From slow burner to blast off

Simon Eccles
Monday, June 28, 2021

Often it takes a while for a new idea to take off in the market. Sometimes it never does take off, other times it’s a slow burner that seems to fizzle for years before suddenly blasting off when the time is right. Sheetfed B2 digital presses are a case in point. They have been shipping since 2012 but compared with the SRA3 digital press market, B2 choice remains limited and global sales have not been spectacular. Yet if the post-Covid market changes, so may their appeal.

Fujifilm and Screen announced the first B2 sheetfed inkjets at Drupa 2008, though deliveries of heavily revised production models only started after Drupa 2012. Screen dropped its Truepress Jet SX in 2016 after two UK sales. Fuji persevered to success with its Jet Press 7xx series and is on its third major version today, with about 230 installations worldwide including 10 in the UK and Ireland. 

In 2016 Konica Minolta and Komori shipped their jointly developed B2 LED UV inkjet (called AccurioJet KM-1 from KM and Impremia IS29 from Komori). 

Delphax tried to get SRA2 off the ground with the low-cost elan500 but went into liquidation in 2017 after only three US sales – it’s since been revived by new owners with an improved model but isn’t a player in Europe at present.

HP started delivering sheetfed B2 Indigo presses in late 2012, using its ElectroInk liquid toner technology. Compared to inkjets these have sold like hot cakes. HP reckons it has sold about 1,000 B2 duplex commercial print types so far worldwide, plus respectable numbers of the single-sided models for folding cartons. This is at least double all the rival B2 inkjet models put together. 

So, there is evidently a market for sheetfed B2 digital presses, but something is holding inkjet sales back. It’s unlikely to be capital price, as Indigos cost about the same, or more, starting at about £1.5m. 

May of this year saw Ricoh announcing that it is introducing a B2 sheetfed inkjet of its own called Z25, to ship in 2022. Tim Taylor is Ricoh’s global marketing director of inkjet production solutions. He also worked at Screen when the Truepress Jet SX was introduced. Given modest sales of previous B2 inkjets, we asked him why launch into this market today? 

“Inkjet is becoming recognised as being stable, of producing a quality level that is comparable to offset and also being the future direction for the printing industry,” he says. “So, I believe the market is now ready for B2 inkjet in a way that it wasn’t when some of the previous machines were launched.”

Taylor predicts that the Pro Z75 will be “a system that responds to market demand for mass customisation, cost-effective short runs and print-on-demand that does not increase costs. It will also be highly productive and, of course, environmentally responsible.”

Is Ricoh, like the other B2 digital players, anticipating that its press will slot in naturally with established B2 litho workflows and finishing? “Yes, this is still a factor, particularly as offset to digital is a main target expectation of the Pro Z75. General commercial print applications are diverse and for many jobs, the finishing process is more important than the printing process. Many commercial printers also rely on ganging jobs to be competitive and the B2-plus sheet size has clear advantages over B3.”

Fujifilm has been selling B2 digital longer than any other company and has 10 installations running in the UK and Ireland. We talked to Mark Stephenson, product manager for digital printing and press systems at Fujifilm Europe. Litho pressmakers now claim they can achieve five-minute job changeovers and then run much faster than any digital press. There is little demand for variable data, so is B2 digital actually needed? 

“If you are printing sections all day, then the five-minute changeovers are worth having,” says Stephenson. “For complex work and substrate changes, it takes a lot more than five minutes. Some jobs are very difficult for litho compared to inkjet. The Jet Press colour gamut, registration and image quality is very good, to a level that is expensive to achieve in litho. Multi-page sections are pre-collated.

“People are coming to inkjet and working out that the dynamics are different from toner or litho. Inkjets have much higher uptimes than dry toner or Indigos. There are fewer parts to go wrong so there is less maintenance needed for a Jet Press. Also, Jet Presses are built to last – we have eight year old presses still operating with top quality. We have never scrapped one. They have a very high duty cycle compared to toner presses.”

So why does he think B2 HP Indigos sell better than inkjets? “I think it’s the click charge and the predictable costs,” Stephenson says. “Inkjets are widely variable and depending on coverage the cost per sheet can vary from very cheap to very expensive. There were about 10,000 Indigos of all types installed worldwide by 2019, so there are lots of users and they are a known quantity. The offer is ‘you’re happy with A3 Indigo, here’s a bigger one!’ They can also offer trade-ins with harmonised click rates.” 

Jamie Emmerson is director of Emerson Press in Kenilworth. His company put in the UK’s first Jet Press 720S in 2016 then replaced it with the UK’s first improved 750S in 2019, seeing an immediate 40% improvement in throughput. The first one replaced an SRA3 Indigo 3000, but Emmerson decided against a B2 Indigo 10000. “Perceived or otherwise, reliability was a factor,” said Emmerson at the time. “The 10000 I’m sure is a lot better than the 3000 series, but it’s still an offset process. You get things associated with that, like banding. It’s just not present with inkjet.”

Today Emmerson says: “I’m still happy to say I think the Jet Press produces the best quality digital or litho B2 sheet and the machine is very, very reliable. HP Indigo’s strength I think is in its versatility – all the substrates, special inks and all the applications that this opens up – and the HD writing heads seem to make a marked difference in quality, which is very good but not as good as the Jet Press.”

Konica Minolta and Komori have sold roughly as many B2 presses as Fujifilm worldwide, but less so in Europe. There is still only one installed press from each supplier in the UK: a KM-1 at Colourfast Financial and an IS29 at Lexon Group in Crumlin, South Wales. The revised KM-1e was announced in June 2020. 

