06 September 2019 Digital Printing Technologies

California dreaming: the Memjet story

Memjet is the inkjet technology provider that seemed to promise high quality at high speeds, but which has so far failed to make an equivalent impact on production printing. That, the company hopes, is about to change.

The Memjet creation story is deserving of a Hollywood film: Australian technology maverick Kai Silverbrook sets up skunk inkjet workshop for Canon, dreams up an ‘impossible’ inkjet printhead, which requires technology that does not yet exist just to manufacture it.

He surrounds everything with thousands of patents so nobody looking knows what’s real and what isn’t, shows videos to demonstrate that the technology works and plunges into legal battles that threaten to sink the company and its technology.

In the third act, the Australian inventor is paid off and the company emerges under the stewardship of a relatively benevolent entrepreneur with a inkjet printhead that is firmly established in a niche for very fast, high quality but low volume jobs on a restricted range of materials.

Today there are 15,000 desktop and table top machines powered by Memjet. Fade and roll the credits.

Now comes the sequel in which Memjet, today a worldwide business incorporated in Ireland, with teams of engineers and developers in Sydney, San Diego, Boise, Singapore and Dublin, breaks free from the small pond in which it has become the biggest fish, to throw down a challenge to established inkjet suppliers in production printing and packaging. This movie is only just beginning, so we don’t know if Memjet succeeds or what unexpected challenges might be thrown up along the way.

The focus of this movie will be the Duralink printhead. It is a thermal inkjet head, offering 1600dpi from 70,400 nozzles in a page wide printhead (200mm) and firing 2.2pl droplets to print at 200m/minute. Where the first Versapass head was limited to 5 litres of ink before it had to be replaced, Duralink will be consuming 50 litres before needing to be replaced. While it shares the same core technology as the first generation printhead, this is an entirely new design, not an adaptation.

Where the first head fires a dye only ink, restricting the substrates it can print on and applications it can address, Duralink fires a more resilient and versatile pigment ink. And where the first head has five channels, one per colour and two for black, the new head has five channels, but each head works with just one colour. The five channels provide the ultimate in back up should one or more nozzles become blocked. It is a level of resilience that no other head supplier offers and should eliminate nozzle blocking as a problem issue.

If the pricing is right, and Memjet is prepared to tackle issues around the cost of the ink, the take up of this technology could be both broad and deep. Powered by Memjet might be popping up anywhere.

The lessons learned from Versapass have been poured into the design of the new printhead. The number of production steps required in its manufacture has been cut from 30 to 17, a much more efficient process. The robots that are part of the production line are another factor in providing the capacity to meet any demand for the new printhead. This will also enable the company to scale up production quickly, should this become necessary, to meet any increased demand.

As well as the five-fold redundancy of nozzles, there is a single channel for ink which can cope with greater flow volumes with greater consistency because this helps degas the ink more effectively. The pièce de resistance is a new heating element which instead of being suspended in the ink chamber where it is vulnerable to chemical reaction from all sides, is now firmly bonded to the chamber wall which offers greater protection against koagation, the corrosion that is inevitable with thermal inkjet.

The result will be a longer printhead life before replacement. Memjet is currently saying 50 litres before replacement is necessary, but it does not really know. And its development engineers are super excited about pushing the limits further.

When Kai Silverbrook the Australian inventor came up with the Memjet concept, he had to devise ways of achieving an unprecedented nozzle density and a printhead width twice that of anything else then available. The equipment to do this was not on the market and had to be invented. Ten years on from Versapass this nozzle density has not been surpassed, though page wide printheads from other vendors do exist.

He was helped by the binary nature of the thermal drop on demand technology. A nozzle fires or does not. Piezo printheads need to be tuned for the application and fluid being fired. This demands waveform analysis and adjustment, places greater demands on orifice geometry as this affects shape and flight of each droplet and to date has limits on density as noise from the signal to one piece of piezo crystal may interfere with its all too near neighbour.

