It’s pretty incredible to think that the history of Kodak’s inkjet business dates back half a century, to Mead’s ‘jet ink transfer’ solution for military mapping.
While the business has been through a number of changes of ownership in the intervening period – and indeed nearly underwent another one this year before Kodak decided to retain it – what hasn’t changed is an ongoing quest for innovation. Invention being something that seems to be firmly embedded in the DNA of Dayton, Ohio, which has long-established itself as something of a hotbed in this regard. As well as being home to the inventor of the cash register (in 1879), and to aviation pioneers the Wright brothers, the city has also been able to claim the most patents per capita anywhere in the world.
Kodak itself has more than 700 patents relating specifically to inkjet technology, some of which are detailed in the ‘wall of fame’ at its Dayton facility, which as it happens features Randy Vandagriff, who is freshly appointed as chief of its Enterprise Inkjet Systems division (EISD) but is a 35-year veteran of the business.
What is palpable is the sense of positive energy emanating from Vandagriff and his team, despite the recent hiatus.
“We have a culture here where everyone gets together and says ‘we’ve got to get this done’,” he says. “Maybe it’s about the Midwest, too. People want to be here, there’s a certain level of commitment for the long-term.”
Vandagriff believes customers were not unduly unsettled by the protracted and ultimately fruitless sale process, and describes them as “very supportive” and happy that Kodak has retained the business, although Kodak also admits it will have lost out on some sales during the process.
The EISD is now intent on delivering on its strategy – firstly to expand the market for the established Prosper high-speed inkjet technology into a variety of packaging applications, while continuing to convert existing offset and electrophotographic pages to inkjet (see boxout).
Secondly, to bring its new Ultrastream inkjet technology to market by harnessing the capabilities of OEM partners, allowing Kodak to attack a diverse range of markets that it couldn’t go after directly by itself.
“We can get that scale through OEMs. We looked for seven or eight but actually have 19-20. The interest is there,” Vandagriff states, saying that commercial print and packaging are likely to be the first areas targeted. The crowded wide-format market “is not an initial priority”.
In all cases the aim is to capitalise on Kodak’s use of “innocuous” water-based inks, and ability to print onto coated stocks as well as flexible films, which it believes is “revolutionary”.
Kodak will also work with a partner to develop its own next-generation inkjet press [based on Ultrastream]. This is on a roadmap but not scheduled.
Ultrastream heads are 100mm wide and print 600x1,800dpi at up to 150m/min. Kodak believes the image quality is “unprecedented” and samples seen by PrintWeek look impressive. Whereas with Stream technology the smaller drop sizes of 3pl are discarded, with Ultrastream the opposite applies and Kodak uses the small drops, of circa 4pl.
Ultrastream uses a ‘rail and nest’ system and is simpler and more compact than Stream.
“With Ultrastream it doesn’t matter how many nozzles you have, it’s just one electrode. That’s one of the real advantages. It’s simpler for us to build and for customers to use,” Vandagriff explains. “We’ve gone through the analysis and feel we are competing with drop-on-demand technologies, because you’d have to buy two of those versus one of ours.”
The company plans to monetise Ultrastream through the sale of equipment to OEMs, the annuity stream for printhead refurbishment, ink sales and/or royalty fees for qualifying third-party inks.
And as Kodak prepares to be honoured with an exhibit at the Carillon Historical Park, Dayton’s homage to homegrown technology development, Vandagriff says the firm is gearing up for the next 50 years. “There is a sense of people and culture here, and they have the belief, energy and commitment.
“A trillion pages are printed digitally today, and there are still trillions of pages to go – it’s not how many customers it’s about how many of those pages I can get.”
Kodak’s planned inkjet push
Commercial printing Focusing Prosper presses and imprinting heads on areas of highest differentiation – speed and quality, plus ability to print onto coated stocks
Carton packaging Targeting ‘production digital’ space for mass market customisation of packs. US printer Zumbiel Packaging began installation of the first Prosper for carton packaging last month
Perfecting at the folder Using Prosper heads attached to folders to vastly simplify the process of printing offers and promotions on the reverse side of cartons
Flexible packaging/labels First customer signed up for Uteco Sapphire Evo digital flexible packaging press incorporating Prosper 6000S hybrid unit. The target is printers producing between 5 million and 12 million square metres per year
Ultrastream Target markets for next-generation inkjet tech include commercial printing, packaging, corrugated, labels and décor. Kodak has 19 OEM/end-user partners, with six named so far: Goss China, Matti Technology, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Printing & Packaging Machinery, Uteco, Fuji Kikai, and Manroland Web Systems. It is already printing test files for the first batch of partners
Décor Aiming to capitalise on inkjet’s potential to vastly reduce current levels of waste in the supply chain. Claims unique benefits compared with competing inkjet technologies that are afflicted with metamerism issues. Five of the Ultrastream OEMs are involved in the décor segment
Corrugated Kodak and Bobst have mutually agreed to terminate their co-development activities around a corrugated press. Kodak says it has “significant interest” in potential corrugated solutions from Ultrastream partners