A New Future for Wide-Format Printing, Powered by Memjet
- By Raegen Pietrucha
- Apr 01, 2011
Over a decade ago, Memjet began its quest to create a speedy color printing solution; the result was a 70,000-jet print head that enables its partners’ desktop printers to deliver 60 pages per minute. Memjet spent years perfecting this technology, and with more than 3,000 approved global patents (and another 2,000 pending), Memjet represents an entirely new technology that makes high-quality color printing at never-before-seen speeds and cost efficiencies possible. But this was just the beginning of the company’s venture into the industry. Next came applying its invention across the board, reaching every type of printer market it could, including not only Home and Office, but Photo Retail, Labels and, of course, Wide Format. “It was always a vision that (Memjet) would utilize this technology and leverage it into wide-format markets,” said Kevin Shimamoto, vice president of marketing for Memjet’s Wide Format Group. “There’s been a lot of time and effort and energy put into the wide-format initiative.” And in December of 2007, when the wide-format department was officially founded, Memjet’s goal finally started taking shape.
The hardware Memjet devised for the wide-format space is a stitching together of five of the same 8.77-inch, page-wide-array print heads used for desktop printing. This stitching creates one 42-inch-wide, single-pass print head that is able to print an entire D-size plot in either two or four seconds at resolutions of 1,600-by-800 dpi for drafts or 1,600-by-1,600 dpi for high-quality prints, respectively. Although this aqueous inkjet technology isn’t presently designed for certain wide-format applications, Memjet has plans in the works to modify its print head design so that they can continue to branch out into the various wide-format markets. Shimamoto elaborated: “We have a road map of print heads that will allow compatibility with different types of inks that would still enable the same value proposition of single-pass printing, low consumable cost (and) low hardware cost. … Outdoor (signage) will be one of them when we get a print head that’s compatible with solvents and UV-curable inks.”
Currently, however, Memjet’s wide-format solution competes easily with “some of the high-end LED toner wide-format printers … (because) they really don’t have color today,” Shimamoto said. Taking the traditional benefits of inkjet printing — color and low consumables cost — but adding speed that rivals commercial printers as well as changeable print heads to the mix, Memjet anticipates its wide-format technology will begin opening doors for people in several markets that had previously been left out of the wide-format game as early as the second half of 2011, Shimamoto indicated.
Although to see it in action (either in person at a trade show or via video on the company’s website) gliding swiftly and gracefully across a variety of media might lead one to believe it’s an uncomplicated piece of equipment, Shimamoto noted that devising the wide-format print solution was no easy feat because many intricacies unique to wide-format printing had to be considered. First and foremost, however, was addressing the challenge that the type of stitched print head Memjet had designed presented. “Because we have to stagger the print heads with our stitching pattern, they are offset. … We have to drive data (through) the physical stitch so that when we’re printing, everything is coming out … as one image,” Shimamoto said. Unlike wide-format printers that swathe back and forth, Memjet’s technology has only one swipe to complete an image, and while this is one of the features that allows it to print at lightning speeds, it is also the reason there’s no opportunity to correct defects or improve quality once a document has printed; therefore, these matters had to be dealt with during the design phase so that Memjet wide-format prints output flawlessly the first time around.
Combine that with having to address the maintenance and changing of print heads, and Memjet’s Wide Format Group had its work cut out for it. Shimamoto said there was “a tremendous amount of technology that (Memjet) had to solve” over the course of three years to attend to all the complexities involved, but the company finally “achieved a system that will maintain that print head throughout any type of different stage of printing or non-printing” — and with additional benefits to boot. Changing Memjet wide-format print heads is “very easy to do, it’s very fast, (and) you have better quality and reliability of new print heads being installed,” Shimamoto said. Most appealing, however, is that Memjet managed to keep the cost structure down so consumers aren’t paying thousands of dollars for wide-format print heads they have to replace.
