［What is “ Inkjet Technology”］Watanabe:I’m here today to ask about inkjet technology. When most of us hear “inkjet”, it brings to mind technology used in home printers, for printing on paper. Is that accurate?
Aihara : As you point out, usually when we think of “inkjet”, what comes first to mind is probably household printers. In fact, though, inkjet technology is more than that. In addition to printers for the home, inkjet technology can be found in use all around us and those uses are quickly expanding.
Watanabe : Really!
Aihara : Yes! Inkjet technology has a significant advantage in that it is capable of meeting growing needs as times have changed. For example, as the Japanese character included in the word “print” indicates, in the past printing commonly involved creating a single die, like a stamp, which would then be used to print large quantities.
However, many industries are looking for greater flexibility today—the ability to change or quickly update designs to meet individual needs or specific schedules. In that sense, inkjet technology is both inexpensive and fast, requiring no physical “die” and making it possible to create new designs—even a single copy—simply by preparing the right data.
Watanabe : That sounds convenient! More specifically, where is inkjet technology actually used?
Aihara : I think it’s easy to picture inkjet technology’s publishing-related uses, such as photographs and pamphlets. But it is also used in fashion, including clothing, shoes and bags; in beverage and food packaging; as well as for wallpaper, tile and even chairs and other furniture, not to mention smartphones, automobiles and other machine-made goods. In other words, it can be found just about everywhere in our lives, from food to clothing to shelter.
Watanabe : That really does cover just about everything! Still, just thinking of some of those possibilities, they must involve printing on a wide range of materials and shapes—isn’t that difficult, and is there a technology that can handle all of them?
Ito : There is indeed! We’ve put together some typical samples for you to look at while we explain the technology.
Watanabe : Great! Let’s see, over here we have some fashion-related items—shoes, cushions and so on.
Ito : That’s right. In fact, in some cases inkjet technology is used to make products for famous brands everyone has heard of. In order to accurately reproduce the beautiful colors and fine gradations of the designs created by professional designers, and turn them into products, we use inks developed specifically to best match the fabric being used. Luxury brands focus on small-lot production of items designed for each season, rather than mass production, and that is where the advantages of inkjet technology really come into play.
Watanabe : Wow, so inkjet technology is sometimes used even with brand merchandise? I had no idea. In fashion, though, materials vary—fabrics can be silk, or cotton, or even synthetics—and some, like leather, have textured surfaces. Does that mean you have to develop a variety of inks for different uses?
Ito : That’s right. Some products are heated as part of the molding process, so we have to develop and offer the best possible ink for each type of material and process. Part of our future R&D effort is aimed at developing a single, all-around ink that can be used on anything.
Watanabe : That’s amazing! Aside from their use in fashion, what other kinds of inks are there?
Ito : Inks can be broadly classified into two types: water-based and oil-based inks.
Next, we have UV ink, which is fixed by ultraviolet light and used mainly on plastics and similar materials. There are also metallic inks, which are used to print electronic circuit boards for smartphones and other products, as well as edible inks, which can be used to write messages and designs on cakes, or to print information directly on drug capsules to prevent accidental ingestion.
Watanabe : You can even print on electronic circuits and drug capsules? I’m really surprised to hear that inkjet technology goes beyond just printing patterns and other beautiful designs, and plays a role in the information sector as well!
Ito : Thank you. Naturally, beautiful reproduction is important and the ability to customize designs also offers significant economic benefits. For example, take a look at this tile. The surface looks like natural stone, but the pattern was actually printed using inkjet technology.
Watanabe : Wow! You’re right… it appears to have the rough texture of stone, but it’s actually smooth to the touch!
Aihara : We spoke earlier of economic benefits. For example when building a house, the homeowner can choose a design they like and have it inkjet-printed on blank tile. Only the number of tiles required for that individual house need to be made, and last-minute orders for additional tiles can be easily handled. There’s no waste at all. And since you only need to stock blank tiles, you can also reduce the risk that comes with having to carry and possibly dispose of inventory of individual designs.
Watanabe : So for companies that deploy inkjet technology, there are advantages both in terms of economics and the environment! And from the viewpoint of the customer, it’s really great to have the freedom to select the designs and materials they prefer.
Ito : There is an increasing demand for the ability to customize designs. Take the packaging of this snack, for example: inkjet technology is used to enable quick production of different designs, including seasonal and regionally specific versions.
Watanabe : You’re right! I often see special designs for Valentine’s Day, for example, or special flavors available only in limited numbers, and I always end up buying them! How are these actually printed?
Ito : To put it simply, the ink is discharged on using a machine called a printhead. For example, the SAMBA head we have here has 2,048 holes, each individual hole capable of discharging tens of thousands of ink droplets per second.
Watanabe : That many! And the holes are completely invisible to the naked eye.
Ito : To print beautiful images at a high resolution, we’ve made the holes extremely small. The ink droplets themselves are just 2 picoliters each, or two trillionth of a liter. The holes are difficult to see directly, aren’t they. (Laughs)
Watanabe : I can’t see them at all! (Laughs) Still, it’s amazing—not only do you have the ink, but also the technical ability to create such tiny holes in the printhead.
Ito : Fujifilm has accumulated knowledge and expertise in a variety of fields. These include our strengths in chemistry, which enable us to develop inks for different materials and uses; our precision machining capabilities, which led to the development of printheads that can fire ink accurately under a variety of conditions; and our proprietary image processing technology, developed through our experience with photographic film. Our strength lies in our ability to integrate all of these to provide what our customers are looking for.
Watanabe : So quality inks and printheads alone are not enough?
Aihara : That’s right. I think it might be easier to understand if you look at the trunk and the extruded model of a car we have here, for example. Sometimes in the production process, the pattern is printed first, and then the shape is transformed.
Watanabe : I see! You need to calculate the design so that it comes out correctly after the shape is changed!
Aihara : That’s correct. There are other kinds of systems for rendering three-dimensional structures, such as the inks and printheads used in 3D printers, but the very act of rendering high-resolution, beautiful images would not be possible without an advanced image processing system.
Watanabe : I see…! You really do need all three—the ink, the printhead, and the image processing system! And you have all the knowledge and expertise to do that… you really are “Fujifilm, the inkjet company”!