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Building the modular inkjet approach

03 Mar 2011

New technologies for higher speeds and reliabilities, a modular approach that is bringing down costs dramatically, and a host of new applications waiting in the wings – UK-based Xennia Technology says industrial inkjet printing’s time has come.

XenJet AurigaAre your ideas of industrial inkjet printing and its capabilities stuck in the past, limited to functions such as date coding and direct mail – or even to images of your own desktop printer? Xennia Technology is determined to correct such misconceptions. In short, this UK-based company is on a mission to tell a new, and constantly developing, story.

Xennia supplies innovative inkjet solutions to a huge range of industries, including ceramics, advanced textiles, printed electronics and photovoltaics, medical products and packaging. The company believes it is unique in offering complete inkjet process solutions under one roof, and it has invested heavily in people, processes and print innovation to pursue its goals.

“We have come a long way from inkjet for date coding,” says Marketing Manager Tim Phillips. “Today’s inkjet technology is fast and reliable for many, many applications. Our experience is that many manufacturing industries are ‘trying it on for size’, and there are numerous other potential applications waiting in the wings.”

A relatively young company founded near Cambridge, England in the mid 1990s, Xennia has a strong background as an ink and process development company, finding inkjet solutions for specific customers.

XenJet AquariusThree years ago the company embarked on an ambitious new strategy, to provide integrated solutions for production line printing by pre-developing the building blocks – inkjet modules – from which to create the perfect solution for customers. Xennia is able to provide one-stop solutions from proof-of-concept to full-scale production and its solutions are particularly applicable to specialised applications such as ceramic printing, medical packaging and printed electronics.

The perfect solution

“We are offering off-the-shelf or fully customised digital solutions for industrial applications,” says Phillips. “This includes supplying industrial inkjet modules, systems and inks and offering a development service for inks, processes and printing systems.”

He explains: “We are basing these modules on proven technology, so for customers the risk and cost of development is cut. We believe we can change many industries by introducing digital inkjet technology based on these modules. All of our recent product launches and innovations have been based around that formula.”

Many people are aware of inkjet in industry but most do not understand the breadth of opportunity and potential, he adds. Xennia is looking to leverage technology across diverse printing applications – not just flat and three-dimensional product decoration but also in functional material deposition, where what is printed is not only for decoration, but can be adhesive, conductive or dirt repellent, for example.

Xennia, which is a division of the €1 billion specialist composite and textile manufacturer Royal Ten Cate, has developed fluids to print a very wide range of materials, including adhesives, abrasives, aggressive acids and alkali materials, biomedical antibodies, reagents and enzymes, metal powders and nanoparticles, ceramic pigments, conductive graphite and polymers, electrochromic materials, magnetic materials, metal complex solutions, titanium dioxide, other difficult pigments and structural polymers.

Key to the company’s business is that once a customer has chosen a Xennia solution and an inkjet printing system is specified and installed, then that customer becomes a customer for its inks. Because of this, the opening in 2010 of a new purpose-built facility for manufacturing industrial inkjet inks in production quantities was a vital development.  “Our business now requires high volumes of inks and this facility is capable of delivering hundreds of tonnes of ink a year,” says Phillips.

Xennia’s module strategy allows the use of many differentprintheads, which is another critical advantage, he adds. “Many companies are tied to one printhead supplier, but our technology – and this is a world first – enables us to run different printheads, even on the same system.  This makes our solutions very flexible and means you can choose the right printhead for the application.”

A very wide range of industrial-grade printhead technologies are used in Xennia solutions, including printheads with recirculating technology for difficult inks; fast high resolution heads for high print quality applications; and printheads designed specifically for the deposition of coatings. Earlier this year Xennia signed an exclusive supply agreement with printhead manufacturer Trident for the supply of printheads for textile decoration and finishing, and coating of industrial products.

The key to integrating inkjet technology is to make all of the disparate parts of the system, especially the printheads, ink and substrate, work together as a complete solution. This means that the ink system or fluid controller, for example, needs to be designed to work perfectly with the ink and the printhead for the best quality and reliability. Also critical is the mechanical system moving the substrate and/or the printheads – this needs to be designed to give the accuracy and speed uniformity required. Xennia is pioneering the use of composite materials in the mechanical structure of its systems, which give promised benefits in mechanical rigidity and weight saving.

