Though it has become the talk of the industry only fairly recently, single-pass inkjet printing goes back 20 years to a system that demonstrated the enormous potential of the technology.
In our special Innovation Issue, we present a collection of expert essays on an important technology in the industry today. Here, we take explore the development of single-pass inkjet.
You can sum up the pioneer era of inkjet with a twist on a cliché: (lack of) speed kills. The earliest inkjet units marketed for graphic-arts applications in the early ’90s weren’t really industrial machinery at all, accomplishing in an hour what could be done in seconds on a conventional press. Even accounting for prepress and setup savings, only the shortest run lengths could justifiably be done. And the biggest disconnect for potential buyers: the printhead carriages that traversed back and forth across the substrate, one painstaking row at a time, instead of imaging the full width of the sheet at once as analog presses did.
Continuous inkjet technology was already being used for single-pass coding and marking, but its potential for graphic-arts applications was minimal. By ’96, hints of parallel drop-on-demand piezo inkjet technology began to appear with new machine configurations that used full-width arrays instead of traversing printheads. First came the Idanit-162 Ad, with an unusual drum-based design that could image 5 x 8-foot sheets of vinyl and other flexible stocks for applications such as fleet markings. That same year, Tektronix unveiled the Phaser 600, a 48-inch rollfed printer designed for promotional graphics that used solid wax inks.
But the breakthrough of a true full-color, single-pass print engine using drop-on-demand heads was still four years away. And it would come from a familiar name that was not yet associated with printer manufacturing.
A Wrench in the System
The Belgian company Barco Graphics was known for its high-quality film imagesetters as well software and other prepress solutions. In the early ’90s, Barco developed a digital front end called PrintStreamer for electrostatic print engines, which then had more market traction in specialty printing than inkjet and other digital technologies.
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