US20180281379


TECHNICAL FIELD

      The present invention is directed to a printing system for depositing ink directly on to a surface of an object and, more particular, to a device which securely retains an object in the direct-to-object print system while it is being printed.

BACKGROUND

      Printers known in the document reproduction arts apply a marking material, such as ink or toner, onto a sheet of paper. To print something on an object that has a non-negligible depth such as a coffee cup, bottle, and the like, typically a label is printed and the printed label is applied to the surface of the object. However, in some manufacturing and production environments, it is desirable to print directly on the object itself but this poses a diverse set of hurdles which must be overcome before such specialized direct-to-object print systems become more widely accepted in commerce. One of these hurdles is how to secure the object in such a specialized printer while the object is being printed. Such direct-to-object print systems have a component often referred to as an object holder. The present invention is specifically directed to an object holder for use in a direct-to-object print system designed to print directly on a surface of an object.

BRIEF SUMMARY

      What is disclosed is an object holder for securely retaining an object while it is being printed in a direct-to-object print system. In one embodiment, the object holder comprises a shuttle mount configured to slideably traverse a support member positioned parallel to a plane formed by at least one printhead configured to eject marking material on to a surface of an object. A memory foam is attached to the shuttle mount. A vacuum pump is used to withdraw a volume of air through a hole in the memory foam such that, a difference in air pressure causes an object to be pressed against the face of the memory foam causing the foam to partially deform to the object’s shape.
      What is also disclosed is a direct-to-object print system configured to use various embodiments of the object holder of the present invention. In one embodiment, the direct-to-object print system incorporates at least one printhead configured to eject marking material such as ink. An object holder configured to slideably traverse a support member positioned to be parallel to a plane formed by the printhead. An actuator that operatively causes the object holder to move the object along the support member past the printhead. A controller which causes the printhead to eject marking material on to the object held by the object holder as the object moves past the printhead.
      Features and advantages of the above-described apparatus and direct-to-object print system will become readily apparent from the following description and accompanying drawings.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

      The foregoing and other features and advantages of the subject matter disclosed herein will be made apparent from the following detailed description taken in conjunction with the accompanying drawings, in which:
       FIG. 1 illustrates one example embodiment of the direct-to-object print system disclosed herein;
       FIG. 2 shows a side view of one embodiment of a block of memory foam of the object holder of FIG. 1 with a vacuum hose passing at least partially the way through the foam block;
       FIG. 3 shows a front view of the block of memory foam of FIG. 2 wherein a ball is being pressed against a face of the foam block as a vacuum is drawn through the vacuum hose;
       FIG. 4 shows another embodiment of a block of memory foam wherein the vacuum hose is fixed to a plate which is vacuum sealed to a back side of the foam block;
       FIG. 5 shows another embodiment of a block of memory foam 500 having a plurality of holes through the block;
       FIG. 6 shows another embodiment of the object holder of FIG. 1 wherein a plurality of different shaped blocks of memory foam are attached to the shuttle mount;
       FIG. 7 shows another embodiment of the object holder of FIG. 1 wherein the shuttle mount comprises a frame and the plurality of blocks of memory foam are each flexibly attached to the frame by a plurality of retention springs;
       FIG. 8 shows an alternative embodiment of the direct-to-object print system of FIG. 1;
       FIG. 9 shows another alternative embodiment of the direct-to-object print system of FIG. 1; and
       FIG. 10 show one embodiment of the present direct-to-object print system housed in a cabinet.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION

      What is disclosed is an object holder for securely retaining an object in a direct-to-object print system, and a direct-to-object print system configured to operatively use various embodiments of the object holder of the present invention.

