Digital’s diversity of opportunities

By Simon Eccles, Tuesday 03 May 2016

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At the last Drupa, the undoubted star of the show, Benny Landa, claimed that only 2% of worldwide print volumes are produced on digital presses. Whatever margin of error you build into that, it’s certainly a tiny proportion of our industry.

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However, in terms of market profile and development effort, digital printing in its various forms and processes will be the most lively sector at Drupa. 

“What we are seeing very clearly is that the smarter printers recognise that digital is not there to compete with offset, but to complement it,” says Wayne Barlow, director of professional print at Canon. 

“In the past 10 years the digital market tried to compete with offset on quality. What I’m seeing now is that quality is not in question. It will always be discussed, but printers are now starting to talk to us more about how they can get the technologies to complement each other. 

“It gives them a much wider array of products to sell on, and that’s the greatest change I’m seeing.”

What happened to B2 sheetfed?

On the eve of the last Drupa, it seemed clear which way ‘narrow-format’ digital presses were going in the next four years. Sheetfed would go B2, mostly aqueous inkjet, a couple with LED-UV cured inkjet, but with the promise of liquid toner for B2 HP Indigos and a Ryobi-Miyakoshi collaboration. 

It’s not happening, mostly. Fujifilm is seeing some success with its much-improved £900,000-ish Jetpress 720S introduced in 2014, and has 70 installs worldwide. Delphax has sold three of its speedy elan SRA2 presses, which undercut all rivals at about £420,000. Screen won’t be showing its Truepress JetSX at this Drupa and European vice-president of solutions and technology Tim Taylor won’t be drawn on its status. 

In reality, B2 digital hasn’t taken off, except for HP Indigos. The problem is issues of aqueous inks on paper, especially drying them without distortion with good quality at reasonable speed. 

Therefore Konica Minolta has high hopes for its £1.2m KM-1 inkjet (developed in partnership with Komori, which calls it the Impremia IS29). This uses thin-film UV-LED inks and is aimed at general commercial, books and carton markets. UV should be able to match the Indigos’ ability to print on virtually anything. 

With B2 inkjets proving slow sellers, Canon and Xerox have switched their attention to B3 inkjets with the 300ppm Varioprint i300 and 200ppm Brenva HD respectively. Both are betting that fast B3 plus the claimed ability to handle offset papers will attract toner press users who already have finishing lines set up for those formats. 

Liquid toner 

That leaves HP, which has proved there is demand for digital B2 by selling more than 220 of its Indigo 10000 duplex liquid toner general commercial presses worldwide since shipping at the end of 2012. It’s also sold respectable numbers of the 30000 B2 simplex carton press and 20000 roll-fed flexible packaging and labels machines. There will be improved versions of these Series 4 presses at Drupa, plus a 762mm wide roll-fed 50000 (nominally B1 portrait), due to reach beta sites next year. 

Liquid toner seemed to be the next big thing at Drupa 2012, with new technologies that get around HP’s Indigo patents. However, Canon has dropped its InfiniStream B1 liquid toner carton press after one beta site, while Heidelberg never built its project. 

Only Xeikon and RMGT seem to be persevering. Xeikon’s Trillium liquid toner 500mm web press will be running at Drupa in full colour at 100m/min. Print quality isn’t yet a match for Indigo and there are rumours of problems with long continuous runs. Meanwhile, RMGT (formerly Ryobi) will show a revamped 8,000sph B2 liquid toner sheetfed press at Drupa in a four-unit configuration called DP790ST-4. 

Playing the long game

Most digital presses remain dry toner in formats of SRA3-plus, approximately 330mm wide. What’s significant is that some manufacturers are adding long sheet capabilities – Xerox with up to 660mm on the iGen5, Kodak NexPress SX3900 with up to 1,000mm and MGI Meteors with up to 1,200mm. For multi-page A4 and A5 jobs these can rival the B2 presses at significantly lower prices, although with unusual impositions. 

Also notable is a trend for more colours and special effects. HP Indigo has offered six and seven colours since the 1990s, with the still unique option to mix your own colours. Opaque white opened up creative possibilities in 2012. 

Kodak has extended its fifth unit offerings on NexPress to take in raised images, clear, several spot colours and metallic gold. A new architecture at Drupa will allow colour order to be swapped around, allowing white or metallic undercoats for instance. 

Ricoh already offers white as well as clear on its Pro C7100x series, but only on the last unit. Xerox added a fifth unit and spot colour options to the iGen5, with a new LED head. It also offers metallic silver and gold on its Colour 800i/1000i toner presses. 

