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16 December 2009
Ink drops emerging from a bank of inkjet nozzles
by Steve Hoath
Industry could soon be producing complex electronics and hi-tech gadgetry simply by pressing the print button.
A consortium, led by the University of Cambridge, has been awarded a multi-million pound grant to investigate how ink-jet print technology could revolutionise manufacturing processes. The group, headed by Professor Ian Hutchings of the Department's Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), has been awarded £5m by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The consortium comprises collaborators from two other Cambridge departments, the Universities of Durham and Leeds, and a group of nine companies which include the major UK players in the ink-jet sector.
The £5m award, with additional funding from industry, will support a five-year programme of research to study the formulation, jetting and deposition of specialist printing fluids, and develop an overall process model. This work will improve the robustness of industrial ink-jet printing and help companies develop new applications for the technology. Ink-jet technology involves the generation, manipulation and deposition of microscopic drops of liquid under digital control.
The speed and quality of its printing have allowed ink-jet to dominate the home PC printing market, and the fact that the process can be ‘scaled up’ means it is moving into the professional printing sector too.
What makes ink-jet so fascinating is that the same technology that is used for printing pictures and text can also be used to manufacture high-value, high precision products such as flat-panel displays, printed electronics, and photovoltaic cells for power generation. But as Professor Hutchings, head of the IfM’s Production Processes Group, explained, these exciting possibilities may only be fully realised if we have a better understanding of the science.
“In many ways the development of ink-jet technologies for industrial applications has moved ahead of our understanding of the basic science, and that is what the new research programme will tackle.
“By extending the existing benefits of ink-jet methods to attain the speed, coverage and material diversity of conventional printing and manufacturing systems, we can transform inkjet from its present status as a niche technology into a group of mainstream processes, with the UK as a major player.
“But in order for this transformation to happen, we need a much better understanding of the science underlying the formation and behaviour of very small liquid drops at very short timescales, and to widen the range of materials which can be manipulated in this way. “ Cambridge was the home to some of the earliest work on ink-jet printing at Cambridge Consultants in the 1970s, and the East of England now contains a cluster of world-class companies exploiting this technology.
The city also houses the Inkjet Research Centre which was set up in 2005 within the IfM to study generic scientific problems of ink-jet printing.
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