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Bones on Demand: Growing the Skeleton of a New Industrial Inkjet Industry

(May 2005) posted on Fri May 27, 2005

Explore the promising potential of industrial inkjet printing and how its expansion might be encouraged.


By Stewart Partridge

The title of this article was not lightly chosen. No bones about it, inkjet printing is now molting out of the exoskeleton in which it has been confined by its established markets—home and office inkjet, marking and coding, and CAD and wide-format graphics. But here is the first surprise: Now, quite literally, there are bones.

Scientists at the University of Manchester in the UK are developing technology that will print—with an inkjet system—live human stem cells onto an injured patient. The concept is that the doctors' ability to seed a patient with replacement tissue that would grow to the size, shape, and function required could accelerate the healing process. And by using stem cells derived from the patient's own tissue, the chances of rejection are markedly reduced.

According to Brian Derby, professor of material science at Manchester, the university has successfully used the technique to deposit and grow human osteoblasts and fibroblasts, which are the cells responsible for forming bone and muscle tissue. "We are interested in tissue engineering cartilage, bone, and blood vessels," Derby reports. "Skin is also an application, but not our main focus, even if the press has picked it up." The group is working with printhead developer Xaar to refine inkjet equipment for human cell delivery, with bone repair and replacement targeted as the most promising first application.

If we take the above story in isolation, it can provoke surprise, interest, and perhaps more. However, it is not an isolated story. Inkjet printing is venturing out into many novel and unfamiliar applications in markets as diverse as biotechnology and bioengineering, forensic science, metal deposition, microstructure fabrication, electronics fabrication and interconnection, drug dispensing, glass and ceramic decoration, display manufacture—I could go on and on. In fact, the family of technologies we now describe as "inkjet printing" is emerging as the most versatile method for printing, imaging, and spatially controlled liquid deposition that we have ever seen.

The dilemma is that this exciting diaspora lacks a forum or a focus point. Okay, I accept that some groups are making a sterling effort, such as IMI with its recent symposium in Geneva, "The Commercialization of Inkjet as a Manufacturing Process." However, the limitation for such events is that they tend to

be a fantastic forum for inkjet manufacturers to talk to other inkjet manufacturers, a sort of an "old boys club" for the inkjet industry. Capturing the interest of new pioneers and potential new corporate end users for inkjet technology is generally beyond the scope and advertising budget of such conference organizers—unless these pioneers and end users already appreciate the benefits of inkjet and are introduced to the conference by their digital partners.

So I would like to address two immediate issues. First, what is necessary to effectively seed the growth of industrial inkjet printing? Second, if we are already involved with inkjets in certain traditional screen-printing markets—either as a manufacturer, dealer, or producer of finished graphics and textiles—why should we bother encouraging the growth of industrial inkjet technology? I will attempt to answer the second question first, and thereby hope to establish the relevance to a wider audience.

The importance of industrial markets

With respect to drop-on-demand inkjet printing, only four companies are involved in the manufacture of really serious volumes (high millions) of printhead assemblies: HP, Epson, Canon, and Lexmark, because these are the only companies whose printheads are sold effectively into the office and consumer inkjet mass markets. By leveraging the high margins obtained from sales of inkjet ink cartridges into these segments, these corporations have the commercial strength to invest in ongoing development of printhead technology and manufacturing processes to a high state of art, such that the cost-per-nozzle for the printheads becomes extremely low.

For all of their merits, three of these printhead manufacturers are currently limited to thermal DOD technology, which limits them and their licensees to primarily aqueous inkjet chemistry with low viscosity. Effectively, this cuts these companies out of the vast majority of potential industrial applications and markets. Epson printheads, being of piezo DOD type, have somewhat broader potential for industrial applications, although access to supplies of Epson printheads is the domain of a privileged few.

However, a second issue is that all the above printheads generate very small ink-droplet sizes, and this can be a limitation in industrial applications. In screen printing we need coarse, medium, and fine meshes to vary ink deposits for different applications, and with inkjet printing we need different nozzle diameters and firing frequencies to facilitate different deposit weights. The high-volume tetrumvirate mentioned earlier cannot at present service the bulk of the needs for new industrial applications.

This leaves market space for the industrial inkjet manufacturers such as Spectra, Xaar, Ricoh (formerly Hitachi), Konica, and others to develop higher-volume printheads. The bad news is that because such printheads are, relatively speaking, not mass-produced, the costs of printhead manufacture tend to be very much higher. The problem is exacerbated because these industrial players need to develop a variety of different inkjet printhead platforms to meet the needs of different market segments, which further fragments their production volumes and increases development spending. The end result is either that the printhead is expensive, or that the printhead manufacturer needs to own a share of the ink revenue so that they can be profitable and generate sufficient funds for investment in R&D and manufacturing technology.

So, why do printers and suppliers involved with graphics or textile inkjet printing need the industrial inkjet applications to develop? Because this will ensure that inkjet printhead manufacturing volumes increase and enable nozzle and ink prices to continue to fall, thereby making inkjets more attractive for higher-volume printing and to a larger customer base.

Promoting the expansion of industrial inkjet technology

Now we can go back to the first question: "What is necessary to effectively seed the growth of industrial inkjet printing?" There appear to be two related problems: communication with, and awareness among, the companies best positioned to benefit from industrial inkjets.

In the graphics segment, we already have too many trade shows and conferences trying to fight for a slice of the established inkjet business, and we certainly do not need more. But the landscape is very different in industrial inkjet applications. There is no true industrial inkjet exhibition where potential new customers can be attracted, and nobody in the exhibition or conference sector knows exactly who to target or how. There are the established industrial trade shows for biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, packaging, electronics, etc., but inkjet technology rarely has a strong presence at these events. It is costly for specialty printhead/ink/hardware manufacturers to invest in exhibition space to create awareness in speculative new markets, and the lead time for ROI is long. In some cases, inkjet may be fighting against other entrenched analog technologies, and in the early phases of awareness, the established manufacturer base sees more threat than opportunity. We have seen this reaction before in the graphics industry.

This creates a strong argument for saying that we need a new exhibition and conference template for industrial inkjet—and definitely not another graphics show. This should be a place where corporate businesses, venture capitalists, inkjet technology companies, leading educational and research institutions, and innovative end users can meet, exchange ideas, and plan the matching of inkjet technology development to real industrial needs.

I would like to close this installment by throwing down the gauntlet. In my estimation, two trade organizations are in the best position to interpret and understand these goals based on their experience with industrial applications in screen printing and pad printing and their strong contacts in the inkjet industry—the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA), and its European equivalent, FESPA.

While leading the initiative to foster industrial inkjet growth will require investment and won't provide "jam tomorrow" for anyone, both organizations can ensure that their members get "jam next week." For such an initiative to succeed, these associations would likely need to strengthen their relationships with the organizers of possibly competitive digital conferences, as a nascent industry like this cannot be allowed to become fragmented.

There is also a message I wish to relay to the developers and manufacturers of inkjet printheads, hardware, media, inks and software, if they want organizations such as SGIA and FESPA to become more effective in an industrial inkjet evangelism role. You need to give them the funding to do it, you need to ensure they spend your money in the way that you want, and you need to help provide targeting and direction by involving senior personnel in these bodies.

Inkjet is such a versatile industry. Investment and focus into its new applications should provide opportunities for business development and long-term economic benefits if we can improve the way in which funding and resources are focused. It's time, I think, to make the cake bigger, before we all start fighting over the size of our slice!


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