The two important aspects of the world of wide-format inkjet printers are the ink chemistry and the printhead technology. The printer brand of course is important (some models function well for years, some break down after a few months; some have a really nice resale value even after 5 years of use (old NUR printers are still worth their weight). But the core value is the ink chemistry and the printheads.
I will repeat this fact because it is my feeling that probably half of the printer sales in the world, the buyer either does not ask much about the printhead, or if he or she does, they are not familiar with the difference between the technologies of the different printhead brands. Sometimes when I go into a printer booth, not even the sales reps know the brand of printhead in the printers they are supposed to sell. And many do not know the model (in the case that yes they do know the brand). As to the technology, I did not do well with physics in my courses at Harvard, but even if I do not know the minutia of shared wall shear mode vs other sizes, shapes, and methods of pushing the ink through the head out the nozzles, I do recognize that some printheads have not been successful with textile inks at 3.2 meters in width. Yet another printhead brand, Kyocera, has been a run-away success with textile inks.
Encad was the most popular printer of the 1990’s. So its Lexmark thermal printheads became infamous. Encad was able to coax considerable quality and performance from these rather rudimentary thermal printheads. Lexmark was once part of IBM, became independent, and slowly developed a printhead, which Encad used for format wider than the desktop units for which Lexmark was famous.
During 2001 through about 2008, low-bid Chinese water-based printers copied the various Encad and Kodak-Encad models in every way, including using aging Lexmark printheads. But since these printheads never improved their technology, year by year, one Chinese brand after another stopped offering thermal printheads and water-based inks. By 2012 only one or two Chinese brands was exhibiting water-based inks with obsolete Lexmark-based printhead technology. By then these cheap thermal printheads were made somewhere in Asia: Philippines or Indonesia or comparable. Since this ink chemistry and printhead technology was not improving or innovating, we have not kept track since by then eco-solvent inks and Epson piezo printheads were improving and the low-end Made-in-China printers mostly had switched to Epson heads, replacing the entry level Xaar piezo printheads which were popular a decade before.
During these same years (late 1990’s) continuous inkjet chemistry and technology was popular for fine art giclee printing (Iris Graphics and others). But by the time we tested a continuous inkjet system a few years later, we ended up consigning the system to the dumpster (it had to be left on 24-hours a day, more or less). Besides, by 2001 we had our first HP DesignJet 2500cp, and it was great.
During Encad’s worldwide rise to (momentary) #1 prominence, Epson’s printheads improved, albeit at first only for dye-based ink. But eventually Epson had a printhead technology and an ink chemistry that allowed pigmented ink through its printheads.
Even though HP already had thermal inkjet printer technology for years prior, Encad was the first worldwide success for switching from former CAD plotters to better resolution modern wide-format inkjet. When we did the first FLAAR inkjet printer test circa 1997, the Encad was by far one of the best printers available. In these years HP was still stuck in the world of old-fashioned pen plotters, which did not need high resolution since they were for architectural and engineering drawings. My brother, an architect, was using HP pen plotters well into the years of Encad’s success with printers.
Although HP had printers a decade or so before Encad, Encad offered a solution for graphics and photographs and signage. The FLAAR Reports on Encad printers circa 1998-2000 caused sales of Encad to rise even higher than before. But these printheads had quirks, but since there was nothing better, they were considered worth using.
But by about 2001 HP had a whole new series of wide-format printers, poised and focused on regaining market share against the success of Encad. We tested first the HP DesignJet 2500cp and it was appreciably better than the initial Encad. We then received a dozen different HP models to evaluate, and these evaluations assisted HP to overtake Encad and become #1 in graphics, CAD, and also a factor in competing with Epson for giclee and fine art photography printing.
Canon BubbleJet improved dramatically in these same years (2001-2005) and several Canon wide-format inkjet printers were sent to FLAAR for evaluation. Their quality was quite good and giclee ateliers and fine art photography studios around the world began buying Canon printers as a result of the FLAAR Reports. Since FLAAR did fine art photography with Hasselblad, Phase One, and other high-resolution digital cameras, so we could show actual real-world reality of quality in giclee and fine art photography.
