20 years of digital: the innovation that sparked a revolution


It is 1993. Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You has spent 10 weeks at the top of the charts and a pint of beer costs a mere £1.30. There is also the small matter of a revolution in global communications taking hold.

Although there are fewer than 650 websites on the entire internet, Mosaic, the browser credited with popularising the World Wide Web, has been released. And in September, at the Ipex ’93 trade show at Birmingham’s NEC, a revolution in print was also underway.

Twenty years ago this month, Indigo launched its E-Print 1000 with the sort of pizazz we’ve now come to expect from founder Benny Landa. And, in a more low-key corner of the show Xeikon’s DCP-1 was shown under the Chromapress 32i banner by Agfa, one of the original investors in Xeikon.

It was the beginning of commercial colour digital printing as we know it, although some would argue that the revolution really began some time before this. Mark Stephenson, digital solutions sales manager at Fujifilm, says: "I would start in 1985 with the Apple LaserWriter. That started the trend that has made the printing industry what it is today – print it yourself."

Pre-1993 there was of course also a lot of black-and-white digital printing. However, it was the ability to print in full colour without the need for printing plates and all the associated costs of conventional printing that would prove truly revolutionary.

As such, another pre-1993 landmark came in 1987 when Canon launched the CLC-1, its first colour laser copier. This product provided a taste of what was to come in terms of the appetite for short-run, affordable colour. "We put CLCs in everywhere, literally everywhere," recalls Canon head of sales for professional print Wayne Barlow.

Even direct imaging ‘digital’ presses such as Heidelberg’s GTO DI, launched in 1991, still needed plates and couldn’t produce variable data.

Which is why Ipex ’93, and the Indigo and Xeikon launches, are viewed as setting the stage for what was to follow. At the time a PrintWeek headline stated that the Indigo E-Print 1000, which could print 1,000 four-colour duplex A4 pages per hour, was a "hot Ipex sensation".

"At the press launch the company photographed a model in front of the audience using a Sony digital camera, and some five minutes later her picture was printed up, full-colour, to the amazement of the stunned audience," we reported.

Indigo created a frenzy, with the shows in its relatively small theatre quickly booked up, and visitors blocking the aisles as they tried to catch a glimpse of the E-Print press located on the outside of the stand.

Recalling those events, Benny Landa says: "They literally made us show them that the sheets weren’t pre-printed, it was that shocking. Nowadays, a run length of one is normal. The whole idea back then was an oxymoron."

Xeikon’s former sales director Greg Neesham, now semi-retired, was also there at the very beginning and has witnessed the many twists and turns in the Xeikon story. "At the time it was just us and Indigo. I did believe it was a change period and thought some day everything’s going to be digital. People were laughing at me," he recalls.

While the excitement about the potential for digital colour printing was immense, it took rather longer than anticipated to really take off commercially.

The early machines were flakey to say the least, and there was a lack of demand from print buyers, who at that point were either unaware of the possibilities or not geared up to take advantage of them. And while it was technically possible to vary every page at full press speed, the availability of suitable systems to handle that amount of data was some way off.

As Landa himself admits, "the first machines were not really reliable enough and there was no pull from the market".

The first two Indigo E-Print 1000s in Europe were installed by Rexam Digital Imaging (formerly The Eastern Press) in 1994. The manager of the facility at the time was Andy Rae, who is now senior vice-president of equipment at Heidelberg USA.

"We had two E-Prints and a full-time service technician from Indigo; they really were too unreliable at the time to offer on-demand print. Ripping speeds were very slow then, and as we had to take native files to check them we had no idea how long they would take. I remember one guy’s CorelDraw file of one A3 page took over two hours to rip, while he waited!" recalls Rae.

It wasn’t until 1998 that digital print really started to take off in earnest, and the developments have come thick and fast since (as our timeline shows).

In a PrintWeek interview that year, in response to accusations that Heidelberg was becoming too large and powerful, Heidelberg’s then-chief executive Hartmut Mehdorn compared the size of Heidelberg to giants such as Xerox, saying: "Hewlett-Packard, Canon and Xerox are the real competition, that’s where the real battle is coming."

Today, he would of course need to add Konica Minolta, Epson and Heidelberg’s current digital partner Ricoh to that list.

And although there have been some digital dead-ends along the way, today there is plenty of digital print technology that is robust and reliable, and it’s spreading its bits and bytes into all areas of print.

InfoTrends estimates that HP Indigo and Xeikon alone have sold almost 5,000 devices between them over the past two decades in Europe, and says that, overall, one trillion pages a year are now printed digitally.

"It is not the pure growth market it once was, but we are still seeing colour growth. And the next new kid on the block is inkjet, which is growing a lot – 30% volume growth year-on-year," says director Ralf Schlözer.

