(INTERVIEW) Strategic Acquisition Bolsters Xaar’s Fluid Management Expertise

In a recent discussion, key figures from Xaar and Megnajet gave more detail on the rationale and outcomes following Xaar’s acquisition of Megnajet last March. Mike Seal, Megnajet’s General Manager, with a rich 18-year tenure at Xaar prior to the acquisition, noted the strategic alignment, stating that the acquisition was orchestrated to garner “expertise within fluid management systems.” He highlighted Megnajet’s crucial role in crafting fluid management systems vital for creating jet printheads and other related systems.

Charlotte Baile, Head of Marketing at Xaar, was also present during the discussion, underscoring her role in orchestrating marketing strategies across the group. The conversation depicted a strategic move aimed at consolidating expertise and fostering symbiotic relationships to drive innovation in the jet printhead and fluid management spheres. The acquisition also interestingly positions Megnajet in a quasi-independent stance, continuing to supply to other entities, thereby widening Xaar’s operational horizon and fostering a competitive edge in the market.

Xaar Aquinox printhead. Photo via Xaar.
Xaar Aquinox printhead. Photo via Xaar.

Read more in the 3D Printing Industry Executive Interview series. 

Xaar Expands Fluid Management Capabilities with Megnajet Acquisition, Aiming for Additive Manufacturing Prowess

Xaar’s strategic acquisition of Megnajet underscores its ambition to broaden offerings to its OEM and User Developer Integrator (UDI) clientele, laying a foundation for a strong foothold in the additive manufacturing sector. 

Megnajet, a 12-year veteran in crafting fluid management systems, has gradually shifted its focus towards additive manufacturing. “These systems are being utilized within additive manufacturing, 3D is no stranger to Megnajet,” noted Seal, emphasizing the company’s evolution in sync with industry demands. With a modest yet adept team of 18 based in Kettering, Megnajet, now under Xaar’s aegis, aims for a significant upswing in its operational capacity.

Baile elucidated the synergy, stating, “It’s really about broadening the offering to our customer base and helping our OEMs really get to market more quickly.” The acquisition followed a previous procurement of FFEI, demonstrating Xaar’s structured expansion strategy. Both acquisitions align with Xaar’s CEO, John Mills’ vision, to foster a conducive ecosystem for OEMs and UDIs, accelerating the journey from concept to market.

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Xaar and Megnajet: Banking on Fluid Management Expertise

Baile mentioned that additive-related business is becoming a significant part of their operations. She emphasized, “Much of that has to do with the ability that we have to handle quite difficult fluid, which is a competitive advantage in the 3D printing space.”

Seal delved into the technical specifics explaining the mission to ensure continuous fluid supply to the printhead for consistent output. He outlined the focus on reliability, functionality, and compact design in their systems, ensuring control over fluid parameters like pressure, temperature, and recirculation rate. Highlighting the transition of inkjet technology from desktop to industrial applications, he noted how single-pass printing technology revolutionized inkjet’s industrial adoption. 

In the realm of 3D printing, Seal underscored the importance of reliability, stating, “If you have one or two defects, you compromise the functionality. Reliability is paramount for 3D, which is why we think that our system is an absolutely key piece of the puzzle to ensuring a good yield.”

The quest for reliability in additive manufacturing is leading the industry towards more sophisticated fluid management systems. The Megnajet General Manager gave some insights into their technology is poised to address these challenges.

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Seal explains that their approach is primarily “led by the printhead technology,” where innovations like recirculating fluid around the printhead ensure each nozzle is supplied consistently to minimize variability. He states, “Each of those individual nozzles is being supplied with exactly the same thing across the entire printhead.” This advance necessitates a more intricate management system to control recirculation rate, pressure, temperature, and filtration to prevent nozzle blockages.

The technology also boasts a self-communicating feature to adapt to the variability in the printing process, aligning the system’s speed with the printhead’s usage—whether it’s using “10% of the nozzles 10% of the time” or fully operational.

Seal mentions a transition from older inkjet technologies to a more reliable industrial tech, as OEMs focus on their own core competencies. They often seek “off-the-shelf expertise to modify or create solutions suitable for applications,” he says, underscoring an opportunity for fluid management systems like theirs to expedite the time to market for new machines.

Inkjet technology in additive manufacturing faces hurdles, notably in handling diverse materials required for 3D printing applications. 

Seal underscores the nuances of material handling, stating that the “functional nature of those materials” demands advanced technologies capable of dealing with high-viscosity fluids, significantly beyond the scope of traditional inkjet capabilities. He mentions, “There’s a very good technology that enables high viscosity fluids to be used,” which is pivotal in jetting different materials like elastic and tougher substances side by side.

A key challenge arises when pigmented materials are used. Seal explains that pigments could “drop out of suspension causing blockages within the printheads.” The interplay between the printhead and fluid management system is vital to ensure optimal performance of these fluids, essentially expanding what’s achievable in inkjet-based additive manufacturing.

Seal also hints at a forward-looking approach where demand-driven printhead technology advancements are anticipated, with fluid management systems often being “slightly ahead of any development,” poised to accommodate newer printhead technologies.

Inkjet Technology Propelling Additive Manufacturing to New Frontiers

Inkjet technology’s prowess in additive manufacturing (AM) is sometimes overshadowed by other AM types like Stereolithography (SLA) or Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). Seal and Baile gave their thoughts on inkjet’s pivotal role in the AM realm.

Seal elaborates on the “digital advantage” that inkjet technology heralds, characterized by minimal setup time and wastage. He mentions, “Inkjet is improving functionalities within the digital advantage. The mass customization moniker applies superbly to inkjet.” The evolving designs are boosting throughputs, aligning with the AM industry’s pace.