Piezo inkjet heads will also fail in a gradual slope over time, that time depending on the liquids being fired and the environment they are used in. Piezo can work with water based inks though to the ultra viscous pastes that are needed for ceramics, for varnishes and other UV cured fluids. It can be tuned to the application that the developer wants.

On the other hand thermal technology is limited to water based inks and will not fire a white, metallics or currently varnishes. It is a small price to pay Memjet believes. A developer can include a piezo head in a press design as MGI has for the remarkable Alphajet press. This has Duralink heads for the CMYK element and piezo heads from Konica Minolta to fire a UV fluid to be used as a varnish or through a repeat build process, as digital embossing.

Piezo heads are widely available, from Xaar, Fuji Dimatix, Kyocera, Ricoh as well as from Konica Minolta and others. These companies will generally supply only the head itself. Implementation with electronics, ink supply, driver technology, electronics and so on is left to the company building the inkjet press. It means that each is presumably optimised for the application and the ink, but means too that this is a drawn out process.

Memjet in contrast has modules that are supplied for each implementation depending on the number of print heads, the volume of ink anticipated and so on. Speed to market should be accelerated. It means too that Memjet is selling to companies that do not have the depth of expertise to harness the potential of an inkjet head on their own. While HP is also an exponent of thermal inkjet technology and says it makes the heads available to third-party suppliers, there are few takers. Memjet is not going to be building its own presses.

Len Lauer, Memjet’s CEO, says: “We are not just a printhead supplier, we have a systems approach. we are trying to develop technologies that are disruptive and add value to our OEMs. And we can supply the systems and subsystems to make creating disruption at a lower cost than implementing a piezo solution.”

He reckons that Memjet can supply a solution that is 20-30% less expensive than an equivalent piezo system. And the approach means too that there is less cost tied up in development because time to market is faster.

“It can take one of our OEMs 42-44 months to go from scratch before they can bring a product to the market place, but once they are there, we are there for the long term.”

There is recognition too that the pricing model needs to change. On the desktop producing reports or pages with relatively low ink coverage, Memjet can charge more for the ink than when printing high coverage corrugated boards. This is slowing the take up of digital, partly Lauer says because companies do not understand the real costs of printing, forgetting to include waste and prepress for traditional technologies which do not exist for digital. “Analogue will be here for a long time, but the real growth is with digital, The big challenge is matching running costs and print volume,” he says.

Thus ink for a desktop printer can cost €700 a litre, yet because the printer is using half a litre a month, cost is not crucial. But a corrugated printer Lauer points out, needs to run at €30-35 a litre. Memjet has to balance the different cost elements.

The package approach has undoubtedly helped take up of Versapass and might become a key feature for DuraLink and future products. Memjet is working too on a communications loop that falls in line with the Internet of Things. “We will get to the point where we can predict problems and recommend preventative maintenance on heads around the world,” says head of development Tom Roetker. “It’s about how can we add value to the OEM experience.”

The constant droplet size and firing patterns can fill an imaging grid more effectively than a piezo system, meaning that less ink is needed, up to 20% less on some applications, the company says.

Currently there are eight OEMs for DuraLink covering large format and labels to addressing and coding. Another 12 will be announced before the end of the year and details are being discussed with a further tranche of suppliers, says Eric Owen who is in charge of creating the market for DuraLink.

As part of the development process for new head, Memjet has built a lab in its San Diego premises where there are rigs for different types of testing, up to a full web press which has slots for seven printheads for the future date when orange, green and violet inks become available in addition to CMYK and special mixes. It points to interest from the packaging sector.

Companies interesting in investigating whether Memjet may be the right solution can come in for proof of concept testing before committing to building their own machine. As well as the thoughts on the number of colours, there are flat test beds alongside the web machine.

Memjet clearly thinks there are possibilities in packaging. It already has customers for on the spot printing of corrugated board for ecommerce companies and in Rigoli, there is an application for printing coffee bags at the point of filling and helping the supplier customise packaging for hundreds of independent coffee shops across Italy, saving untold amounts in wasted stock and logistics. This was with the first generation Versapress printhead. What happens next?

