CES 2019: The Largest and Smallest Smart Inkjet Printers

Pairing an inkjet printer with a camera and image analysis software leads to surprising applications in cosmetics and farming

Prototype of the See & Spray from John Deere’s Blue River division seen at CES 2019.
Photo: Tekla Perry
A prototype of the See & Spray from John Deere’s Blue River division was on display at CES 2019.
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Inkjet printing could probably win a prize as the technology with the most unforeseen applications, like printing cake decorations, flexible electronics, and even human tissue. Meanwhile, the capabilities of image analysis technology have been exploding, thanks to the evolution of deep learning.

Two companies exhibiting at CES in Las Vegas this week paired the two technologies—for vastly different applications.

Proctor & Gamble introduced Opté, a tiny gadget for applying foundation and lightening cream to age spots. As you slide it around on your face, it shines a blue light on your skin, analyzes the image, and prints out dots of its makeup mixture onto dark spots. The little printer captures 200 images per second and has 120 nozzles, and is expected to be commercially available later this year. The effect was magical—evenly colored skin without much of a hint that makeup was being worn.

That was the smallest application of inkjet printing technology I saw. The claim for the biggest has to go to See & Spray from John Deere’s Blue River division, which displayed the guts of a prototype system on the CES floor next to a gigantic intelligent combine. Using computer vision and deep learning, this “dot matrix printer for agriculture” can selectively apply herbicide to weeds or nutrients to particular plants, said Willy Pell, director of new technology for Blue River. Using such an intelligent device will reduce the use of herbicides, saving money and protecting the environment, and potentially increase yields for farmers. Pell indicated that the system won’t be available commercially for a couple of years, but has already been demonstrated on crops covering thousands of acres.

“The mission of feeding the world is attracting a lot of AI experts to agriculture,” Pell said.

No pricing on either smart printer was announced.

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