Creating New Industries by Printing Beyond Paper
Direct-to-object printing means taking a 3D object—such as a mug, water bottle or football—and printing directly onto its surface, even if that surface is wavy or bumpy. The Xerox® Direct to Object Inkjet Printer that Wayne Buchar helped develop can print personalized images on plastics, metals, glass and ceramics—on demand, in minutes. Direct-to-object printing takes personalization to a whole new dimension, and it’s becoming a game-changer for retailers, event marketers and print providers. Read our interview with Wayne Buchar to learn more about his innovative mindset, and how he came up with direct-to-object printing.
Have you always been an inventor-type, Wayne? Even as a child?
Yeah, well I did like radio-controlled airplanes. I was always the youngest kid in all those societies, like the model airplane club. I built my own transmitter with my dad back when I was 8 years old. I’ve always been into electronics. Actually, in college I won a National Technology Award for my invention of an ultrasonic microscope. That’s why Xerox wanted to interview me. Because I had won that national award.
Were your parents engineer-types?
Yeah, my dad was an engineer, a software guy. He taught me at a really early age. I was tuning up cars when I was 8 years old. I mean, he just took me under his wing and taught me everything. My father also never had anyone fix anything for him, ever. Ever. So when the color TV went down, he and I fixed it. I’d sit there and watch him. And he’d explain it all to me. I remember when I was 12 years old he explained bubble memory because he was designing it and working on it at IBM. I had the real advantage of my father being very excited about explaining it all to me and just letting me do my thing with him. So it’s always been that way for me.
Tell us about your career at Xerox.
I led the scanning development organization for many years--image processing and things. I’ve always had a keen interest in innovation. Later, I was the program manager/chief engineer of CiPress. After we delivered that product, I went back to coming up with new product ideas again. This was through a program under Brendan Casey called NewStarts. That’s when we came up with the product idea for Brenva Production Inkjet Press.
There were Xerox engineers in Wilsonville, Oregon, who’d been to some conferences on inkjet printing. They said, “There’s a lot more things we could be doing than printing on paper with our printhead technology and our inkjet technology.” They really came back all on fire saying “Man, there’s just such an opportunity out there; why are we just focused on printing on paper?”
So I called up my friend David Tait, an inkjet technology business development manager in Wilsonville, and said, “Dave, do you ever get in a situation where they love your printhead but they need an engineering team to deliver a product around the printhead?” He said, “Wayne, all the time.” I said, “Next time that happens, have that customer give me a call.”
Three days later, Chuck Hull called me. He had invented 3D printing. He’s the guy who started 3D Systems. He called me personally and said “Wayne, I heard you might be able to help us. We can do some amazing things together. I saw your CiPress with all those printheads. You can imagine what we can do with a 3D printer.” I started getting traction, so I called the program Engineering Services, and I said, “Have people call me when they need help integrating printheads.” So we started getting calls.
What was your involvement in direct-to-object printing?
I put a team together and we had to break through some technology issues, like how do you throw drops that far? People had a lot of misconceptions about the way the inkjet was working. Even our inkjet people thought, “You’re never going to be able to do it.”
It turned out, through a lot of experiments, through a lot of understanding, we’ve learned how to throw the ink drops 5 to 7 millimeters away. Typically, you have to be between a half millimeter to a millimeter, sometimes 2 millimeters, but to be able to be 5 to 7 millimeters back, away from the object, you’re kind of in the full color digital airbrush business. And that’s what’s made the Xerox Direct to Object Inkjet Printer possible. You’re not spraying on a flat surface now, you’re spraying a curved surface, and you need to be able to throw the drops and they have to land accurately.
Do you have a vision for where this technology can go?
Oh absolutely. This is just one of several new product platforms we are developing. For instance, we came up with a printhead that’s on a robot arm and we can print on buildings and planes. We have all kinds of projects going here. That’s why I started with the Engineering Services. If you open up your doors and say, “We’re an engineering organization from Xerox, and we’re here to help,” boy, it’s amazing all the different requests you get.
Our Direct to Object Inkjet Printer really was the first product in the world, I think, that was a retail store-capable object printer. It’s such a new thing that we are still trying to understand all the applications. The applications in this space are wide open—it’s such a blue ocean since nobody’s done this before. It could go in a lot of different directions.
The Direct to Object Inkjet Printer could end up in retail stores, distribution centers and manufacturing plants. This technology, of being able to throw those ink drops, could also be used to replace labels in factories. We are working on what could be a smaller version of it right now and a potentially lower cost. As well as where you have versions of it that can move upstream into manufacturing buildings.
The biggest pull right now has been graphic artists who want to show what they’ve developed. As an example, they may have created a series of new logos for a customer and they want to be able to print on objects. Today they’ve got to go out and get stamps made. They’ve got to get labels, stamps or decals made. It’s quite a long process. And then the customer says, “Yeah, but I don’t quite like the color. Why can’t you put a couple stars up in the right corner or something like that?” The designers have to go through that whole process again. With the Xerox Direct to Object Inkjet Printer, you can just put the objects in the printer and, two seconds later, you can see them. The graphic designers can show their customers what it looks like if they make that change. And that is a huge one. That’s probably going to be the killer app for this thing: graphic designers.
We’re also finding we have a lot of interest from sports venues, like ball stadiums or soccer stadiums. They like the idea that you can put it on wheels and roll it into a stadium, or roll it into a tradeshow, move it around. We have a couple of cruise ships that are interested in putting one or two on a cruise ship so people can record their memories. There’s nothing like this out there, so we’re getting pulled in a lot of different directions.
Could this be a precursor to 3D printing?
That’s really a good add because when one of the big retail store customers saw it, they thought, “This makes so much more sense than trying to 3D print things. This is printing on 3D things.” And it can be done in under a minute, versus having to wait a day to get a 3D-printed object. And then you have to get a 3D object out of its form basically because a lot of times it’s wrapped in wax, and then you have to put it in acid. So I get that feedback, absolutely.
The Xerox Direct to Object Inkjet Printer is based on our own patented printhead technology and we have very unique printheads. They’re stainless steel brazed with gold. And, you know, that gets a lot of people interested in working with me in engineering services. Because we have no plastic in our printhead ink path, we can spray acids and all kinds of different fluids that nobody else can. Also, since the printhead was designed to work with melted Solid Ink, similar to a wax, we can run it at high temperatures. Fluids get thinner at high temperatures. And one of the biggest problems with inkjetting things is they’ve got to get through those small apertures. So the fluid has to be very thin, but if you can heat up a lot of these fluids, they become very thin.
We are not aware of any other manufacturer who can run their printheads at 220 degrees Fahrenheit, and that gets you so now you can print things for the medical industry. Now you can sterilize the items you are printing with because the printhead can run above boiling temperature. Who would have ever thought all that when we were talking about printing with wax? The fact that we learned how to print Solid Ink has given us the basis to move into all these other markets.
Agents of Change
We’ve all changed the world. Every one of us. With every breath we take, our presence endlessly ripples outwards.
But few of us have the opportunity to change many lives for the better. And even fewer are challenged to do so every day. That’s the gauntlet thrown daily at Xerox research scientists – to try and effect change.
In return, we give them time and space to dream. And then the resources to turn dreams into reality – whether they’re inventing new materials with incredible functions, or using augmented reality to bolster the memory of Alzheimer’s patients.
We’re proud of our Agents of Change in Xerox research centers across the world. Here are some of their stories.