B2 or not B2?


With Drupa 2016 just over the horizon but no new press announcements made so far, it’s time to ask: who needs B2 digital or bigger?

Plenty of larger-format digital presses have been announced at the various Drupas and Ipexes since 2008, but with the exception of HP’s Indigo 10000, hardly any have seen more than a handful of installations worldwide. In fact there are roughly three times as many Indigo 10000s installed as all the other B2 digital presses put together.

For most of the 1990s and 2000s, digital presses mainly used electrophotography, with either liquid toners (HP Indigo) or dry toners (everybody else). These were largely constrained to SRA3 formats, as it was hard to make anything wider. Single-pass inkjets can be pretty well any width, though actually these have yet to make an impact on the market. 

Only Xeikon managed to make a larger-format toner press, introducing the first of its 500mm-wide web presses at Imprinta 1997, using an LED-based imaging system that it’s improved on ever since. Its next-generation high-speed Trillium liquid toner technology will use the same 500mm LED imaging heads. 

Marketing manager Danny Mertens says that Xeikon sees the advantages of B2 as being partly that you can print larger items – posters and so on – but also it’s easier to keep multiple personalised items together if data integrity is important. “In our document and commercial printing segment we see that about 60% of all work printed on ‘slower’ machines, like the Xeikon 5000/6000 and Xeikon 8500/8600, is B2 or larger,” he says. 

“Commercially the larger format can make the application stand out – a four-fold instead of a two-fold, for instance.  For books, the format lets you match with offset workflows for bookcovers, dust jackets, etc.”

Xeikon had the larger-format commercial digital market to itself until Drupa 2008, when Fujifilm and Screen showed prototype B2 sheetfed inkjets. Their rationale was that B2 is the most common format chosen by offset printers worldwide, so a B2 digital press (that crucially was to be capable of printing on standard offset stocks) should slot straight into existing pre-press workflows and finishing lines. 

The next Drupa, in 2012, saw a slew of announcements of digital presses that were B2 or larger, or 500mm webs or wider. Very few have yet reached real commercial sites, with most either still in beta programmes or on hold altogether. 

However, by the end of 2015 there had been about 230 sales worldwide of the duplex sheetfed liquid toner HP Indigo 10000, according to Yogev Barak, the company’s director of business management. Also in the family are the more specialised 762mm web-fed simplex 20000, mainly intended for flexible packaging and labels, and the sheetfed simplex B2 30000, with heavy-duty media handling for carton production work. 

“B2 is something we discussed with customers for many years,” says Barak. “They wanted quality that worked side by side with offset, so you don’t need to worry about which to use. The second thing they wanted was versatility, the ability to print different types of media one after another. 

“Then there is the format. Customers with SRA3 always wanted a bigger format. Some want it for the imposition – our B2 is about two-and-a-half-times bigger than SRA3. Then there are applications that you simply can’t do on SRA3, such as posters, folding cartons, or canvas work.”

There are more than a dozen HP Indigo 10000s installed in the UK, and Precision Printing in Barking has two of them. Managing director Gary Peeling says: “It’s a significant step. Why did we take it? Over time using smaller platforms we had aggregated a large number of smaller orders, which could only be printed digitally. With the 10000 we wanted to industrialise the process, for example we will produce 30,000 to 40,000 items per day at peak periods before Christmas, such as calendars and photobooks. 

“The Indigo 10000 is two-and-a-half-times larger than the standard Series 3 sheets. That has driven huge cost savings for the business. In the first year we installed B2 we saved around £200,000 in consumables alone.”

The format also allows the company to offer products that wouldn’t be possible with SRA3, he says. “We have been able to develop a range of self-mailer direct mail formats. Because of the span you are able to create much more effective formats. Our colour direct mail business has increased by 300% in volume in the past year, driven by this.”

How does the idea that B2 sheetfed presses can use existing B2 offset finishing lines stack up in practise? Peeling says it worked for him: “We already had B2 offset presses, so we had the finishing equipment and that helps. Also you can produce B2 and then cut down. We have developed some workarounds, such as for some of our business card cutters, by pre-trimming before we run the strips through.”

