Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Observations: New Horizons in Printing

New Horizons in Printing

One of the joys of being a printer industry “observer” is the combination of steady predictable trends mixed with the serendipitous nature of much news and development in the industry. While 2007 was hard to beat for momentous milestones for industry stalwarts including HP, Kodak, and Xerox, and attention-gaining surprises from newcomers Silverbrook/Memjet and Zink, 2008 has had its share of interesting developments as well. As we reach the year’s half-way point, I first think about some of the “little things” that I’ve seen and learned, including a delightful match of customer needs and industry capabilities I’m calling “media printing,” as well as a variety of other emerging technologies that have been lumped under the biggest of possible “printing” umbrellas and may grow to be of great importance someday.

At the risk of giving away some trade secrets about just how to be an industry observer, one of my methods is following company and trade communications (of course, The Hard Copy Observer tops this list). But I also like the serendipity of entering “printer” and “printing” into the search bar of Google News a number of days per week and just seeing what pops up.

In 2008 so far, in addition to media printing (more to follow), I’ve come across drug printing, 3D printing, organ printing, and electronics and solar cell printing, to name a few. Many use ink jet technologies in one form or another and provide a glimpse at many new horizons open to printing and print technologies.

• Drug printing is a form of the long-established ink jet industrial marking business, which HP has entered via its Specialty Printing Division. It is more than just printing a few characters of a cryptic code on a pill now though and includes images and variable data. The wonders of digital printing long ago came to the pharmaceutical industry, but now it’s the pills themselves that are being printed upon. (see "Drug Printing".)

• 3D printing and organ printing are also both variations on ink jet technology. 3D printing has actually been around for a long time and, as I always thought, it involves adding a “Z” axis to “X,Y” printing devices, and replacing the ink in a typical printing solution with a hardening compound that, when dry, hardens as a stable 3D object. 3D printing is grouped under the “rapid prototyping” technologies and is becoming a practical way to produce parts, competing with more established machine shop techniques. It’s hard to put a machine shop on a space station though, which is the somewhat far-out promise of 3D printing. With organ printing, or more generally “bioprinting” ink jet applications, a similar tack is used, but the printer jets biological materials (cells) to create a replacement organ or other body part for human patients. (see "Organ Printing".)

• Solar cells for converting sunlight into electricity are another important type of “cell” that is being printed—both with offset and ink jet techniques. Electronics printing (using print technologies to create circuit boards) has been with us for some time, and now it’s being applied to the emerging category of solar cells and panels. (see "Solar Cell Printing".)

With that range of technologies in mind, it was interesting to be introduced first-hand to the capabilities of a neighboring company here in Idaho: Gold Link Media. Specializing in “distributing content using the latest digital media solutions” per the firm’s Web site, Gold Link Media features printing capability for CD and DVD media that employs heat transfer film images produced by a Xeikon digital typesetter at CDigital Markets LLC of Baltimore, MD. Digital technology for this type of printing favors short runs and offers variable data printing, just as in more conventional digital printing. Gold Link Media uses a custom Trekk Equipment device along with the film supplied by CDigital to complete the media printing process at the same time that the firm puts data on the disk and the packaging.

Despite overall satisfaction and strong customer acceptance of its current media printing solution, Gold Link Media founder and president David Fish has his eye on emerging upstream printing developments that involve, yes, ink jet technology. For example, Tapematic, of Ornago, Italy, is touting a six-color UV-curable ink jet solution.

And one irony of the technology history of this category? Indigo Systems (Observer, 9/99), long before being acquired by Hewlett-Packard (NYSE HPQ) in 2002, had an initial foray into this market with its Omnius card press. As we watch HP “turning over many stones” in the industrial and graphics-arts markets in search of continued growth in its printer business, may we perchance see the firm’s presence again in this space?

Solar cells, DVDs, kidneys and spleens? What’s next for printing? Keep reading, and I’ll keep observing!

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