Digital has also helped – or perhaps compelled – litho to improve. Would the ultra-efficient litho web-to-print operations exist if it hadn’t been for the impetus created by digital print? Smithers Pira consultant Sean Smyth thinks not. "The whole digital adoption has actually pushed analogue production forward. Print is much cheaper, better quality and more relevant now than it ever has been," he asserts.

The ability for consumers to create their own printed products has also been a revolution, fuelled both by digital print and the digitisation of everyday life. (There are now more than 739m websites, according to the latest statistics from Netcraft.)

"It is still amazing to me that consumers can produce their own high-quality printed books," notes Infotrends’ Schlözer.

And what an extraordinary parallel that those Indigo-at-Ipex ’93 scenes were replicated, on a larger scale, when Landa launched his new Nanography process at Drupa 2012, a show where much of the digital talk centred on inkjet and the potential for that technology.

The man himself, having once predicted that most printing would be digital by 2010, a situation that looks unlikely to happen any time soon, "isn’t going to make that mistake again".

"Nothing is more ephemeral than technology," says Landa. "So I expect to introduce a new technology every 20 years!"

Twenty years has zipped by very quickly. Roll on 2033.   


DIGITAL MEMORIES

Jeff Jacobson, president, Global Graphic Communications, Xerox

"It is amazing to think 20 years have passed since the introduction of digital printing technology, and yet it is difficult to imagine our industry without it. Clearly digital has transformed print in ways no one could have expected in 1993. I have been privileged to watch this change from different perspectives – from my days at Kodak Polychrome Graphics, Kodak, Presstek – and now at Xerox, where we live and breathe digital. Digital and offset have found ways to co-exist, and that’s good for print service providers who have made significant technology investments. We all know there are applications that are more appropriate for digital and vice versa. What’s interesting now is watching digital co-exist with today’s multimedia marketing campaigns. Print’s questionable survival has been replaced with renewed focus on its relevance. That’s all beneficial to the industry and, more importantly, demonstrates the profound impact of digital printing. What do the next 20 years have in store? I predict more of the same. Print will continue to evolve and respond to the requirements of a challenging marketplace. To do so it needs to be smart, intuitive and inspiring – and digital printing will make that all possible."

Colin Harding, director, Face Creative Services

Face installed a Chromapress in 1996. It currently runs two Xeikon 5000s as well as HP kit.

"We had the second or third Xeikon in the country and have had six or seven models since. We’ve been able to produce A2 and B2 for years on our Xeikons, and that is a big plus for us. Back in 1996 it was one of those pieces of technology that required you to have some other income stream during the changeover – to say it was a profit base at the time would be an exaggeration. We came from a typesetting background and our pre-press know-how stood us in good stead, because you needed front-end skills rather than printing skills. Photoshop and Illustrator could do clever things, but you couldn’t actually render it, it could take all day! I remember a competitor of ours back then who timed the rip and charged the client regardless. If it took eight hours to rip, he charged that."

 

Will Parker, Reflex Labels

Reflex installed the first Indigo Omnius web press in Europe.

"1993 was the birth of the idea, 1995 was the first time the light really went on. This was not just a machine printing flyers for hotels, it could be used for packaging too. I remember predicting that everyone would have their own Coke can… well it’s taken 20 years, but Coca-Cola’s Share a Coke project has made people realise it can be done. We’re going to see more and more of that. Customers, generally, can’t see the difference now. You can’t see the join anymore. Those ‘white glove’ clean digital machines also changed the landscape of what printers do and how they behave."

Lawrence Dalton, managing director, 1st Byte

1st Byte has been an Indigo customer since 1995 and runs both HP and Xeikon kit.

"I still have the price lists from those early days and it was much better pricing than we get today – partly because of the assumption that every third job had to be reprinted! And we didn’t realise how bad the flat tints were until we’d actually bought the machine. We subsequently bought the Indigo Ultrastream that was demonstrated at Drupa 2000 and it was the first machine that came close to litho quality. The ability to print spot colours was also a major jump forward and now the 7600 has pushed the boundaries even further."

Stephen Docherty, managing director, Bell & Bain

Bell & Bain has just installed the world’s first Fujifilm Jet Press 540W.

"I worked for J Thomson Colour Printers back then and I remember them getting a Xeikon in, I was trying to fold the print output and it was a nightmare – all the moisture had been taken out of the paper. Even up to six months ago I would have said digital isn’t quite there yet, but the Fuji press has made me think differently. Even so, for our type of work it’s not all going to go digital in the foreseeable future."

Sean Smyth, consultant, Smithers Pira

Smyth was group technical director at Rexam when it installed Europe’s first Indigos in 1994.

"Most of the stories are true.  The minimum order value was £19, but it turned out it cost £23 to raise an invoice. Part of the reason for the investment was to understand colour digital printing and the potential for security printing (almost none as the print was erasable) and also Rexam made some of the consumables over in the US. Anyway, it was a good learning curve as it allowed us to understand reality of operation, including maintenance and support needs, and the costs. Digital has been proven to work, and for some, to make good money. The next big things will be packaging and ‘industrial decoration’, including textiles. Just look at Xaar’s results."