Nuno Sacadura, product manager at Konica Minolta Business Solutions Europe, says “The SRA3 market started 20 to 25 years ago. B2 is still quite new. Our first KM-1 was released five or six years ago and the numbers reflect this evolution. Naturally we want to achieve higher numbers but it is a period of learning for both ourselves and machinery makers and also for customers. The B2 market is small compared with SRA3 and is still developing. We are in a different stage for what is still a new printing market.”

The European market is different to the US and Far East, Sacadura admits. “Entrepreneurs in Europe are not a single variable,” he says. “One of our jobs is to show all these variables, what is the sweet spot of the KM-1 inside the customer? It is not intended to replace litho at a printer. It is to explore other things, new products. The market is changing – long runs are almost gone. Shorter runs, higher quality, more and more these meet the sweet spot for the KM-1e.”

HP puts the success of its B2 models down to all-round versatility, says Cristina Moro Murciego, commercial segment product manager for HP Indigo EMEA. “The HP Indigo B2 portfolio responds to the market demand of offset-matching quality solutions to address with high flexibility and efficiency the increasing number of short runs, with shorter and shorter delivery times.

“I think the appeal of Indigo in B2 is a combination of factors – quality, productivity, quickly shifting between jobs and substrates, media versatility. If you put all the pieces together we provide the most capable solution. We used to be thought of as expensive, but now our portfolio addresses different pricing levels, adapting to different market needs.”

The latest general-purpose commercial B2 model is the 15K, announced last year as an update of the ‘fourth generation’ 12000. The high volume ‘fifth generation’ 100K (6,000sph 3/0) was announced at the same time. 

“Using the HP Indigo 15K or 12000 with 15K Value Pack, PSPs are staying out of the commodity zone, providing innovative, high-end applications that helps them increase margins and grow,” says Moro Murciego. “Thanks to wide substrate compatibility, One Shot printing on special media, and seven ink stations, applications span general commercial print applications and high-end photo printing to folding cartons, secure printing, gaming and more.

“We are now seeing a significant increase in run lengths on the Indigo 100K thanks to its robustness, reliability and dependability. PSPs are running multi-page products and publishing on-demand to save at the bindery, reduce touch points and improve turn times.”

Precision Printing, now merged into Precision ProCo, took the Indigo B2 route rather than inkjet. CEO Gary Peeling says: “We were involved with B2 Indigo through beta, at which time there were no viable alternatives that I can recall for a proper duplex press. Essentially the Indigo gave us quality that did not require explanation to clients with “that’s because its digital” type conversations. Also, commercially the cost-per-page magic happened around the oversize sheet 530x750mm. That’s larger than B2 and allowed 5-up impositions for A4 on a traditional 4-up sheet, giving us a 2.5-times output increase over the SRA3 press.”

The world is changing and print economics will change with it. With new models and continual refinements, maybe B2 digital’s time is about to come. 


B2 DIGITAL PRESSES

Fujifilm Jet Press 750S High Speed Model

Announced in April for autumn shipping, this modified version of the third generation four-colour simplex 750S can boost speed by 33% to 5,400sph, by reducing image quality. Full quality is still available at 3,600sph. Ink is aqueous, formulated to work with offset papers. 

Konica Minolta AccurioJet KM-1e

Another 2020 announcement. This refines the original four-colour perfecting KM-1 with revised paper path to reduce jams, plus other tweaks to boost throughput and productivity and extend media compatibility. Top speed remains 3,000sph simplex or 1,500sph duplex. Ink is LED UV cured and works on many papers and plastics, including cartonboard. 

Komori Impremia IS29

Komori’s version of the KM-1 and identical in specification and inks. So far Komori has not said it will incorporate the KM-1e refinements, but given the joint manufacture it’s highly likely. 

Delphax Elan 500 HD

An improved version of the SRA2 Memjet head based elan500 announced in 2019. The original was keenly priced at about £430,000. Image quality and productivity are said to be improved with the HD. However it doesn’t currently seem to be sold outside North America. 

HP Indigo 15k

An updated version of the 12000 press, announced in 2020 and close to shipping. Existing 12000s can be updated with the 15K Value Pack. It introduces new “AI-driven efficiency and high-value, multi-substrate short-run production”. Speed is 3,450sph (simplex CMYK) or 1,725sph duplex. Like all Indigos it uses liquid toner ElectroInk with wide substrate compatibility. Up to seven colours can be printed. 

HP Indigo 100K

A new ‘fifth generation’ high-end B2 press announced in 2020. This offers a high speed up to 6,000sph (simplex 3/0 CMY only) or 2,250sph 4/4, with improved paper handling. It is intended for high-volume work with a duty cycle of £1m duplex sheets per month. Deliveries have started and there are two in the UK. 

Ricoh Pro Z75

Announced in May 2021, this is Ricoh’s first B2 inkjet digital press, offering up to 4,500sph simplex or 2,250sph duplex on oversized B2 sheets. It claims to offer the same substrate versatility as its dry toner SRA3 presses, with the lower ink costs and greater reliability of inkjet. Prices and many features have yet to be revealed and deliveries aren’t due until 2022. 

Canon

At Drupa 2016 Canon showed Voyager, a prototype B2-plus device for photo products with print and packaging versions to follow, but commercial shipments didn’t materialise. The manufacturer is currently gaining traction with the B3 VarioPrint iX3200 device, and for now B2 seems to be on the back burner.

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