Combining the best of both worlds with hybrid inkjet presses
By Jo Francis Thursday, 15 November 2012
Adding inkjet printheads to a conventional press can open up a range of new applications, provided you don't hamstring your press's performance
Mention the word ‘hybrid’ and many people will most likely summon up thoughts of motoring, or horticulture. But hybrid is also gaining increasing significance here in printing. At the Drupa exhibition six months ago, a slew of new hybrid applications emerged, covering a plethora of different presses and applications. And here in the UK we have a number of genuine pioneers when it comes to real-world implementation of the latest hybrid systems.
In fact, it’s useful to begin by asking the question ‘what do we mean by hybrid printing?’ because the answer can involve a number of different interpretations.
A hybrid printing system could be used as part of a sophisticated quality control mechanism, or for adding marks such as security codes. Examples of this sort of application, whereby inkjet heads are incorporated in a sheetfed press, have been developed by KBA with Atlantic Zeiser, and Heidelberg using the CodeCenter 2 system from Inkdustry.
Hybrid could also involve combining print processes by producing personalised or versioned print directly on an offset press, as at Anton Group in Laindon, Essex, Komatsu in Japan, or Axel Springer in Germany. All, as it happens, are using Kodak’s Prosper inkjet heads on different presses, namely Heidelberg, Ryobi and Manroland.
Other examples of hybrid tech include the label press developed by Nottingham’s Focus Label Machinery, which incorporates an inkjet printing unit using Konica Minolta Colourprint heads. This unit simply slides out of the way when not in use.
Hybrid production can also involve offline systems such as Domino with its K600i system, and HP with its new Print Module imprinting line. While Leeds-based Lettershop Group has taken matters into its own hands and has developed a bespoke offline four-colour inkjet system to its own spec.
An alternative interpretation of hybrid encompasses the meshing of two types of know-how, such as in the KBA RotaJet 76 inkjet web, and the Timsons T-Print digital book printing press. Here the two press manufacturers’ expertise in paper handling is configured with inkjet heads from, respectively, Kyocera and Kodak. KBA’s RotaJet is producing four-colour commercial print, while the Timsons T-Print is currently black only for typical book work, although the firm’s managing director Jeff Ward says colour is on the cards for the next phase of development. The first two T-Print systems in the world have been bought by UK book printers, specifically St Ives Clays and MPG Books.
The common denominator in all this is the way the latest inkjet printing and, crucially, drying technology, is being combined with conventional print systems in one way or another, to create something that brings significant benefits to the user.
This isn’t a new idea – just think of the direct mail companies who married inkjet heads with conventional web offset printing in the early 1990s. What’s different now is the level of quality, speed and flexibility being made possible by the latest generation of inkjet systems, although KBA UK managing director Christian Knapp does warn against the possible downside of effectively harnessing a Porsche to a Reliant Robin if hybrid tech isn’t configured correctly.
"We can do inkjet imprinting on-press in black in terms of putting a mark or code on a sheet, or for a specific purpose such as counting sheets in security printing," he says. "There it makes sense and these heads can keep up with the press. But a printing press platform lasts for several years, and we need to put equipment on it that allows users to use the machine for the purpose it was built for –without slowing it down to first or second gear only."
For some users, the pros and cons may be weighted differently. Take Komatsu in Japan. Its Ryobi-Kodak hybrid press has been configured to precise requirements, creating a custom version of Ryobi’s 750 sheetfed model. It has four conventional printing units, two shorter towers housing three Kodak S5 single-colour inkjet heads, a dryer unit and a UV varnishing unit.
And Komatsu is willing for it to run at 11,000sph rather than its 15,000sph rated speed because of the benefits derived from inline production.
"It’s a very versatile machine. It’s specified to be a conventional press, or a UV press, or a press that can personalise," explains Bob Usher, managing director at Ryobi’s UK distributor Apex Digital Graphics. "When you start with a blank sheet of paper you can have many, many different configurations. It really is an interesting concept, because you have the lowest cost of print by using offset with all the efficiencies of that process, and suddenly the ability to put variable data print down too."
Komatsu is producing direct mail items such as self-sealing mailers, and it’s noteworthy that it has chosen a sheetfed press even though it could be producing jobs of quantities from 1m to 100m items.
As yet there is no press like it here in the UK, but Usher hopes a suitably forward-thinking customer will be on the horizon. "We have a number of good discussions going on about this sort of application at the moment, and we’re very optimistic about it," he adds.
