The MEMS effect
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By Sophie Matthews-Paul
2 May 2012
The S-40 is the first Inca Onset model to incorporate MEMS with Fujifilm Dimatix's Sapphire QS-256 print-heads
One of the acronyms we're hearing bandied about, particularly as many of us are heading off to drupa, is MEMS. Short for Micro Electro Mechanical Systems, in ink-jet terms it uses semi-conductor manufacturing and incorporates silicon-based technology to provide a compact and tough print-head. This has to have a close relationship with the ink, making sure it only goes where it's meant to, and ensuring that in operation the piezo actuator can provide the necessary dot placement with exacting precision at the highest speeds.
In industry terms, MEMS has been allied to print-heads for quite a while. The focus has tended to be on speed and types of array; but, if we count up the number of wide-format devices which include them, thus far there haven't been that many. Back in 2006 HP started making noises about its own MEMS technology but it wasn't for another three years, when the HP Scitex FB7500 was announced, that we saw these print-heads make a public appearance. Time moves on, and this original flat-bed machine has now been superseded by the FB7600 with the addition of a few extra bells and whistles, including white ink.
If we take this platform as an example, its print-head arrangement is a complex one, so it needs to be reliable and trustworthy. Even though replacing the heads can be done by the user, no-one wants to elicit a ton of downtime by continually having to lift the bonnet of a printing machine and tinker with its innards. So HP has finely honed its X2 products to be highly durable and able to deliver the demanding and consistent flows of ink which are essential in high-speed print environments.
Other manufacturers have announced MEMS print-heads in this period, of course, and one which probably sticks in the minds of most people is Memjet, whose Waterfall print-head technology is making its way into various narrow- and wide-format devices, including the Excelagraphix 4200 from Xanté. Nonetheless, it is in the office and label printing sectors where Memjet's heads have made most impact and where speed tends to reign over photographic quality when it comes to output standards. In recent times we've been reading about the Delphax Elan and the Own-x SpeedStar printers and, at last year's IMI Conference in Portugal, much was made of Lomond's adoption of MEMS technology, courtesy of Memjet. At the time we were told that, following the EvoJet office printer, we'd see new developments this year including, albeit in Q4, a wide-format machine.
Dimatix's name is also synonymous with MEMS print-heads, and among the flood of B2 digital presses making an appearance at drupa is Fujifilm's J Press 720 which incorporates the company's Samba print-heads. We first saw these four years ago and now we should get the opportunity to witness them in action in this 1,200 x 1200dpi greyscale device. Fujifilm Dimatix's MEMS technology also appears in the Onset S-40, the first Inca platform to incorporate the Sapphire QS-256 heads.
Fujifilm Dimatix has concentrated much of its MEMS developments towards more specialist deposition, such as in the electronics and biotechnology fields. There are areas where accuracy and robustness rule over colour accuracy, and present an excellent opportunity for using ink-jet technology to work with fluids such as with photovoltaics and printed circuits.
But are investors in wide-format digital printing technology really going to be sucked in by MEMS technology above more established elements that have become part and parcel of ink-jet developments as the years have passed? Do we become ever more jaded whenever a new revolutionary feature is waved in front of our faces? And does pragmatism rule when we want to think in practical terms about our expectations in printing equipment?
Companies have dabbled with MEMS, including Durst which has 'elements' in some of its Quadro Array Technology, the former Rastek whose T600UV originally was trumpeted with these heads before changing to more conventional greyscale options, and L&P Digital Virtu's HD8 which never came to market prior to the printers metamorphosing into Spühl and, more recently, Polytype. Noticeably, less public fuss is being made of MEMS nowadays, to the point where HP Scitex no longer seems to mention it on its documentation for the FB7600.
What end users want is reliability combined with consistent quality, without any nasty surprises. The life expectancy of piezo-electric print-heads is not a given and the increasing complexity in design and construction puts pressure on manufacturers to get their products right in terms of longevity and dependability.
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