Pressing questions: who’s made progress since Drupa?

By Simon Eccles, Monday 13 November 2017

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It has now been 18 months since the big Drupa exhibition in Germany in May 2016, so it’s a good point to look at what’s happened to the many digital production presses that were unveiled there, plus a few of the significant developments or announcements since.

screen-bhs-1

Screen/BHS 1.6m-wide JetLiner

Normally, Drupa announcements would ship at Ipex and vice versa, but that cycle seems broken. 

On the technical side the major trends have been predictable: the steady advance of inkjet where speed or print width matters, versus the continuing appeal of dry toner on list price, running cost and quality grounds. What looked like a trend towards liquid toner digital presses back in 2012 has gone nowhere, leaving HP’s Indigo presses as the only significant player.

Web-fed continuous inkjets mostly saw incremental improvements in the speed versus resolution compromise: these sell mostly into transactional and mono book markets. Xerox’s Drupa launch of the compact 520mm Trivor was notable because it was aimed at new markets with a lower entry price (about £875,000). Improved HD inks shipped this year. 

Kodak’s decision this year to halt its attempted sale of its Prosper/Stream inkjet operation means that it’s concentrating more on putting its next-generation Ultrastream high-quality continuous inkjet technology into real presses, in conjunction with a “partner” company. 

Makers of dry toner presses have given up trying to go wider than about 330mm, so Xeikon’s 500mm-wide continuous presses remain unique after two decades of production. Instead, Kodak, MGI and Xerox go longer with sheet lengths of 1,000mm and above. Speeds aren’t up much, but manufacturers are concentrating on improving print quality and automation at the entry and mid-grade levels. For instance, Xerox’s latest Versant models launched this year. 

Inkjet impetus

On the face of it inkjets ought to be obvious alternatives to dry toner presses, as they are mechanically simpler yet can be built for higher speeds and wider formats. In practice, they have much higher purchase costs for a given format, the ink is expensive and most run aqueous inks that need big power-hungry driers. Papers for aqueous inks often require either a special coating at the mill, or a pre-coating on or off the press, any of which adds to costs. 

Sheetfed B2 inkjets have been deliverable since 2012 but high prices, slow speeds and ink costs have held them back. Fujifilm’s B2 Jet Press 720S has sold in reasonable numbers at a price under £1m (depending on the state of sterling), but Screen dropped its TruePress JetSX to concentrate on its web range. Konica Minolta says its AccurioJet KM-1 is selling well, with “tens” going into Europe since Drupa, though none in the UK (for which we might blame Brexit), although the first European installation of Komori’s version of the press, the IS29, went into Lexon Group in Wales in the spring. Its UV-cured inks work with any paper or plastic. 

Canon’s aqueous B3-plus VarioPrint i300 shipped in 2015 for about £750,000, but at Drupa got a useful primer head to print on uncoated papers. This runs at up to 106ppm duplex A4. Xerox entered the sheetfed market at Drupa 2016 with the B3-plus Brenva HD, which runs slower but costs less. 

Canon’s all-new B2-plus sheetfed Voyager, shown as a prototype at Drupa, is still going ahead for mid-2018 deliveries, mainly targeting the photo products market, but with top quality commercial and packaging work in its sights. It uses an offset cylinder to transfer up to seven colours onto standard uncoated or gloss coated papers (rice paper samples were shown at Drupa). Canon says it can run at speeds of up to 3,000sph. 

Delphax’s manufacturing arm, Delphax Canada, was declared bankrupt in August. Its Memjet printhead based elan500 A2 sheetfed inkjet press was announced in 2012 at about a third of the price of slower competitors, but only three were shipped to commercial users. Colour density of the dye inks may have been a factor: Drupa 2016 samples on uncoated papers were unimpressive.

However, there’s the prospect of new Memjet-based production presses in the next year or so, thanks to Memjet’s new lowish-cost DuraLink printheads, announced in September. These can be assembled into arrays up to 2.5m (previously it was 1,067mm). Top speed will be 203m/min at 1,600x580dpi (a big increase on the original heads’ 18m/min) and crucially they will print a higher-density, fade-resistant aqueous pigment ink instead of dye. Memjet expects DuraLink to appeal to developers of general commercial, carton and corrugated presses – already Portuguese manufacturer New Solution says it is developing an autofeed 1.2m DuraLink based carton and corrugated printer to follow its current NS-Multi hand-fed Memjet dye printer.

It seems that the liquid toner alternative to inkjet isn’t going to reach beyond HP Indigo. At Drupa 2012, companies were lining up to talk about digital liquid toner electrophotographic press projects to avoid inkjet paper limitations. Since then most of them (Heidelberg, Canon and last month Xeikon) have pulled out again. RMGT is still listing its DP7 B2 press, with Miyakoshi liquid toner units on a Ryobi 750 chassis, running at 6,000sph. It was demonstrated at Drupa 2016 but made little impact in Europe – RMGT’s UK distributor Apex Graphics says it prefers to concentrate on LED-UV cured conventional litho presses. 

