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Having been tipped as the digital technology most likely to succeed for the past five years, is inkjet poised to come into its own as a viable option for the short-run packaging market? Des King finds out

A flurry of new equipment and process launches suggest that for an expanding range of inkjet packaging applications it is no longer a question of if, but when. Having hitherto had the lion’s share of the action, digital toner-based systems from the likes of Indigo and Xeikon could now have a genuine tussle on their hands.

Indeed, some pundits would have it that not only is the phoney war at an end, but that eventually in the digital versus conventional print debate, toner-based systems will be viewed merely as trailblazers.

That remains to be seen. In the meantime, some would say that far from being hailed as an exciting new addition to the packaging print armoury, continuous inkjet, at least, has been quietly getting on with things – notably as an established inline component for coding and marking. In production since 1998, Domino has recently notched up the sale of its 50,000th A-Series printer, which offers a fast, reliable and high quality printing solution seamlessly integrated into new and existing production equipment. The printer is used extensively across a host of applications including mailing, binding, finishing, tickets, tags and labels and postal.

Wide format inkjet has already revolutionised the POS market, not by necessarily replacing the incumbent screen technology, but by realising the possibility for an increasing range of applications.

This same complementary advantage could soon be made available to other packaging sectors. Incorporated within many of the Domino systems are piezo drop-on-demand print-heads developed by Xaar, which, in direct competition with Spectra, can rightly claim to be inkjet technology’s highest profile driving force. According to group marketing manager David Frew, inkjet’s evolution into a viable option for primary packaging is already underway.

“Although it’s still supplementary to the mainstream, we are finding that there is an increasing interest in designing new equipment in order to move forward with the print-head. People are now looking at the way in which they produce certain cartons, for example, where they are having to print onto a carton containing a perishable product. There are issues such as ingredients, sell-by dates, marketing messages and so forth that can be better handled by inkjet than by traditional methods.

“We are also seeing inkjet being used in other areas, such as adding varnishes to certain parts of the pack, for example. We are not going to compete at 400 ft/min; that’s not what we are about. But I do see digital inkjet sitting alongside conventional printing methods.”

  Xaar works closely with two systems integrators: the US-based VIVID and The Technology Partnership in Cambridge. Frew believes that Xaar’s proprietary greyscale technology – the capability to fire a variable size ink drop at a pixel to give a near-photographic print quality close to offset and flexo packaging print standards – will encourage the emergence of a few early adopters over the next year or so.

Developed in conjunction with Agfa, the OmniDot 760 GS8 has just been released for Xaar OEMs in the packaging sector. With a 360dpi print resolution, the print-head’s extremely high drop placement accuracy enables single pass printing that achieves an apparent resolution of 720dpi, making it highly productive.

Incorporating print-heads manufactured by Toshiba TEC – Xaar’s Japanese licensee – the first UK installation of the “Dotrix the.factory” Single Pass Inkjet Colour Engine (SPICE) went into speciality printer Gardners earlier in the year.

Recently acquired by Agfa, the Dotrix inkjet technology uses UV-curable inks designed to print on industry-standard substrates. It targets production printers who print with industrial inks on substrates that require high throughput and short runs at 24 metres/min. The SPICE print heads are able to produce different tints of ink by varying the droplet sizes, providing a 300dpi resolution with three-bit greyscale. These different intensities combined with stochastic screening result in a high level of print quality at a perceived resolution of 900dpi.

According to Gardners’ md Richard Gardner, inkjet technology is indisputably the science to watch: ”With digital, the big money has gone primarily into inkjet DOD; it’s the only technology in which the billions are being invested. Every other process has its severe limitations, colour consistency and so forth, where you’re trying to make the material take charge. Toner-based systems are dead; they’ve got nowhere to go. How can you develop it? All you can do is put a charge down and then sprinkle powder over it. Why do you think Xerox pulled out of electrostatic?

“In three or four years’ time there will be a limitation to inkjet and then there will be a new science coming through, but currently, inkjet is where it’s at.”

Very close to spot colour

Gardner reckons that the £1.5m laid out on the Dotrix press will add an astonishing £15m to his turnover. “Normally with inkjet you print it and then you dry it. What I like about the Dotrix is that there’s only one moving part, and that you are printing wet-on-wet in just one go. That then merges the ink together to a certain degree so that you are starting to arrive at something very close to a spot colour. And that’s our market: spot colours for leading brand owners.”

As the largest UK converter of PVC, and ranked within the top three across Europe, Gardners’ customer-base is largely subject to non-disclosure agreements. Suffice to say, they are serving an impressive roster of retail and FMCG blue chips for which the Dotrix is already helping to provide a significant competitive edge. “A lot of this work couldn’t have been done in any other way,” says Richard Gardner. “On folding boxboard we’re competitive with litho up to 1000 off and the quality is way above what we actually need. Running at 1000 metres/hr we’re handling files that had previously been litho printed and we’re achieving far better definition. I can’t see how this can lose.”

Meanwhile, new inkjet platforms are queuing up to capture the imagination, the latest being Inca Digital’s FastJet, shown as a concept machine at Drupa. Developed in conjunction with Sun Chemical, the FastJet is trialling at 1000 linear metres/hr, but with the potential to manage up to 3000 metres/hr. At this rate it could almost be classed as a volume workhorse, says marketing manager Heather Kendle.

“We believe that this will be the first inkjet system developed specifically for the mainstream corrugated packaging market for the sort of work that’s currently being done by flexo, but with the addition of variable information to make it more end-user friendly and frankly a lot more exciting.”

Current specification is now undergoing re-evaluation, and Inca plans to take the FastJet to a beta site – probably in Switzerland – by next March.

While still outside the mainstream packaging remit, inkjet systems from Scitex and KPG figure prominently amongst the best of the rest. Scitex’s Vision CORjet has been designed to fit into existing production lines and one has just been installed at Leeds-based Imageco Visual Imaging as part of the company’s continuing evolvement from photo-lab to full service digital printer.

“We saw the CORjet at Drupa and it immediately attracted our attention,” says director Steve Johnson. “It is a completely automatic, digital printing system that is producing large format graphics in real time on the sort of substrates that our customers use. With the CORjet, we will be able to save a step and print direct on to rigid substrates, as well as take on other jobs we could not fulfil before.”

The Vision CORjet comprises an automatic loader, the press itself, a drying unit, an automatic unloader, a prepress unit, including RIP, and the print controller. The press works from artwork supplied in standard formats (PostScript, EPS, PDF) and outputs in up to six colours with 600dpi resolutions. Image sizes can be up to 155cm x 280cm on PVC, corrugated and foam board sheet sizes up to 160cm x 185cm, and 10mm thick.

A link up between digital imaging and print management specialists EFI and Kodak Versamark has led to the introduction of the VX5000e inkjet system, with an output capability of 2000 pages/min. Although primarily directed towards commercial print applications, it is a potential signpost as to what is yet to come from a supplier already making inroads into the high-end packaging sector.