Because no one besides Memjet had worked with this particular technology before, the Wide Format Group also had to find its own way to demonstrate to potential OEM partners the many ways the device could be utilized. “We quickly understood that we weren’t going to be able to do a component model of just selling inks and print heads and driver chips,” Shimamoto said, so Memjet developed an entire print engine around its print head “to … seed the market and make sure that we had the right quality, the right reliability, the right stability of the system and … a system that we could leverage into different markets, different applications.” All this hard work paid off for the company. “We now have a great entry into a wide variety of different commercial print applications that are just transitioning from analog to digital,” Shimamoto said. “Some of those market segments are segments like packaging or newsprint or textiles” — all of which demand wider formats.
While some of Memjet’s as-yet-unannounced wide-format partners are in traditional markets such as these, the company’s technology also allowed its horizons to expand and include a new group of partners not generally catered to by the wide-format world: small companies wanting to use the technology for new purposes or who intend to bring it more directly to individual end users. As Shimamoto indicated, “when you can enable a really fast printer that has good image quality at a low capital cost, you are going to change the market because you’re enabling a completely different business model.” With the low hardware prices Memjet technology can offer, more manufacturers and retailers will be able to afford to do their wide-format printing themselves.
Shimamoto gave several examples of how Memjet’s wide-format technology could be leveraged to create new customers, new market segments and new cost savings. For instance, instead of going through a third party, ordering mass quantities of prints that keep expenses low but require storage, then throwing away whatever stock doesn’t get used or can’t be updated if information changes, Memjet wide-format-technology owners can create and print their own documents or packaging in whatever quantities they require on demand. At the PackExpo trade show in November 2010, Memjet showcased a wide-format printer prototype over two times as large as HP’s 19-inch-long Indigo machine that printed on corrugated and folding carton stocks at “a capital cost that can be a fraction of competitor pricing,” Shimamoto said, adding “a completely different dimension (to the wide-format industry) … by offering color at (this) low cost and speed.” Enabling more people to afford to purchase their own wide-format equipment is significant in and of itself, but Memjet’s technology also has the potential to drive printing expenses down even lower just by virtue of allowing customers to eliminate overstock, which wouldn’t be created or discarded in the first place if they are able to do their printing in-house; related warehousing costs would also be eliminated.
Another example of a realm in which Memjet wide-format hardware could change the industry is the newsprint market. “Today, every newspaper is printed at a massive press in the morning and then sent out and distributed with a huge cost,” Shimamoto said. “If we can scale this technology down to a fairly small price point and a fairly small footprint, we can place these printers in a wide variety of different locations, … so now you can get … whatever newspaper you wanted printed wherever you wanted at any time.” Besides benefiting readers by providing up-to-date information, greater choice and a virtually endless supply, this approach could also save newspaper companies considerable shipping and recycling expenses. Memjet’s wide-format technology provides the ability to print very short runs at a low hardware cost point, which makes a true distributed print model possible — helping not only the environment but everyone’s pocketbooks.
Memjet’s Wide Format Group envisions college textbooks printed on demand at campus bookstores; government agencies pulling documents from databases and running them off in-house while customers wait; and real-time regional campaigns, promotions and tie-ins appearing swiftly in supermarket aisles. While the technology required to accomplish these particular tasks “doesn’t exist today — and where it does exist, only a handful of people can afford to utilize it,” Shimamoto said, he has faith that Memjet’s wide-format hardware can — and will — eventually change all that, along with the dynamics of several markets. “How that happens, when that happens, we’re not completely sure,” he said, “but … the technology capabilities and what we can deliver from a cost/price/color/image quality standpoint is generating a lot of excitement because everybody feels … that this technology is going to revolutionize a lot.” Only time will tell when these many innovative visions come to fruition, but Memjet’s wide-format technology is already starting to paint a bright — and colorful — dream of tomorrow.
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Recharger.
Raegen Pietrucha received her B.A. in English from University of Arizona and her M.F.A. in poetry from Bowling Green State University. She is a former teacher and has written for several industries, including legal, private investigation, heath care and currently document printing. She has also served as an editor for both professional and literary publications. Her creative work can be read in Cimarron Review, Edge, Puerto del Sol and other magazines.