Commercial Photo Printer The Story Behind the Development of the DreamLabo 5000
A new brand offering both high image quality and high productivity
Development of a wide print head delivering high-quality images, high-speed output
The challenge of achieving the high-speed continuous printing of high-quality images
Canon has made significant achievements not only in the area of consumer inkjet printers, but also large-format and other business inkjet printers. However, the newly developed DreamLabo 5000 marks Canon's entry into a new field. What conditions had to be met for it to succeed as a product?
Ensuring both high image quality and high productivity was essential because it is a commercial photo printer for the retail photo industry.*1 The high image quality enables photo output on par with conventional silver-halide photos as well as the printing of high-definition text. High productivity ensures that printing is fast and that the equipment runs non-stop.
Although we've accumulated "FINE"*2 technology over many years, printing high-quality images at high speeds is not easy. It was a level of technology that Canon was venturing into for the first time.
How long and how large was the development project?
I can't go into specific figures, but the period and scale of the project was of a level that doesn't even compare with projects for consumer products that I have worked on before. Creating something this new requires considerable power.
Development area: Printing process
What was the greatest issue you imagined you would face in development?
Of course, this project involved the development of a print head that would enable "one-pass printing." We used roll paper to increase productivity and adopted "one-pass printing," which requires only a single pass of the printing paper. This meant that a major issue was the need for an unprecedented wide-type print head that remains in a fixed position during paper feed to realize continuous high-quality photo printing.
To be more precise, the specifications called for a print head with a higher nozzle density that enabled a maximum print width of 305 mm. In conventional inkjet printers, the print head moves back and forth during printing so there are various ways you can go about improving print quality, but in the DreamLabo 5000 the print head is fixed. Because print quality is determined by the performance of the head itself, we faced some tough challenges during development.
I see. So does that mean you had trouble drawing out, or supporting high performance in virtually every aspect related to the print head? Such as achieving a stable paper feed and ensuring the high-speed processing of print data?
Exactly. The number of sensors and motors, and the volume of circuitry and wiring in the machine differs from Canon's consumer-model inkjet printers by an order of two digits. The total area of the control board we made to check the mechatronics portion of the prototype was around the size of four and a half tatami mats (7.425m2) (laughs).
To be honest, when I got a look at that, I thought the development would fall apart (laughs). It definitely wasn't a size that would fit inside the main unit. That was a hurdle we weren't expecting.
Mr. Watanabe, were you confident that you could fit something so large inside the main unit?
It wasn't a matter of having confidence or not. It just needed to be done. It was much later that I heard of the doubts the other team members had regarding whether or not development was even possible, and I think they were careful in trying not to lower the spirits of us in the electrical design team (laughs).
- *1 Retail photo industry
Over-the-counter and Web-based print-service business targeting the production of photo prints, photo albums and other photo materials
- *2 FINE (Full-photolithography Inkjet Nozzle Engineering)
Canon's proprietary core technology for inkjet printing
How the high-performance wide print head was developed
Now I would like to ask you about the print head, the core of this development. To what degree did you increase the nozzle density?
The number of head nozzles for each color was increased to around 100 times the number in Canon's consumer printers, and there is one print head for each of the seven colors.
That's amazing. Was it because chip production technology has advanced so much that you were able to increase the density that much without fundamentally changing the existing principle of FINE or the drive format?
I think you could say that. It was the culmination of ten years of FINE development and production. Also, a major issue with regard to print head production technology was ensuring the uniform ejection of ink droplets. We couldn't allow any variation between the nozzles or between the chips. When we affixed the chips to the print heads, we needed to make sure that there were no deviations. If we weren't able to produce these with the required level of precision, we wouldn't have been able achieve the image quality to match the specifications.
Development area: Inkjet head modules
Actually, even with such a high-performance print head, it wouldn't be possible to realize excellent printing results without establishing the necessary conditions during the operation of the print head.
What do you mean?
In order to stably eject a certain amount of ink with a certain amount of force, you need to ensure an optimal temperature within the print head and a proper level of humidity around the print head. To achieve this, it's necessary to adjust the temperature of ink supplied to the print head and the quality of the air in the print head.
