Fast Ink-Jet Printing Technology Is Nothing New But ‘Really’ Big News

Xerox Phaser 8560As you probably know by now, somebody (Xerox) finally introduced a high speed ink-jet page printer/MFP (as opposed to a serial line printer) for general consumption.  While it may not be the first of its kind, the fact that it’s from Xerox, replete with all the trimmings (top-notch engineering, marketing and support), makes this especially big news.

I recall that following my first exposure to ink-jet printing with the original  HP DeskJet many years ago, I thought that it was the beginning of the end of toner-based printing.  When I got a chance to see Canon’s high-speed Bubble-Jet prototype with page-width print heads in Canon’s Tokyo R&D lab in the early ‘90s , I thought that the end was surely near.

At the same time, I also realized that there was a huge “infra$tructure” already in place to support service-intensive toner-based imaging devices’  inherent reliability issues.  This led to my belief that it would take somebody from outside the established industry (e.g.: Hewlett-Packard), or a player with nothing to lose (e.g.: Panasonic) to finally get the ink-jet ball rolling.

Until recently, it never happened.  Once Canon figured out that ink-jet imaging would kill its LBP laser-printer cash cow, the Bubble-Jet popped.  HP’s attempts at penetrating the traditional office-imaging dealer market with toner-based products came and went.  Even today, HP’s Edgeline ink-jet printing system is more legend that reality, as their revenue is derived primarily from the lucrative toner-cartridge market.

We at Wirth Consulting have generally fawned over Xerox’s Phaser solid-ink devices during our repeated testing and evaluation of them.  The technology is inherently fast, especially in duplex mode because drying time is not an issue and image quality is more than competitive (as is the case with all other Xerox products).  With ink-jet imaging, there are fewer parts, and the critical components are subjected to less stress–the outcome being a device that is more reliable overall.  As I mentioned earlier, the service cash-cow is nearly impossible to kill, but Xerox managed to overcome that by compensating for that revenue with more profit from ink sticks, as ink sticks are less expensive to manufacture, store and ship than toner cartridges.  It also doesn’t hurt that Xerox has millions of toner-based devices out there generating service and supply profits with each and every page click, so they are one of the few players that can take such innovative steps that will ultimately benefit the end user.

However, we also recognize that there are still shortcomings that are inherent to ink printing technology regardless of its flavor (aqueous-based, dye-based, solvent-based, solid ink):

Permanence
Ink on paper is a natural.  Our ancestors have used this method of imaging for thousands of years.  The ink is absorbed by the media’s fibers, and is nearly impossible to remove.  Sounds great doesn’t it?  I hate to burst your Bubble-Jet but things aren’t as rosy as they sound.

Solid ink (employed by the Xerox ColorQube and Phaser products) lays primarily on top of the media and has more adhesion than absorption.  This means that it is more susceptible to cracking, scuffing and abrasion than liquid inks that penetrate deeper into the fibers of the media.  While the image is more durable than most toner-based technologies, it is difficult to write on because the surface of the media is coated with a wax-like substance.

Aqueous inks that are commonly used in consumer-based ink-jet printers are extremely sensitive to light and will fade in a matter of months if exposed to direct sunlight.

Dye-based inks solve the light fastness issue through the use of carbon-based dyes that emulate the ink formulas developed over the millennia.  Dye-based inks currently offer the best solution in terms of permanence and ability to archive images.

Solvent-based inks have superior permanence ,but their volatile compounds can cause the media to prematurely deteriorate out from under it, resulting in major problems with archiving.

How Long Will The Image Last?
The long term durability of ink printed on paper has proven itself over time.  For example, I seriously doubt that if the Dead Sea scrolls were printed using today’s technology, there would be even a scrap left for us to marvel over today.  Why is this?  Toner-based and ink-jet images stored face-to-face and subjected to heat and/or pressure can cause image transfer from one sheet to another.  Certain volatile compounds in today’s ink and toner formulas can eventually cause degradation of the substrate and presto, no more image.  The use of natural ink formulations on natural media material, bound with chemical free means and stuck on a wooden shelf in a dark place somewhere has proven itself.  This finely-honed tradition has proven time and again that properly composed analog documents can survive for thousands of years.

The Permanence Conundrum
Today’s digital printers produce images from a digital document.  These documents must be stored on digital media.  Wouldn’t you would think that this could be the solution to the issues involved in archiving documents?  However, today’s scientists are struggling with the concept of digital storage.  Here’s a few examples:  how would you print a document today that you created 10 years ago in WordPerfect (probably your resume) and stored on the ubiquitous floppy disk?   What if it was stored on a 5-1/4” floppy disk?  How many of your hard drives have given up the ghost in your lifetime?  Can your older CD-ROM drive read CD/RW discs?  Can your common “CD-Burner” read or write the DVD format which is already about to go the way of the dinosaur with the emergence of Blu-Ray and holographic storage formats?  Enough already.  Can’t you see that in this day and age, we’re still probably better off printing and storing data in the aforementioned manner that has endured over the centuries?

The bottom line is that all of the hoopla over high-speed digital ink-jet imaging isn’t new, and toner-based imaging is not going away any time soon.   Nevertheless, we applaud Xerox and its efforts that have helped ink imaging clear a couple of hurdles in a big way, and we can’t think of any better company that can achieve this.  However, the race is not over yet.

Happy Reading!
Terry Wirth

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