Non-Limiting Definitions

      An “object” has at least one surface thereof to be printed with ink. Example objects are sports equipment and paraphernalia, golf clubs and balls, commemorative gifts, coffee cups, to name a few.
      A “direct-to-object print system” or simply “print system” is a printer designed to print on a surface of an object. The direct-to-object print system of FIG. 1 incorporates at least the following functional components: at least one printhead, a support member, an actuator, a controller, and an object holder.
      A “printhead” or “print head” is an element (such as an inkjet) which emits or ejects a droplet of marking material such as ink on to a surface of an object thereby making a mark on that object. In one embodiment, the direct-to-object print system has a plurality of monochrome printheads and a UV cure lamp. The print zone is a width of a single M-series printhead (−4 inches). Each printhead is fluidly connected to a supply of marking material (not shown). Some or all of the printheads may be connected to the same supply. Each printhead can be connected to its own supply so each printhead ejects a different marking material. A 101 array of printheads is shown at 104 of FIG. 1.
      A “support member”, at 106 of FIG. 1, is positioned to be parallel to a plane formed by the printheads and is oriented so that one end of the support member is at a higher gravitational potential than the other end of the support member. The vertical configuration of the printheads and the support member enables the present direct-to-object print system to have a smaller footprint than a system configured with a horizontal orientation of the printheads and support member. In an alternative embodiment, a horizontal configuration orients the printheads such that the object holder moves an object past the horizontally arranged printheads.
      An “actuator”, at 110 of FIG. 1, is an electro-mechanical device that causes the object holder to slideably traverse the support member. In one embodiment, a controller causes the actuator to move an object holder at speeds that attenuate the air turbulence in a gap between the printhead and the surface of the object being printed.
      An “object holder” physically restrains an object while the object holder is moving along the support member 106 so that the object can pass the printhead. The object holder generally comprises a shuttle mount 112 configured to slideably traverse the support member and at least one block of memory foam 103 attached to the shuttle mount.
      “Memory foam”, also referred to as “viscoelastic polyurethane foam”, has the property that it exhibit both viscous and elastic characteristics when undergoing deformation. A viscous material resists shear flow and strains with time when a stress is applied. An elastic material strains when stretched and returns to its original state when the stress is removed. Memory foam is created by feeding a gas mixture into a polymer matrix, in a manner that is well understood in the foam manufacturing arts. Memory foam has an open-cell solid structure which softens in reaction to pressure and heat such as the heat of a warm body laying on the foam causing the foam mold to the body. Memory foam slowly springs back to its original shape when the pressure is released. The block of memory foam 103 can be fixedly attached to the shuttle mount, flexibly attached to the shuttle mount, or releaseably attached to the shuttle mount.
      A “vacuum pump”, at 113 of FIG. 1, as are generally known, is connected to a vacuum hose 104. The vacuum hose can be a rigid hose or a soft flexible hose. In this embodiment, the vacuum hose passes at least partially the way through hole 107 in the block of memory foam. In such a manner, when a vacuum is drawn through the vacuum hose, a difference in air pressure causes an object to be pressed against a surface of the block of memory foam. A relief valve 105 may be utilized to equalize the air pressure inside the vacuum hose so that the object can be released from the object holder. The pump 113 and valve 105 may be operated by a controller.
      A “controller”, at 114 of FIG. 1, is a processor or ASIC which controls various components of the present direct-to-object print system. The controller is configured to retrieve machine readable program instructions from memory 116 which, when executed, configure the controller to signal or otherwise operate the actuator 110 to move the object holder past the printheads. When other retrieved instructions are executed, the controller is configured to signal, or otherwise operate the printheads to start/stop ejecting marking material at a precise time and at a desired location on a surface of the object retained by the object holder. The controller may be further configured to operate the various printheads such that individual printheads eject different size droplets of marking material. The controller may be configured to communicate with a user interface.
      A “user interface”, at 118 of FIG. 1, generally comprises a display 120 such as a touchscreen, monitor, or LCD device for presenting visual information to a user, an annunciator 122 which emits an audible sound, and an input device 124 such as a keypad for receiving a user input or selection. The controller can be configured to operate the user interface to notify an operator of a failure. The controller monitors the system to detect the configuration of the printheads in the system and the inks being supplied to the printheads. If the inks or the printhead configuration is unable to print the objects accurately and appropriately then a message is presented to the user on the display of the user interface that, for example, inks need to be changed or that the printheads needs to be reconfigured. The controller can be configured to use the annunciator of the user interface to inform the operator of a system status and to attract attention to fault conditions and displayed messages. The user interface may further include a warning light.
      An “identification tag”, at 126 of FIG. 1, is a machine-readable indicia that is attached to the object holder. The identification tag embodies an identifier that is readable or otherwise receivable by an input device such as sensor 128. The identifier contains information about the object being printed and/or the location of the object as it traverses the support member. The received identifier is, in turn, communicated to the controller. The identification tag can be, for example, a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag with the input device being a RFID reader. The identification tag can also be a barcode with the input device being a barcode reader. In another embodiment, the identification tag comprises one or more protrusions, indentations, or combinations thereof in the object or object holder that can be detected or otherwise read by a biased arm which follows a surface of an area comprising the identification tag. In this embodiment, the biased arm is a cam follower that converts the detected protrusions, indentations, and the like position of the mechanical indicia comprising the identification tag into electrical signals which, in turn, are communicated to the controller for processing. In other embodiments, the identification tag comprises optical or electromagnetic indicia. The controller compares the identifier received from the input device to various identifiers stored in memory 116. The controller can disable operation of the actuator and/or the operation of the printheads in response to the received identifier failing to correspond to an identifier stored in the memory. The controller can also be configured to use the user interface to inform the operator of processing that needs to be performed. For example, an identification tag may indicate that an object in the object holder requires special treatment such as pre-coating prior to printing or post-coating after the object is printed. A location of the identification tag or a failure to detect an identification tag may indicate to the controller that the object held by the object holder is misaligned, has come loose, or is absent altogether. The controller, in these examples, would communicate a message to the display 120 regarding the detected condition(s).
      A “sensor”, at 128 of FIG. 1, is a device such as a digital camera or other imaging device positioned to generate image data by imaging, for example, a sheet of printed media with a test pattern. The controller is configured to receive the image data from the sensor and analyze the image data to identify printhead alignment, image quality, and other maintenance issues such as inoperative ejectors, low ink supply, or poor ink quality. The controller uses the user interface to notify the operation such that the operator is able to understand the reason why the controller disabled of the direct-to-object print system.