It was mentioned just a little while ago about all the sensors and motors there are, and how there's a massive amount of wiring compared with a normal printer, but this is the result of all the efforts we made at every stage to maintain the right conditions for the head when printing. Even in the firmware that controls the printer as a whole, a substantial amount of development was focused on the control system for optimizing the print head environment.
DreamLabo enables the printing of small and complex text without allowing them to become illegible. Were some special steps taken with the print head to enable this?
We didn't do anything special to the nozzles or the head. We made it so that the satellite droplets, the smaller droplets that separate from the main droplet of ink that is ejected from the nozzle, lands on the same impact point as the main droplet.
Normally, with inkjet printing, which uses liquid ink, you get satellite droplets apart from the main droplets each time ink is ejected. It's unavoidable due to the printing principle involved. Until now, the location where satellite droplets landed was just a little off from where the main droplets landed, which led to misshapen dots. With the DreamLabo 5000, we've virtually eliminated this obstacle to image quality. That's why it's capable of clearly printing text as small as 3 points in size.
How did you overcome this obstacle?
We comprehensively considered interrelated factors, such as the differences in timing and direction of the main droplets and satellite droplets, the distance between the head and the paper, and the composition of the ink, and adjusted these to ensure that the droplets create true round dots.
Specialized paper and ink enabling stable high-quality images
Controlling the paper feed on a micron scale!
In order to realize high image quality by drawing out the high performance of the print head, the paper also needs to be fed with great precision, doesn't it?
Yes, that's right. The paper generally passes under the head at a fixed speed. The technology that ensures a constant paper-feed speed, regardless of differences in paper thickness and surface conditions, is not easy to achieve. Furthermore, errors can occur during feeding, resulting in slight deviations in the timing of ink ejection. If all seven ink colors are printed without addressing these errors, image quality will be reduced. To address this, we added a mechanism that measures the fixed distance of errors and makes adjustments by increasing and decreasing the ink ejection speed.
Is that a specialized paper-reading sensor and a device for detecting errors?
That's right. It's capable of detecting not only feed errors, but also the stretching and shrinking of paper. It senses errors on a scale of microns and enables paper feeding and ink discharge to be adjusted.
Development area: Electrical circuits
printing Image scanners
Despite using soft materials such as paper and ink, it adjusts on a micron scale? That's amazing precision.
In order to realize consistently high image quality for the DreamLabo 5000, we decided that it was necessary to go to that level.
If that's the case, development of specialized roll paper must have been important too.
To achieve color reproducibility and high-speed printing, the ink absorbing speed of the ink-receiving layer was increased more than ever to produce high-speed output. In addition, by fixing only the dye component of ink close to the surface of the ink receiving layer, we were able to realize stable, high image quality.
So, does this mean that there's an upper limit to the amount of ink that can be absorbed by the ink-receiving layer and anything more than that overflows onto the paper?
That's right. The mechanism of ink absorbing is that ink is absorbed into cavities on the surface of the ink receiving layer. Therefore, if the ink supplied exceeds the cavity volume of the ink receiving layer, the oversupplied ink will spill onto the surface.
However, the specialized paper used by the DreamLabo 5000 is designed with an ink-receiving layer that best matches the printing system. Therefore, high-quality images are achieved at all time without problems such as ink overflowing.
Development area: Specialized paper
It sounds simple and easy when hearing about the finished product, but ink formulation is important in order to get the best performance out of the media, which is why we made so many prototypes. Eventually, we settled on a design that balanced the two, but we were asked many times to make the ink ejection stronger as it relates to both media and ink (laughs).
Image quality is directly affected by the performance of the paper regardless of the printing method, but it's particularly pronounced in inkjet printing. Even with a high performance print head and mechanical system, if the paper is no good, image quality will be degraded.
I've heard that high-quality output also boasts excellent durability.
Yes. Because dye is fixed near the surface of ink receiving layer, it's susceptible to oxidation and light degradation. To handle this, we've also incorporated a formula including anti-oxidant agents and light stabilizer in the ink receiving layer. This makes possible highly durable output that can be stored in an album for approximately 300 years.*1
Seven-color ink system with a color gamut surpassing silver halide photography
The DreamLabo's seven-color ink system comprises seven colors, including black, cyan, magenta and yellow, as well as three lighter-color inks—photo cyan, photo magenta and gray. A number of conventional printers use twelve colors; why did you decide on using seven this time?
