Precision at the core of inkjet – Print21 Magazine

Tuesday, 04 March 2014
By Patrick Howard

    Precision at the core of inkjet – Print21 Magazine

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The advances in digital printing are clearly marked by the development of technologies that have altered the way the industry works. From the earliest xerography to the current high-end digital colour printing, progress has resulted from the introduction of radically new ways of imaging. Ever since inkjet staked a claim as a viable form of digital printing it has battled limitations in combining imaging power and speed. This is changing rapidly and the launch of Epson’s new inkjet head technology, PrecisionCore, appears set to usher in a new era of productivity and quality.

Few technology innovations are identified as closely with their creator as piezo electric inkjet printing is with Minoru Usui, president of Seiko Epson Corporation. In the printing industry, only Benny Landa has had the same seminal influence with his introduction of Indigo digital colour printing; in the broader sphere Steve Jobs comes to mind as a comparable innovator. All three are recognised not only by their imaginative inventiveness but also by their determination to push through new ways of working that have altered whole industry sectors, and even society itself.

For Usui, the release last year of the landmark PrecisionCore inkjet technology is the result of a career commitment to the development of high-technology inkjet within the Japanese company. The driving force behind Epson’s early engagement with piezo electric printing technology, his dedication came to fruition with the launch of the patented ground-breaking micro piezo inkjet head in 1993. This revolutionary imaging system opened the way for the introduction of inkjet technology into photo realistic printing and catapulted Epson into the market-leading position it has retained ever since.

(L-R): Minoru Usui, Fredrik Uden (general manager, Flash Photobition), Alastair Bourne (Epson), Bruno Turcato (managing director, Epson Australia) and Craig Heckenberg (business unit manager, Epson Australia)

Usui continued to refine and develop the piezo inkjet technology and, in 2007, introduced Epson Thin Film Piezo (TFP) heads, an imaging system that delivered unprecedented control over the size and placement of ink drops. Building on the success of Epson’s earlier micro piezo printheads, TFP enabled the commercial printing market to realise the wide possibilities of inkjet as a viable printing system for large-format printers, where fine image quality is required to create large posters and advertising with outstanding detail and colour.

Last year Minoru Usui, now president of Epson since 2008, launched the PrecisionCore MicroTFP print chip, the next advance in inkjet development and the result of one of the company’s largest ever R&D projects. This latest generation thin film piezo inkjet chip has three times the nozzle density of conventional piezo printheads. It is completely scalable and ultra fast. It is the result not only of Usui’s vision of inkjet as the enabling technology for a whole range of new printed products but also of a company with the capability to manufacture everything from inkjet heads and integrated circuits to the press frame and the formulation of the ink.

PrecisionCore MicroTFP is a radically new imaging system that is set to change how the commercial printing as well as the office sector works.

Now is the time of inkjet

Few printing technologies have developed so far and so fast as inkjet in the past decade. From an early scattergun approach that led it to be dismissed as unable and unlikely to ever be able to produce anything near the clarity and precision required for commercial printing to today’s highly accurate and productive PrecisionCore technology is a major leap. While much of the printing world’s attention was focused on other digital imaging such as dry and wet toner, inkjet’s development in terms of drop control and speed has surpassed all expectations.

The decision by Minoru Usui to focus on developing piezo inkjet heads, as opposed to thermal powered ones, proved key to the advancement of inkjet as a high-end imaging system. In its simplest terms, piezo inkjet heads operate when a thin crystal flexes as an electric charge is applied to it. As it moves, it acts as a pump to expel ink through a nozzle. The process has the valuable advantage of being able to handle almost any fluid with precision and durability.

One of the most significant advances in inkjet came with the introduction of Epson’s Thin Film Piezo. Commercial printing requires the ability to place inkjet drops of various sizes with ever-greater speed, reliability and quality. To achieve this, Epson engineered piezo crystal films of just one micron thick—one-hundredth the thickness of a human hair. This enabled an increase in the density of print nozzles positioned within the imaging heads while, at the same time, delivering increased control of accurate drop sizes.

In the seven years since the introduction of Epson’s TFP, it has enjoyed leadership in all parts of the printing market where quality inkjet reproduction is required. In sectors such as proofing and high-quality art reproduction Epson dominates. Progressively it has extended its range of technologies into wide-format and label printing, as well as licensing TFP inkjet heads to other leading OEM manufacturers.

