Best of British... The Cambridge patent factory that never stops
Wednesday, June 29, 2022
Xaar plans to extend range of products to access all digital print markets
Boffins invent ground-breaking new printing technology, patent it, get venture capital to set up a manufacturing company, and go on to global success. If that sounds like a US Silicon Valley tech legend, think again. This is the story of Xaar, a Cambridgeshire company that has been developing advanced inkjet printheads and licensing its technology worldwide since 1990. It’s pronounced “zaar,” by the way.
Xaar’s share price has been on a roller coaster ride since they were launched on the London Stock Exchange in 1997, with bad patches in 2002, 2009 and 2019-2020, and a spectacular 400% rise (and equal fall) in 2013-14. Xaar had some lean years and tech hiccups until quite recently, but it seems to be bouncing back and has recently been expanding by acquisition.
A low point came in 2019-20 as the company decided to abandon its next-generation “thin film” printhead project after spending about £60m, at the same time as the Chinese market for ceramic tile printers using Xaar heads became saturated. Covid-19 compounded this.
A new CEO, John Mills, was appointed in 2019 and he has overseen a turnaround, concentrating on developing products for both core and new markets. Revenues in 2021 increased 23% to £59.3m (not counting FFEI which was acquired mid-year). Adjusted pre-tax loss fell from £3.9m to £600,000.
“In our 2021 results, we reported that we are now two years into the turnaround of Xaar and we are extremely pleased with what we have achieved,” says Mills. “We have implemented a new strategy across the business, with a new commercial model while investing in the business. This has seen significant progress as old customers have returned and new customers are continuing to engage with us.”
Cambridge Consultants Ltd (CCL) was set up in 1960 with the notion of turning the ideas of Cambridge University researchers and graduates into commercial products and companies. It played a large part in establishing Cambridge as a globally significant centre for inkjets, developing and spinning out new manufacturing companies that sold them to the world.
These included Domino Printing Sciences, Elmjet, Linx Printing Technologies, Willett International and Xaar in the UK; Trident and Moore Business Forms in the USA; Imaje in France; and finally in 2000, Inca Digital in Cambridge.
Mills himself has worked for three of these CCL spin-offs, starting at Domino from 1994-2001, and working elsewhere in tech companies until becoming CEO of large-format inkjet maker Inca Digital in 2013, which he ran until 2018 before getting the Xaar role.
Xaar was set up in 1990 by four inkjet researchers working for CCL: David Paton, Mark Shepherd, Steve Temple and Mike Willis. In 2007, just before his retirement, Temple spoke to this story’s author about the early days of inkjets in Cambridge. He started at CCL in the late 1960s as a young engineering graduate, researching automated carpet weaving.
David Paton, another engineering graduate at CCL but 10 years older, developed a continuous flow inkjet technology, initially used for coding and marking.
Inventing piezo heads
Temple and Paton worked on separate CCL projects in the 1970s, but would share ideas and brainstorm. “It was not until the 1980s that we decided to cooperate directly on drop-on-demand, and that gave rise to the Xaar technology,” Temple said. “David had invented acoustic wave firing in 1980 before anyone knew how to build it.” Acoustic waves create precisely controlled ink drops while giving a very long head life due to reduced stresses. Sadly, Paton died in 1997.
Temple’s own contributions included the shared wall of PZT (a piezo electric crystal material) between the ink channels. “It means you can get a lot of jets onto a small volume and they do not interact.” This is still used in Xaar heads and is referenced in an animated version of the X in its current logo.
A couple of years before his retirement, Temple unwittingly caused a minor stock market flurry, when some too-clever-by-half analysts noticed that he’d sold quite a lot of shares in his own company. “Xaar must be in trouble – sell!” they thought. But the real explanation was that Temple had bought a house with an old windmill in the grounds. He sold shares to finance an expensive restoration. He’s still there and the restored Impington Mill can be seen turning on special days.
Xaar’s initial success came from licensing its patented tech to what were to become big names in Japanese inkjet: Brother, Dainippon Screen, Konica Minolta IJ, Kyocera, Matsushita Kotobuki Electronics, Oki Data, Seiko Instruments, Sharp, Toshiba TEC and Toyo Ink. Most of them still use aspects of the Xaar technology.
Today, Xaar has around 350 patents granted or pending, and has filed more than 3,200 since it was founded. Patents have a lifespan of 20 years, so early ones have expired.
