19 November 2019 Digital Printing Technologies

Dial B2 for digital

Digital has not yet cracked the B2 commercial print market. Is this down to economics, quality, culture or a risk averse attitude that sees companies repeating what they do until change is forced upon them?

Few printers today will contemplate investment in a B3 litho press. The world has switched to digital printing, at least in this format. Some SM52s, GTOs, Ryobi and Chinese made machines continue to turn, but new litho press investments in this format are as rare as hen’s teeth.

This world has succumbed to digital printing where the press can perhaps finish inline as well as print; where skill levels are relatively low, as are manning costs; where jobs can be turned around the same day and short runs are cost effective.

For a long run requirement, there is always a larger press.

But step up to the next format and the reverse is true. Most litho printers have yet to make an investment in a B2 digital press. There are only a very few Fujifilm and Komori/Konica Minolta B2 presses, and if there is a decent sprinkling of HP Indigo presses, most have gone to printers that already have an Indigo and so understand the technology and the cost model.

Despite this, the speculation is that visitors to Drupa will encounter several more half-sheet digital presses and more than a few B1 presses.

Ricoh continues to be at the centre of this speculation, an extension of its webfed inkjet presses and cutsheet toner machines. There is equal speculation around Heidelberg's plans, whether Canon will deliver a larger version of its i300 or reintroduce its Voyager technology, and Xerox is very capable of developing a larger machine to join its recent Baltaro introduction. Then there's the availability of inkjet heads from Memjet, Epson, Kyocera, Fujifilm and more, which can open the door to new entrants.

The logic is driving in this direction, particularly as the B1 market is being challenged by inkjet, where Heidelberg has the Primefire 106, Koenig & Bauer is expecting to bring a B1 carton machine to market at Drupa, and Landa, of course, has its S10 and S10P. B1 sheetfed is also in the sights of continuous feed inkjet presses where HP, Canon, Ricoh and Screen are claiming their presses are taking jobs from litho machines.

The advantages of personalisation, fast turnaround, ability to cope with decreasing run lengths, the need to print on multiple stocks, are perfectly lined up with the direction that the industry is headed.

And yet few British commercial printers have dived into B2 digital printing. Mark Stephenson, Fujifilm’s product manager for digital printing and press systems, has spotted some key differences between the UK and mainland Europe. “In comparison, the UK is almost a cottage industry, perhaps with limited ambition compared to printers in Switzerland and Germany who are driven by logistics and the possibilities opened by Industry 4.0.

“For a company like Straub, which has three Jetpresses, it’s about workflow, track and trace logistics, shipping instructions by barcode, automation. These companies are not talking to us about printing – it’s about the factory and how to manage the dynamics of print manufacturing.”

For companies with this mindset, the capabilities of the Jetpress are about accepting digital files, running automatically and moving the sheets to the next stage in the process; it is less about taking short run work away from the litho press and matching the quality that litho delivers. That is a given.

Toner does not really do this. It can match sheet for sheet quality but, says Stephenson, “you have to ask is that colour consistent, is the image positioned in the same place on the sheet each time, can a job be reprinted to match quality of the first printing several weeks later?” And of course, he says, there is the issue of reliability: “Can a printer be confident that the technology he has is ready to run without problem every morning and for the following 12 hours”.

His message is that inkjet can fulfil all these demands, opening the door to a different type of digital printing, one where hands off printing really is possible. This is not the case for offset where efforts to embrace on press imaging, Presstek apart, have fizzled out. And offset remains a process of compromise with multiple variables to balance, plates to load and settings to adjust. All this takes time and results in waste sheets. In contrast inkjet is effectively a binary process. “Offset printing is fantastic but it’s not the right tool for short runs,” says Stephenson.

That has provided the opportunity for the likes of Jetpress. The digital machine can sit alongside a B1 or B2 litho press and take on the short run jobs leaving the XL75 for longer run jobs. This is another peculiarity of the UK market, he points out. In Europe, he says, the printer with a single, single-sided B2 press is an anomaly, not the norm as it seems to be in the UK.

