Science of Printing Lab Tour Demonstrates HP’s Commitment to Inkjet Technology

by Robert Palmer | 7/19/14

I recently had the good fortune to visit HP’s inkjet labs located in Corvallis, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash., for a two-day event billed as “The Science of Printing.” The event, which took place June 26-27, offered a unique glimpse into the inner workings of HP’s engineering processes and R&D facilities.  A select group of approximately 25 industry analysts and press representatives were invited to attend the briefing, which included a whirlwind tour of various engineering facilities spanning both sites and multiple campuses.

Interspersed throughout the lab tours were sessions covering a lot of ground related to the importance of HP supplies — both ink and toner. But from the beginning it was clear that this event was designed to showcase HP’s inkjet imaging technology. Since the introduction of the original HP Thinkjet in 1984, HP has designed and developed more than 200 different inkjet printers and MFPs. That is an amazing number by itself, but what is perhaps more impressive is how far HP’s inkjet technology has progressed over the past 30 years.

The Science of Printing event offered a rare chance to talk print and imaging technology with some of the most talented and experienced engineers, ink chemists, software developers and lab technicians in our industry. As a result, both days were filled with detailed discussions covering issues such as nozzle counts, drop volumes, firing rates, ink chambers, ink formulations — you get the picture. For a printing technology geek like me, it was truly an enjoyable experience.

HP printing by the numbers

There are numerous ways to measure how far HP has advanced its inkjet technology over the years. One simple way is to look at the numbers, and there were certainly plenty of numbers tossed about during the course of the two-day event. The importance that HP places on the performance of its inkjet technology was noticeable right from the outset of our tour. Upon entering the lobby of the Corvallis facility one is treated to a visual history of HP inkjet innovation, complete with an Officejet Pro X series machine under protective glass next to an award plaque presented by Guinness World Records. In 2012, HP’s Officejet Pro X576dw received the award for “the fastest time to print 500 sheets by a color desktop printer.”

The OfficeJet Pro X576DW set a Guinness World Record for fastest time to print 500 sheets by a desktop color printer: 7 minutes and 19.25 seconds

But it is the numbers associated with HP’s inkjet print-head architecture that are perhaps the most telling. The firm noted that, under the basic principals of Moore’s Law, it has been able to double the performance of its print-head technology every 18 months. The original HP Thinkjet introduced in 1984 was a single-color printer with a print head that featured a 0.13-inch print swath, 12 nozzles, and a drop volume of 220 picoliters. Fast forward to the page-wide array printbar used in the Officejet Pro X series machines today and the difference is quite astounding: four colors, 42,240 total nozzles, an 8.5-inch print swath, a 12 Khz firing rate, and variable drop sizes ranging from seven to 10 picoliters.

Of course, HP has hit various imaging milestones over the years with its inkjet technology, and virtually all of those achievements were derived from R&D efforts at its Corvallis and Vancouver engineering labs. In the consumer space, HP has introduced six-, seven, and even eight-color photo printers, a litany of pigment- and dye-based ink formulations, drop sizes as small as four picoliters, and full-bleed photo printing quality that surpasses anything ever produced using silver-halide.

Even so, the Science of Printing event was focused squarely on HP’s more recently developed page-wide array (PWA) inkjet imaging technology. HP is clearly hedging its bets with this technology, which has already delivered significant dividends for the firm and offers even greater potential for the future. Page-wide inkjet imaging is not new—even for HP—although it is emerging in certain market segments and gaining ground in the office printing space.

As its name implies, a page-wide inkjet array is basically a series of inkjet nozzles assembled together on a single print head that spans the full width of a page. Consumer-class inkjet printers and MFPs use much smaller print heads that scan back-and-fourth across a carriage in order to image on the full width of the page. With a page-wide array, the print head remains stationary during the printing process and paper moves underneath the print head at rated engine speed, which is basically the same as a laser-based device.

But the beauty of PWA imaging technology is that it can be leveraged in products that use just a single print head, or by larger machines with multiple heads stitched together to produce even faster speeds and wider print widths.

Print Array

The 8.5-inch page-wide array printbar used in HP’s Officejet Pro X series has 42,240 nozzles

HP has already made significant strides with its page-wide array technology. The first iteration was a 4.25-inch array that featured 10,560 nozzles and was first leveraged in several HP machines spanning multiple product segments, including photo printing kiosks, inkjet web presses, and the rather infamous Edgeline MFPs. One of the highlights of the Corvallis tour was the opportunity to see HP’s T400 Color Inkjet Web Press in action. That machine is equipped with a total of two hundred 4.25-inch page-wide array print heads. That kind of scalability is precisely why HP values its PWA technology so highly.

The T400 features more than 2 million total nozzles with the ability to fire 100 billion drops per second. In other words, this is a very fast production color machine. With a print width greater than 40 inches, the T400 can print up to 100 million full-color images at 400 feet per minute. HP has several of these machines in operation in production installations, which is why it refers to its PWA technology as a proven architecture. HP claims that more than 60 billion pages have been printed using its page-wide array technology.

HP’s current-generation PWA architecture features a full 8.5-inch printbar that has been introduced in the Officejet Pro X series and Officejet Enterprise products. HP is pushing its page-wide inkjet technology into the office workgroup segment, an area of the market that up to now has been served almost exclusively by laser-based products. This is new and potentially fertile ground for HP’s inkjet technology, which explains why the firm is eager to disclose the engineering, testing, and design expertise that has gone into its development. (For more on HP’s Officejet Enterprise products, see the April issue of The Imaging Channel.)

