Friday, December 18, 2020
Global Inkjet Systems in Cambridge is another of those world-class British tech companies that hides its light under a bushel. Or in this case, NDAs from its customers.
However, it’s been noticed enough to net two Queen’s Awards in its 16-year life: first a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for International Trade in 2013, then a Queen’s Award for Enterprise 2018 for International Trade, in recognition of outstanding growth in its overseas markets from 2015 to 2017.
GIS develops the vital components that make inkjet printers work: drive electronics, ink delivery systems and front-end control software. Customers include major OEMs, machine builders, system integrators, fluid developers and large end-users, who incorporate GIS products as part of their own-badged complete systems. There are thousands of installations worldwide – if you have a high end inkjet, whether a single-pass production printer, a wide-format multi-pass machine or even a 3D printer, you could be a GIS user without realising it.
Regular readers will know that Cambridge and its surrounding villages and small towns form a hub for inkjet developers. A lot grew up to commercialise the inventions of boffins at the Cambridge University colleges, starting in the late 1960s and continuing to this day. Many are component developers, like GIS and its fellow drive electronics developer Meteor Inkjet, plus inkjet printhead maker Xaar. However Domino Printing Sciences and Inca Digital make complete digital printing systems in significant numbers. Also in and around Cambridge are Alchemie Technology (which develops inkjet systems for “difficult” substrates); Archipelago Technology (non-print inkjets and fluids); Industrial Inkjet (develops and integrates inkjets for customers but with some series production too); Matricode (coding and marking inkjets); Novalia (electronics for interactive print); ToneJet (which makes metal can electrostatic printers), and VideoJet (coding and marking).
Other print-related Cambridge companies include two previous Best of British subjects: Hamillroad (which develops advanced digital halftone screens); and RIP-workflow developer Global Graphics Software (whose parent Global Graphics PLC also owns Meteor Inkjet).
Global Inkjet Systems was founded in 2006 by Nick Geddes and Jim Brotton. Geddes had studied Computer Science at St John’s College Cambridge, though he wasn’t involved with inkjets at the time. After a few years in investment banking he returned to Cambridge wanting to pursue new challenges using his software skills. After a short stint at a software consultancy where a project on inkjet grabbed his attention, he decided to start his own company.
He teamed up with his father-in-law, Jim Brotton, an experienced electronics engineer and high-tech entrepreneur, and saw great potential for integrated solutions involving both hardware and software for industrial inkjet.
GIS was first set up in St John’s Innovation Centre, which has been an incubator site for many Cambridge success stories, moving to a series of other sites in the same St John’s Innovation Park, as the company grew. Production, R&D and commercial operations are now all housed in one building, Edinburgh House. GIS also has local representation in Japan and China, which are key business areas for the company.
About 60 people are employed today. Geddes continues as CEO, although Brotton died early in 2017. In 2010 Debbie Thorp joined the team as business development director, having previously been head of group marketing at the Cambridge printhead manufacturer Xaar. More recently the executive team was increased by Martin Hoather, joining in 2017 as chief operations officer, then in 2020 Steve Jeffels was appointed as chief financial officer.
“Being located with Cambridge does mean that we have access to Cambridge graduates, but we also cast our net wider,” Thorp says. “GIS has a very multinational workforce bringing a wide range of knowledge, skills, and experience with them.”
What does GIS make and sell?
“GIS writes software and develops hardware that can be used for any industrial inkjet solution,” says Thorp. “Our technology can now be found in thousands of printers worldwide – and across a wide range of applications. Software, drive electronics and ink delivery systems have been designed with flexibility in mind, so they can be configured for many different types of applications and markets, from high-speed, single-pass variable data to high-quality graphics printing to 3D printing.
“We supply into all sectors and are market neutral and printhead agnostic in our outlook. Our customers produce printers for a wide range of applications, from graphics printing to functional materials; from labels to printing direct to complex shapes; paper, plastic, glass, ceramics and textiles.”
There are three main groups of GIS products, which can work together in integrated systems where needed: software, drive electronics and ink/fluid delivery systems. These are predominantly developed in-house, Thorp says. “The only exception is for third-party technology that we integrate into our products – for example barcode libraries.”
