Meteor Inkjet primarily develops inkjet control electronics and software, the vital components that take image files (usually bitmaps and often from a digital front-end) and convert them into commands that fire inkjet printheads from all the major industrial manufacturers. If you have an inkjet press you may be a Meteor user without realising it.
Printhead controllers need serious engineering that has to take into account the physics and chemistry of the fluid ink before, during and after its passage through the inkjet nozzles, with precise timing of the head firing to build up the desired dot distribution on the target substrate.
All of this has to be done thousands of times per second, with individual control of thousands of nozzles. The PrintEngine software that controls the hardware needs a lot of computing power, and a lot of development work goes into to optimising the results. Images can also be rendered via Meteor’s own digital front-end software if needed.
Xaar was the spur
The Meteor Inkjet business was founded in 2004, when The Technology Partnership (TTP), a consultancy specialising in product and technology development, worked on a project for Cambridge inkjet head maker Xaar to develop printhead drive electronics. The technical approach, while complex and expensive, was the foundation for Meteor’s future architecture.
A follow-on project with another manufacturer, Lexmark, enabled TTP to hone its skills to create a successful low-cost, USB 2-based solution.
In March 2006 a small team within TTP led by Meteor’s current CEO, Clive Ayling, recognised a market requirement for printhead drive electronics for other varieties of printhead. The ‘Meteor’ programme was born.
Meteor’s first official customer was inkjet label maker Jetrion, to provide drive electronics for Xaar Leopard printheads. Drive electronics for Spectra printheads (now Fujifilm Dimatix) soon followed for a different customer. By 2009, with drive electronics for Toshiba TEC and Kyocera printheads also developed, Meteor could claim to offer the widest range of industrial printhead drivers in the world.
Joining Global Graphics
In 2015 TTP registered the name TTP Meteor Ltd as a wholly owned subsidiary of TTP Group PLC, running as a standalone company. However the following year Global Graphics PLC bought TTP Meteor and renamed it Meteor Inkjet Ltd.
“The acquisition didn’t result in significant operational change for either Meteor or Global Graphics,” says marketing director Tracey Brown. “Both companies retained their brands, strategic focus and independence, though they benefited from synergies in areas such as IT and finance. Certainly, joint customers benefited from the closer relationship.”
Soon after that, Meteor relocated from its offices on the Melbourn Science Park near Cambridge to significantly larger and purpose-built labs and office space on the Science Group site at Harston Mill, a few kilometres to the south west of Cambridge and not too far from its new sister company Global Graphics Software at Cambourne to the west of Cambridge.
It’s still on this site, but doubled its space in 2022 to accommodate a growing workforce, now around 50. There’s also local language sales and support based in China, Germany, US, Japan, Korea and India.
In early 2021, Global Graphics PLC acquired the Belgian packaging pre-press developer Hybrid Software Group, bringing the number of subsidiary companies to four: Hybrid Software, Global Graphics Software (developer of the Harlequin RIP-workflow system among other things, Xitron (another RIP maker) and Meteor Inkjet.
Later in 2021, Global Graphics PLC changed its name to Hybrid Software Group PLC, with the RIP-workflow developer still called Global Graphics Software. Since then it has acquired ColorLogic (a German colour profiling software company) and iC3D (UK-based 3D packaging design and previewing software).
The group now claims to be “the only full-stack supplier of all the critical core technologies needed for inkjet printing.” Its tag-line is ‘The Heart of Industrial Printing’.
What does it make?
Meteor describes itself as a major provider of industrial printhead drive electronics, working with all the big printhead manufacturers, including Dimatix, Epson, Konica Minolta, Kyocera, Ricoh, Seiko Instruments, Toshiba TEC, Xaar and Xerox. This means it often gets early sight of new printheads before they are launched.
Meteor’s electronics and software translate the bits and bytes of print data into firing instructions that inkjet printheads understand. Key to its architecture are two types of circuit board a print controller card (PCC); and a head driver card (HDC).
