Ink jet set joins space age

Steve Homer is amazed by the development of the brainiest printers ever
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The Independent Culture
Twenty years ago, a Hewlett Packard researcher discovered ink jet printing. He accidentally heated a syringe with a soldering iron and a small globule of ink shot out of the end as the fluid inside heated up. A lightbulb went on in his head and a whole new style of printing was born.

In the last 10 years, Hewlett Packard has sold more than 75 million ink jet printers. Today the company is launching a new type of ink jet printing - and, in the meantime, the technological advances have been nothing short of amazing.

The new system, unimaginatively called the Modular Ink Delivery System, separates the main parts of the ink jet system - the ink and print head. But more than that, Hewlett Packard has given these components brains.

Traditionally, an ink jet printer head has been physically part of the ink cartridge. When the cartridge was empty the whole thing was thrown away. With the new system, Hewlett Packard has split the two. The result is a lighter print head, which means it can move faster and thus print more clearly. Additionally, as the print head can last as long as the printer, the print head itself can afford to be more sophisticated.

On the new printers, due in the shops this August, there are four print heads - one for black and each of the three primary colours. Each head contains 304 tiny holes, significantly smaller than a human hair, that shoot out a tiny drop of ink 12,000 times a second. The firing chambers on the print head are part of the chip that controls it. This is so clever that, if one of the 304 nozzles gets blocked, it can adjust the output of adjacent nozzles to correct the problem.

"I am sure the inventors of the original ink jet technology would be amazed at that," says Dr Evan Smouse, writing system research manager at Hewlett Packard's advanced research laboratories, the man behind the new system.

Hewlett Packard has used electronics as never before in its new technology. It has built its so-called "smart chips" into both the print head and even into the ink cartridges. This means the cartridge can tell the user how old it is and when it is running low on ink. The cartridge and the print head can even talk to each other. For example, if the flow of ink to the print head is not fast enough for a heavy print job, the print head can send a message to the ink cartridge to increase the ink flow.

The new printer will cost around pounds 500 plus VAT but is five times faster than Hewlett Packard's biggest-selling small business printer and costs little to operate. With performance and running costs key factors in the business market, Hewlett Packard is convinced it has a winner.

And the firm believes that it won't be long before domestic users start looking at this technology - and that it could well find its way into many specialist printing opportunities.