Embodiments of Object Holders

      Reference is now being made to FIG. 2 which shows a side view of one embodiment of a block of memory foam. The block 103 of memory foam attached to the shuttle mount configured to slideably traverse the support member 106. A vacuum hose 104 passes at least partially the way through a hole 201 in the foam block. A suction cup 202 is fixed to the end of the vacuum hose. The suction cup is made of a material such as a silicon rubber which can retain a vacuum-lock between the vacuum hose and an object, shown as a small ball 203FIG. 3 shows a front view of the block of memory foam ofFIG. 2 wherein the ball 203 is being pressed against a face of the foam block as a vacuum is drawn through the vacuum hose. The foam block partially deforms to a shape of the ball as the ball is being retained.
      Reference is now being made to FIG. 4 which shows another embodiment of a block of memory foam 400 wherein the vacuum hose 104 is fixed to a vacuum seal (shown as plate 401) affixed to a back side 402 of the block. In this embodiment, the vacuum pump 113 draws a vacuum through the hole 403passing through the foam block to retain an object 404 which, in turn, is pressed against the hole by the air pressure outside the block, shown as arrows405.
      Reference is now being made to FIG. 5 which shows another embodiment of a block of memory foam 500 having a plurality of holes therethrough. Each hole 501 is connected to the vacuum pump by a respective vacuum hose (not shown). In this configuration, the vacuum drawn through the collection of holes retrains the object to the foam block. The configuration of the holes in the foam block of FIG. 5, as well as the number of holes shown, is for explanatory purposes and should not be viewed as limiting the scope of the appended claims strictly to that embodiment.
      Reference is now being made to FIG. 6 which shows another embodiment of the object holder of FIG. 1 wherein a plurality of different shaped blocks of memory foam are attached to the shuttle mount 112. The plurality of different shaped foam blocks are shown having with a plurality of different sized holes arrayed in different configurations. Each hole is connected to a vacuum pump (not shown) by one or more vacuum hoses (not shown). This embodiment enables a plurality of different shaped object to be retained in the object holder for printing. It should be understood that the term “block”, as used herein, refers to a piece of memory foam of any shape and any depth.
      Reference is now being made to FIG. 7 which shows another embodiment of the object holder of FIG. 1 wherein the shuttle mount 112 comprises a frame 700 and the plurality of blocks of memory foam 701 are each flexibly attached to the frame by a plurality of retention springs 702.
      It should be appreciated that the embodiments shown are for explanatory purposes and should not be viewed as limiting the scope of the appended claims strictly to those embodiments. Other embodiments include different shaped shuttle mounts, differently shaped pieces of memory foam, different configurations of vacuum hoses, and different configurations of foam blocks. Such embodiments are intended to fall within the scope of the appended claims.