The Atlas Software Suite is a range of solutions for use in digital print systems. These range from individual software components, then integrated RIP solutions, through to configurable digital front ends (DFEs). “GIS software is becoming increasingly modular and standalone – software components are no longer tied to the purchase of GIS datapath electronics,” Thorp says. “The modularity of Atlas means that we are very open to working with third-party products, including established specialist RIPs, so that we can provide a complete workflow.”
Drive electronics are what actually control the inkjet printheads. They are essentially boards that take the image instructions from a RIP and convert them into signals to fire the inkjet nozzles. This is sophisticated stuff, involving precise calculations of timings to build up images from moving heads or over moving substrates, with control of the electronic waveforms that fine tune the ink drop characteristics as they are formed by the thermal or piezo elements, chambers and nozzles in the heads.
GIS works closely with printhead developers as they create new products. Its systems can control a wide range of heads, from manufacturers including Fujifilm Dimatix, Konica Minolta, Kyocera, Ricoh, SII Printek, Toshiba TEC and Xaar. Support for Epson is in development, says Thorp.
The third branch of the GIS product portfolio is a range of ink/fluid delivery systems components that can be tailored to specific applications and printheads. “The supply, monitoring and control of inks and fluids is a vital factor in maintaining print quality,” says Thorp. “Ink/fluid pressure, temperature and flow rates need to be kept stable to ensure a consistent quality print from start-up to shut-down.”
All products are sold to OEMs and other system builders, says Thorp. “We do not build our own complete print engines as we want to partner with our customers, not compete against them. But we do offer consultancy and guidance to help customers develop and configure their own systems.”
Can she name any names? “The vast majority of our customers, over 150, want to keep their relationship with GIS confidential. Exceptions include Industrial Inkjet, with which we have been working for over 10 years; Monotech in India; and our partnership with ImageXpert, a machine vision image analysis specialist, for their ink drop analysis equipment.
“Our partnership with major players is increasing, for example earlier this year we announced a collaboration with Esko. GIS now offers the Esko DFE as an integrated component with our Atlas software. This is a pre-integrated linked Esko solution, so that users have a complete end-to-end workflow with system controls to optimise and maintain image quality.”
GIS also works with ink and fluid manufacturers, she says. “Many, often in collaboration with ImageXpert, have GIS technology in their development labs – and increasingly we work together on strategic projects. Earlier this year GIS announced a collaboration with Sakata INX for specific projects – but our work with other fluid manufacturers continues alongside this. For example, in direct-to-shape printing we are working with Momentive Performance Materials, using their UV-curable hard coats to jet protective coatings onto automotive components.”
What’s in the works?
“Our technology pushes the boundaries of what is capable with industrial inkjet and so new market opportunities are created,” says Thorp. “The R&D team is constantly looking at how digitally controlled drop-on-demand deposition can bring commercial benefits in manufacturing processes.”
One such area is direct-to-container printing, where GIS developed ways to compensate inkjet resolutions on varying shapes (such as cones). “It has taken some time, but direct-to-container printing is now a well-established market with a range of systems available,” says Thorp. “We recently upgraded the Atlas UI to facilitate direct to container printing – specifically conical and more complex container shapes.”
As for the future, “There is a lot of new technology in the pipeline,” Thorp says. “Support for new printheads will be announced before the end of 2020 and in Q2 2021; the GIS Direct to Shape Studio software for complex shapes is now available. We will be officially launching our Atlas IQ (Image Quality) Tools soon. Although these have been available for some time to our customers they are now being packaged as standalone products and include printhead linearisation to smooth out and improve variations across the printhead array; flexible printhead stitching strategies; and missing nozzle compensation.”
That virus again
Of course, Covid-19 has been an issue this year, as with everyone else, Thorp says. “Initially there was an uncertainty about the potential impact of Covid, but inkjet has proven to be a remarkably resilient sector. Naturally we have followed government guidelines, with those who can work at home doing so, but the GIS office has never closed - we have continued to ship products globally throughout the year and the R&D labs remain busy.”