Fujifilm and Inca’s industrial gamble

One of the more interesting bits of hardware at last month’s InPrint show was the Fujifilm Acuity B1. In most graphics printing the machine is developed around the actual printing, which is the end goal of the process. But for industrial applications the printer has to be developed around whatever manufacturing process the printing has to fit into, which pushes up the cost of developing the print system.

Fujifilm has developed this industrial printer, the Acuity B1, in conjunction with Inca Digital, which sells it as the Onset M.

This in turn limits the scope for standalone industrial printers. Most of the current industrial printers have evolved out of wide format printing technologies or address specific markets such as printing direct to cans. However, the Fujifilm Acuity B1 does seem to genuinely go beyond this limitation. It’s a sheetfed multi pass printer that uses Fujifilm Dimatix QFR printheads, delivering 7 picolitre drop sizes. It can produce 960 dpi resolution at a speed of 200 sph in a six-pass print mode. This may all sound familiar to some readers, as Fujifilm has developed it with Inca Digital, which is selling it as the Onset M, and showed it earlier this year at the Fespa Hamburg show.

It’s built on the same platform as the Inca Digital Onset X series and has the same approach to automated cleaning and calibration. Inca Digital has really been ahead of the game in this respect, developing highly automated cleaning systems, combined with effective filtration, to ensure that the printheads are kept free of dried ink and other detritus to reduce the chance of blocked nozzles. The result is that the printheads have a very long lifespan, typically several years, saving both the cost of the heads and the production time lost in replacing them.

It seems strange to plan an industrial machine around B1, which is essentially a paper format. However, Jon Harper Smith, marketing manager at Fujifilm Europe’s Graphic division, says that it covers several market areas, pointing out that the B1 format size can be used for different things: “It’s an entry point in all of this, graphics, wide format, commercial print, packaging and industrial print.” It’s able to handle a wide range of materials, from paper through to wood, metal and plastic.

Stephen Tunnicliffe Wilson, Director of research and development for Inca Digital, says: “The M is for high resolution and high registration. We recognised that people are used to printing with offset and they want very good registration. With wide format they are used to plotter cutters like the Zund but this is much faster so we recognised that we would have to have the registration compatible with die cutting.”

However, what really makes this printer so interesting is the flexibility in the way that it can be configured. There’s an LED array on the printer carriage but the final drying takes place in a separate tunnel using conventional mercury lamps. So far the printer has been shown with UV inks, meaning LED pinning in the printer, final cure in the tunnel. But Harper Smith says that configuration could change, adding: “We could run it with hybrid or aqueous ink technology.”

Fujifilm has been tinkering with hybrid inks for some years now. The most obvious example of this is the Vybrant, a roll-fed wide format printer, which used a hybrid solvent UV ink. Mimaki, which supplied the chassis, also sold this as its SUV400 printer.

At InPrint, Fujifilm showed a number of applications for the Acuity B, including printing to metal for the elusive metal decoration market, which includes packaging items such as sardine cans. Harper Smith says: “The problem with metal dec is that you need very high resolution because a drinks container or a sardine can has a very short viewing distance.” He adds: “The other problem is the Braille effect from UV. A lot of metal dec is stamped so it’s printed flat, like a sardine can, where you have a die to make the opening. There is a very thin gap for the die so you can’t have two much film thickness.”

He suggests that this is an ideal application for a hybrid ink, for example, to modify the viscosity that the ink jets out to allow polymers to be used in the ink, leading to a lower surface topography then would normally be the case with a UV ink.

Fujifilm and Inca Digital

This printer also marks a turning point in the relationship between Inca Digital and Fujifilm, which dates back to a time when both companies were independently owned. Inca had originally partnered with Sericol, with the idea that Sericol would both supply the ink and be the exclusive distributor for a series of wide format sign and display printers. Indeed, Inca believed that it could pursue similar arrangements with other ink manufacturers in different market sectors. Consequently, it developed one of the first inkjet corrugated board printers, the FastJet, in conjunction with Sun Chemical though this printer never made it past the beta development stage.

In the meantime, Fujifilm bought Sericol and Screen bought Inca Digital, complicating the relationship. Essentially, this has left Inca Digital developing its wide format presses with Fujfilm ink and giving Fujifilm first call on whether or not it wants to sell those presses exclusively. Thus Fujifilm continues to sell the Onset X series but turned down the Spyder X, leaving Inca to set up its own distribution channel and to sell it through Screen as the W3200 UV.

It should be pointed out that Screen mainly bought Inca Digital for its inkjet expertise, rather than its wide format printers. Thus it is the Inca Digital boffins that are at the forefront of Screen’s inkjet projects, including the 2.8m wide corrugated printer being developed for BHS.

But with the B1 press, both Inca and Fujifilm are free to configure and sell the press as they like. Tunnicliffe Wilson points out: “We don’t have to sell the Onset M and Spyder X through the Fujifilm channels so we can use whatever ink we want.” This doesn’t mean that the relationship between the two companies is fracturing – just maturing. Partnerships are important in developing inkjet solutions, particularly in the industrial sector.

But this does means that both Fujifilm and Inca Digital will be able to offer customers a tailor-made solution, with the ink that best suits their application and the machine configured accordingly, but without the cost of having to develop a bespoke printer. So even though they are both selling the same printer, they will be offering very different solutions, across several markets, making this a fairly unique machine and it will undoubtedly be worth keeping an eye on the progress that the two companies make with it.

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