I ask why inkjet over other AM types, and Seal responds with a focus on binder and polymer jetting, stating, “When you look at the other technologies and imagine mixing materials in an SLA, inkjet has the throughput, speed, varying materials, wastage, cleanliness of the system, and scalability. When one print head works, then 10 print heads works.” This highlights inkjet’s scalability and speed, contrasting with the slow plotting process of FDM, for instance.

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Seal also hints at the prospect of larger additive systems, emphasizing, “These things can be as big as you need them to be.”

Megnajet Eyes Expansive Prospects in Binder and Polymer Jetting Amid Additive Manufacturing Growth

The discussion pivots towards identifying the end-users benefiting from Megnajet’s cutting-edge fluid management systems in additive manufacturing (AM). While specifics on clientele remain under wraps due to nondisclosure agreements, the conversation veers towards the substantial potential awaiting in the binder and polymer jetting sectors of AM.

Seal categorizes their typical customers into three segments: machine manufacturers, user developer integrators who prefer customizing digital elements within their existing equipment, and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) who often seek bespoke solutions. He elaborates, “For additive typically, we supply directly to the OEM themselves.”

Regarding the market scale of binder and polymer jetting within AM. Seal suggests a substantial potential. From Xaar’s strategic lens, the sectors stand among the “top three sectors” they are eyeing, driven by close collaborations with larger 3D OEMs and the advent of high-viscosity jetting technology.

Delving into the market dimensions, Charlotte Baile, Head of Marketing at Xaar, unveiled an enticing £200 million market pool for 3D and fast manufacturing tied to their print technology. 

Seal expressed a bullish outlook on the polymer jetting sector, catalyzed by advancements in high-viscosity jetting technology. He elucidated, “Now, you can create other functional parts, functional, usable parts; there’s an awful lot more people can do with the output from it than was the case.” Seal’s comments reflect a vision of evolving from mere prototyping to crafting functional, usable parts – a trajectory he deems as merely “touching the tip of the iceberg” in terms of the technological and market potential awaiting.

While the discourse around market quantification remained elusive, the focus pivoted to the intrinsic advantages inkjet technology unfurls in the AM domain. Seal emphasized the scalability of inkjet technology and its capacity to seamlessly blend with the ongoing open-source and collaborative ethos in engineering, forecasting a parallel upswing for inkjet akin to other AM technologies.

Advancements in Polymer Jetting Technology Mark a Shift Beyond Prototyping in Additive Manufacturing

The conversation highlighted the evolving trajectory of polymer jetting technology in additive manufacturing (AM), marking a notable shift from its conventional prototyping application towards more advanced functional production. This transformation, as Seal pointed out, is largely propelled by the burgeoning material palette and the digital advantage that this technology offers.

Seal illuminated the potential by referring to the lens-based products now achievable through polymer jetting technology, stating, “It’s pretty vast when you look at what’s capable withinpolymer jetting ).” The advancement in material chemistry is enabling the consistent production of precise optics like waveguides and microlenses for display technology. This material evolution not only expands the capabilities of polymer jetting but also its reliability, making it a more attractive option for functional part production.

Further enriching the conversation was the mention of nanomaterials, with Seal sharing insights into how the ceramics industry has leveraged polymer jetting technology. The ability to handle fluids loaded with ceramic particles or even catalytic materials demonstrates a significant stride towards expanding the application base of polymer jettingtechnology in AM. He emphasized the reliability of the system in maintaining fluid suspension, which is crucial for achieving desired part stability, both in the “green” (pre-sintered) and sintered states.

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There is also potential for inkjet technology in the energy sector and the creation of printed circuit boards (PCBs). Seal reflects on the inherent challenges of using inkjet technology in traditional component triggers like plated through holes, yet acknowledges companies overcoming these hurdles by developing proprietary systems.

Seal particularly highlights the growth in the PCB industry and envisions the evolution towards manufacturing capacitors and active components. He elaborates on the potential of 3D constructions incorporating active circuitry, suggesting a future where complex geometries in wearables and similar products become increasingly accessible through inkjet printing technology.

Moreover, Seal hints at the broad implications for energy storage and fuel cell technology, proposing that the development of complex metals used in catalysts could drive advancements in these fields through inkjet technology.

While unable to pinpoint current implementations crafting solutions for fuel cells due to confidentiality constraints, Seal confidently affirms the possibility, stating, “Yeah, absolutely,” when probed about the application of additive manufacturing in fuel cells.

Seal emphasizes the value of exploratory dialogues with industry stakeholders, which often lead to innovative trials. “If someone’s got an idea, and they’re willing to try, then you should try. Give it a go and see what technology can deliver,” says Seal, showcasing a forward-thinking mindset. This approach not only opens doors to unforeseen applications but also contributes to a rich technology portfolio awaiting the right moment for deployment.

Furthermore, Seal hints at the expansive scope of inkjet technology, referencing a campaign that explored printing on large objects’ exteriors, like vehicles. He challenges the conventional thought, asking, “Why not print the entire vehicle?” Such out-of-the-box thinking, according to Seal, is the stepping stone towards utilizing 3D structures to enhance or create objects, making inkjet technology a viable player in a plethora of sectors.

The discussion also touched on the journey from laboratory to large-scale implementations, stressing the capability of Megnajet to support developers across this spectrum. This highlights the collaborative essence required to push the boundaries of what additive manufacturing via inkjet technology can achieve, thereby contributing to a broader ecosystem of innovation.

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Featured image shows Material jetting with Xaar printhead technology. Photo via Megnajet.

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