Though it has become the talk of the industry only fairly recently, single-pass inkjet printing goes back 20 years to a system that demonstrated the enormous potential of the technology.
“Later, we did a demonstration with that same group of people. We showed them two displays. One was offset and the other was from the Dotrix. We said, ‘You tell us which one is offset and which one is Dotrix.’ And they all thought the Dotrix was the offset print.”
Momentum appeared to be building. The company announced an OEM relationship with flexo press manufacturer Mark Andy and placed additional units in more typical commercial applications. Meanwhile, as Haak notes, the buzz about single-pass printing was beginning to spread beyond Dotrix. The Spanish companies Cretaprint (purchased by EFI in 2012) and Kerajet were using single-pass print engines to decorate ceramic tiles. Other technology developers including Aprion Digital and Memjet began making announcements leading up to drupa 2004.
High-capacity ink reservoirs allowed for continuous operation.
Then, shortly before the show, Agfa purchased Dotrix from Barco for a reported 6 million euros. “We felt we had overcome the difficult integration issues for several markets and were sure to take advantage of the power of Agfa’s worldwide distribution,” says Haak, who left to form an inkjet consultancy the following year. “However, Dotrix ended up in ‘parking’ mode and lost valuable time to market.” Among other revisions, Agfa changed the printheads and inks, and in 2009 launched a redesigned version called the Dotrix Modular, ultimately discontinuing the brand in 2012.
The Future is Now
In hindsight, it’s striking how far ahead of its time the Dotrix was. There would be other stepping stones in the slow progression of single-pass technology. Inca, for example, pursued the corrugated board market in the late 2000s with the FastJet, while companies such as Fuji and Xerox began showing early single-pass systems for labels and commercial applications around 2008. The flurry of major single-pass technology demonstrations at drupa and ITMA in 2015 in applications ranging from textile printing to corrugated board manufacturing underscore that the potential of the technology may soon be fully realized.
But even with the intense expectations surrounding the single pass today, ceramic tile printing is the only sector where it has achieved market dominance so far. Haak points to technologies that needed to catch up with the concept. Inks with better viscosities and jetting behavior were needed for extremely high-speed printing, for example. He also cites the breakthrough of printheads with ink recirculation architecture at the nozzle plates, which emerged five years ago.
A closeup of the original SPICE engine, using two Xaar 500S printheads, completed just days before its unveiling at drupa 2000. Barco switched to Toshiba grayscale heads by the formal launch.
Cooper notes that as the resolution and speed of single-pass technology have increased, so has the challenge of managing data, going far beyond RIP processing to how information flows through the entire plant. With no makeready time, for example, the pressure on job staging becomes enormous. “You have to keep those machines fed,” he says. “They’re basically white sharks chewing the files up. Machines are getting faster; printhead technology is maturing. But it really gets down to information management and reducing the number of touches that people have.”
Eve remains optimistic about single pass, but believes that each application presents a different challenge and adoption curve. He points out that it’s not unusual for technologies to appear many years before they gain widespread acceptance, drawing a parallel with digital cameras, which were available long before the inevitable replacement of silver-halide film. “When industries do start taking in a new technology, it often moves quicker than people were expecting,” he says. “There’s often a very long lead-in where not much seems to be happening, and then in quite a small number of years, things flip.”
Cooper is also bullish, noting that WestRock’s Dotrix Modular press is still in operation today. “That machine spawned a lot of other designs as you look at the systems in the label industry and some of the others that are out there today,” he says. “It gave us a really strong foreshadowing to what’s coming. Single pass is the future; there is no question about it.”
Read more from Screen Printing's December 2017/January 2018 Innovation Issue.
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