This leaves HP still as the only significant and commercially successful supplier of liquid toner presses, just as it (as Indigo) has been since 1993. For its first two decades Indigo presses were confined to around 330mm-wide formats (webs or SRA3 sheets), but at Drupa 2012 the 530mm ‘Platform 4’ range was announced in duplex and simplex sheetfed and a web configurations; some 600 had shipped worldwide by September. The 10000 was the biggest seller and at Drupa 2016, HP announced the improved 12000 model, with speed boosted to 4,600sph. At Print 17 in Chicago this September it announced the 12000 HD upgrade with a doubled image resolution of 1,625dpi, due to ship next year. 

Also at Drupa 2016, HP announced the Indigo 50000, a web-fed 762mm twin-unit duplex press that can handle B1 ‘sheets’ at 4,300sph in CMYK (six colours are possible). This was commercially launched at Print 17 in Chicago in September following tests at a beta site in the US. 

Landa launch

The emergence of Landa was the biggest digital news at Drupa 2012, with the announcement of a new offset inkjet print and nano-particle ink process called Nanography, with a range of planned presses and optimistic claims for litho-like speeds and per-copy costs. By 2014, Landa had scaled back to concentrate on the revised simplex B1 S10, for cartons. This was shown at Drupa 2016 printing on paper, with a new duplex W10 model also on show. The delay in reaching test sites dragged on until this year, prompting schadenfreude and derision from some. By September three S10s and two W10s had been built and Landa took 100 international carton printers to visit the Israeli S10 beta site at Graphica Bezalel. 

B1 is a significant target to aim at, whatever the digital process, as it’s about the smallest size that full-time carton converters will take seriously. However, this sector remains sceptical about the commercial merits of spending millions on digital presses that are very slow compared with proven and often cheaper litho presses. Most would prefer to spend fractions of that amount on large-format flatbed UV inkjets for sample-making. Most customers’ downstream supply chains aren’t geared to short runs or localisation. 

Nevertheless, Heidelberg says it has two years of orders for its big B1 Primefire 106 inkjet carton press, though declining to talk numbers. A delegation of packaging printers visited the first beta site earlier this month. The print engine is essentially a double-width version of that in Fujifilm’s B2 Jet Press 720S. Automation and quality look impressive, but speed is only 2,500sph with plans to hit 5,000 eventually. 

In an update alongside its 200th anniversary celebrations in September, Koenig & Bauer said that its 4,500sph VariJet 106 B1 sheetfed inkjet press, a co-development with Xerox’s Impika division, was three to six months away from being finalised. It is aimed at the packaging market and the modular device will include options such as coating, cold foiling, rotary die-cutting, and creasing and perforating.

Koenig & Bauer’s RotaJet inkjet web press, which now looks completely different from its first outing at Drupa 2012, has notched up five installations at book and decor printers. The RotaJet can be upgraded from a 30in to a 54in web and there is a new option to go up to an 88in (2.23m) web width. 

At Drupa Konica Minolta showed a B1 UV inkjet carton press, KM-C, running at 2,200sph. This uses Konica Minolta’s own sheet transport (the B2 KM-1 uses Komori transport). It’s still under development but with no news about release dates.

Corrugated advances

The corrugated sector is proving more amenable to digital, as its requirements are different. Inkjet can replace separate litho lamination processes for high quality white-lined work, while direct-to-board inkjets can replace the lengthy flexo platemaking process.

BHS, a big German manufacturer of enormous corrugating lines, announced a joint venture with Screen to build a 2.8m-wide aqueous inkjet to print liner paper inline at up to 300m/min. This is being developed by Screen’s subsidiary Inca Digital; a half-sized 1.6m printer called JetLiner is now running at its Cambridge factory, with plans to build a 2.8m press next year. This is Inca’s first single-pass machine and it’s hinting that the 1.6m machine may have a future life of its own in commercial print markets.

The other approach is to print directly onto pre-lined corrugated boards, replacing flexo. Durst, HP and EFI announced new fast corrugated inkjets to do this at drupa. The Durst Delta 130 SPC uses its Water hybrid-UV inks on boards up to 2.5x3.2m, at 60-120m/min. It was shown running at Drupa but so far hasn’t reached any users. EFI’s Nozomi C18000 has been developed in Spain, with installations at Hinojosa in Spain and MacGowans Print in Dublin, plus a third sale made to the US. It uses LED-UV inks for up to seven colours and runs at 75m/min on sheets up to 1.8x3m. HP’s PageWide C500, announced but not shown at Drupa, uses food-safe aqueous inks on sheets up to 1.32m wide by 2.5m, running at 75m/min. One has been built in Israel and is due to go to its first beta site, also in Israel.

Bobst abandoned its digital corrugated press this summer, after at least five years development and two beta sites. This was apparently a technology issue with the Kodak Stream heads Bobst is now concentrating on a new-tech piezo head through a joint-venture company called Mouvent, initially for label presses.

In summary, toner presses are mature and good enough, while inkjets struggle to break into wider commercial markets due to their cost/substrate issues. Watch out for Memjet through – its DuraLink head may break the cycle. 

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