The importance of ink

After touring the manufacturing facilities and test labs at Corvallis, we were treated to a rather provocative session explaining the importance of ink in the inkjet imaging system. HP’s R&D efforts are certainly not limited to hardware, and the firm has gone to great lengths developing proprietary ink formulations and ink/media combinations that improve the overall durability, reliability, image quality, and performance of its inkjet products. Self-proclaimed “inkologist” Thom Brown drove that point home with a couple of interesting and rather entertaining demonstrations.

Brown explained the complexities associated with inkjet imaging. He noted that jetting ink through a nozzle is equivalent in scale to using an eyedropper to place a single water droplet onto a piece of paper from 30 stories above. The trick is placing that droplet in a precise location and then accomplishing that same feat millions of time per second. I was invited to try it from one foot away and missed a one-inch square by a couple of inches.

Ink Demo

HP “Inkologist” Thom Brown demonstrates how genuine HP inks are designed to work well together

Naturally, Brown spent a lot of time focused on how HP inks are finely tuned to work well with HP hardware and to interact properly with each other. To demonstrate, Brown first made a margarita from all the finest ingredients: Patron tequila, fresh limes, agave syrup, and so on. He mixed these ingredients using precise measurements to concoct what he called the perfect margarita. Then, he invited another analyst to make his own margarita by eyeballing measurements and using “low quality” ingredients: cheap tequila, bottled lime juice, and imitation sweetener. Of course, the analogy was designed to show how third-party ingredients (or supplies) could produce less-than-desirable results.

Design, development, and testing

Day two prompted a visit to HP’s Vancouver facilities for a behind-the-scenes look at how the firm designs, develops, and tests its inkjet products. This tour covered a lot of ground (figuratively and literally) with multiple stops along the way to speak directly with lab managers, engineers and technicians. It is amazing how much goes into an individual product when you follow it through each phase, from design to areas such as QA testing, performance testing, sound analysis, and packaging.

Engineers explained how HP’s product development and architecture process is similar to that of the Toyota model. The amount of engineering that goes into the inkjet writing system can be somewhat overwhelming. At one point, a software engineer explained that there are over 30 million lines of code in HP’s Officejet firmware.

Our take

The Science of Printing event was as enjoyable as it was informative. The behind-the-scenes look at HP’s test labs and engineering facilities provided a unique perspective on the resources, expertise, and assets that HP is pouring into its inkjet product development. This is a very precise and advanced imaging platform based on years of R&D and engineering know-how, and HP continues to push the envelope by advancing the technology both in terms of capability and target markets. 

At the end of the second day, we met with HP executives to summarize the event and to discuss the future of HP printing. Naturally, much of this discussion honed in on the long-term outlook for inkjet technology — particularly HP’s ability to advance further into the traditional office-printing segment. It is interesting to see the dichotomy that exists within HP’s own ranks when it comes to this specific issue.

On the one hand, HP is the clear market leader in laser printer and MFPs with a share position that has hovered close to 50 percent since the market’s inception. Conversely, HP itself is attacking the well-established position of laser with a technology that offers many disruptive attributes: lower acquisition costs, lower operating costs, lower service costs, fewer service interventions, reduced waste, and less environmental impact. Talk about a compelling technological advantage.

HP promotes its own Officejet Pro X series products as providing twice the color speed of laser at half the operating cost. Yet, because of its dominant position with laser technology HP must tread carefully in the advancement of inkjet technology. During the Q&A session at the close of the event these issues manifested themselves in some rather interesting ways. HP engineers and ink scientists are clearly enthusiastic about inkjet and they speak freely about the seemingly limitless opportunities for the technology — and why wouldn’t they? As already mentioned, inkjet is currently used in some of the fastest digital production printing presses available — churning out millions of pages on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, HP executives and business-line managers take a much more pragmatic view — noting that its current class of office inkjet products address only a limited set of office-printing customers. HP’s official stance is that many of its customers are quite happy with their laser-based products, and the firm sees plenty of long-term opportunity for both technologies. While this might be true, it is logical that HP will continue to push inkjet technology into new office-printing segments. Based on what we saw during our visit to HP’s labs, there would seem to be few technology limitations that would keep that from occurring.

Meanwhile, HP is not the only vendor looking to push inkjet technology into the office. Vendors such as Brother, Memjet and others have invested in page-wide array technology and have introduced products aimed at various segments of the office market. Epson has made some interesting moves with its Precision Core print head technology and its WorkForce Pro series products aimed more squarely at business users. At the same time, there are a number of vendors that sit on the periphery of the office inkjet market but with numerous technology assets at their disposal.

So, what does the future hold for office inkjet? How have customers reacted to the technology thus far and what are the opportunities for further market disruption? Those questions have reached top of mind for many in our industry. To address those issues and more, BPO Research is currently developing a report titled “Ink in the Office: The Next Great Frontier.” The report will closely examine the inkjet technology landscape, product and marketing strategies, current penetration and adoption, and other variables that will impact the future of the office inkjet category. For further information on this report and to learn more about BPO Research, please contact robert@bpomedia.com.

Robert Palmer is chief analyst and a managing partner for BPO Media, which publishes The Imaging Channel and Workflow magazines. He is an independent market analyst and industry consultant with more than 25 years experience in the printing industry covering technology and business sectors for prominent market research firms such as Lyra Research and InfoTrends. In December 2012 he formed Palmer Consulting as an independent consultancy focused on transformation, mobility, MPS, and the entire imaging market. Palmer is a popular speaker and presents regularly at industry conferences and trade events in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. He is also active in a variety of imaging industry forums and currently serves on the board of directors for the Managed Print Services Association (MPSA).