15 June 2020 Digital Printing Technologies

Commercial printers face the digital abyss

Digital printing is the only way to cope with the surge in short runs and changing way of buying print that will emerge from the pandemic period.

Digital press suppliers have an unprecedented opportunity to convince printers that their technology will be more suitable for the post Covid-19 age than offset litho. However, despite the marketing messages that quality is now as good as litho, or better in some instances, few have been persuaded so far.

The step into digital printing as a company’s major production platform is a major risk. This was one of the findings of research conducted by FM Future at the behest of Ricoh last year investigating why inkjet printing has not taken off, and perhaps paving the way for the Japanese company’s entry into the sheetfed sector. Now the bigger risk may be sticking with litho rather than taking the digital plunge.

Most printers will have experience of digital printing but for the most part as a supplement to the 50 tonne testament to the quality of German or Japanese engineering. A press weighing less than five tonnes logically does not carry the same heft. Add in a business model that locks customers into consumables, service and support from the press supplier, in contrast to the printer being free to negotiate with suppliers of ink, plates, blankets and other consumables.

And then there is the click charge, the relatively slow speed of digital compared to litho, the issues with substrates and the questions keep mounting. Only with personalisation will people pay extra for digital over litho. After all a printed sheet is a printed sheet.

The trends towards shorter runs, minimal waste, faster turnarounds that will be accelerated by the pandemic, however, may make the argument for digital compelling. None of the companies with new or existing technology in this space could have predicted this disease and its bouleversement on the economy. Their development cycles over the last four years should have culminated at Drupa with introductions and announcements.

Nevertheless a whole swathe of presses, inkjet and electrophotographic is now coming on stream and these are aimed not at transactional or direct mail printers, not at book printers, not a printers producing ultra short runs and personalised print, but at converting litho printers into full blown digital printers.

At the head of this queue is HP Indigo, bringing to market the 100K, a B2 format press that includes touches from the litho world including feeder and front lays that improve the reliability of the press. This has been the Achilles heel of the technology, particularly with the introduction of the first B2 Indigo. It is something that Alon Bar-Shany, general manager of HP Indigo, acknowledges.”

“The 100K has consequently been through the longest field testing programme of any Indigo press with machines in the world since last summer. More are going on test before commercial shipments begin later this year,” he says.

As Indigo has made a point of stressing since launch in 1993, its liquid toner technology is the closest to litho ink in lay down and thus the printed finish. With developments since, and especially of inkjet, this is less true than then, but it has established Indigo as top of the tree in terms of print quality, at least as far as those buying print are concerned.

At the same time that Indigo arrived on the scene, Belgian company Xeikon was launching its first press. It was aimed at commercial print. In recent years Xeikon has concentrated on labels, though is returning to commercial print with the SX30000. This is the first implementation of a new engine that Xeikon calls Sirius. Like all its presses, this is a web press and not limited in the length of sheet it can print. With a print width of 508mm, this means that it is capable of printing a B2 sheet.

The SX30000 has five colour stations, CMYK plus the potential for a special, a white or clear toner. It runs at 30m/minute, equivalent to 2,500 double sided B2 sheets an hour and is priced above the cut sheet digital presses, including B2 inkjet presses, and below the outlay for an inkjet web press. This places it in a “zone of disruption”.

It has a 1,200dpi resolution, equivalent to a 240lpi litho screen. The paper is conditioned through heating and cooling to ensure that any paper entering the print engine is consistent and receptive to the imaging head and toner. A new fusing unit capable of coping with the higher speed and higher coverage levels complete the press.

The toner technology has an advantage over the water based inkjet in enabling litho levels of ink coverage. With inkjet there is an upper limit to the amount of water that the substrate can absorb. There is no upper limit with toner.

Nor is there an upper limit with UV inkjet. This is the technology used on the KM-1, a B2 sheetfed machine that is sold by Konica Minolta and as the Impremia 29 by Komori. The viscous ink is heated slightly to enable it to pass through the nozzles, but it sets on contact with the substrate which means it does not run on an unfavourable material. An LED UV lamp completes the cure of the pinned ink.

There is just one KM-1 in the UK (and one Komori), rather more on the European mainland and a growing number in North America. The press is a foil to B1. The most recent customer is like the first in Europe, an online printer, where it will join other B2 digital presses. “We are starting to see an increasing reliance on the internet for buying print,” says KM business unit leader Jon Pritchard. And that plays to the benefit of digital means of production: automatic workflow, set batch numbers, fast turnaround.

That UK customer Colourfast Financial has the inkjet press at the heart of Getitprinted.com, an online print operation with an emphasis on personal gifts and items that can more easily be produced using UV inks than water based.

If Konica Minolta has struggled to get installations of the press, first shown at Ipex in 2014 as a concept machine, so too has Komori. However, on visits to the Utrecht showroom this the press that visitors want to see. That interest has not yet translated into activity, but under the changed circumstances it might.

Fujifilm has enjoyed greater success with its Jetpress B2 sheetfed press, now as the 750S. It is a sheetfed machine using water based inks which in the latest version will print at 3,600 single sided sheets an hour. All that have seen the press will declare that the quality is exceptional, the problem being that only rarely does this level of quality command a premium. The speed of throughput is the big issue.

Nevertheless, Fujifilm has scored notable successes with companies that would otherwise be printing litho or on smaller format digital presses. The first user, Emmerson Press in Kenilworth, has since switched from the Jetpress 720 to the latest 750S model. The ability to take on shorter run work allowed its Heidelberg press to focus on longer runs where litho is happier.

The company avoids the platemaking, the constant cleaning and make readies that can be disruptive to production schedules and stressful for operators. Fujifilm has totted these up and created a calculator to show which jobs of a printer’s typical portfolio will be profitable, perhaps with a greater margin, when printed on the the inkjet press.

