Designing a Custom Digital Inkjet Solution – The Beginning

EPS Weekly is a new resource that we’re starting here at Engineered Printing Solutions. Its purpose is multifold, as it is intended to inform, educate and provide an inside look at the many factors that go into industrial printer manufacturing.  We’ll start by describing the initial steps in designing a custom industrial inkjet printer for product-marking and decorating.

This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Kevin Metcalfe, Applications Engineer in our single pass digital inkjet division. Kevin’s role is a critical one, as it primarily involves determining the process in which EPS can satisfy customer requirements when designing a machine specific to their industrial printing need(s). This involves working with all aspects of product decoration from adhesion testing, print quality, throughput requirements and any other specifications that the customer may have. A large part of Metcalfe’s expertise lies in performing extensive feasibility studies to troubleshoot potential issues related to direct-to-shape printing, such as scratch resistance, color gamut, substrate composition and contour, pretreatment methods and testing, testing and more testing.

How it Starts

The process typically begins with a set of predefined requirements from the customer. Samples are sent to the EPS facility to be sample printed, delivered back to the customer for review, and the journey toward a custom solution begins! It is during this process that a lot of discovery takes place and the relationship between EPS and the client becomes more of a partnership as new ideas are exchanged, possibilities discussed and limits pushed.

Substrate Pretreatment

Meeting our customer’s adhesion requirements is paramount, and various methods are implemented during testing to determine what will produce the best results. Corona treatment, atmospheric plasma, flame and primer are all examples of pretreatment methods utilized in acquiring necessary adhesion to specific substrates.

Meeting adhesion requirements ranges in difficulty, depending on the substrate and the complexity of the desired result. For example, while polystyrene is a simple substrate to achieve adhesion with using UV inks with no pretreatment, other substrates such as polypropylene or high-density polyethylene are more difficult and require more process development. This is what makes Metcalfe’s position a very important one.

Cost and Compromise

Sometimes the ability to produce a difficult solution for the customer comes down to capital expenditure and/or compromise with respect to what their expectations were at the beginning of the project.  While some are willing to invest in additional research & development to achieve their goals, sometimes the answer requires changing how the substrate is manufactured.

“It is a series of stages that is prudent to follow. If you haven’t dotted your I’s and crossed your T’s with regard to the process (the right ink, the right pretreatment, the necessary cure and adhesion), you can find yourself in a position where you have built a machine that does not yet meet customer requirements, so we must be thorough in our feasibility studies well in advance of building a machine.”

The Speed of Inkjet

The industrial inkjet printers built at EPS range from basic, single head monochromatic machines to complex staggered head array solutions capable of printing multiple colors, primers and clear coats.

“One of the great advantages of single pass inkjet is incredible throughput. The faster that you can run the parts beneath the print heads in a single pass formation the faster they come out the other end, while still meeting whatever other requirements that the customer may have” says Metcalfe.

EPS’s single pass applications are UV curable, meaning that the inks are cured using targeted wavelength ultraviolet radiation.

When is Inkjet the Answer?

There are many reasons to embrace digital technology for decoration over analog solutions. The desire for short runs, better print quality, just-in-time manufacturing, and quick job changeovers are just a few of the reasons to switch to digital.

The question of when to switch to digital comes down to the customer’s requirements, and whether or not these can be met via inkjet technology. The industry is still scratching the surface with regard to its capabilities. One of the more interesting aspects of Kevin’s position is overcoming a decorating challenge where there was initial uncertainty as to its feasibility.

“The challenge is both interesting and intriguing, because you’re pushing at the edge of an envelope here and the technology is constantly changing. Despite what others may say, there are always opportunities to do something more.”

What Makes EPS Different?

A history of being willing to custom design and build a machine to meet a customer’s needs clearly sets EPS apart from other companies.  Our foundation is rooted in the analog process of product decoration, and this experience informs our design choices when building a digital solution.

“At the end of the process, once all the hurdles have been cleared, every customer we partner with receives an engineered printing solution that has been purpose-built to suit their specific manufacturing and decoration needs. Once installed in their facility it is extremely rewarding to watch their decorated product racing off the end of the conveyor.”

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