Tektronix heat-melt ink (using a “hockey puck” of solid (meltable) ink) came out around late 1990’s. Xerox bought this technology and if my mind can remember that far back I believe there had been one worldwide attempt to use this. But it simply could not compete with Epson, HP, Canon, or the industrial-strength Spectra printheads of those years.
Thus at SGIA 2015, in Atlanta, Georgia, I was surprised to find a printer using “Xerox printheads.” I have not seen a printer using Xerox printheads in more years than I can imagine. Over a decade ago (circa 2000), Xerox bought Tektronix, which had the piezo printhead for phase-change ink (solid ink that is melted by heaters in the printer). Unfortunately even a company as large, as well-funded, and as respected as Xerox was not able to make this system competitive against Epson, HP, Spectra, Konica Minolta, Ricoh and Xaar.
Since it has been about 15 years since I last studied phase-change ink and the Xerox Tektronix printheads, I would need to be brought back to a Xerox demo room to understand the printhead technology and the phase change ink, since today as we enter 2016 there are billions of dollars worth of R&D around the world that has long ago gone beyond what was cool in the year 2000.
Now let’s look further at other printheads in 2016 onwards, using our knowledge of the last 18 years as a background. In other words, what has 18 years taught us that can help in the coming years?
The printhead with one brand name may use technology of another brand name
Xaar owns many of the key patents so many brands such as Brother, Monica, Seiko and other Japanese brands. So many printheads today use Xaar technology (but mix it with their own additional benefits). Xaar had me at their world headquarters in the UK and on several occasions took me to printer factories in Asia which were using Xaar heads. So I have more experience with Xaar printheads and the Xaar management team as a result.
If you wish to learn the technical aspects of printheads, a good place for lectures and publications is www.IMIconf.com. I have attended these conferences in Europe and USA and find them very helpful, both for new employees as well as for catching up with new advances in ink chemistry, printhead technology, and printer mechanics.
Some of the key UK owners of the partners of IMI Europe retired during 2015 and I have not yet met the new owners nor attended any of the new conferences. But as soon as my team or I attend an IMI conference under their new owners, we will update our coverage of IMI conferences.
Printhead Popularity varies by Ink Chemistry
Printheads for UV-cured printers tend to be different brands than printheads for textile printers. 60% of high-end textile printers focus clearly on one brand of Japanese printhead: Kyocera. For high-end UV-cured printers that same printhead brand has less than 5% of the market. Dilli was the second UV-cured printer brand to employ this brand.
Xaar printheads had a high percentage of market for in-line ceramic printers two to four years ago. In textile printers there are no Xaar printheads because their technology is not focused on water-based inks.
Printhead brand percentage also varies at entry level. Here the same brands are at the low-end in both textile, eco-solvent, and UV-cured.
So the printhead that is available depends on whether you need entry-level price, mid-range price, or high-speed or industrial capability printers. For obvious reasons, I would not buy a high-speed industrial printer with a low-end printhead. If I need a really sophisticated printer it would make sense to have a sophisticated printhead technology along with the mechanics, feeding system, and software.
Lexmark printheads powered the rise (and fall) of Encad, but thermal printheads are not a factor in textile printers until HP latex decided to focus on wall coverings with latex ink. In the world of wide-format, HP has focused most of their R&D millions on thermal printhead technology, though they do also own other technologies. So thermal printheads can handle HP latex ink.
For UV-cured ink HP can’t use any of their own thermal heads; HP uses Ricoh at entry-level and other piezo technology at the high end for HP UV-cured printers. But where thermal heads have potential with HP is for their PageWide technology. We tested this at Sign Istanbul in the HP booth and the results for drawings on uncoated paper were excellent. These speeds are not intended for photographs unless on coated stock.
Canon has its BubbleJet thermal printheads for decades, but these tend to be used at entry-level for general use printers. I would enjoy learning about more sophisticated use of Canon printhead technology. Canon Oce, and Xerox have each tried Memjet printheads for office use but each of them have had to keep withdrawing these from the market and trying improved versions of firmware and other aspects (since the Memjet printheads themselves have not improved in the last several years). Memjet are not Canon-based printheads.
