In the run up to drupa in May 2008 there are major developments taking place in the inkjet printing area. I have covered this a number of times in my articles, most recently in my coverage of new products that were introduced at the LabelExpo event in Brussels, Belgium. If however one really wants to look at what is likely to happen with new products before the manufacturers announce them it is advisable to look at presentations made at certain technology conferences. In the case of inkjet the conference to monitor was the recent IMI Europe 15th Annual Digital Printing Conference 2007 held in November in Lisbon, Portugal. A number of presentations there indicated how the latest inkjet printhead technologies are progressing.

For many years the general perception was that for the highest speed of inkjet printing one would have to use continuous inkjet (CIJ) technology. Such technology is currently used within the Kodak Versamark monochrome and color printers. Drop on Demand (DOD) piezo technology is used to a much greater extent in a wide range of printer products but up to now its speed has been at best less than half the speed of the fastest CIJ technologies. In the case of piezo DOD technology the best known approach for industrial printing applications uses printheads using shear mode technology from companies like Xaar, Dimatix (Spectra), Toshiba Tec, and others. In this the piezo material is caused to bend squeezing ink out of a chamber. Such printheads are good for using a wide range of inks of different viscosities including UV curable inks. For highest speeds with piezo DOD technology instead of shear mode where the walls of the ink chamber squeeze the ink out as a drop, the printheads use direct roof mode. In this in basic form the roof of the chamber squeezes out the ink from the chamber through its nozzle. This approach using a direct roof mode actuator is used within the Seiko Epson printheads within the Dainippon Screen Truepress Jet520. This print engine that is also sold as the IBM Infoprint 5000 has set the speed/quality standard other suppliers are attempting to challenge.

The printhead that is likely to take over as setting the speed/quality standard also uses this roof mode actuator approach, and has been around since the last drupa. This printhead comes from Panasonic and was seen at the last drupa in the Miyakoshi printer. At that time this Panasonic technology was very new and unproven and not tremendously fast, but was unique in being a full 18.66-inch (474 mm) wide array of multiple heads. Since that time the Panasonic Page Width Array has undergone significant development and its latest technological approach has been seen in the Miyakoshi MJP600 20C high-speed duplex four-color press. It was also seen at the recent LabelExpo event in the Impika 600 press. The unique aspect of the Panasonic printheads is their use of a thin film piezo actuator that appears to allow a simpler and possibly lower cost and more reliable form of controlling each ink cell. In each 474 mm wide printhead array there are 29 specific printheads and each print head has 800 individual addressable nozzles.

The specification of the Panasonic printhead shows why it is so interesting. It can run in a number of different modes. For highest speed it can run at 600 dpi in binary (1 bit) mode at a speed of 150 metres/min. To put that into context that is the same speed as the fastest Kodak Versamark printers but with a higher output resolution and quality. The Panasonic printheads can also be run in a higher quality mode with a multi-drop grayscale technology to give a higher print quality at a speed of 75 metres/min. This is faster than existing continuous feed color inkjet and xerographic printers from Dainippon Screen, IBM and Xerox and offers the potential of higher image quality. The printhead at this time uses either dye or pigment based aqueous inks.

Currently there are two products in the market using this Panasonic technology. These are the Miyakoshi MJP600 20C from Japan and this is available in a range of configurations from a simplex monochrome to a four-color duplex solution. The French company Impika has the Impika 600 and this is either a four or six-color simplex printer. They also have the Impika GH-PBX600 one or two color simplex press that runs at 150 meters/min.

Based upon feedback I am getting I understand that at drupa there will be two other major suppliers with products that use this Panasonic technology. These are two of the market leaders in continuous feed monochrome and color printing and they will be in need of either higher-quality or higher-speed color products to be able to compete against the new products from Agfa, Dainippon Screen, IBM, Xerox and others to protect their existing markets and to attack evolving markets. These two companies have their own developments under way but these are unlikely to be in the market within the next few years. I understand that one of these suppliers plans to have a beta test under way in Europe before drupa using this Panasonic technology.

I mentioned above about Kodak's CIJ technology in their Versamark products. This technology has been around for a very long time and has proven extremely successful, but has perhaps reached the end of its development potential. At the recent IMI Conference in Lisbon Kodak made a detailed presentation covering the status of STREAM, its future CIJ technology. This is a new approach to CIJ printing and it promises significant improvements in the regions of quality, speed and types of ink that can be used. Much of Kodak's future strategy is built upon the potential of STREAM in moving printers and other service organizations from an analog to a digital approach, or converting other digital approaches to STREAM inkjet. Kodak believe that STREAM based systems will be able to challenge offset printing in terms of speeds and quality. They also state that STREAM will be faster than any DOD based inkjet system. At Lisbon Kodak spoke about ink developments using very small particle pigments to create a new ink formulation for both high-speed jetting and high image quality with a very wide color gamut on plain and coated papers. The current Versamark CIJ technology is not suited for coated papers or for pigment based inks. At drupa 2008 Kodak indicated they would show offset class inkjet showing small drops for better text, higher resolution, Kodak inks, Kodak color and workflow, and media independence. However from what I am hearing I believe we will see a demonstration of the future of inkjet from Kodak with STREAM, but it is very unlikely there will be any products that can acquired. The current Versamark technology, and possibly some other approaches are likely what will be available for customers in 2008.