We decided that this was the best number of colors to realize a balance between high speed and high image quality. The three light-color inks are for reproducing light and bright colors and are not required if image quality is not of importance. As everyone knows, it takes four colors—black, cyan, magenta and yellow—to reproduce color images. However, image quality decreases when using only four colors to print at high speeds, falling to a level below that deemed acceptable for a commercial photo printer. On the other hand, what would happen if more than seven colors were used? Admittedly, image quality would improve but, accordingly, the composition and control of the main unit would become more complex and would thus affect the sale price. As a result of considering the situation from various perspectives in this way, we decided that seven colors would be best for the DreamLabo 5000.
Development area: Image-processing algorithms
I can imagine the effect that photo cyan and photo magenta would have on reproducing light and bright colors, but gray doesn't really make sense. What effect does it have?
One effect is that it makes possible monochrome photos with richer gradation. Because printer users include professionals and semi-professional photographers, we felt that it was necessary to ensure the image quality of monochrome images. Another effect is that the use of gray ink enables more stable color reproduction compared with gray produced by combining the four standard ink colors. The combined gray can sometimes appear to have a slight red or blue tinge due to a color cast by the four colors during image processing.
Based on the principles of color production, I think inkjet printers can reproduce a wider range of colors than silver halide photos can. When we measured the color expression in photos output by the DreamLabo 5000, we found that the machine delivered a level of color representation surpassing that of conventional silver halide photos, *2 which are the type of photos generally printed at stores. Moreover, in addition to a feeling of transparency, FINE technology is characterized by its ability to express depth in dark areas.
To elaborate a little, the advantage of silver halide photography is its ability to reproduce the similar depth and color that are in human memory. During development, we also carried out color processing while considering this area. As a result, we were able to reproduce vibrant colors in both bright and dark areas.
The use of gray ink enables stable color reproduction with less color cast
- *1 Estimates regarding album storage, light resistance and gas resistance (ozone gas) are calculated by Canon in accordance with the indoor thermal stability, indoor light stability and indoor ozone stability testing methods of the Digital Color Photo Print Stability Evaluation (JEITA CP-3901), published by the Standard of Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association.
- *2 As researched by Canon.
High-productivity through uninterrupted printing
High-speed processing of all data to maintain printing speed
In order to realize the high productivity demanded by customers, printing must be not only fast, but also interrupted as little as possible. This requires the receiving and processing of image data to also be carried out at high speed, doesn't it?
I'm responsible for the development of the connecting system that enables image data to be sent from a customer's existing system to the DreamLabo 5000. At the outset of development, our target was to achieve a printing speed of 44 L-size (89 x 127 mm) photos per minute, so the system needed to be able to continuously send data at a speed that makes this possible. Data is sent to the main unit via a GbE*1 wired LAN, but the most important thing was to ensure that printing would be uninterrupted. To realize this, we sought to achieve the highest possible data transfer speed over a GbE LAN.
Development area: External connection application systems
The size of the image data from digital cameras just keeps getting bigger. Can't you compress data and expand it on the main unit?
In terms of data transfer, the method for compressing data in order to make full use of the DreamLabo 5000's high image quality, high-speed performance and the degree of available LAN bandwidth within a customer's printing lab environment cannot be considered separately. Because of this, we adopted multiple transfer methods in the connecting system, enabling the customer to select the best logic for data transfer. In particular, we wanted to avoid things like compression and expansion when considering high-quality, high-speed printing.
I see. So large amounts of data sent in this way must be processed at high speed in the main unit, right? I imagine you used various methods to make this possible.
Yes, we came up with a lot of ideas. No matter how fast a single page can be printed, it's pointless if there's down time until the next page can be output. For example, the stable reception of a large volume of rapidly incoming image data requires the parallel control of hardware and high-speed processing of data analysis. High-speed image processing is then carried out and multiple server-class processors are used to ensure the flow of data does not get backed up. After performing numerous simulations, we adopted the optimal method of parallel processing. To be honest, development was difficult because, in order to ensure the continuous printing speed as described in the product specifications, from the time data is received by the main unit until the print head begins operating, the transfer speed must be at a level that easily clears the specifications.
