Inkjets?

The 1.8m wide EFI Nozomi C18000

The 1.8m wide EFI Nozomi C18000

The avalanche of news releases from drupa included several headlines about new single-pass inkjet systems. In researching an article on single-pass inkjet printing for the upcoming June/July issue of Screen Printing magazine, it occurred to me that most of the people who consider "single-pass" inkjet printers newsworthy are people (like me) who have focused primarily on the evolution of wide-format inkjet printing for the past 20 years.

We have become so accustomed to watching printhead assemblies travel back and forth across the width of slowly advancing media that it was astounding to watch a single-pass wide-format inkjet printer such as the Océ Color Wave 900 or HP PageWide XL 8000 print a full-color poster in just a few seconds. 

In wide-format printing circles, “single-pass inkjet” has become synonymous with high speed inkjet.  

The fact is single-pass inkjet printers that use aqueous inks have been used for more than a decade, primarily for the "production inkjet" systems that are currently transforming the commercial offset printing and packaging industries.  

Aqueous-ink single-pass inkjet systems have already been used in conjunction with automated finishing equipment to “manufacture” millions of books, photo books, catalogs, manuals, advertising inserts, direct mail pieces, financial statements, technical drawings, posters, labels, and folding cartons. 

In a PageWide video on YouTube, Dr. Ross R. Allen shows the first page-wide printhead HP developed in 1991. At that time, he notes the technology to build cost-effective, reliable printers around the printhead didn’t exist. So HP set out to invent them. 

The long-term goal was to bring fast, page-wide printing to everything from office printers to commercial printing presses. 

Other companies that make single-pass production inkjet presses for commercial printing include Fujifilm, Canon Solutions America, Screen, Xerox, Ricoh, and Kodak.  

Although the super-fast output of poster-size prints on the Océ ColorWave printer was astonishing at first, now I understand why the ColorWave 900 and other Memjet-powered wide-format inkjet printers were first promoted at commercial printing shows such as Graph Expo. Fast wide-format inkjet printers that could print on standard offset papers were developed to enable commercial printing companies to close the speed and media-cost gap between high-speed production inkjet printing and wide-format graphics printing.

Single-pass inkjets for packaging

While inkjet printer manufacturers have wrestled with the complexities of developing high-speed single-pass inkjet systems for UV-ink printing, the adoption of aqueous-ink single-pass production inkjet printers have helped raise awareness of the benefits of digital printing among brand owners, manufacturers, entrepreneurs, and consumers. 

This has set the stage for the adoption of the high-speed inkjet printers for the mass customization of all sorts of products—including the paperboard boxes in which to package and ship them. 

Packaging is clearly the next big area of growth for single-pass inkjet printing because the market is so vast and many of the materials are paper-based and recyclable. 

In announcing their HP PageWide Web Press T1100S, co-developed with KBA, HP noted that digital printing is the fastest-growing segment in packaging, with a projected annual growth rate of 17 percent in a market expected to be worth $19 billion by 2019. The PageWide Web Press T1100S is designed for high-volume digital printing of the top liners of corrugated packages. HP’s new PageWide C500 inkjet press for corrugated is for direct-to-board printing. 

At drupa, EFI rolled out a new single-pass inkjet printing platform that was designed first and foremost for high-speed corrugated board production. The 1.8m wide EFI Nozomi C18000 is a sheetfed, digital packaging press has run speeds of up to 8,100 square meters per hour. It can print boards up to 1.8m x 3m in size. 

Although EFI may incorporate their new single-pass inkjet technology in future sign and graphics printers, they used it first for corrugated packaging because the $130 billion corrugated packaging industry has more than 200 billion square meters of output a year. According to the EFI press release, this figure is about 25 times greater than the estimated amount of annual signage and graphics output produced.

Durst has been using single-pass UV-inkjet technology in ceramics printing and label printing since 2005 and has over 700 installations around the world. At drupa, Durst unveiled the Rho 130 SPC single-pass inkjet system that uses up to six colors of functional aqueous inks with Durst Water Technology. It can print corrugated cardboard up to 12 mm thick and paper media at resolutions up to 800 dpi and print speeds up to 9,350 square meters per hour. Durst is offering to fully integrate the Rho 130 SPC with existing production lines so corrugated cardboard manufacturers and converters to achieve fully automated production.  

Heidelberg has partnered with Fujifilm to develop the Heidelberg 106 industrial inkjet printer for B1-sized packaging materials. 

Single-pass systems for screen-printing and pad printing applications

In recent years, a lot of attention has been focused on developing single-pass inkjet systems to customize products traditionally decorated with screen-printing or pad printing processes. For example, single-pass inkjet printers such as the PIKE by SPGPrints and the Nassenger SP-1 by Konica Minolta use aqueous textile inks in printers with speed equivalent to rotary screen printers. 

Single-pass inkjet systems have also been developed for decorating ceramic tiles and decorative laminates for floors and furniture. Direct-to-shape inkjet printers are being developed for bottles and three dimensional objects.
At the 2016 InPrint Show in Milan, Heidelberg will introduce the Omnifire 1000 direct-to-shape (“4D”) printer. It uses a 6-axis robotic handling system to decorate irregularly shaped items up to 1 cubic meter in volume. 

Stay Tuned for More! 

As high-speed, single-pass inkjet systems become proven and cost-effective for more wide-format applications, they may someday replace many of the current sign and graphics printers that use scanning printheads. But for now, the focus among printer manufacturers seems to be primarily on penetrating the much higher value industrial printing markets. 

The proliferation of different types and configurations of high-speed single-pass inkjet printers will help innovators create new types of products and enable manufacturers to reduce inventory and shipping costs. Industrial inkjet printing can also help bring jobs back to local economies by enabling more manufacturing to be done locally.

And as 3D printing systems begin to be used for product manufacturing, direct-to-shape single-pass inkjet printers could be used to decorate 3D printed objects or apply markings to protect against unauthorized copying of branded products.  

Some single-pass inkjet systems that use UV-inks to print labels, bottles, laminates, tiles, and ad specialty items have been built primarily to show manufacturers what’s possible. 

The next wave of single-pass inkjet systems are likely to be custom-engineered to meet the requirements of specific product manufacturers. 

At the upcoming InPrint shows in Milan and Orlando, you can learn more about many of the innovations announced at drupa, including some the new partnerships and platforms that will make it easier for inkjet system integrators to pull together the right combinations of printheads, inks, curing units, drive electronics, and ink-supply systems for a specific application. 

More details and comments from inkjet system developers are included in my article “What’s Next for Single-Pass Inkjets?” in the June/July issue of Screen Printing. The issue is scheduled for release around July 11. Screen Printing magazine can be downloaded from screenweb.com.

Eileen Fritsch is a technology journalist who began writing for Screen Printing magazine in 1994. She was a founding editor of Big Picture magazine in 1996 and covered the evolution of large-format graphics printers from the first color inkjet plotters to industrial UV flatbeds. Today she is a freelance writer and blogger. Contact her at eileen@eileenfritsch.com