XenJet CygnusSoftware is also a vital part of the overall mix, of course. As well as its major investment in the new ink production facility, Xennia recently acquired leading digital printing software company Cametrics (known for its ‘ixPressia’ products), furthering the capabilities and integration of its module portfolio. The two parties had worked very closely together for six years prior to the purchase announced in May 2010. “Software can be a real differentiator,” says Phillips. “This acquisition and resulting software expertise will be a key part of our offering going forward.”

A new way of doing things

Often potential users of Xennia’s technology make a narrow comparison between traditional printing methods and industrial inkjet technology, which can limit the perceived benefits. “Compared to traditional methods, digital technology is about doing things completely differently,” says Phillips. “While digital printing may not be faster than traditional techniques once a run is set up and printing, the time saved in set-up means that overall digital printing shows higher productivity. This is especially true for the short print runs which are demanded more and more by customers. In addition, traditional printing tends to lead to large stocks of printed material (due to the need to print long runs to amortise the run setup costs), that then need to be stored – with digital, no stock is needed. We offer solutions where you can print what you want, where you want, when you want – print on demand.”

He points to the significant operational savings that can be gained through the “lean production” virtues of digital inkjet printing. No line stoppage to change printing set-ups for each product; no need to create product-specific printing screens, pads or rollers; lower ink wastage from finer control of ink deposition; lower inventory-holding costs from shorter production runs; and higher yields from the use of non-contact printing on fragile products.

And then there are the revenue growth possibilities for users of Xennia’s new product offerings, he adds. “We offer a wide range of added functionality to our customers; complex prints on to three-dimensional surfaces; truly randomised printing patterns to achieve natural effects; and additional capabilities using functional fluids like conductive, dirt-repellent and adhesive inks. And, in addition, OEM branding of systems and inks, combined with the ability to brand products in the same process as adding product codes like serial numbers and barcodes, offers a unique level of presence and control in the supply chain.”

Inkjet technology is clearly the “new kid on the block” and gaining traction in many markets. However, there are some challenges to increasing inkjet’s market share – not least getting potential OEMs to look beyond a one-dimensional RoI calculation (based on cost per square metre and ignoring all the other benefits), to understand that inkjet solutions can be quickly implemented, and to recognise the enormous steps being made in terms of speed, reliability and cost.

Print speed, typically 20-30 metres/minute, is not high enough for all applications, Phillips concedes. Reliability is now much better than earlier technology, but systems need to be designed from the ground up to get to the 99%+ levels required for production line applications.  System cost is still an issue – at present, high specification inkjet systems still tend to be more expensive than their analogue equivalent. However, these “big three” issues are all responding to steady and focussed technology development, he adds.

Xennia believes its new approach and innovative solutions will help persuade non-digital equipment OEMs to make the move to inkjet.

“The launch of our robust inkjet module building blocks is a real breakthrough and makes that decision much easier,” says Phillips. “Our use of proven modules reduces risk and decreases time to market. The modules are scalable, extendable and applicable to a diverse range of markets.”

XenJet CorvusXennia’s module range covers all essential system components, he adds – print engines, fluid controllers, software, UV-curing and maintenance – and the company offers OEM integration packages for application support and training.

Its new standard modules for OEMs feature print engine assemblies with printheads, ink header tanks, all of the necessary electronics and controls and UV pinning, all pre-aligned and ready to mount.  Fluid controllers feature recirculating technology allowing the use of the most challenging fluids, with each controller able to supply ink to up to ten printheads. Software includes system control, user access to data and settings, and a complete image path from image file input all the way to the individual printhead nozzles.

A wide range of applications

Xennia UltramarineJust a handful of case studies give a good indication of the breadth of applications for Xennia’s technology. A solution for printing on to ceramic tiles features a high-throughput fixed array printer based on recirculating printheads, offering 24 metres/minute full colour printing at over 1,000 dpi resolution on widths of 415 to 725 millimetres, and beyond.

A moving-web printer solution for packaging features 280 mm wide reel-to-reel printing, with wider versions available. The four-colour fixed array system, offers over 1000 dpi greyscale resolution and printing at 24 metres/minute. The system uses UV cure XenInx Diamond inks and prints on to a wide variety of substrates – including polymers, paper and metal foils.

A solution for printed electronics, including printing RFID tags, solar cells, LCD and plasma displays, has been developed for substrate sizes from 350x350 mm up to 1600x1200 mm, with granite base, air bearings and linear motors giving repeatability of ±1µm. The system features up to eight printheads and offers print speeds of up to 500 mm/second, with a variety of options, all with Class A100 clean room compliance.