DIGITAL TIMELINE

1993

  • At Ipex, Indigo launches the E-Print 1000 and Agfa debuts the Xeikon-engined Chromapress
  • Kodak sells its high-speed inkjet business to Scitex for $70m
  • Launch of Epson Stylus 800 marks debut for Epson’s micro piezo inkjet technology

1994

  • The first two Indigo E-Print 1000s in Europe are installed at Rexam Digital Imaging
  • The first Agfa Chromapress is dispatched to Laserbureau in London. It falls off the back of the lorry while being delivered and has to be replaced
  • Silverbrook Research starts developing MEMS inkjet technology that will become Memjet

1996

  • Xerox installs nearly 900 DocuColors worldwide in one year
  • Scitex launches the Spontane, based on the Xerox DocuColor engine with a Brisque front-end

1997

  • Xeikon launches wider DCP-50, capable of printing B2 format

1998

  • Debut for Screen’s TruePress

1999

  • Heidelberg describes digital printing as "a $5bn market we would like to jump into"

2000

  • It’s "the digital Drupa". NexPress, the joint venture between Heidelberg and Kodak, launches
  • Xerox previews its FutureColor press, which will be capable of printing 1m pages a month
  • Indigo previews a future B2 model, the XB2
  • Manroland shows revolutionary DICOweb press with rewriteable plate cylinders. It acquires Agfa’s digital press division and starts selling Xeikon presses under the DICO brand
  • Xeikon enters the cut-sheet digital arena with the CSP 320D
  • Xerox buys Tektronix
  • HP buys a stake in Indigo with a $100m investment

2001

  • HP acquires Indigo
  • Xeikon enters the Belgian equivalent of Chapter 11

2002

  • Punch Graphix buys Xeikon’s assets. The CSP 320D is canned
  • Xerox FutureColor technology comes to market as the DocuColor iGen3

2003

  • Konica Minolta formed through merger of Konica and Minolta
  • HP Indigo mothballs its original B2 digital press project

2004

  • Scitex sells high-speed inkjet business back to Kodak for $250m, it is renamed Kodak Versamark
  • Heidelberg gives up on NexPress, sells its stake to Kodak for $1
  • Kodak shows its Stream inkjet technology concept

2005

  • HP buys Scitex’s wide-format digital wing, Scitex Vision
  • Screen acquires Inca Digital Printers

2006

  • EFI acquires Jetrion
  • Fujifilm acquires Dimatix

2007

  • Ricoh and IBM form InfoPrint Solutions, based on IBM’s printing systems division, with Ricoh set to take sole ownership of the venture over the following three years

2008

  • Ricoh announces its first colour cut-sheet digital press the 90ppm Pro C900
  • It’s "the inkjet Drupa" - HP brings its huge T300 colour inkjet web to the show, Fujifilm previews its Jet Press 720 B2 press, Kodak shows its Stream concept press

2009

  • Canon announces that it is to buy Océ in a $1bn deal

2010

  • At Ipex, Domino showcases its first colour digital press, the N600, targeted at label printers
  • Konica Minolta uses Ipex as launchpad for Bizhub C8000
  • Kodak launches the Prosper 5000XL inkjet web press

2011

  • Heidelberg partners with Ricoh on its revamped digital print offering
  • Xerox launches a high-speed waterless inkjet press, the CiPress 500
  • Canon acquires all the outstanding shares in Océ

2012

  • EFI acquires ceramic tile printing systems developer Cretaprint
  • Xeikon announces a new toner technology, Quantum, that it says will take on high-speed inkjet. It is subsequently renamed Trillium
  • Benny Landa returns to print with the launch of Nanography and the Landa range of digital presses at Drupa, including a B1 model
  • The number of B2 digital presses grows, including models from Screen, Fuji, HP Indigo, Landa, Jadason, Komori, Konica Minolta, Ryobi/Miyakoshi and MGI
  • Fuji shows a new inkjet web press
  • Screen and Epson preview new inkjet label presses
  • KBA partners with RR Donnelley on the RotaJet colour inkjet web
  • Timsons and Kodak partner on a digital book production line using Kodak inkjet heads
  • Océ previews a B1-format web-fed liquid toner press, the InfiniStream
  • Precision Printing installs first HP Indigo 10000 in the UK
  • RCS installs first Screen Truepress Jet SX B2 inkjet press in the world

2013

  • Xerox acquires Impika and gains a foothold in high-speed inkjet
  • Punch Graphix agrees to sell its controlling stake in Xeikon to Bencis Capital Partners for €110m
  • Xaar’s share price hits an all-time high of 898p
  • HP says that users of its production inkjet machines print enough pages each month to circle the earth more than 14 times
  • FFEI announce new inkjet label press, the Graphium
  • World’s first Fujifilm Jet Press 540W colour inkjet web installed at Bell & Bain in Glasgow

 

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