Did I Hear That Right? Xerox is Now Developing Inkjet Printheads?


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Special to Print Planet from Xerox

Did I Hear That Right? Xerox is Now Developing Inkjet Printheads?

By Mr. Kerry C. Regan, Writer

Q&A with head of Xerox printhead research and development Chad Slenes

As Xerox announced in June, the new Xerox Baltoro HF Inkjet Press is the first cut-sheet inkjet press that prints on a full range of media, including standard offset coated media, without primers or precoats. That Xerox announcement also introduced a new inkjet printhead, the Xerox High Fusion W-Series Inkjet Head, which is a key enabler of the press’s breakthrough media compatibility.

That, too, is news.

To be clear, the Baltoro Press isn’t the first commercial application of the new W-Series printhead, which became available last year and is currently used or being tested by manufacturers in textiles, packaging, label making and 3D printing.

Nor is Xerox new to printhead development. The Xerox division behind the W-Series has been developing inkjet printheads continuously since 1986, dating to when it was part of Tektronix. These include the printheads in the Xerox CiPress 325 and CiPress 500 inkjet presses, which today reliably produce tens of millions of impressions per month around the world. Indeed the new W-Series printhead is an evolution of that CiPress printhead.

But the new printhead diverges from its Xerox predecessors in one significant way—it uses aqueous ink rather than solid ink.

What’s behind this new direction at Xerox? To find out, we checked in with the head of Xerox printhead research and development, Chad Slenes. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q. So it’s true then, that Xerox developed and manufactures the printheads in its new Baltoro Press?

A. That’s right. It’s called the Xerox High Fusion W series inkjet printhead. We do all that work in Wilsonville, Ore., where we have a staff of more than 200 focused on developing and manufacturing inkjet printheads and ink.

Q. When did work on this printhead begin and what was the thinking behind it?

A. The company made a strategic decision in 2013 to begin developing aqueous ink printheads to support future Xerox products and also to attract OEM business in other industries.

The reason we’re doing it is because we gain some powerful efficiencies by controlling both the system design and the printhead design when we’re developing an inkjet press. First, it gives us better control of the value we’re able to deliver with our presses. We had numerous printhead options for Baltoro, including one that hasn’t been updated since 2012 and others that are super high-end and incredibly expensive and therefore antithetical to the inkjet economics model our customers seek. By developing our own printhead, we get the Goldilocks choice: a modern feature set, proven reliability and design control—all while delivering on the inkjet economics promise.

Second, it makes us more agile, giving us a smoother path to achieving our design goals. For example, in developing Baltoro, we used system level testing results to modify our printhead for increased reliability related to intermittent missing jets. So we customized the printhead specifically for the Baltoro system to achieve the reliability metrics we wanted.

A third advantage is that we designed this printhead with future iterations already built in, so we’ll be more efficient in developing future inkjet systems, as well. And this printhead becomes a fundamental building block in our Baltoro platform.

Q. Does the new printhead break any new ground?

A. Yes, it helps the Baltoro Press bring some new capabilities to the entry-level, cut-sheet, production inkjet market. One is the first two-up, non-bleed printing of legal size paper (11x14”) in this space. The printheads are a little more than four-and-a-half inches wide, so when three are fitted together on Baltoro, they provide the widest print image area in this class, 13.76 inches. Printing on legal-size sheets is a key requirement of transactional printing in the United States, and two-up printing doubles productivity on those applications.

Second, the printhead’s small drop sizes help enable this segment’s first true 1200-by-1200 dpi print resolution, which is fundamental to the Baltoro’s high-definition imaging and the very fine color and image quality adjustments it can make.

Our new printhead also contributes to what is now the broadest media flexibility in this class. The high fusion ink these printheads use enables direct printing onto a range of standard offset coated media as well as uncoated stocks. Our process does not require any primers or pre-coats, which add size, complexity, consumables and exorbitant power consumption costs due to the need to dry a fifth liquid. We are following a “direct-to-media” strategy, and the W Series print heads and ink sets are two of our key enablers.

Finally, we believe this printhead sets a new benchmark for reliability, improving the productivity of most any print operation.

