While many printing companies choose to buy fully integrated presses, others take a more industrial approach. Inkjet technology lends itself to building highly customized systems allowing for the integration and assembly of parts from component manufacturers and in-house engineers. When you break it down, an inkjet printing system needs print heads, ink supply and control systems, and substrate handling. There needs to be a way to accept print files and translate them into the format the print head expects. They may also demand drying systems, ink recirculation systems, and other mechanisms depending on the nature of the substrate handling requirements.
Let’s agree that it is a complex approach to printing, but many companies have done it for years, often hanging inkjet heads inline with offset presses or finishing equipment to support printing of variable codes, marks, and offers. Whether you are an experienced integrator looking for new printhead options or new to the idea of working with printheads, there are questions you should be asking every vendor about their heads, what they supply, what you need to add, and how they support your needs. This episode looks at the printheads and systems.
Before diving in, consider your use cases. Even if you are an experienced integrator, your needs may have changed, so take some time and make some notes covering your expectations.
- What are your print speed requirements?
- What are your print quality requirements?
- What are your print width requirements?
- Are you building a single color/monochrome system or a 4-color system? Or more colors?
- Are you building a system that will do inline pre-coating or post-coating?
- Are you building a sheet-fed or roll-fed system?
- Are you building a stationary array or a scanning head array?
- Do you have environmental considerations like heat, cold, or humidity?
- What are your expectations for print head life?
- What are your expectations for preventive maintenance routines and downtime?
- How much do you understand about nozzle cleaning?
- How much do you understand about image compensation techniques?
- How much do you understand about ink supply management?
Be as honest as you can as you build your self-assessment. If you aren’t sure, rate yourself as a novice as you approach potential partners. With this assessment in place, build your questions for potential print head providers. Use these questions even when talking to your current suppliers!
What Comes in the Box?
Now that you know what you need, it is essential to understand what is being offered and how those two things match up. Let’s start with the basic questions:
- What are you buying and what comes with it?
Print head sellers package their options in many ways, so you want to dig into exactly what you are buying. You may be buying only a head unit, a print bar containing an array of heads, or a print head system that includes ink supply and control systems.
What technology are you buying: Drop-on-Demand or Continuous?
Ask what is included in the price!
- What are the optional add-ons?
Look at the details of what is included and what becomes an extra charge. You may find that what’s included versus the options will change your approach and pricing. You may also discover that some items identified as options are required for your implementation. Build that into how you look at your budget for development and your pricing plans if your solution will go to market.
- What documentation is supplied to help you?
Even if you have integrated print heads before, you will need the documentation on how this product works, integration points, integration point specifications, and test procedures. What is provided and how granular is the information? Ask to see the documentation to see if you and your team will be able to do their part of the work based on what you read.
What Help is Available?
If you are buying a modular printing system that includes the ink supply, control mechanisms, inspection systems, where do you find help on identifying the nozzle maintenance requirements? Is help available to guide you as you integrate ink supplies, droplet controls, inspection systems, and image compensation protocols, as well as other elements that go into a full print system? Does your OEM have regular communication to provide information on technical updates?
Will your OEM make recommendations on any element you do not plan to build? Can they refer you to partners, or are you on your own?
Whether you are buying modules or building from the ground up, the process is more than just mounting a print head on a rail. The ink supply system, droplet management system, inspection systems, nozzle capping systems, image compensation systems, and nozzle cleaning systems are part of the requirement. How these elements are built and integrated contributes to the efficiency and longevity of the system, as well as the pricing, so ask as many questions as you can. Ask for references, too!
Come back next time for a deeper dive into the support side of the equation! This is a lot to digest. Have questions? Put them in the comments or send me an email.