PrecisionCore has taken this sophisticated foundation and expanded it exponentially. Utilising the company’s expertise in high-precision manufacturing – it identifies with the cultural term of monozukuri, a Japanese concept meaning the art and science of manufacturing – Epson employed MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems) manufacturing processes to leverage the innate advantages of TFP. The result is the MicroTFP print chip which delivers double the flexing power of the piezo actuator in the original TFP printhead and, in the process, changes the game of inkjet printing forever.

Power and speed

The huge performance improvement of PrecisionCore MicroTFP is redefining the expectations of inkjet imaging and changing how presses can operate. In the new generation Epson SurePress L-6034VW digital label press, for instance, the assembled linehead consolidates 52,800 nozzles (three times the density of conventional piezo printheads) to pump out ink at a printing speed of 15 metres per minute across the 34 cm web. With the latest Epson wide format models, the PrecisionCore piezo elements each fire nearly 50,000 times per second and can vary drop sizes from 1.5 picolitres (1.5 trillionths of a litre) up to 32.5 picolitres.

This means that PrecisionCore printheads not only place the required amount of ink onto the substrate at an amazingly productive rate but also simultaneously improve the quality of the image as required. The combination of delivery power and the various sizes of ink drops ensure that each part of every image is produced using the appropriate amount of ink at the optimum resolution.

Because of their inherent stability, PrecisionCore chips can be assembled in arrays to fulfil different requirements, whether for single pass or multi-pass printing. For instance, in the SurePress L-6034VW there are six edge-to-edge, fixed lineheads employed to ensure unmatched one-pass 600 x 600dpi resolution printing. This means the press runs five times faster than its predecessor, the SurePress L-4033AW.

A complete complex system

Enabling such a sophisticated and productive inkjet system requires more than the high-technology engineering to manufacture the PrecisionCore MicroTFP. Getting the ink to the printheads and controlling their operation brings into play other essential Epson strengths. Practically no other company can bring to bear such an in-depth expertise and experience in manufacturing, material development and high-precision processing. It is no coincidence that, at one stage, Minoru Usui was in charge of developing the company’s production engineering and development. Epson manufactures and assembles every part of its inkjet equipment from the integrated circuits to the state-of-the–art material handling and delivery capabilities.

Firing the PrecisionCore MicroTFP nozzles many thousand times per second requires immense processing power for data transfer. An amazing statistic has the SurePress L-6034VW making almost two and a half billion decisions about whether to fire a drop, and what size of drop, every second. At the same time, Epson engineering keeps the substrate moving in a precisely-controlled manner just 2.5mm beneath the printhead.

The other essential element in Epson’s PrecisionCore inkjet technology utilises its proprietary ink formulations. While the unique features of the MicroTFP nozzles means they have the widest latitude in the type of inks – and other fluids – they can use, Epson has long been a leader in ink manufacturing, ensuring the widest colour gamut on plain untreated paper.

The SurePress L-6034V successfully uses UV inks which, in other systems, are recognised as being notoriously difficult to use reliably. The results can exceed the gamut and Pantone coverage of established four-colour commercial liquid toner systems due to their more colourful pigment particles and more transparent resin coatings. This large gamut and optical colour density can accurately meet the specific spot colour requirements of end-users without the need for pre-coating or premium-priced substrates.

PrecisionCore across the range

The roll-out of PrecisionCore across the entire Epson range of products is already underway. Everywhere from the office to the home printer will eventually be powered by the same high-technology inkjet head. This will deliver economies of scale that will bring down the overall costs in the years ahead.

With the launch of the SurePress L-6034VW at Labelexpo last year in Brussels, the printing industry is one of the first to be able to gain the benefits of PrecisionCore. There is no doubt that Minoru Usui sees PrecisionCore as a major development for the company, one that will allow it to be more proactive in all its markets.

“PrecisionCore represents a leap forward in printing performance. We continue to deliver outstanding quality thanks to superior dot control, and have introduced an original new system to ensure reliability. At the same time, scalability allows us to fully leverage our historical strengths of ink flexibility and print head durability,” he said.

According to Craig Heckenberg, business unit manager, Epson Australia, the first SurePress L-6034VW will be in the country later this year at the company’s North Ryde showroom. He is already fielding expressions of interest from label converters as word of the press’s transformative capabilities spreads.

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