Q. How can you claim this printhead is highly reliable when it’s new to the market?

A. For 25 years we’ve been developing reliability metrics and test vehicles to test our printheads, which we do in-house. For printheads in development we run four sets of long-term tests, and in manufacturing we run a set of quick-level tests that are designed to give us statistically high confidence that a particular printhead could pass the longer tests. These tests ensure that the quality of our product, its design and its manufacturing process are all locked down and acceptable.

One of our basic tests is for longevity, by running each jet through continuous operations for extended periods. We have more than 100 M-Series printheads (the model used in Xerox CiPress inkjet presses) in which every jet has run more than 1 trillion cycles without any issue. That represents many years of 24-hour, constant cycling. And the manufacturing process for the electrical backend and the pumping system in that printhead is identical to our W Series. We’ve had less time with the W Series, but we have successfully passed 500 billion cycles on 10 printheads.

We also test thermal cycles. Most devices are heated from room temperature up to operating temperature and then cooled back down about once a day. We’ve tested all of our products including the W Series, beyond 3,500 thermal cycles with no failures in cycles from zero to 120 degrees C. Baltoro operates from roughly 21 degrees C up to 37 degrees C, a fairly small gamut of what we can actually produce with the W series.

Our third set of tests ensure that the many small and tight fluidic chambers in our printheads are sufficiently robust to not be blocked, clogged or have other problems by contaminants that are inherently found in inks. This involves running more than 100,000 liters through a single printhead.

Finally we run a thermal aging test to ensure the printheads stand up to various thermal conditions in their materials, the fluids that run through them and the environment they operate in. These tests all run beyond five years, so we know how the printhead will behave over a five-year period.

Q. How long has Xerox been developing inkjet printheads?

A. Our Wilsonville, Ore., operation traces its roots to the Tektronix printer division which began developing inkjet printheads in 1986. This is where our printhead development and manufacturing takes place today. Traditional Xerox also developed inkjet printheads in the 1990s and 2000s—some were commercialized in several small printers for the home and small office market—and some of their micro-machining equipment is now in use at our Wilsonville facility. A third Xerox inkjet operation in Aubagne, France, traces its roots to Impika, which Xerox acquired in 2013, and focuses on systems integration, not printhead development.

Q. What innovations can we expect in future inkjet printheads?

A. Like every manufacturer, we want to boost productivity and image quality, lower costs, make maintenance easier, and introduce more flexibility to work with different types of inks on different types of substrates, to open up new applications. That means we’re focused on increasing the number of nozzles on print heads and the firing frequencies of those nozzles, as well as extending longevity, supporting smaller drop sizes and achieving compatibility with more inks.

Regarding flexibility to handle a range of materials, one breakthrough we’re expecting to see soon is the capability for a single printhead to address all three of the market’s viscosity levels: liquid, solid and the slightly gel-like, in-between viscosity used in the ultraviolet label market. That would essentially enable the printhead to play in every inkjet market.

Q. What are the hot markets for inkjet?

A. Inkjet is getting a lot of interest in the graphic arts market, of course, but also in textiles, packaging, labels and 3D printing, which opens up another world of additive manufacturing applications.

Q. Does Xerox play in those markets?

A. We’ve been a significant player in the 3D printing market since the 1990s, and today you’ll find our printheads in most of the high-end and medium-level 3D printing devices in the world producing an astonishing range of applications, including solar panels, edible foods and muscle tissue replacements.

And our W-Series printhead is getting a lot of new interest from other industries as well.

Q. What does the future hold for Xerox print heads?

A. Our new Xerox High Fusion W series inkjet printhead reveals quite a bit about where we plan to go. It brings competitive advantages to our new Baltoro press, and we’re optimistic that we can do that for all of our production inkjet products in the future. It’s being tested and used in a number of industries beyond graphic arts, including textiles, packaging and label making, and we hope to bring new value that can expand our presence in those and other markets moving forward. And we’re also applying this new printhead to the 3D printing market, where we aim to continue in our leadership role.

So we believe we’re on a path to bring game-changing innovations to many industries, including graphic communications.
I have been saying for a decade that it seems like someone could use something similar to the solvent inks used in wide format printers for high speed printing on a wide range of media. I would love to know more about the ink they are using and the cost per click versus toner.


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