Being an early adopter of technology is not always the easiest position to be in. Take those who rushed to be the first to hold an iPhone 4 back in 2010 only to find that 'holding' said phone was actually the last thing you should do if you wanted to call anyone - placing your hand over the corner of the phone could result in a loss of signal. Those who bought later models were spared the issue thanks to the suffering of those who got there first.
Book printers Clays, part of the St Ives Group, might therefore have had understandable reservations about being only the second company in the UK to install a Kodak Prosper 1000, and the first to do so in an integrated book production line with a Muller Martini Sigma Line (MPG Biddles were the first to install a Kodak Prosper, but they did so in a different configuration). However, being an early adopter of technology is part of Clays’ ethos and so, with the technology available, it was happy to step up as a guinea pig.
"We want to be at the forefront of the technology because we want to be able to drive the vendors of machines into giving us the performance we require and, to do that, you do have to be a Beta site occasionally," says David Mickleburgh, technical director at Clays. "With the Prosper, I don’t consider us to have been a Beta site, because we invested in the technology when it was ready. But the press was still very new to the UK and it was also in a new configuration with the Muller machine, so inevitably, like all new technology, there were issues to overcome."
The Prosper 1000 is an advanced monochrome digital inkjet press that Kodak says delivers high performance and offset-class quality. It uses Kodak’s Stream inkjet technology, which is designed to increase print quality and durability, and has the ability to print on uncoated substrates. It offers one-over-one perfecting, with a print width of up to 622mm at speeds of up to 200m/min.
Clays first looked at the technology three years ago, when the press was still in development. It was seeking a digital solution to facilitate the ever-shorter run demands of its customers.
"We have a strategy of digital without compromise," says Mickleburgh. "We wanted to print on standard stock and we needed a robust technology. Obviously, we also had to consider the total operational costs as well, the likes of waste, inks and service charges."
At the time, Prosper was only in the R&D lab, so Clays assessed the market to see what was most closely matched to its aims that it could actually buy. It knew it wanted an integrated book production line and it finally decided that the Kodak Versamark VL6000 inline with a Muller Martini Sigma line was the best solution – for that moment. Mickleburgh says that, right from the start, the plan was to upgrade to the Prosper 1000 when the technology finally became available.
"It was all part of the original agreement that we would upgrade," he says. "We knew the technology would become available and we knew what the Prosper was going to give us. When the Prosper technology became available and was fit for purpose it was just a matter of taking out the VL technology and inserting the Prosper technology on the production line."
That moment came in September last year. Having decided that the technology was at a point where it was ready to go into full operation in its factory, Clays took out the Versamark VL6000 and put in the Prosper 1000. In normal circumstances this would not be a hard transition, but with the Prosper being new technology and it being inline with the Sigma in an all-in-one production solution, things were always going to be tough.
"It is new technology and so it would be foolish of me to sit here and say it was a completely flawless introduction period," admits Mickleburgh. "There were some issues we had to resolve, some of which were down to our own maintenance issues, some down to problems at the Kodak end. It was a very steep learning curve for Clays, our operators and for Kodak. And we are still learning."
As to the specifics of those problems, Mickleburgh is reluctant to divulge too much detail but they centred on the press adapting to being part of the integrated book line. For example, one issue he will reveal came with variable speeds. Because Clays produces books of different thicknesses and different sizes, the Sigma line runs at different speeds to finish each type of book. That means the Prosper has to run at various speeds too and the problem was enabling that without creating extensive makeready time.
"With bookmaking, you are limited by the speed of the finishing equipment," explains David McGuiness, digital solutions consultant for Kodak. "Though Muller equipment is very, very quick, there are still only so many books you can complete in a minute and you have a Prosper press that can run much faster than that. We had to adjust the speed of the Prosper to fit the various products Clays wished to produce, and that meant creating profiles for production at each of those speeds so that the adjustments could be made on the fly."
"If we were just running the same product at the same speed all the time, we wouldn’t have had any problems," adds Mickleburgh. "But those experiences will stand us in good stead when we go forward, and they will stand Kodak in good stead too."
Mickleburgh says that production on the Prosper/Sigma line now accounts for around 2% of Clays’ 160m books per year, and that while this may not sound like a lot, the press has had a massive impact on customers because of the services Clays can now offer and different product sizes it can handle. One of those new services is short-run on standard sizes, which he says has opened up the A4 market for the company.
He says the print quality is also excellent, with the image sharpness and density extremely good and improved from the previous drop-on-demand technology. He adds that, mechanically, the machine is robust and well built. The staff seem to share his enthusiasm.
"The training was extensive and the staff are 100% behind the investment," he reveals. "They feel it is the natural way forward."
Having the staff on side is crucial, because Clays is not finished yet. Not content with being the testbed for the Prosper 1000/Muller Martini configuration, the company is also to become the first company to install the recently announced Timsons/Kodak partnership press, the T-Press, a fully digital, duplex, monochrome book printing system, set to get its official launch at Drupa. The T-Press uses Kodak Stream inkjet technology and has a web width of 1,350mm and a maximum speed of 200m/min. Timsons managing director Jeff Ward has called it mass manufacturing using digital printing.
"Wider, faster, better"
"With digital, we are moving towards wider web widths, faster running speeds and better quality, all using standard stock papers," says Mickleburgh, "To achieve that, it is not just about ink on paper; it is about getting the paper through the machine with all the guides, automation and tension control, and Timsons has a lot of experience with that so the partnership with Kodak and its digital technology is crucial for us to meet customer demands."
And, thanks to the Prosper experience, both Kodak and Clays have built up the relationships and experience to ensure that the adoption of yet another new technology should go smoothly and that the inevitable teething problems can be addressed quickly.
"This is new technology and working with someone like Clays is crucial," says McGuiness. "With both Prosper and with the T-Press, these technologies were not available when Prinergy [Kodak’s workflow] was developed and so we have to develop that capability as the technology emerges. Considering the size of Clays, and the production they produce, they are fantastic to work with. It is only when you get into a live environment that you really begin to see how the technology performs, and having the expertise and understanding of Clays on board is really important."
As close as the two companies have become though, and as much as Clays have been impressed with the performance of the Prosper 1000 and its role in the bookmaking line, the company is not closed to other opportunities, according to Mickleburgh.
"We have partnerships with Kodak and Timsons at the moment but who knows what the future might hold," he explains. "We have an open mind going forward on what the technology should be. It is driven by customers and we are excited about what that might bring."
Max speed 200mpm, up to 3,600ppm A4
Image quality Up to 175lpi
Substrates types Uncoated free sheet, uncoated groundwood
Substrate weight 45-175gsm
Roll width 20.3x64.8cm
Price For the Kodak Prosper 1000 ONLY, prices start at £1.4m
Contact Kodak Graphic Communications Group 0845 602 5991 www.graphics.kodak.com
Clays has been operating for almost 200 years and for the past 25 of those it has been part of the St Ives Group. It produces some 160m books per year at its facility in Bungay, Suffolk, and has been responsible for printing Dan Brown blockbusters as well as more traditional fare, such as The Bible.
Why it was bought…
Clays’ customers were demanding shorter runs and to adapt to that the company had to invest in digital technology. After an extensive search, three years ago it opted for the Kodak Versamark VL6000 inline with a Muller Martini Sigma line but the plan was always to upgrade to the Prosper 1000 when it became available. The latter was installed in September 2011.
How it has performed…
Technical director David Mickleburgh says that as the press was brand-new
technology, there was inevitably a period of working through the teething problems. However, he cannot fault the press for quality and production and says it has meant Clays can now offer new services and new format services and cater for the increasingly short-run requirements of its customer base.