Xaar full speed ahead

Digital packaging and direct to shape labels gain ground

Doug Edwards is steering Xaar into additive manufacturing as well as DTS, markets that are hotting up considerably.

Xaar is pushing the adoption of inkjet printing beyond ceramics where it has been so successful. Ceramics contributes substantially to industrial sector revenues which represent roughly 65% of Xaar’s £100 million turnover but packaging is gaining ground. The numbers reflect Xaar’s metamorphosis – pack-aging’s contribution has gone from 10 to 11% in H1 2014 to 15% in H1 2015, and as Edwards confirms, “We’re growing the packaging sector, especially Direct to Shape (DTS) digitally printed labels.”

Xaar’s growth is linked to the success of OEMs such as EFI and Durst, so continued success depends both on new partnerships and extending existing ones. DTS printing, rather than labels has far more glittering promise. Companies developing DTS printing devices use viscous UV inks to which the Xaar 1002 technology is well suited. Xaar’s already seeing an uptick in interest.

Shaping up sooner or later
DTS printing means no labels are required. Since the primary label market is worth some US$ 30 billion annually, DTS could decimate swathes of this sector. Printing directly to the container or package obviates the need for labels, but how long it takes before that matters is impossible to say. The packaging market is worth some US$ 350 billion but is very fragmented. Conversion to DTS will take time – not all label applications will suit it and the capital investment required to update bottling and packaging plants will take a while.

But the numbers are so attractive that it’s a no-brainer to collapse supply chains where possible. A converter working for Walmart in the USA was paying US$ 4.50 (approximately Rs. 290) per 1,000 for shrink wrapped labels, a figure which dropped to a mere 23¢ (Rs. 15) per 1,000 items for direct to shape printing. This example illustrates the potential of DTS.

Xaar’s invested over £60 million into facilities over the last five years, especially into its cleanroom where there are machines that cost £1 million each. The substantial investment is a harbinger for what to expect from Xaar. It takes 11.8 days to make a 1002 printhead. Let’s hope this guy doesn’t sneeze.

The signs are there. In Belgium Martens Brouwerij has installed DTS printing equipment using Xaar 1002 GS6 heads in a system developed by KHS, a German developer. The system vertically jets CMYK+W low migration LED-cured inks directly onto 12,000, 24,000 or 36,000 PET bottles an hour, matching process line speeds. This is a variable data system suitable for use in transmedia marketing using the packages as triggers. The system is integrated into the bottling plant machines and Edwards says this is just the start because “the cost benefits here are enormous.” He adds that “the people who drive brands are the marketing folk and they’re the people who will force the change.”

Martens Brouwerij worked with producers of a popular Belgian sitcom F.C. De Kampioenen to promote an upcoming film, as well as Martens’ new beer brand. Dagschotel beer bottles have images of different characters which wake up once animated by a smartphone app. Via the host site, they chat about upcoming plot lines and interact when two bottles are scanned together. Xaar’s business in the labels sector is growing, but DTS is “going to be transformational . . . 10% would be massive to us,” says Edwards.

More options
Clearly there’s lots of reasons for Xaar to enhance its position in packaging first, before further in wide format graphics which currently adds £10 million to revenues. But “we want to re-establish ourselves in the graphics market” with the Xaar 501 head with a single row of nozzles instead of two in the Xaar 1002. Edwards explains that, “We play in the wide format space . . . in two-thirds of the world, wide format signage [printing] has Xaar technology inside” but only 10 to 15% of these machines are Xaar branded. Licensees, particularly Konica Minolta and Seiko, have the majority share. Xaar also has plenty of opportunity in 3D printing. Edwards says that the current market leaders are using technology that’s “generations behind this printhead [the 1002].” Xaar is also interested in printable electronics, for instance printing bezel plates for touchscreen sensors (where all the connections are) in mobile devices.

The future for the Xaar 1002 is bright indeed, particularly in DTS printing and additive manufacturing.

The much larger commercial graphics market will prove a little trickier because it wants heads that jet aqueous fluids at higher speeds and with greater image quality. Xaar is investing half its research and development budget (20% of revenues) into bringing the Thin Film P4 head for water-based inks to fruition; the balance is spent on further developing its current bulk piezo technology.

Xaar is also introducing subsidiary technologies because Edwards is “a strong believer that in any digital transformation, people go through a transition.” The Xaar Print Bar fits onto a conventional flexo or offset press for producing variable data print. It’s designed for labels and packaging and is based on the 1002 printhead (GS6, GS12 and GS40). It is currently configured to 540 mm but wider is possible, so a press can print varnishes, spot metallics, white, and it could print Braille and textured surfaces and effects. It runs at 75 metres a minute and multiple printheads can be used for more speed or more laydown.

Platform 4 (P4) at drupa 2016
This head has more nozzles than any of Xaar’s printheads and around five times as many as the Xaar 1002 and “it will be very high resolution, it will be very high speed.” The native resolution is 1,200 dpi for a single color, but this printhead is capable of printing with two colors at 600 dpi. The printhead is made up of smaller modules based upon silicon MEMS technology and each one has its own electronics and actuator plate. The P4’s PZT piezo-electric material is coated in a thin film onto silicon; the printhead modules use a lot less Piezo and when combined with silicon manufacturing processes can make them very cost-effective to produce.

The P4 will be at drupa: “Our intent is to have this printhead in somebody’s device before the end of next year.” The company is working with six OEM partners in commercial print before narrowing down the list to a few key partners: “Integration into a press is so complex that we’re only going to work with one or two partners.” This head can jet nano inks and also works for textile printing.

The technology is here so Xaar is well placed for its next phase of growth and development. Expect further partnerships in graphics and textiles, and a solid push into DTS and 3D.

Packaging South Asia is the cooperating media partner for drupa 2016 which is scheduled to be held from 31 May to 10 June at Dusseldorf, Germany

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