As the portfolio of jobs for a typical print shifts as a result of changed habits following the lockdown, Fujifilm is likely to be able to demonstrate that the Jetpress is even more effective.

The company’s challenge in the UK is that the standard press for a commercial printer is a B2 press, whereas the larger B1 format is typical for a commercial printer in Spain, Italy, France, Germany and Scandinavia where it is easier to show the benefits of handling fast turnaround short run work on the smaller format.

In the UK B2 printers are already fiercely competitive and, if successful, highly efficient, meaning that the operating window for the inkjet machine has been narrow. However, the winds were already blowing in Fujifilm’s favour before the accelerating impact of the lockdown crisis.

Close behind Fujifilm in successful sales comes Canon. Its i300 series press (extended recently with additional models) is a B3 machine, which despite this has been installed in demanding applications. Severn has been printing short run books on its i300 while another high profile user is Halstan Press in Amersham. Both print full colour books on standard litho pages and extol the quality and convenience of inkjet. Other users include Integrity and Latcham Direct with a more transactional and direct mail customer profile.

Xerox aims its Baltoro at the same audience, partly to avoid conflict with its iGen machines which for Xerox remain the pinnacle of quality. The Baltoro is charged at an ink volume rate, not a per page click. This means that on jobs with relatively low coverage, typical in transactional print, the Baltoro is significantly less expensive than the iGen. Xerox claims that the HF ink used provides a litho quality finish, but this is not yet tested in the same way as Canon, Fujifilm and the other sheetfed inkjet presses have managed.

Canon is also successful with reelfed inkjet presses, stepping up quality at each iteration of the technology. Severn is already a user as is Latcham Direct. There are none yet in a truly commercial print space, let alone a press that has been chosen instead of a litho press.

This is the hope that Ricoh has for the VC70000. The first installation of this press in the UK was made at MAMs in Leeds at the end of last year, so it has been tricky to evaluate its impact. However, elsewhere in the world the press is effective at producing litho quality print.

“The quality is there and cost wise it’s quite competitive,” says Erwin Busselot, business innovations and solutions director at Ricoh Europe. “It sits between toner and offset, and speedwise, the VC70000 is comparable to B2 offset.”

The challenge for both the suppliers and printers is that a move in this direction means adopting reel handling on paper coming in even if a sheeter is attached to the press to give flat sheets for finishing. This may be a blessing in disguise as reels are generally less expensive than folio sheets, particularly if wrapped.

Most of the online trade printers are investigated this kind of solution, Bluetree having already invested in a brace of Screen TruepressJet 520HDs a year ago. These companies are able to standardise on a limited range of paper which current practice for a commercial printer may not allow.

The result can be that commercial printers become fixated on one aspect of the technology that is not an exact match for what they already have and dismiss it. “They can become myopic,” Busselot adds. “They want a sheetfed inkjet press, but will that deliver the ability to change every paper on every print run. That may not always be the case.”

With workflow software like Ricoh’s Remote Director, jobs on the same paper can automatically be scheduled together to minimise disruptive changeovers. It is more of a psychological barrier than a real problem.

Speed is another issue. The press can reach 150m/minute though at that rate quality is 600x600dpi currently. At 100m/minute the quality is 1200x600dpi which seems to be a comfortable level of quality and throughput says Busselot. Even 150m/minute will work for low cost online print applications. And he points out that the net sheets on floor from a B2 litho press with a succession of jobs of 2,000 sheets will be quite low. Inkjet is unaffected by makeready. As job runs become shorter, this discrepancy is likely to increase.

And the options that a commercial printer has to move into inkjet printing will increase. HP has announced the PageWide T250 using a new Brilliant Ink that was to be seen at Drupa. This is said by the company to work on any standard offset paper and deliver litho quality printing. If this is the case there will inevitably be pressure on HP Indigo, where general manager Alon Bar-Shany says that the two are approaching the market from different directions.

Kodak is also back in the game with a new version of the Prosper inkjet press that has been used in newspaper, book and direct mail applications. The Ultra C520 uses the higher resolution Ultrastream printhead delivering a 1,200dpi resolution and delivering litho quality. Time will tell.

Already in the game is Screen which has developed a new version of the dryer for the TruepressJet 520HD to enable it to run high ink coverages possible in commercial printing at 150m/minute. Screen has built more than 1,500 print engines of the TruepressJet family since 2006 (some sold through Ricoh), proving the greatest depth of experience, which it is now taking to commercial print.

The company has a number of litho replacement projects on the go, says managing director Bui Burke “and one wants to move ahead as soon as he can”. And he adds: “It’s because the printer’s customer is placing small initial orders and coming back for repeat orders that are needed quickly. Is the technology that you need to be productive when the order is for 10,000 units the same that you need to be productive when printing 100?”

There is however, an investment hurdle. Tim Taylor, Ricoh's global marketing director, inkjet production solutions, says that the investment in a reelfed inkjet press with unwind, sheeter or rewind unit can be more than £1.5 million, a significant step up on a four-colour B2 litho press. It will take a brave printer to take this step.

On the other hand operator overheads are lower as the press is inherently more automated and over time the ease of handling short run jobs digitally may balance out the additional investment required, especially if inline or reelfed finishing is considered.

At book producers reelfed inkjet is now considered standard linked to a Hunkeler or Tecnau line able to gather, bind, and trim books automatically.

There will also most likely need to be investment at the front end to accept process and deliver files to the press. This for many printers is sorely lacking and is going to be required whatever the output technology. “Investment in automated workflows is required says Taylor. “It’s something that many commercial printers still will not have have fully implemented.”

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