Owen was tempted by the opportunity to find out. Having been intimately involved in creating markets for Kodak’s inkjet technologies, he understands what is required. “Production inkjet needs reliability with hundreds of litres of ink a month, millions of pages printed,” he says. He is not alone believing that Memjet is on to something serious. Don Allred was tempted from retirement to lead the push into packaging; Arnaud Linquette who runs Europe, is ex Xerox.

Others have high level experience in Xeikon, HP, Fuji Dimatix, Creo and more. The recruitment process is continuous. “The kinds of people coming to the company now are hard core commercial inkjet people. It has taken the last two years to build the team up. And there are now 55 companies in serious engineering discussions with us,” says Owen.

Not all will come off. There will be 20 OEMs public by the end of the year committed to Duralink. This will then feed into machines to be launched at Drupa, though if Owen has any inkling of specifications for these, he is not saying. But he does suggest that these span simple applications to one where at least 80 printheads will be needed. Another is talking about 28 heads on a mono press. “We are not an entry level supplier any longer. We are production inkjet,” he says.

Memjet does not produce its own ink. Instead it has worked with Kao on developing and optimising the pigment ink for Duralink. Kao is a vast company with diverse interests across Asia and is easily able to keep up with any demands, both in terms of production and development. That is now focused on the additional colours, orange, green and violet, needed for packaging. There is a high optical density black to suit book printing perhaps.

These inks are the result of five years' work to develop a set of pigment inks that meet Memjet’s requirements in terms of resilience, light fastness and rub resistance.

There is work on post print coatings, primer if needed for non absorbent substrates like packaging films, though it is working too with Sihl on inkjet optimised packaging films that the Swiss company has created.

Packaging has other requirements that have left it relatively untouched by inkjet, at least in the mainstream. Don Allred says he was tempted from retirement having left Kodak, because of the potential the technology has. “I was surprised at the number of different ways that the Memjet technology was already being used,” he says. “A lot of it flies under the radar.” A lot of it takes place out of sight in China, “where there are big name brands that will not allow us to use their names and who use multiple machines in multiple locations”.

This sort of customer, he says, proves that the technology is very reliable and equally consistent. In testing one demanded that Memjet print a China Red, printing on primer and then varnished. Several months later the job was reprinted with a difference of Delta 2, not noticeable by the naked eye.

This, says Allred, is intrinsic to the simplicity of thermal technology. What it cannot do is print white. Nor is that coming soon if ever. Allred points out that applications needing white are limited and generally require white as a base on a film substrate. White, he suggests, can be applied by a flexo plate, or as MGI is doing on the Alphajet, by using a piezo printhead for the white and Memjet for the CMYK elements. “It is the colour applied on top that varies, not the white background. OEMs will use each technology for what it does best.”

The first OEMs for packaging have been in label printing running on a 220mm wide web and in rigid corrugated. “Others are working on print and laminate systems where the print is roll to roll and then laminated. The technology is also good for confectionery, thanks to water based inks,” he says.

The generation of machine using Duralink heads can push into flexible packaging with perhaps inline coatings and lamination. “Packaging producers are starting to look at digital printing and to change how they look at production technology. When consumers are ordering online, large bold bright colours which work on a supermarket shelf, may not be as important as a high quality graphic image.

“We are in a very good position. The applications we can address are going to expand and later this year we will start to hear more and more about matching production needs.”

The Duralink development is already growing commercial print and packaging into a division that is a match for desktop and Versapass and will over the next 12 months accelerate beyond it. Now the company has other developments up its sleeve which it is on the point of announcing. Memjet is no longer a single product company. It is growing up fast.

This brings the story to the end of the new movie’s second reel. The final act will unwind in the months leading to Drupa. The company will be at the show along with an unknown number of OEMs and new products. Precisely who these may be, we can only guess at. Keep watching.

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