Nanography

At Drupa 2012, Benny Landa, the original developer of Indigo liquid toner presses, staged a spectacular launch of six sheet- and roll-fed presses using an entirely new process, Nanography. This turns out to be offset inkjet, with dry transfer of sticky wide-gamut pigments onto practically anything. 

Landa predicted the lowest cost per copy of any digital process at respectable speeds. People queued to lay down €10,000 deposits. They’re still waiting. 

Getting it to work has proved harder than expected, Landa admits. The first press, the simplex B1 S10 carton machine, was supposed to be in beta sites by 2013; now Landa says it will be next year. Nevertheless the Landa stand should be on the list for anyone remotely interested in digital at Drupa. Anyone interested in B1 sheetfed digital should also head for the Heidelberg exhibit in Hall 1, where its Primefire 106 B1 inkjet press, a joint development with Fujifilm, will be shown for the first time.

Roll-fed

Canon’s Océ operation shifts a lot of medium-volume inkjet webs under the JetStream and ColorStream brands. Newcomers at Drupa will include the ColorStream 6000 Chroma with high-colour Chromera inks for books. 

Screen has seen considerable success with its roll-fed Truepress Jets since the past Drupa, which are also rebadged and sold by Ricoh as InfoPrints, while Komori will distribute the high quality £1.2m Truepress Jet520HD n Europe. 

“The biggest change we have seen in inkjet since the last Drupa is the huge increase in print quality that is possible with high-speed web-fed inkjet,” says Screen’s Taylor. “This is beginning to take the process from standard transactional and mono book applications into mainstream commercial print. At the same time, inkjet printing onto standard offset stocks is no longer wishful thinking.”

HP, which launched its original inkjet web press in 2008, has renamed the range PageWide and is launching new models with double-resolution High Definition Nozzle Architecture (HDNA) print heads at Drupa. These generate two drop sizes to improve greyscales.

Kodak’s rival inkjet web Prosper Presses haven’t sold so well. There will be a faster 300m/min colour Prosper 6000C at Drupa. Kodak shot itself in the foot in March by announcing that the Prosper operation is up for sale: it’s hard to see it taking many orders until it announces a credible buyer. 

Print consultant John Charnock says that the attractiveness of hybrids, ie achieving variable data via inkjet heads (such as Kodak’s Prosper S-series) on conventional presses, is diminishing. “Improvements in pure digital are advancing so fast that there will be no need for this soon,” he says. 

Labels 

Digital label presses mostly remain narrow-web, with 330mm a common width. Although HP Indigo has been and remains market leader in digital labels with its liquid toner presses (it’s launching a dedicated 340mm-wide label press at Drupa, the Indigo 8000), most other developers have gone for high-resolution UV inkjet. 

EFI established an early lead with its Jetrion range, expanded to include in-line laser cutting with the 4900. However Domino has been doing very well lately with its N610i and now claims to be the sales leader in inkjets. 

Wide-format

Wide-format is notable for its diversity of ink types, for different applications. The main split is between indoor types (aqueous inks) and outdoor (solvent, eco-solvent, latex, UV and solvent-UV). Flatbeds can print on rigid materials, often of considerable thickness. They almost all use UV ink. Small UV ‘desktop’ flatbeds of A3 and A2 format are being used for industrial and promotional print. 

Stuart Cole, national sales manager for Mimaki’s UK agent Hybrid Services, says the biggest development since the last Drupa has been cool-running UV-LED curing lamps. These open up the range of materials considerably, as heat resistance isn’t needed any more. Mimaki has recently introduced a 3.2m rollfed and an 2.4x1.2m flatbed at £59,995 each, both about half the price of previous rival models. 

Industrial and 3D

Industrial digital printing is a relatively new and rapidly developing category with inkjets and UV-curing inks predominating. 

It’s worth highlighting Heidelberg in particular: its Jetmaster Dimension robotic inkjet is already being used commercially to personalise footballs and rather bizarrely, muesli packs. Now renamed Omnifire, you’ll be able to see it in action at this Drupa. 

According to Heidelberg’s vice-president of digital Jason Oliver, there are plans to scale up the technology to print on really large objects, such as vehicles and aircraft. 

“3D printing” has also entered the market consciousness since the last Drupa, but so far with little overlap into ‘real’ print. The Drupa organisers are taking it seriously and there will be several 3D devices at the show. A standout will be the appropriately named Massivit in Hall 7, a huge 3D printer from Israel that builds objects up to 1.5x1.2x1.8m at 350mm/hr. A lot of the managers previously worked at successful 2D developers such as Idanit, Scitex, Objet and Indigo. 

In conclusion...

Digital processes will provide the biggest, most dynamic and most thought-provoking segment of Drupa. Go and look with an open mind. If you’re not surprised at the diversity of opportunities, you’re at the wrong show. 

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