Xaar bought an inkjet factory in Sweden and started making its own piezo inkjet printheads from 1999, including the successful 128 and 50x series. The 1001 greyscale head, launched in 2007, offered a further breakthrough in performance and reliability with high viscosity inks, thanks to its Hybrid Side Shooter configuration with Through Flow technology that continually circulates pressurised ink in and out of the channels and past the side nozzles. Unused ink returns to the tanks after any bubbles and particles are filtered out. The 1001 was developed into the 1002 and today’s 1003.
Xaar’s own heads and its licensees’ heads are widely used in commercially available inkjets, but details are often hidden behind NDAs. Mills says that current customers willing to acknowledge it include Kerajet and New King Time in China for ceramics (both Xaar 2002); Canon LabelStream (made by FFEI and using Xaar 2002) for labels; DP Polar, Canon Nanotec and Stratasys’s SAF technology (all Xaar 1003) for 3D; Tecglass (Xaar 2002) for glass; Videojet, Linx (Xaar 50x series printheads) for coding and marking; and Koenig & Bauer Kammann and Xaar’s own EPS for direct-to-object.
Today, Xaar has 466 employees. July last year saw the move of its HQ from a rented building in the Cambridge Science Park to a new building in the Cambridge Research Park at Waterbeach, 10km to the north. It houses admin plus a new purpose-built R&D laboratory. It’s predicted to save £600,000 a year on running , while offering a better working environment with significantly smaller carbon footprint.
In May this year, the company opened a new 400sqm technology centre in Sweden, at Campus Solna, close to Stockholm and its university. “Sweden handles the more far-reaching R&D as well as supporting customers with their project developments in some of the more difficult applications,” says Mills. “Much of our R&D is still in Cambridge.”
All manufacturing today is done in Huntingdon, 30km up the A14 from Cambridge, where Xaar has invested more than £70m since the plant opened in 2007. The original Swedish factory was closed in 2016.
July 2021 saw Xaar’s acquisition of FFEI in Hemel Hempstead, the manufacturer of inkjet label presses and life sciences imaging that’s the ultimate descendent of scanning pioneer Crosfield Electronics. It developed the Xaar Versatex “out of the box” print engine launched in March 2022.
In March this year, Xaar acquired the twin companies Megnajet and Technomation, which make ink management and supply systems.
Previously, in 2016, Xaar bought the US company EPS, which makes direct-to-object printers based on Xaar heads.
Xaar 3D was a joint venture with Stratasys which developed a 3D printer using Xaar heads in a new process called High Speed Sintering. It sold its share to Stratasys last October for £24.9m plus royalties for 15 years.
“Xaar has not stopped developing 3D printing capabilities and technologies with numerous partners, with a wide variation of technologies,” says Mills, pointing to the 1003 and Nitrox print heads that can jet highly viscose fluids needed by 3D processes.
In a video aimed at shareholders released in March 2022, Mills outlined a goal to “extend the range of products to access all digital print markets”. Underpinning this strategy is ImagineX, a new bulk head platform which uses knowledge gained from the abandoned thin film project.
“Our ImagineX printhead platform delivers unique capabilities – 720dpi print resolution, ultra-high viscosity and high laydown technology printing at speeds of up to 100 metres per minute,” Mills says. “It is the foundation of our product roadmap.”
The first three ImagineX heads, launched in 2020 and 2021, are the 2002 for glass and ceramics markets; Irix for secondary packaging and direct-to-object work, which allows “long throw,” for curved and uneven surfaces; and Nitrox, for high laydown applications including 3D and additive manufacturing. Nitrox will fit printers that use 1003 heads, but its higher frequency (48kHz) gives 40% greater print speeds.
Mills has revealed that “ultra-high frequencies” of 58kHz and 150+kHz are in development for high-speed printers. Also coming is a doubling of native resolution to 1,440dpi.
An important ImagineX development due at the end of this year is aqueous inkjetting, for the first time from Xaar. This is currently in beta and Mills predicts that its ability to print highly viscous inks will have a large impact on packaging and labels, as an environmentally friendly, food-safe alternative to UV-cure.
“The Xaar Nitrox, Xaar 2002 and Xaar 1003 are central to our printheads business and provide flexible, reliable results on an industrial level,” says CEO John Mills. “Their unique technologies mean they are capable of handling highly viscous fluids reliably, and deliver the speed and print quality OEMs and UDIs demand.”