Reasons to refuse

But some printers who already have SRA3 digital have chosen not to make the move into B2. 

Harrier in Newton Abbott is one of the UK’s largest users of HP Indigos, with five Series 3 SRA3 presses. It specialises in same-day turnarounds of photobooks and related photo products, serving both its own Truprint brand and those of several retail chains.

Julian Marsh is business development manager of Harrier LLC and has recently become chairman of Dscoop EMEA, the HP Indigo users group. Despite its high throughput, Harrier doesn’t have B2 presses. The company is set up to handle SRA3 very efficiently, Marsh says. “Currently all our jobs are imposed automatically for one of several SRA3 presses. If we introduce SRA2/B2 what happens if we impose for the 10000, then it happens to be offline when we go to print? Rather than moving to a different press as we would do with the Series 3 presses, we would need to re-impose. 

“Then there is the size of the presses. They take up more space than two SRA3 presses. And they use bigger sheets of paper, so we would have to hold multiple sizes of paper in stock. 

“It turns out that we don’t need a B2 digital press after all. What we really need is just faster output. The most efficient investment is in efficiency and that does not involve any press capex at all. For Harrier, going down the 10000 route would be costly and complex.”

Rapidity is a commercial all-digital printer in central London, with a turnover of £8m. It currently has two HP Indigo 7600s, a Ricoh Pro C9110 colour toner press and a monochrome Xerox Nuvera 288, all of which are SRA3. 

“The attraction of larger formats has to be economy of scale,” says managing director Paul Manning. “The reason B2 hasn’t kicked off is because there isn’t one. I talk to HP regularly about it.” He feels that the new generation of long-sheet SRA3 toner presses are probably more relevant to his needs. “We just talked to Ricoh, whose new press can print a six-page sheet. I could do a six-page sheet or A4 landscapes, or pocketed folders. That would let me do so many more products. But going to a B2 sheet means you’ve got to have the finishing, the impositions, the workflow...”

Finishing factors

There are signs that finishing manufacturers are responding to the prospect of  larger digital presses. Horizon, for instance, has developed the SmartStacker in partnership with HP. This B2-format machine offers automated cutting, trimming, collating and stacking in runs from  a single sheet upward. It can run inline with an Indigo 10000, or nearline when  fitted with a sheet feeder. Either way it  has bi-directional communications with the press. 

The nearline configuration will also work with other makes of B2 digital press, points out Jason Seaber, technical sales director at Horizon’s UK distributor IFS. “In the future there will be option to attach a folding machine, maybe a saddlestitcher, or a perfect binder to the SmartStacker. Customers will be able to go from press to finished product, inline or nearline.”

Finishing specialist Duplo is also keeping a close eye on larger-format digital presses, according to Peter Dyson, product development manager for digital finishing. He says: “The current state of the industry is similar to where we were in 1990, with the only equipment suitable for B2 being designed for the very long runs typical of offset print, long set-up, incompatible handling features, etc.”

However, this may not be a limiting factor, he feels. Most B2 work he’s seen could be cut down after printing and handled by existing SRA3 finishers, or in the case of larger posters and the like, only needs simple trimming. Even B2 cartons and complex shapes can be cut and creased on a converted cylinder press. Therefore, he says, “much of the existing Duplo range, which is designed for short-run, quick set-up and handling digital stocks, is already compatible.”

We’ve yet to hear very much about new digital press announcements at Drupa 2016, but it’s pretty certain that there will be newcomers in the B2 and B1 range. Landa plans to ship its B1 Nanographic press first, from a range that spans B3 to B1 sheetfed, plus webs. Canon’s Océ InfiniStream has a 1,110m web width (for B1 landscape) and is aimed at carton work. Heidelberg will also announce a B1 sheetfed carton press, a joint development with Fujifilm. Many of the B2 announcements from 2012 are also likely to be actually available for sale by then. Digital presses are certainly bound for bigger things. 

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