Xennia has supplied systems to a major medical company, to print specialised packaging for wound closure sutures. These are placed into sealed packages; they have to be individually coded for tracking/tracing purposes, and the entire package itself has to be sterilised. “So all the marking on the packaging has to survive that process,” says Phillips. “This is a very good example of our ability to deliver special applications based around our chemistry expertise.”

Xennia AquamarineAs a complete contrast, a fully integrated system has been developed for EPS fish boxes – with full colour printing, UV ink curing and box motion handling. And Xennia also has a digital inkjet printing solution for HDPE safety helmets, which meets the obvious challenge of printing on to a general 3D surface. The system features robotic substrate handling, and a multi-stage process of flame treatment, white printing + UV cure, and CMYK printing + UV cure. “Our customer for this system has seen remarkable benefits,” says Phillips. “When workmen have their name printed on the helmet, suddenly those helmets don’t get lost or damaged! Only our solution is able to print a company logo on to the front of the helmet and individual names on to the back.”

Xennia’s programme of solutions for textile printing breaks through the barriers faced by technologies and machines already in the market – offering higher resolutions, lower costs and higher productivity.

“We go beyond traditional systems to offer a cost/productivity index (system cost in Euro divided by productivity in square metres per hour) of less than 1,500, higher resolution with greyscale printing, productivity of more than 500 square metres per hour and continuous web motion,” says Phillips. “Our solutions ensure a lower level of print defects and are based on web widths of 1.6 to 5.0 metres.

“Single-pass fixed array continuous web printing has its limitations for printing wide webs; it offers high productivity but maintaining 100% nozzle printing over a very large number of nozzles is difficult (especially as performing printhead maintenance while printing is impossible), and the cost of very wide arrays can become prohibitive. Meanwhile, step-and-scan systems are reliable, with nozzle redundancy and printhead maintenance possible during printing, but they have low productivity and a tendency to introduce banding into the printed product. Our new proprietary equipment architecture offers reciprocating continuous diagonal printing, with two or more print bars printing complementary patterns while the web is in constant motion. This gives the low cost and good flexibility of a step-and-scan system while allowing higher speeds and improved print quality with no banding.”

Xennia EmeraldXennia and Reggiani Macchine announced in June 2010 the completion of a full-scale demonstration model of this revolutionary diagonal multi-pass digital inkjet textile printing technology. “This system enables reliable printing on textile substrates in an industrial production environment at unrivalled speed and quality,” says Phillips. The first full-scale version of Xennia’s textile printing system is based around Reggiani’s wide, high-accuracy belt-driven transport and incorporates Xennia’s inkjet modules, including the XenJet Auriga print engine, XenJet Aquarius fluid controllers and XenJet Centaurus and Cygnus software.

Tim Phillips is absolutely certain that the future holds enormous promise for industrial inkjet printing. Xennia launched its industrial-strength module portfolio at the IPEX show in the UK earlier this year and it continues the pioneering development of advanced composite materials in its latest design of inkjet printing systems. Its innovative approach is attracting a good level of interest.

Growth and worldwide presence

The company has increased its workforce from 30 to 75 people in the past three years. Manufacturing remains solely in the UK but, with more than 90% of sales exported and demand growing rapidly in key markets, there are plans to expand overseas operations to meet demand. Germany is a particularly strong market, along with Italy and Spain. Xennia is also seeing significant growth in the United States and Asia, and it has opened offices in the US and China to tap into these markets. “We have a very big customer in China, and expect to find more business there,” says Phillips.

But the base line approach will remain the same – wherever possible, developing “common” modules that can be built cost effectively into more than one specific solution.

“Our experts are focused on developing broadly applicable products rather than one-off solutions,” Phillips explains. “We are also becoming more proactive in getting our message out. As I said before, people are often not aware of the options available through this technology. The challenge can be that they have heard about inkjet but only associate it with desktop printers and therefore have an image of low cost, but slow and unreliable printing. The technology we are talking about is very, very different – the challenge for us is to get that message across.”

Remarkably, Xennia’s growth has continued throughout the economic downturn and he believes that is due to the applicability of the technology to many different markets. “The fact that we are diversified across many industries has been a real advantage. Some of our customers have been through tough times but others continued growing; so our business changed emphasis in terms of application, but we continued on our growth path.”

And the “crowning glory” came as Xennia’s achievements won prestigious recognition in April 2010 when the company, at just 14 years old, was presented with the Queen’s Award for Enterprise – and Xennia representatives were invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen herself.

This article was originally published inPackaging Europemagazine.

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