Be aware of special needs of some printheads
Each printhead is good at something but may not be ideal for other aspects. The other crucial awareness is to know which printheads have unusual quirks. One printhead is infamous for clogging completely if there is any dust in the print room (and needing to be replaced, at several thousands dollars, per head). But you can avoid this remarkably expensive issue by having a “clean room” environment (which probably costs more than replacing printheads every month!), or you can install an air purifier (such as a Duster 3000 air purifier from Island Clean Air).
One Japanese printhead company somehow issued either news, or somehow got the message out about five years ago that they were not going to do any new development for their printheads! Yet the printer manufacturers that featured these heads still use this brand, and hopefully there are indeed at least vaguely new features in the last iteration of this brand. This is the same printhead that can’t handle dust in a print shop environment.
While on the subject of problems with printheads, two different printhead technologies caused the demise of entire lines of printers. One distributor told me that he literally dumped the brand new unsold (UV cured) print into the dumpster. This printhead had issues for about two years, but these issues were gradually overcome, though in the meantime 90% of the printers using that model have moved to better models of the same brand. This is typical: a single brand name may have several outstanding and popular printhead models, but may have one printhead model which has enough quirks that it has caused problems in printshops worldwide. This is why you, as a distributor or printshop owner or manager, really should attend an IMI printhead and ink chemistry conference. Plus, at these conferences you can meet the key personnel of at least several of the major brands of printheads.
MicroElectro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) is a low-cost way to mass produce printheads, using silicon for the nozzle face. When MEMS technology was first launched in past years, every week PR releases touted how miraculous MEMS technology was. Silverbrook set a record for the must excessive, silly, and overly fluffy puffy PR releases, but other brands were trying hard to produce PR releases with comparable exaggerations.
Two entire printer manufacturers had to close down their entire wide-format division because after spending millions of dollars trying to use MEMS heads their printers did not function because the early generation MEMS heads failed to function anywhere close to the excessive promises of PR releases. MEMS technology was a major factor in the collapse of Leggett & Platt’s entire UV-cured printer division. And the same premature MEMS technology did cause the actual collapse of Yuhan Kimberly’s entire textile printer program in Korea. Plus two other companies trying to use the same printhead had million-dollar delays of over a year (but were able to recuperate by switching to another printhead). Fortunately, MEMS technology has advanced so that for 2016 it is still worth learning about MEMS printheads.
If there were no ridiculous PR releases for us to point out the sheer fallacies, then FLAAR Reports would not have to evaluate printers, inks, media, coaters, and color management equipment!
HP finally got their HP Scitex X2 MEMS printhead to function. Since early MEMS heads had no way to replace failed nozzles, you constantly had to stop the multi-million dollar wide-format single-pass system to change a single printhead (but with hundreds of such MEMS heads you may have to stop the printer hundreds of times (once for each failed printhead!)). At 45 minutes to change a head (or even at 20 minutes to change a head) this means that your operator must be constantly attentive.
Plus, print speed collapses to zero square meters PER HOUR for every time you have to change a single head.
Today in 2016, MEMS heads by HP and Dimatix Spectra are significantly improved but I would need to be in a demo room to document the level of improvement. Other brands are working with MEMS technology also, but since PR releases are not realistic, I only accept what I can see and experience in a demo room and preferably in a printshop which is using a pertinent printhead so I can document the performance out in the real world.
In-line one-pass printheads
The future for industrial printers and any high-speed system for any ink chemistry is one-pass printing (where the printheads are fixed in one complete bar-per-color. The paper or fabric or glass or ceramics flow at high-speed under the printhead bars. Memjet printers do this for water-based ink, but there are problems with clogged printheads (so print speed is zero while changing the printheads). With million-dollar printers you need methods of detecting clogged nozzles and substituting nozzles on the fly.
Xaar has much of this market for ceramic printers, The Xaar 1001 printhead has been popular for fixed array industrial printers in past years. Kyocera, Fujifilm Dimatix SAMBA, and Konica Minolta vie for this market for textile printers.
Printheads to watch in 2016
The HP printheads in PrintWide technology are definitely worth watching in 2016, especially outperforming Memjet (especially in HP’s ability to use pigmented ink for significantly better longevity). At the high-end, the Fujifilm Dimatix Samba head is one to watch. It will be good to see to what degree Konica Minolta can get into the one-pass technology for textile printers. This market is well defended by Kyocera and the millions of dollars spent to develop the Fujifilm Dimatix Samba printhead.