Embodiments of Direct-To-Object Print Systems

      What is also disclosed is a direct-to-object print system configured to use various embodiments of the object holder of the present invention.
      Reference is now being made to FIG. 8 which illustrates an alternative embodiment to the direct-to-object print system of FIG. 1 which uses a belt to move the object holder past the printheads. The support member comprises a pair of support members 806A and 806B about which the shuttle mount 112is slideably attached. A pair of fixedly positioned pulleys 808A and 808B and a belt 810 form an endless belt entrained about the pair of pulleys, and a rotatable pulley 812 engages the endless belt to enable the third pulley to rotate in response to the movement of the endless belt moving about the pair of pulleys to move the object holder disclosed herein. The actuator 816 operatively rotates the drive pulley to move the endless belt about the pulleys. The controller 114 is configured to operate the actuator. The object holder of FIG. 1 has been omitted to show underlying components.
      Reference is now being made to FIG. 9 which illustrates yet another embodiment of the direct-to-object print system of FIG. 1. One end of a belt 902 is operatively connected to a take-up reel 904 that is operatively connected to the actuator 816. The other end of the belt is positionally fixed at 906. The belt also engages a rotatable pulley 812 attached to the object holder. The support member comprises a pair of support members 806A and 806B about which the shuttle mount 112 is slideably attached. The actuator rotates the take-up reel to wind a portion of the length of the belt about the take-up reel to cause the object holder to move past the printheads. The actuator unwinds the belt from the take-up reel. The controller 114 is configured to operate the actuator. The object holder of FIG. 1 has been omitted to show underlying components.
      Reference is now being made to FIG. 10 which shows an embodiment of the present direct-to-object print system 1000 housed in a cabinet 1002. The object holder is omitted.
      The direct-to-object print system disclosed herein can be placed in communication with a workstation, as are generally understood in the computing arts. Such a workstation has a computer case which houses various components such as a motherboard with a processor and memory, a network card, a video card, a hard drive capable of reading/writing to machine readable media such as a floppy disk, optical disk, CD-ROM, DVD, magnetic tape, and the like, and other software and hardware needed to perform the functionality of a computer workstation. The workstation further includes a display device, such as a CRT, LCD, or touchscreen device, for displaying information, images, classifications, computed values, extracted vessels, patient medical information, results, interim values, and the like. A user can view any of that information and make a selection from menu options displayed thereon. The workstation has an operating system and other specialized software configured to display alphanumeric values, menus, scroll bars, dials, slideable bars, pull-down options, selectable buttons, and the like, for entering, selecting, modifying, and accepting information needed for processing in accordance with the teachings hereof. The workstation can display images and information about the operations of the present direct-to-object print system. A user or technician can use a user interface of the workstation to set parameters, view/adjust/delete values, and adjust various aspects of various operational components of the present direct-to-object print system, as needed or desired, depending on the implementation. These selections or inputs may be stored to a storage device. Settings can be retrieved from the storage device. The workstation can be a laptop, mainframe, or a special purpose computer such as an ASIC, circuit, or the like.
      Any of the components of the workstation may be placed in communication with any of the modules and processing units of the direct-to-object print system and any of the operational components of the present direct-to-object print system can be placed in communication with storage devices and computer readable media and may store/retrieve therefrom data, variables, records, parameters, functions, and/or machine readable/executable program instructions, as needed to perform their intended functions. The various components of the present direct-to-object print system may be placed in communication with one or more remote devices over network via a wired or wireless protocol. It should be appreciated that some or all of the functionality performed by any of the components of the direct-to-object print system can be controlled, in whole or in part, by the workstation.
      The teachings hereof can be implemented in hardware or software using any known or later developed systems, structures, devices, and/or software by those skilled in the applicable art without undue experimentation from the functional description provided herein with a general knowledge of the relevant arts. One or more aspects of the systems disclosed herein may be incorporated in an article of manufacture which may be shipped, sold, leased, or otherwise provided separately either alone or as part of a product suite or a service. The above-disclosed and other features and functions, or alternatives thereof, may be desirably combined into other different systems or applications.
      Presently unforeseen or unanticipated alternatives, modifications, variations, or improvements may become apparent and/or subsequently made by those skilled in this art which are also intended to be encompassed by the following claims.

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