Are there many processing steps?
It doesn't differ much from a normal printer. These steps can generally be classified into data reception, image analysis, image processing, printer designation, bitmapping, and seven-color separation. The amount of data increases as image quality increases, and processing speed is reduced as volume increases. In order to have high image quality and high-speed image processing, it's difficult to speed up processing for each step as well as the data transfer speed between steps.
- *1 GbE
Gigabit Ethernet: Collectively refers to the high-speed Ethernet standard with a transfer speed of 1Gbps (gigabit per second)
Continuous operation over extended periods without running out of paper or ink
In order to increase productivity through continuous operation over a long period, you face the unavoidable issue of running out of paper and ink. To address these two points, the DreamLabo 5000 utilizes a double paper magazine system and a double ink tank system, right?
Yes, if one roll of paper runs out and the same type of roll paper is loaded in the other magazine, the double paper magazine system will automatically continue printing. Customers can then replenish the used magazine without stopping printing. By repeating this, it's possible for the printer to continue operating without interruption due to running out of paper.
Furthermore, an optional deck allows for four rolls of paper to be loaded, enabling longer operation without hassle. And, if different types of paper are loaded, it's possible to perform a wide range of printing without needing to change the paper in the magazine.
Double paper magazine systemBy loading two rolls of paper, roll paper can be replaced without interrupting printing.
An optional paper deck enables four rolls of paper to be loaded.
What happens if the roll paper runs out while in the middle of printing a page?
There's a sensor for that. The page for which the paper ran out is then reprinted from the start of the next roll.
In order to minimize the number of times paper is replaced, the machine also includes software that automatically groups printing jobs that use the same type of paper.
That's convenient. However, don't paper jams occur if you print continuously for too long?
The roll paper we developed does not cause paper feeding troubles such as jamming brought about by paper deformation.
Of course, the feed mechanism is constantly controlled so that jams don't occur. Nevertheless, there are also cutters in several locations in the machine that, in the event of a jam, enable jammed paper to be removed manually to restore the system.
I see. Steps have been taken just in case a jam does occur. Then, how does the double ink tank system work?
We added second ink tanks between the main ink tanks and the print heads. Even if a main tank runs out of ink, printing will continue using the ink stored in the second tank. If the main tank is replaced while the second tank provides ink, it's possible to continue printing without running out of ink. Because there are seven colors, the time lost due to running out of ink cannot be overlooked.
Double ink tank systemInk from the main tank is stored in a buffer tank and then supplied to the line head.
This configuration makes possible ink replacement while continuing printing even if the main tank is empty.
Incidentally, trouble is inherent to all machines. Apparently, the DreamLabo 5000 has been designed to contribute to high productivity by minimizing downtime for maintenance, hasn't it?
That's right. We used an innovative structure that, wherever possible, groups parts of the printer into units, which can be removed by sliding them out along a rail or lifted them out with the removal of a screw.
We also established a system enabling our customers' operators to receive maintenance training from Canon.
Customers can conduct periodic maintenance and replacement of consumables by themselves. We call this an "Easy Maintenance Design."
Development area: Paper-feed mechanism
The group of developers enthusiastically engaged in the development of the new product
A large-scale project fraught with difficulties
The development project took a long time and many people were involved. I imagine that you have a few unforgettable episodes that you can look back on.
It was mentioned earlier that, because the total area of the control board was around the size of four and a half tatami mats (7.425m2), there were whispers behind closed doors that the product wasn't feasible.
The main unit's firmware, which I was responsible for, not only was large in scale, but also covered a wide range of areas. Because of that, we decided not to conduct any actual design for the first year. What we did was examine the overall configuration. We focused on finding proof of whether it was technically possible. The plan was to charge forward once we had finished confirming the viability of the technology employed. Because of this, I'll never forget having to tell our leaders, who eagerly wanted to start writing the program, that they'd have to wait a little longer.
