If you were to toast the most dazzling gadget in your home, you might compose an ode to your plasma TV, recite a limerick about your computer-controlled telescope, or maybe sing the praises of your video conferencing, nose-hair-trimming espresso maker. But the invention most deserving of your adoration, the contraption that will one day
sit in the pantheon of great American machines alongside the telephone and the transistor radio, is something far more prosaic. It is the inkjet printer, and it is much more than a peripheral. Its core technology may seem simple-an array of nozzles that moves back and forth, depositing tiny droplets of ink on paper-but its breadth of uses has turned out to be nothing short of astonishing, so much so that the humble inkjet is driving innovation in disciplines from aerospace engineering to pharmacology.
How does a printer go from spitting out pictures of Uncle Bob to powering jet planes? The secret of the inkjet´s unheralded versatility lies in its print head-a silicon or composite plate a tenth of an inch wide
studded with as many micro-nozzles as a manufacturer can cram onto it. The nozzles fill with ink, and either heat or an electric charge forces out uniform droplets [see â€Inkjet 101,â€ below]. Refined over the past 20 years from heads with 12 nozzles to ones with more than 3,000, the inkjet is the first cheap, mass-produced machine to control minute pearls of fluids-it ultimately jump-started the field of microfluidics. This precise control of ever-smaller droplets (some now a small fraction the size of a pinpoint),
coupled with faster printing speeds has opened up dozens of new and decidedly more glamorous applications: printing cellphones and human livers, delivering drugs more efficiently and without side effects, producing fuels without nasty by-products.
You may marvel at such a notion, but it´s no real surprise to the inkjet´s innovators. They never intended it for the menial task of churning out term papers and memoranda. In fact, when Hewlett-Packard Laboratories engineers developed the first nozzle array in 1979, they kicked around the idea of using the device for medicine and materials science before deciding that the printing biz would net more profits. Their first machine hit the market in 1984, and more than 20 years later-now that the inkjet dominates the industry-big players like HP, Epson and Canon can afford to take a step back and figure out ways to squeeze new uses out of the machine. â€Most people don´t realize how sophisticated the system has become,â€ says Stephen Nigro, vice president of HP´s technology platforms organization. â€Millions of drops a second come from the print head. It´s really an incredible technology.â€
Corporate bosses aren´t the only ones smitten. Piggybacking on industry advances in printing speed and nozzle size, some researchers are using souped-up inkjets to print full-scale homes, others to stamp out skin grafts. In the future, scientists may deliver inkjet-printed nanomachines, targeted cancer treatments and, who knows, maybe even inkjet-printed pets.
So go ahead and worship your shiny new MP3 player, your ionizing hair dryer, your remote-controlled ottoman-whichever machine has you mesmerized this month. But then please take a moment to give props to your workaday inkjet, which has thrived in near anonymity lo these many years. Accolades or no, it´s sure to keep spitting out impressive results with elegant simplicity for decades to come.