Xaar: renewed ambitions in milestone year

Jo Francis
Monday, September 14, 2015

This is a big year for Xaar. For a start, the Cambridge-headquartered inkjet developer is celebrating its 25th anniversary, providing the business with perfect opportunity to show-case its track record of continuous innovation.

From a business that started off with four people working out of an office in Cambridge Science Park, the firm has indeed come a long way. Turnover is now around £100m, and Xaar employs some 650 staff worldwide. 

It hasn’t all been a dizzy upward trajectory fuelled by the boom in inkjet printing applications, though, and Xaar has experienced its fair share of ups and downs along the way – most recently its record results in 2013, which were swiftly followed by an annus horribilis last year, when it experienced the classic business pitfall of being over-reliant on one market or customer. 

A slowdown in the huge Chinese ceramic printing market had a severe affect on Xaar’s operations, with profits drastically reduced and a collapse in its share price. It cut 20% of its worldwide workforce as a result.

Now, under fresh chief executive Doug Edwards, who joined at the beginning of the year from Kodak, Xaar is busy broadening its horizons in order to avoid such calamities in future.

Currently 70% of its business is for the industrial printing market, while packaging is 15% and graphic arts just 9%. The remaining 6% is legacy royalty income from licensees.

Edwards says the group will be “a lot more balanced in future”, while at the same time emphasising that this will not mean the ceramics side, where Xaar estimates it has an enviable 75% market share of the world market, will necessarily shrink.

“That’s a key strategic imperative for us, we aim to achieve it by growing our position in other segments,” he states.

In fact, despite the recent travails in ceramics Xaar is pretty upbeat about its future in that space. European customers in Spain and Italy are entering a replacement cycle, and they are likely to stick with what they know, Edwards believes. “It’s not trivial integrating the system and unless there are huge advantages they’re not going to move. It might not be a new printer, it might be new heads in an existing printer or an additional print bar for texturing and glazing,” he adds. 

Decorative steps beyond simple colours is one of the areas where Xaar is aiming to capitalise on the capabilities of its GS12 and GS40 printheads. “They are doing more than we ever expected when it comes to metallic, glosses and lustres. Tile manufacturers are refreshing their designs 10 times more frequently than they used to,” adds chief financial officer Alex Bevis. 

Its 001 head is also in market testing for the production of decorative effects such as structures and 3D reliefs, which involve a heavy laydown of glaze. 

And it is this ability to jet ‘difficult’ fluids that Xaar hopes will help propel it into other new market areas. At this month’s Labelexpo show in Brussels, for example, it will show a new print bar for label and packaging applications that is designed to be incorporated into flexo presses. 

Edwards says he isn’t planning to take on his old employer Kodak in the high-speed hybrid inkjet print space, but he has high hopes for it nevertheless. 

“We can get up to flexo press speed – the precise speed will depend on the number of print bars. We’re going to show it at Labelexpo and talk to people about it,” Edwards explains. “We have some special features because we can jet varnish and abrasive pigments such as metallics and white.” 

New market

He’s also hoping that Xaar can tap into another potentially enormous market – direct-to-shape printing. If big brands follow the example of Belgium’s Martens Brouwerij, this could be huge. “Just a few percent would be bigger than ceramics,” Edwards says. “Market adoption will be driven by brands, and they are starting to see it as viable.”

Martens is doing away with the need for labels by printing directly onto PET bottles using a KHS system with Xaar heads, and Agfa inks.

Looking further ahead, to next year’s Drupa, we can expect to hear more about Edwards’ ambitions for Xaar in the sheetfed inkjet space for commercial printing. As evidenced by the number of sheetfed inkjet presses that have made it to market thus far – not many – developing and selling a sheetfed inkjet press is easier said than done. 

And Xaar needs to get its much-anticipated Thin Film aqueous printhead technology, also known as P4, to market to make serious headway in this space. 

“There’s a lot of activity in silicone MEMS printheads of this type, and it’s definitely the future for high-speed, high-quality printing,” notes Mike Willis, managing director at inkjet consultancy Pivotal Resources. 

Xaar is currently devoting around half of its R&D budget (which was £6.3m for the first six months of this year) to the project, and aims to have the first prototypes working before the end of this year.

Edwards says Xaar has already shown the P4 head to “all the major guys in the commercial space”, and the firm will be showing it at Drupa next year. 

But Drupa is probably going to come around too quickly for an actual press or printer to be shown. “We’ve got to pick our partner and there will be one or two companies we’ll be working with between now and Drupa,” Edwards says. 

“May is probably too soon, so I don’t think it will be integrated in anybody’s press by that time. We’ll show the printhead and talk about what it can do. It will be the back end of next year before it’s in a printer.”

A busy year ahead is at least one certainty for the Xaar team and Edwards, who seems to be relishing his new role: “Selling printheads is a lovely business model.” 

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