Partnerships remain popular in 2014

Simon Nias
Monday, February 10, 2014

All the rage last year, strategic partnerships between vendors continue to be de rigueur in 2014, it seems.

With one month of the year gone we have already had the, admittedly unsurprising, announcement that EFI will develop the digital front-end (DFE) for Landa Corporation’s Nanographic Printing Presses. This deal has been in the offing virtually since Drupa and many expected it to be announced at last year’s Connect, where Benny Landa took part in the now annual ‘fireside chat’ with EFI chief executive Guy Gecht.

For all its predictability, this is an incredibly good deal for EFI. Not only will it become the official DFE supplier for what could become a generation-defining print technology, it will also gain invaluable experience that it can use to develop the next generation of Fiery DFEs, including, I suspect, one capable of driving third-party B1 and B2 inkjet sheetfed presses. This represents a significant opportunity for EFI, which for all its dominance of the toner space has hitherto focused its inkjet DFE, Fiery XL, on the superwide-format and labels markets.

Frank Romano, professor emeritus at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Print Media, agrees that EFI will likely “use its experience with Landa to develop DFEs for inkjet”, but points out that the Fiery toner DFE could also benefit. “EFI will get to apply new GUI approaches [with Landa’s touchscreen-controlled presses] that will then improve EFI’s line for themselves and for other vendors,” he explains.

If this first announcement was to be expected, the second – that of Konica’s acquisition of a 10% stake in and formation of a strategic partnership with the French digital printing and finishing equipment manufacturer MGI – was not. While the two companies have a pre-existing relationship (MGI licenses Konica’s Bizhub Press print engine for its Meteor range) the partnership was unheralded and certainly not predicted in the same way as the EFI/Landa relationship.

It might surprise some to learn that MGI – best known for its digital spot UV machine, the JETvarnish 3D, and its Meteor range – has been around for more than 30 years. In that time it has developed a reputation for innovation – in fact, Konica cited MGI’s “capacity to innovate” as one of the main drivers for the tie-up. Evidence for this can be seen in the Meteor itself, which, though based on the Bizhub, is a much higher-end machine, capable of printing onto a wider range of substrates (including plastic as the result of MGI’s clever temperature management technology), formats (from 100x148mm to 330x1,020mm) and producing a result that is said to be more comparable with HP Indigo than the Bizhub on which it is based.

Lexus line

As such, despite the fact the Meteor DP8700XL is based on the same engine as the Bizhub Press C8000, the Meteor will effectively slot in as a new high-end digital press to complement Konica’s Bizhub or, as MGI executive vice-president Victor Abergel put it: “MGI will become the Lexus to Konica’s Toyota.”

The press release announcing the partnership seemed to suggest that the main benefit to MGI would be access to Konica’s larger distribution network, and it was widely interpreted as such. However, Abergel clarified that this is not exactly the case. The plan is that Konica will refer customers looking for a press above £130,000 to MGI – making the Meteor Konica’s de facto competitor to the HP Indigo, Xerox 1000 and Kodak NexPress – while MGI for its part will refer customers looking for a machine below £100,000 back to Konica.

“For the Meteor line, it will be a great opportunity to increase sales, but we will not just give the Meteor line to the Konica distribution channel, especially in a country where we already have an official MGI distributor,” said Abergel. “We will see in time which is the best solution for the group – to appoint Konica or not. What we will do for now is to develop and co-develop future products.”

What form these products will take – toner or inkjet, print or finishing – and what markets they will serve remains to be seen, although they will not include any collaboration (beyond perhaps the licensing of specific technology) in the field of B2 sheetfed inkjet, where both firms are about to launch their first products. Potentially this looks like an area where there could be some crossover and competition between the two new partners’ portfolios – especially as relatively little is know about MGI’s Alphajet in comparison to the KM-1 that Konica has co-developed with Komori. Abergel was unequivocal that this would not be the case and outlined some key differentiators between the two products.

“We have patented a very unique system – our own chassis, our own conveying system – with Kora Packmat, which is our German operation we took over two years ago and is now our factory for manufacturing the chassis and all the conveying system for the Alphajet,” he said. In addition, rather than being tied to one printhead manufacturer (as is usually the case with any inkjet device), the Alphajet will be compatible with heads from three different manufacturers – allowing the press to be tailored to the end application.

This represents the third major differentiator between the two devices, as MGI is targeting the commercial print and packaging markets with the Alphajet, which will feature online finishing capabilities such as spot UV and foiling, whereas the KM-1 is, in Abergel’s eyes, targeted more at the high production market served by the likes of Kodak Versamark. Furthermore, the Alphajet platform will be the basis for future MGI inkjet devices for printed electronics and 3D printing – another area of expertise for MGI that Konica will no doubt be interested in. 

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