Inkjet technology might soon be literally flying high, thanks to an invention by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). The leading innovator in advanced science and applied technology has secured a patent for a technology for large-scale robotic inkjet printing on complex surfaces, including aircrafts.

The Perfect Solution for a Complex Job

Inkjet’s success story will not come to an end, with the technology now opening up to aircraft construction. It is complex aircraft decorative coatings where the printing technology’s potential could fully be exploited. And chances are excellent due to inkjet’s superior performance and properties compared to decals or appliqués which – on aircrafts – pose problems with adhesion and robustness.

“As aircraft decorative coatings have become increasingly complex, the aircraft manufacturing and maintenance communities are seeking more efficient ways to apply complex graphics,” said Clay Flannigan, who leads SwRI’s robotics and automation engineering activities. “There is a lot of interest in using inkjet technologies applied to aircraft painting but to fully leverage the potential efficiency and aesthetic advantages of this process, the technology must be able to print on a variety of complex geometries and in varied orientations over large areas.”

High Accuracy Inkjet Printing

Here is where Flannigan’s invention “High Accuracy Inkjet Printing” sets in as it overcomes obstacles linked to painting on large, complex surfaces. Furthermore, the team was able to adjust for inaccuracies in robot positioning and vibration of robotic arms – no more discontinuities, gaps or spaces when printing over curved tops due to a perfect alignment.

This is how the process works: A vision sensor detects an encoded pattern to ensure accurate application of graphic images. The encoded pattern is deposited on the surface in a known location with respect to the most recently deposited graphic swath. The printing system includes high-bandwidth servo actuators to locate the print head with respect to the encoder pattern to permit precise positioning for the next swath.

For the aviation industry this could be the future technique for applying large graphics to aircraft fuselages, wings, tail fins, and engine nacelles.
Both the respective soft- and hardware have been covered in the patent. “We have been developing new processes for removing paint from aircraft for nearly three decades. Now we are looking to revolutionize the way decorative finishes are applied to aircraft,” Flannigan said.

Do you think that the use of inkjet printing in aircraft construction could also result in a new level of marketing efforts? Leave us your comment below.