At the opposite end, entry-level, it will be worthwhile to see if either Ricoh or Panasonic can produce a low-cost head which can outdo Epson (keeping in mind that the main problem of Epson heads, other than not being great for backlit images, and needing purging, is that Epson keeps announcing that they will not allow their printheads to be used in other brands of printers). Even supposed “official partners” are having both distributors and end-users stuck with not being able to get replacement DX heads at a fair price. A Mimaki distributor told me that even he had trouble getting Epson heads. Cleverly Mimaki is now offering Panasonic and Ricoh as alternatives, though several Epson models do work nicely with Epson heads.
It would also help if spec sheets at trade shows clearly, openly, and honestly name the brand and model of printhead in the printer. Potential buyers should skip brands that pretend they make the printheads, or brands that pretend their printheads are unique. That ruse is not beneficial for the overall wide-format industry.
When you are a distributor trying to decide which brands and what kinds of ink jet printers to distribute, it helps to understand the pros and cons of the printheads. When you are owner or manager of a print shop or printing company either large or small, it is essential to learn about printheads so that your investment can move your company forward.
Some printheads are great for water-based inks but unusable for solvent inks. Other printheads are acceptable for solvent, but unusable for any water-based inks (so are not usable for printing on textiles). Some printheads were originally made for water but did accept eco-solvent. But it took several years before they accepted UV-cured inks. Then would it not be better to look for a printhead, which from the beginning, was totally designed for use with UV-cured inks?
One brand and several models of two other brands are focused on the top high-end super-fast signage printers.
Konica Minolta and Ricoh printheads are respected and widely used for UV-cured printers in the mid to high ranges, from $100,000 to $300,000 models.
One brand is used in low-budget printers, both water-based, eco-solvent, and UV-cured. Although Panasonic and Ricoh have not, as corporate goals, yet officially set out to move into the entry-level printers, several printer manufacturers are desperate for an entry-level printhead that is available direct-from-the-factory.
Getting grey-market printheads by buying $200 desktop Epson printers, stripping out those printheads and putting them into a UV-cured printer has been common practice for many years. But now printing companies are realizing this means that replacement heads are costing a fortune, even though the actual printheads are the same entry-level as a decade ago.
And, for eco-solvent it is essential to have a printhead that can jet enough ink to produce an eye-catching backlit (keeping in mind a dull backlit may be as much a result of cheap low-bid ink and not entirely the fault of a beginner-level printhead). ColorSpan and HP were great for backlit in past years: both used the same HP thermal printheads.
So a major breakthrough will be if an entry-level head can be: reliable, can have a manner of replacing nozzles on the fly, and a nozzle system that does not require constantly flushing expensive ink merely to clean the nozzles every several hours (how many people take the time to calculate how much more money on ink is wasted for cleaning printheads than for printing the signs you need to sell?).
ColorSpan had a great system of “buddy nozzles” that could replace a bad or a clogged nozzle. Today, there not yet many inkjet printers which can detect on-the-fly when a nozzle is out and use another nozzle to replace that. I personally view this as an essential added feature worth moving towards.
It would also be helpful if the printhead manufacturers could come to a future SGI in Dubai and each brand of printhead present their past, present, and future technology, and especially to show the honest, realistic pros and cons of each head for each kind of ink. And which printhead brand and model are best for which applications (which kind of signs or graphics). And since the overall industry continues to move towards industrial printers, it is essential to learn which printheads (and which inks) are best for serious industrial type printing applications. I was the moderator of a printhead conference at a Beijing printer trade show about four years ago, so I know the benefits of a printhead conference.
Plus consider attending an IMI conference, in the UK, EU, or USA; they have training conferences for printheads and inks. Great place to learn, plus to meet the executives and managers of each printhead brand, so you can ask your questions during the breaks and during the breakfast, lunch, and dinner times. Perhaps an IMI conference, but more on printheads, could be held the days immediately before SGI in a future year (it is best if such an important lecture series is not the same hours as the trade show, since it is crucial to be out on the trade show floor from morning through evening).