Development area: Control firmware
I didn't know that was the strategy from the outset (laughs). On my part, I was initially at my wit's end since the prototype wouldn't work properly. Because it's such a large device, I had to oversee a variety of groups that came and went. But in the end, it turned out well. The various groups gradually came to work together and we could see where we were going. This probably led to the creation of a sense of unity throughout the development team.
There was also much confusion at first during the development of the connecting system, which I was responsible for. This project gained cooperation from elite teams throughout the company from the early stages of development, but as detailed reviews progressed, discussions between the leaders of the relevant teams began to fall out of sync. The differences grew wider and wider the more we spoke (laughs). There was a period in which aligning our direction was important and difficult to achieve.
Why was that?
The connecting system developed during this project utilized the same software configuration as that used in conventional imagePRESS*1 and imagePROGRAF*2 machines. Because of this, software engineers that were knowledgeable about these products were part of the team during development. They are all elite members who can't be satisfied by half-hearted discussion (laughs). They charge forward, focusing on the details in every discussion. This means that differences in opinion and approach are made clear, making it hard to come to an agreement. We agonized over such discussions. In the end, we created a masterpiece drawing indicating the basic design, and received the OK from all relevant personnel within the company. To create this design, we locked ourselves in a conference room for several days and worked day and night. The memory is a fond one now that I look back on it (laughs).
There are a lot of things going on at the start of a large-scale project, aren't there?
One thing I clearly remember is the first time we printed using the prototype. The ink wouldn't eject properly and the output results were terrible, but everyone cheered when the first page came out and applause echoed throughout room where we conducted the demonstration. I think that was the first step of our dream coming true.
- *1 imagePRESS
Canon business-use digital production printer for high-mix, low-volume printing
- *2 imagePROGRAF
Canon large-format inkjet printer for printing posters, CAD output, etc.
Confidence in a new product developed with passion
The new product, which was completed so painstakingly, is about to be released to the world. What wishes or requests do you have? Could you conclude by telling everyone how you feel?
More than anything, we'd like the excellent image quality to be recognized by professionals in the photo-print and printing industries. We would like them to see how quickly such beautiful photo prints can be made. In addition, we'd also like for general users to appreciate this beauty and be inspired by it.
I think photos have a certain power. A single photo has the power to bring joy to people and warm their hearts by bringing back memories. Sometimes the memories are sad ones, but photos have the power of granting courage to overcome. I hope DreamLabo can provide beautiful photos with even greater power.
I think so too. The reason is that we'll be able to provide image quality of a level surpassing the conventional image quality seen in the photo-printing industry.
It would be great if general users could specifically request that the DreamLabo be used when they want to create a commemorative album. That would mean that the addition of a double-sided printing function suitable for album printing was worthwhile.
Exactly. I'm anxious to hear what general users have to say. I believe that the day will come when DreamLabo becomes the industry standard.
I think we'll need to increase the number of paper types to achieve this. Meeting the broad needs of users in terms of paper will also be essential for DreamLabo to become the industry standard.
In addition to the expectation that DreamLabo will become the industry standard, I would be even happier if it led to the creation of new photo product-related businesses that have never existed before.
That's quite possible. I think we achieved the image quality and functionality required for that.
I understand. DreamLabo seems to have the potential to create even unknown markets. Thank you for speaking with us today.
For many years, countless developers have poured their blood, sweat and tears into the creation of a masterpiece of a commercial inkjet photo printer. The new DreamLabo brand, as its name suggests, will be a "dream machine" for photo labs. The day the efforts of everyone involved in the development pay off is just around the corner. Anticipation of that day can be read between the lines of everyone's comments.
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Interview & Composition
Born in Fukushima prefecture in 1955. Became a freelance writer in 1990 after working as an editor at a news service and publisher, and managing an editing production agency. He is active in a wide range of publications, including management information journals and job-transfer publications. In recent years, he has contributed many articles to media portal sites, with the development of technology and products as one of his main areas of focus.
- Development area:
- Paper-feed mechanism
- Development area:
- Electrical circuits
printing Image scanners
- Development area:
- Control firmware
- Development area:
- Printing process
- Development area:
- Image-processing algorithms
- Development area:
- External connection application systems
- Development area:
- Inkjet head
- Development area:
- Specialized paper
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