Mimaki Engineering started out in 1975 as a manufacturer of cutting plotters. Today the company is a leading producer of digital printers. Going from 2D to 3D was a logical step, said Mark Sollman, Product Manager EMEA for Mimaki. “We were already printing with LED UV curable ink. Printing in 3D was just a matter of adding more layers,” he told Sustainable Plastics during an interview at Mimaki Europe bv in Diemen, the Netherlands.
As a manufacturer of cutter plotters and later industrial printers, Mimaki, founded in 1975 in Nagano, Japan, focussed mainly on sign graphics, industrial products and textile. Today, Mimaki offers complete solutions: 2D digital printers and cutters, 3D printers, software and ink.
As Sollman explained, “The company does textile printing, UV, flatbed, printing, solvent, large format, small format - so we have something for every customer. Although our main business is to produce digital printers,” he said.
Mimaki, however, has long been known for its willingness to move with the times, especially where technological developments are concerned. “We are an innovative company,” said Sollman. “We were the first with a textile printer, the first with a UV printer and the first to use LED technology, so to cure ink with LED light. Currently, 8% of our revenue is ploughed back into R&D.”
With the emergence of 3D printing technology, it was therefore logical for Mimaki to explore how to enter that market. Building on its extensive experience with inkjet technology, Mimaki sought to find a way to translate that into a new, proprietary 3D printing technology. It therefore announced in 2015 that it would enter the 3D printer business - and immediately began to develop its own full colour 3D printer.
As a manufacturer of digital printers, Mimaki was already producing UV machines able to print products such as signs. Over the years, the company had developed a 2D technology to print depth on substrates. “There, the ink was deposited in only one layer, but we thought that if one layer was possible, more than one layer should also work. Because the ink is cured directly, it should be possible to build this into multiple layers,” explained Sollman. “And it was.”
The company’s technology works by jetting the ink directly onto the print bed, through a nozzle, in drops measuring at the minimum 4 picolitres. This ink is actually a very fluid ABS resin. “We have to fire small drops of ink through a nozzle, so it has to be very liquid,” Sollman emphasised. The company buys the components and then compounds these into its proprietary inks, the recipes for which are secret.
To ensure the layers adhere as smoothly as possible, the system includes a small roller, that rolls each layer flat, after which this is cured with UV-LED technology. After a layer has been printed, the table is lowered by one layer print and printing continues with the next layer. The technology yields parts and objects of extraordinary quality, with not a line to be seen.
It is not a fast process, said Sollman – that’s something that still needs to be developed – but what truly sets the technology apart is this quality and the ability these printers have to print in an unrivalled range of colours. 10 million of them, according to Mimaki. “Depending on the structure or difficulty of the objects, it could take anywhere from one up to 24 or even more hours to print. In the market, our process is still quite slow. We have to be honest about that,” he said. “But printing in full colour is what gives Mimaki an edge over the competition.”
To achieve this, Mimaki has drawn on expertise gained from 2D printing and applied it to 3D: ICC Profiling calibrates the colours in question in order to make sure that the printed colours match those of the design when viewed on a monitor. Proprietary colour management software enables colour accuracy, colour adjustments and colour matching among same printer models through equalisation (by measuring colour charts), allowing the same colour output on multiple 3D printers – no matter where in the world they are located. Some 10 million full color ICC profiles are available for printing through Mimaki’s machines.
The company has also developed a proprietary support material, which is jetted from the same nozzles as the primary resin is printed. The system’s software automatically calculates where a support should be placed and how much material to apply. Once the product is printed, the support is easily removed. “The support material is water soluble, so it can be washed away in an ultrasonic bath, leaving no trace,” said Sollman.
Mimaki currently produces a large-sized printer, a medium-sized 3D printer with a build volume of 500 by 500 by 300 mms, and recently introduced its compact model, intended as an entry-level printer that can, like the others, print an almost infinite range of colours.
And, with a street price of just €35,000, it was given a warm welcome at the Formnext exhibition in 2021. “The closest competition offers something similar for €100,000. Which makes us a very interesting option. Our first, big machine was a huge success, but it was a bit too expensive for smaller companies. So, we developed the smaller one as well,” said Sollman.
The machines all feature multiple print heads. “In the new, small machine, which has a significantly lower price and a build volume of 200 by 200 by 70mm, there are two print heads. And in each of these print heads are 4 lines. That means eight channels, making it possible to jet CMYK, white, a clear varnish and two channels for support material. The clear inks that can be jetted independently or even combined with colored ink to create translucent objects,” Sollman explained.
And, while entering a new market segment is never easy, Mimaki is satisfied with how its printers are performing in the market. The initial investment in R&D and the effort involved in launching the new products are paying off, with the development of high-quality colour printers that the market is embracing.
“Also, we already had the structure to place the machines through our business model. We sell through partners and we had that whole infrastructure set up already,” he added.