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I've seen more printhead technology breakthroughs—and newcomers—enter the ink jet printing market in the past few months or so than I've seen in years. Three notable trends are emerging: the introduction of hybrid printheads (which combine both piezo and MEMS approaches), the kind of inks that are being developed (everything from biological materials to carbon nanotubes), and what they're being used to produce.
February 19th, 2007
MEMS and Nanotech in Ink Jet Printing
Kodak recently entered the consumer ink jet printing market by introducing a new line of printers targeted for use at home. From my perspective, the most interesting aspect of this announcement wasn't the really low price of the cartridges, which is actually sort of a big deal, but the fact that Kodak is using MEMS-based printhead technology. Ok, so we've got another company offering ink jet printers to consumer; is this really that newsworthy? Well, there's a lot more going on here than meets the eye. I've seen more printhead technology breakthroughs—and newcomers—enter the ink jet printing market in the past few months or so than I've seen in years.
Of course, that immediately raises the question of "why"? Despite Kodak's focus on consumers, much of this has to do with the shift in focus away from consumer printers and towards industrial ink jet printing. And a lot of this has to do with the development of next-generation inks.
Let me take a moment to put ink jet printing into perspective. There are actually two competitive printhead technologies. This first is piezoelectric, which is primarily used by Epson, and for commercial wide format printing; think of things like billboards and really big signs. The second is MEMS; these printhead are more widely used in the printers that consumers buy. The leading manufacturer of MEMS printheads is Hewlett Packard.
What I've found so interesting to watch over the past year are three things: the introduction of hybrid printheads (which combine both piezo and MEMS approaches), the kind of inks that are being developed, and what they're being used for. As I just stated, there's a very clear shift in focus to industrial printing.
So, beyond wide format printing, how is ink jet used at the industrial level? In podcast #29, which was about lab-on-a-chip, I mentioned the fact that biochips—a competitive approach to lab-on-a-chip (which is a MEMS device)—have long been ink jet printed. More recently, there's been a shift toward printable electronics, such as OLEDs (Organic Light Emitting Displays). An emerging biggie, in my opinion, is the ink jet printing of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags. And that's just the beginning.
What's the common thread here? It's the ink. It's been demonstrated that ink jet printers can work successfully with anything from biological material to carbon nanotubes. In fact, nanoparticle-based conductive inks are proving to be very useful in many different areas, and my view is that they could potentially play a significant role in wireless sensing. From what I've seen recently, in some instances, conductive ink could very well limit the use of several MEMS devices in a number of applications. This is something I didn't expect, but in looking at what's being developed, and the intended use of these products, it makes sense. But, isn't all bad; in other respects, conductive ink could also help drive the growth of wireless MEMS sensors.
I'll talk more specifically about RFID, conductive ink, and wireless sensing in upcoming podcasts, but from my point of view, they're all becoming increasingly interrelated, and the starting point is ink jet printing. So, Kodak's announcement is just one more piece of a very interesting trend.
This article is a transcript of the Bourne Report Podcast #32.
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