Memjet eyes commercial print sector

By Simon Nias, Monday 05 May 2014

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Memjet, the San Diego-based inkjet printhead developer, is on the move again – not physically but strategically – as it targets the commercial print space.

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Memjet Aspen print engine

The firm, whose Waterfall technology had initial success in the office and label printing space before its breakthrough year in wide-format in 2012, has just released a second-generation print engine aimed at commercial print applications.

The Aspen Print Engine, which supersedes the Production Class model, can print up to 225ft/min at 1,600dpi in full colour across a 220mm web or, by mounting two engines side-by-side, a 432mm web. Aside from the Delphax Elan, which was unveiled at Drupa but has yet to actually achieve commercial launch, this represents Memjet’s first foray into the commercial print market.

As ever, Memjet’s strategy is to develop the core print technology and rely on OEM partners to build products around it to bring it to market. In this respect, the Aspen’s 225ft/min running speed, although an improvement on the 160ft/min Production Class, is some way short of the 800-1,000ft/min speeds of high-end digital inkjet web presses from the likes of HP and Kodak.

Memjet Labels vice-president of engineering Tom Roetker says that the firm and its partners would target the mid-market, where they will look to convert analogue processes to digital and take on rival digital devices in the toner space. 

“The target to get to, to really be viable, is 300ft/min, and this gets us quite a bit closer to that number,” says Roetker. “We now have several OEM partners working on products on the commercial print side.

“We’ve changed the electronics architecture and the software to go with it to allow us to continue to increase our speed; we’re not shooting for 1,000ft/min, but we’re looking to improve our speed so we can go for those customers who wouldn’t be able to afford a $1m-$2m (£600,000-£1.2m) press but could afford a sub-$500,000 press.

“There are a lot of customers that could use this kind of product, both in label printing and commercial printing, but may not have 1,000ft/min demand at the moment. This allows them to get in at an affordable price point where they have a decent amount of demand, but not up at the high volumes that these other presses are suitable for.”

Roetker cites applications such as transactional printing, booklets, brochures and newsletters with short runs and a lot of variable content. “It’s going to allow variable data that you can’t get with flexo machines or offset, and they can compete with cost-per-page on the other digital machines but at a lower entry price,” he says.

Unproven technology

Infotrends director of on-demand printing and publishing consulting service Ralf Schlözer agrees with Memjet’s assessment of the market opportunity, although he points out that the firm’s Waterfall technology remained unproven in this space.

“The technical specifications, the slim build and the now increased speed of the head mean it would certainly fit the bill for many applications, and few need speeds or resolution beyond what the Aspen would offer,” he says. “However, the running cost and the reliability of the heads will be critical for the printing industry and unfortunately there is no product for commercial printers to judge this on.

“The Delphax Elan is late to the market, given the original schedule announced at Drupa 2012. As proposed, the device would have an excellent price-performance ratio, although at the expected print volumes the cost of ink and printheads will be more important.”

Roetker says Memjet’s cost-per-page based on its ink and printhead costs would be “competitive” with other digital machines, despite its printheads having a relatively short life of around seven litres.

“Our head is disposable and is not going to last as long as those long-life piezo heads, but Memjet heads are inexpensive by comparison. We factor the head replacement cost into the cost-per-page,” he says.

“I think we’ll be competitive or below where the [other] digital people are. We’re not going to be down to offset on an ink cost-per-page, but I think it’s going to be in a competitive range, which in general, from what I’ve seen, is from $0.01-$0.03 per page.”

Memjet currently has two existing OEM partners and four brand new ones working on Aspen-powered products that are due to be announced later this year. Roetker wouldn’t be drawn on the identity of any of the partners or the specifics of their products, although he does confirm that one partner has “a lot of finishing expertise”.

He adds that the Aspen could be mounted on a single station on a flexo or offset press, but says that the sales channel for any such product would still be through the OEM route rather than Memjet doing the integration itself.

Memjet has also completely overhauled the electronic and software components of the print engine to enable more precise dot placement and screening techniques to be used, leading to improved image quality.

“The RIPs can now do more manipulating of the image to improve quality and the printer will take variable data at full print speed, unrestricted, so that gives a lot more control to the user over what shows up on page,” says Roetker.

The proof will be in the products that Memjet’s OEM partners are due to announce later this year. And while Memjet’s technology has taken the office and more recently the wide-format market by storm, that is no guarantee of success in the commercial print space. “Overall I believe that Memjet heads in production have potential, but there are many details a production device needs to perform on,” says Schlözer. “There is no guarantee that a technology that works in office or departmental printing will make a good production product.”  

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