The PCC supplies synchronised image data to one or more printhead-specific HDCs which deliver analogue electrical waveforms to the printheads, causing them to eject drops. Sometimes PCC and HDC functions are combined on one board. Supporting the electronics are core PrintEngine system software, firmware and FPGA (field-programmable gate array) code.
Meteor’s HQ at Harston Mill
A range of configurable digital front-ends for single-pass and scanning applications is offered to developers who don’t wish to create their own. There are also software tools for print quality enhancement including screening, swathe management, print calibration and nozzle-out compensation.
“Normally, we develop drive electronics for a particular printhead by working closely with the printhead manufacturer, together with one or more beta customers,” says Brown. “The electronics and software are typically designed to take advantage of everything that the particular printhead has to offer, so customers don’t usually need to adapt it.”
This doesn’t mean ‘one size fits all’, however. “Print system builders still have endless ways to define and develop bespoke systems through the way they access and configure the hardware and software. For most printheads, print system builders may also choose to optimise printhead driving waveforms for their own unique combination of substrate, printhead and fluid.”
All electronics and most software R&D is handled in-house. Most mechanical design for development support products such as the DropWatcher takes place in-house too. “For production, we engage contract manufacturers in the UK and China,” says Brown.
Who buys them?
Customers are OEM print system builders, large companies that develop printers for their own industrial use, system integrators, ink developers or suppliers, universities and labs.
“When a company has limited resources and/or very little experience with industrial inkjet, we may refer them to one of our very experienced inkjet integration partners to help them achieve their goals,” says Brown.
While most customers are for print-related products, Brown says there have been (and still are) projects in “non-inkjet digital deposition technologies”. These are rare, however. “Inkjet is, and will continue to be, our primary focus. Inkjet is so much more than ink on paper. It can be printing on cars, on food, on fabrics, on glass. Using inkjet to not only decorate things, but to make things. Using inkjet to enhance productivity or to change conventional processes so that they are more sustainable. Our customers have new ideas all the time and it is exciting to help them realise their ambitions.”
Meteor sells DropWatchers under its own brand, to aid customers’ development work. These are bench test mounts for inkjet heads, with a high magnification camera, strobe lighting and control electronics and software to initiate and observe the formation and flight of drops between the head and substrate.
What’s coming next?
“Meteor is continuously working on new printhead drivers for as-yet-unannounced printheads,” Brown says. We wouldn’t dare steal the thunder of printhead manufacturers by divulging upcoming products but there are certainly new offerings in the pipeline.”
In recent years Meteor has been undertaking basic research to help monitor and improve the reliability of the industrial inkjet printing process. “Our aim is to benefit not only our OEM customers but also the industry,” says Brown.
It has recently been granted two patents, with further inventions to come. One of the patents concerns real-time monitoring of electrical feedback from a printhead nozzle to detect clogged or clogging nozzles. Another patent exploits the greyscale capability of inkjet to save on the energy and materials required to create complex 3D structures through binder jetting.
Who’s in charge?
Today fewer than 50 people work at Meteor, although “we anticipate significant growth over the next few years,” says Brown. “When people join Meteor, they tend to stay for a long time. The working environment is one of communication, humour, optimism, flexibility and a strong sense of belonging.
“Everyone on Meteor’s leadership team is an industry veteran,” she says – she herself previously worked with Xennia, Plastic Logic and HP before joining Meteor. “The leadership team’s combined experience in inkjet totals more than a hundred years. It’s well-rounded with a wide range of skills and experience and a variety of personalities. We balance each other very effectively.”
Brown describes financial turnover as “low,” but says that’s not really the point: “Meteor’s stated mission is to be the world’s most admired supplier of industrial inkjet electronics, software, tools and services. We’re also committed to sustainability, a term which we broadly define to include people, profit and planet. The company is supremely ethical and always seeks to ‘do good.’ We hope this ethos is evident in all our daily decisions and deeds.”
“We have many successful products in various applications and it is difficult to pick just one,” says marketing director Tracey Brown “A notable standout is drive electronics and software for ceramic tile printers. If you see a ceramic tile printer anywhere in the world, it will more likely than not include Meteor electronics.”