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What is the Latest Trend in Inkjet Technology?

Inkjet technology has achieved great success over the past 30 years and has become an indispensable tool in many applications. Decoration of a variety of substrates is an obvious area of success, including ceramic tiles, paper, plastics, glass, metals and textiles to name a few. More recently, inkjet technology has also been used in additive manufacturing. The technical advantages of industrial inkjet are obvious: its ability to print additively in a drop-on-demand manner offers tremendous flexibility compared to traditional printing. It enables greater reliability through reduced ink usage.

However, well-known limitations on the types of fluids that can be jetted have hindered the penetration of inkjet technology into many valuable markets and application areas, the most important of which is that viscosity must be kept low – typically below 30 cP, at a certain In some cases even lower. This limitation profoundly impacts the chemistry of the jettable fluid, which is why inkjet technology is limited to a few application areas. Functional fluids—fluids that have useful properties in addition to coloring—often require ingredients that increase viscosity well beyond 30 cP. For example, paints and inks may contain similar pigments, but paints contain binders, cross-linkers, adhesion promoters, etc., which convert the liquid into the highly functional, higher-viscosity liquid we are familiar with.

Higher viscosity fluids also have other advantages. For example, they can stabilize higher-density particles, further expanding the range of ejectable fluids. Higher viscosity fluids also increase solids content by reducing the volume of carrier fluid required to achieve printable viscosity. Given that ink costs are typically the largest component of total print costs, this is a significant cost savings. This has been the case since the inception of industrial inkjet in the early 1990s. Until now.

Quantica booth at Formnext 2022 (Image credit: Quantica)

Recent Advances in High Viscosity Inks

Recently, Xaar launched the 2002 printhead, which utilizes improved manufacturing processes to provide high-quality, reliable printing and coating at a reasonable cost. The printhead features a through-flow ink path, exhibits high uniformity, and utilizes Xaar’s high lay-up technology, all of which means it is ideally suited for a wide range of industrial applications.
Most importantly, Xaar has proven that thanks to its ultra-high viscosity technology, these printheads can print inks with viscosities up to 100 cP. In addition, these nozzles can withstand higher temperatures, which means the viscosity at room temperature may be higher, possibly as high as 100 cP depending on the liquid.
Recently, Xaar also launched the Aquinox printhead, which means that Xaar technology can not only handle high-viscosity inks but also be compatible with water-based carriers. This further removes significant restrictions on ink formulations.
The impact of these advantages will be discussed later. However, in some applications, there is an alternative that also offers high-viscosity digital printing.

Alternative Technology for Industrial Inkjet – Valvejet

When it comes to industrial digital deposition technology, people often think of inkjet as the only technology available. But that’s not the case. Valvejet is an alternative technology that’s more than 30 years old and also sprays droplets on demand.
This technology was originally developed for digital carpet decoration, which requires ejecting droplets with high momentum to penetrate into the deep pile of the carpet. Valvejet sprays droplets by pressurizing a cavity behind the nozzle and then rapidly opening and closing the valve.
Initially, valve jet heads have very low nozzle density (1-2 nozzles per inch) and eject larger droplets (up to microliters). Recent advances in technology have seen increases in nozzle density and reductions in droplet size, meaning it can now be considered as a potential technology for industrial digital deposition beyond carpet decoration.
Compared with industrial inkjet technology, the biggest advantage of valve jet technology is that it can print fluids with a much higher viscosity (1000 cP) than industrial inkjet, even much higher viscosity than what can be achieved with the Bisell 2002 nozzle. Additionally, the fluid supply system and drive electronics may be simpler, reducing development and capital costs.
The biggest disadvantage of valve inkjet compared to inkjet is the larger droplet size, resulting in lower achievable resolution and lower jetting frequency. However, if your application can tolerate this limitation, it is probably the best choice.

High-viscosity printhead. (Image Credit: Quantica)

New Opportunities for Digital Deposition

The result of these recent developments is that formulation chemists have greater scope to explore the chemistry and functionality of inks, leading to important new opportunities for digital deposition. For example, polymers with longer chain lengths or higher molecular weights can be added to the ink to improve adhesion, hardness, elasticity, barrier properties or optical properties.
Here we will discuss some of the applications we have already considered, but we have every confidence that others will come to the fore as people realize the power of these new developments.

Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing) – a Wider Range of Materials

The limited engineering properties of the materials used in 3D printing are one of the main drawbacks of the technology for applications outside of prototyping (another drawback is speed). The advantages of printing more complex (and therefore more viscous) molecules are clear.
Improved Young’s modulus, hardness, elasticity, chemical resistance, etc. are all huge advantages that will help advance this technology, such as enabling full-strength production parts rather than “lookalike” design mockups or prototypes.
Additionally, greater freedom in designing scaffolding materials will allow for the fabrication of more complex shapes. For example, 3D printing technology is already being used to create shoe soles for elite athletes, but could more materials improve athletic performance or allow the technology to reach a larger market?
In addition, 3D printing technology can also be used in the medical field to customize better prostheses for customers.

Shipping Decoration – Eliminate Waste and Better Application

For decades, cars, planes, trains and trucks have been painted the same way – using an electrostatically rotating horn head. This is a highly successful technology that allows rapid spraying of primers, paints and overcoats for high-throughput decoration. However, it also has two major disadvantages:
1. Typically 30% of the fluid is not sprayed onto the target, but is spread out in the form of aerosols. This aerosol must be removed from the air, which requires expensive additional capital expenditures. It is estimated that half of the cost of painting a car is dealing with this overspray.
2. It is difficult to decorate these vehicles with more complexity than a single color. To fix this, use tape and plastic wrap to mask the car before applying the second color and letting it dry. Doing so is time-consuming and expensive.
Imagine what would happen if paint could be printed directly on the substrate? This means there is no overspray and the target decoration can be achieved in one pass.
It’s a daunting engineering challenge: to realize this vision, the entire printing system must be able to be placed on the end of a six-axis robot, which means significant modifications to the usual liquid supply system, but the benefits could be Astonishingly, for example, each of the major automotive OEMs may receive $10 million per year.

Textile Printing – Customization and Sustainability

Inkjet technology has made significant progress in textile decoration over the past few years. While it’s unlikely to completely replace the likes of screen printing, it certainly has advantages in terms of customization and sustainability.
In other areas, digital printing can also promote the development of this new market:
Digital deposition of functional materials, especially for technical clothing such as sportswear or outdoor clothing. Elastic materials (usually polyurethane-based) printed on sportswear can provide a variety of functions, including decoration, support and tactile effects, but to achieve the required thickness, up to 20 layers may need to be deposited, often using screen printing . If you can do this digitally, you can save a lot of time. Additionally, the ability to customize this step may be of great interest to elite athletes.
Pre- and post-treatment of textiles is often done in vats of liquid to ensure an even coating. Printing these liquids exactly where they are needed saves huge amounts of waste and opens up space for further innovation.

Packaging Industry – Better, More Efficient Proceduer

The packaging industry is embracing digital printing with enthusiasm as continuous inkjet and industrial inkjet replace flexo and screen printing in many applications. Nonetheless, new developments in inkjet and valve inkjet still have some appeal for the industry.
Overprint varnish deposition is a critical step in many applications, especially corrugated printing. Unfortunately, the best OPVs are too viscous for inkjet, so they are often printed with anilox rollers – a serious limitation when other parts of the workflow have gone digital. Adopting the approach outlined in this article can provide a process that allows for the consideration of a wider variety of polish chemistries. This improves adhesion, gloss, UV protection, etc.
Many special effect pigments are too bulky to print with inkjet. These pigments include pearlescent pigments, iridescent pigments and metallic pigments, which can only be printed through analog technology. By using a higher viscosity carrier, these pigments could be sufficiently stable for digital printing, most likely using valve jet technology.

Anti-Counterfeiting Printing–Better Guarantee and Customization

Like specialty pigments for packaging, many anti-counterfeiting pigments have large particle sizes that prevent them from being printed using industrial inkjet technology, which requires particle sizes smaller than 1 micron. However, in some applications, the ability to take advantage of higher viscosities allows larger pigments to be stabilized and printed. Customized deposition of such pigments could be transformative – allowing for more layers of security to be encapsulated.

A Future of Customization, Low Cost and Sustainability

Driven by the ability to print high-viscosity fluids, industrial digital deposition is about to take a big step forward in new application areas. Whether through high-resolution industrial inkjet or low-resolution valve inkjet, the promise of product customization, manufacturing sustainability and lower costs will bring significant commercial advantages in an application area completely dominated by analog deposition processes.

 

 

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