Fujifilm’s GetFit software has been created to show that a Jetpress can work in this way, freeing capacity on the litho press by shifting shorter runs to the inkjet machine. The algorithm takes real data from an MIS and shows how the costs of running the jobs on the litho press and on the inkjet press compare.

The logic is that as print runs in the B2 sector decline, the pain of running jobs on a conventional litho press will grow and the demand for digital presses will increase, recreating what has happened in the smaller format.

This is driving printers to investigate B2 presses, if not yet to invest in them. “The Impremia IS29 is the most viewed machine in our showroom in Utrecht,” says Komori UK managing director Steve Turner. “But as far as the UK is concerned this has not yet translated into sales.” This is the B2 sheetfed inkjet press that Komori has developed in collaboration with Konica Minolta. Worldwide sales are starting to pick up says Komori, with 30 installed at the close of the company’s financial year six months ago.

There is a Komori Impremia IS29 press at Lexon in South Wales, which Turner says is going well, producing specialist print thanks to its use of UV inks. The sister machine, Konica Minolta’s KM1, also has a single UK user. There are also single presses in France, Sweden, the Netherlands and two each in Germany and Poland. It is a slow and patient build up. Privately owned printers are naturally cautious.

Turner thinks this may change. “There are a lot of general commercial printing companies that have traditionally used B2 litho presses who would be ready to invest again, but one of the reasons that they have not yet invested is that they don’t know which technology to follow. Will it be litho, will it be inkjet?”

Add in Brexit uncertainty and the result is investment inertia. The Fujifilm Jetpress uses an aqueous ink that needs a primer to run standard offset papers; the KM/Komori machine is using UV inkjet to print on a wide range of materials and is able to turn the sheet and print on both sides in a single pass.

The UV ensures that the ink is fully dry on exit from the press regardless of substrate. It is this feature that makes the Impremia iS29 among the most versatile machines around.

“It is definitely attractive to people that do point of sale marketing print on a variety of substrates: plastics, bespoke packaging for artisan produce in low volumes, very high quality books,” Turner says.

This is less about simple substitution for litho printing than using the technology to create print where print could not go before. Turner points to presentation boxes used for a celebration short run beer individually numbering the 750 bottles in printed plastic boxes. The ability to handle 600 micron materials delivers this ability, he adds.

The appeal of the inkjet press is undermined, as it is with the Fujifilm Jetpress, by the production speed and cost of the inks. The Fujifilm Jetpress 750S press reaches 3,500sph compared to the 3,000sph of the Impremia. Both are limited by the piezo inkjet technology used. And the cost of inkjet inks is considerably higher than equivalent litho inks.

There is nervousness about how this affects incoming files. Producing a low quote can result in problems if ink coverage is high. Too high a quote and the customer may be lost. This is one reason behind the impact that inkjet printing has had on mono book printing: ink coverage is relatively low. Fujifilm’s GetFit costing tool will demonstrate which jobs suit the technology, which are beyond the pale. It shows that total ink coverage is perhaps lower than many believe.

“It is 12 years since we first showed the Jetpress,” says Stephenson. “Today it is mature, it is reliable. It is not a niche product, but many think it is. The Jetpress is about day to day commercial work.”

If there is hesitancy about inkjet technology, there appears to be less about liquid toner. HP Indigo has notched 750 sales of its B2 format Indigo 10000, 12000 and Indigo 12000HD presses, let alone smaller volumes of the Indigo 30000 and 20000 machines which print a B2 image.

Many installations have been made at existing Indigo printers moving up to a larger format to meet increasing demand. While the sheet format offers more than double the print area (it is possible to fit five A4 pages in the sheet), the associated costs do not rise in line, helping make the larger press attractive.

The Indigo 12000 was introduced at the last Drupa as an improved version of the original B2 press and the HD adds 1600dpi imaging and across the world more than 100 machines have been installed. In the UK this version accounts for half the B2 Indigos in use.

Andy Pike, UK and Ireland marketing manager for HP Indigo, says: “While some have simply adopted the HD quality as their new standard, offering their customers a better quality product, the key applications it is being used for are fine art and photography applications. The HP Indigo presses have always been known for their quality. However, the HD simply raises the bar even higher. It gives our customers a huge competitive advantage when competing for high quality work.”