What we do have in the UK are two other very interesting bespoke interpretations of hybrid printing.
Inspired by the requirements of a time-sensitive ballot paper job that required variable data, Anton Group manufacturing director Gary Knight dreamed up a concept involving putting Kodak Prosper inkjet heads at the CutStar end of one of its battery of Speedmasters. Nine months ago, this became a reality. Now, the home-grown system put together by Anton’s own team and a local engineering company is working day in, day out and Anton has just announced that it is buying further heads.
"It does look a bit like a Meccano set, but it’s doing a grand job," Knight jokes, but the benefits are definitely serious. "We are saving energy, reducing waste by only producing what the client needs, and the other big thing for clients is speed to market."
At the moment, eight Prosper S5 heads (across the full width of a B1 sheet) are attached to a Speedmaster 102 running at 10,000sph, whereas Knight says offline personalisation systems would typically be running at 3,000-3,500sph.
In December, a second system with four heads will be added to Anton’s fastest press, an 18,0000sph Speedmaster XL 106. Six further heads fitted to an offline flatbed system provide capacity for shorter runs, thicker stocks and as a back-up option. "We wanted to make sure the head technology was good speed and quality compared to laser and it really is laser comparable – I don’t know anyone who can tell the difference," he adds. "It’s a massive advantage for us. Now we’ve hopefully got the best of litho with the flexibility of the highest quality inkjet."
Anton’s bespoke set-up includes Adphos drying technology, and is printing onto "anything – uncoated, coated, or gloss". The set-up is mono but Knight’s ambitions extend to four-colour in the future, as well as duplex inkjet printing on-press.
Some 200 miles away, at Lettershop in Leeds, a different inkjet colour vision is already a reality. Here too, a printing company has created its own system using components from established suppliers, including yet again those Kodak Prosper heads. It’s somewhat ironic given all the travails Kodak has gone through getting its full-blown Prosper inkjet press market-ready, that the standalone heads are finding favour in such a wide range of hybrid applications.
In Lettershop’s case, the company developed and built an offline printing-finishing system that was capable of printing two 105mm-wide strips of four-colour variable print at up to 188m/min, onto reels of standard offset printed base stock produced on the firm’s conventional presses.
Chief executive John Hornby is absolutely convinced that hybrid is the way to go. "We can drop four-colour digital into a standard product, without people having to redesign it, and we can do it without breaking the bank," he states. "The biggest problem with digital is still the cost of the paper and the consumables. This is a great way of improving response rates, even if 90% of the job is static."
Hornby cites a massive increase in response rates through the incorporation of variable colour information, and believes hybrid technology can only become more versatile. "What’s to say that we don’t finish up with a 24in-wide bar that you can fit onto a finishing line?" he muses.
The potential versatility of a so-called ‘digital bar’ chimes with developments at Domino, which has moved into inkjet printing with its K600i mono device.
As the above examples show, one of the beauties of hybrid systems is versatility. Ask Domino director of digital printing solutions Philip Easton what the firm’s K600i customers are using it for, and he rattles off a long list: "It’s being used in a wide range of applications. Direct mail and personalisation, but not just for an address, we’re talking about multi-positions in certain sections. A lot of systems are being used in labels and for traceability such as barcodes and 2D barcodes. Ticket printing, promotional games..." the list goes on. In fact, the application Easton thinks would be perfect for the system is the one he’s yet to see implemented. "I’ve always believed it would be fantastic for language versioning, to me that is an ideal application," he muses. "But customers haven’t gone for that one yet."
Domino describes the K600i as a "digital bar" of modular length, as opposed to individual inkjet heads. "We think of it as a black digital printing press," Easton explains. "Our heads are completely seamlessly stitched together, so our image area covers the whole sheet or web width. We don’t have to force the design to fit where the head is. That makes a big difference."
At present this bar could be up to 17in (43cm) wide, but next year this is set to increase to 30in (76cm), considerably increasing the range of potential applications for the UV-curable, drop-on demand system.
Hybrid technology is broadening print’s horizons and making the medium even more adaptable, at the same time ushering in a new era where printing companies can create systems to suit their own precise requirements. Anton’s Knight certainly thinks there’s more to come when it comes to high-value hybrid: "In five years’ time, it will be fantastic."
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