This opens applications in posters, books, some packaging and larger format brochures that were beyond the scope of its smaller format machines.

In practical terms for HP Indigo it creates a space where it is not competing with lower cost dry toner rivals that are eating into its market share in the B3 space. The ability to print the larger image area and feed a larger sheet also paves the way for digital print to make a major impact in packaging.

The Indigo 30000, its carton press, can effectively print a B1 sheet indicating, perhaps, a commercial press designed for this format may be coming, say at Drupa next year. That remains purely speculative at this stage.

What is not is the user base. While initial users were printers like Precision and Pureprint, long term users of the B3 press, the B2 has opened new accounts and in at least one instance has allowed a printer to move completely from litho to digital printing.

It has also replaced litho printing for the Rapidity group which when replacing presses at Sidcup subsidiary, decided to buy the B2 Indigo rather than replace an old litho press with a new litho press. The availability of suitable litho minders was a consideration for the business as was the positive experience the company had has with the smaller format digital presses. In this instance, litho was the unknown quantity, Indigo delivered a known cost base.

Leicester printer Flexpress is one of the printers coming to the B2 Indigo without prior experience of the technology. “We are running two shifts on it,” says managing director Steve Wenlock. “It is busy all the time. It is expensive, there are space constraints and it uses masses of power, but it’s the known product in the space. For us it’s better the devil you know rather than one you don’t.” Like many others Flexpress has been exposed to the arguments in favour of B2 inkjet, but has not been convinced.

Today Flexpress is like a number of other printers, ProCo and Precision among them, as the B2 Indigo sits alongside SRA1 RMGT LED UV printing, capable of printing eight A4 pages to view. Even with the cost of LED UV inks, litho continues to outperform digital printing in terms of speed and cost. At one time this meant sharp delineation between the processes. Now there is a more blurred boundary, B2 digital printing compounds this.

“We have done some studies and reckon that the cost of digital does not make economic sense even in B3,” says Murray Lock, joint managing director of M Partners. This is in part because printers are operating digital presses as presses that use a different technology rather than as automated output devices in an integrated production line. Digital is a drop in replacement for the existing technology, not a tool to change how a business operates.

It is only where the digital press is delivering a lot of personalised print, at ProCo say, that B2 digital can make sense “otherwise there is no commercial benefit to B2 digital that we can see”, Lock says. By running a simple calculation relating to production speed, pages printed in that time with both variable and fixed costs taken into account. Litho is always cheaper, more reliable and frequently more predictable.

“And the more you print with a litho press, the more the cost per sheet comes down. That doesn’t happen with digital printing,” he explains.

This is about comparison between today’s digital and today’s advanced offset technology. Today’s offset presses are able to make ready in minutes, particularly where only plates are changed and paper remains the same. Makeready waste can be below 50 sheets and the press can be up to speed so that litho overtakes digital in minutes.

There may be advantages to digital where a job can be delivered in collated order and such a job will perhaps be easier to handle, but in terms of cost alone, litho holds all the aces. Few businesses really understand all their costs, Lock argues. If they did, even fewer would be investing in digital printing.

Heidelberg cannot currently sell a B2 digital press and its Speedmaster XL75 comfortably outsells every other B2 press in the UK. The Push to Stop technology that was pioneered on the XL106 has been made available on the B2 format reducing the amount of effort required to set up, change over and run the machine. And while Heidelberg will attempt to bundle in its Saphira consumables, the printer can, in reality, choose from a wide range of suppliers.

The technology in a litho press is also making it easier to run a B1 press. The old thinking was that registration and consistency from front to back of the larger sheet was more difficult on the larger press. Link this with a restricted factory space and the B2 press quickly became popular in this country, printers buying a B2 long perfector rather than a single-sided B1 press.

Those arguments no longer hold water. Quality on B1 is every bit as good as B2 and jobs can be turned almost immediately. The B2 printer then faces a choice; should the next investment stay with litho, but in a larger format, SRA1 or B1, or would digital be a better move?

Some will stay with B2 litho, but across the industry more of the same is no longer the most sensible move.

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