The printing machine that must deliver Heidelberg's future stands three metres high and is as long as a standard six-colour B1 litho press. But this, of course, is anything but a standard litho press.
It is the Primefire 106, the B1 digital press that Heidelberg calls the first industrialised inkjet press and which will be launched at Drupa.
It has taken 15 months of joint development work between Fujifilm and Heidelberg to reach this point and it will surely take a further six months of constant testing, adapting, monitoring and modifying for Heidelberg to be satisfied enough to ship it to a first test site in Germany.
That journey began when Heidelberg's development teams had the chance to examine and report on the output from the Fujifilm Jetpress 720 inkjet press. It was declared to be more than a match for the best offset litho, paving the way for what became Project Summit, the joint development of a breakthrough B1 press.
“We are excited to introduce another milestone in inkjet printing history,” says Takashi Yanagawa, senior vice president of Fujifilm Europe. “The image quality is so outstanding we are confident we can satisfy even Heidelberg customers’ critical requirements.”
The company's timetable calls for the field installation at an already primed carton printer in southern Germany to be in place for the end of this year. Commercial shipments to companies that are prepared to hand over a hefty down payment and sign a serious contract, begin in 2017.
The customers are most likely to be the larger packaging groups in the US, Europe or Japan. This is not a press for the developing world, not even China, where volume not precision is needed. Customers will pay for the press, sign a service contract and buy ink by the container. There will be no click charge.
Before then is the small matter of Drupa. With the market for sheetfed litho presses stable at best, Heidelberg needs to expand through digital if it is to achieve the sort of revenue and profit growth that investors look for. The Primefire is already Heidelberg's major card to play at the show. It has to be the ace of trumps.
Currently the Primefire 106 sits in the middle of Heidelberg's research and development area which is one of the few parts of the business to remain in the centre if the city. It has printed a symbolic sheet combining images of Heidelberg Castle and Mount Fuji, but copies are not handed out.
All traces have been removed from sight, lest one should be discovered by the marauding journalists shepherded into this inner sanctum. We are not allowed beyond the print unit which sits behind the smoked glass doors that are a styling element being used across all Heidelberg inkjet machines.
This is because the delivery houses some very clever features that are being kept under wraps until Drupa. Jason Oliver, head of Heidelberg's digital division, has a glint in his eye when explaining this. He is adept at deflecting inquires about this and other attempts to probe his defences and prise out information that is still under wraps. All will be revealed come 31 May.
The heart of the machine is a vast cylinder fed by a number of pipes that surely create the vacuum to help hold paper in place. But is this the only system deployed? The question receives a smile and a polite refusal to elucidate, this time by Stephan Plenz, director in charge of equipment. Conventional grippers cannot be used because these would crash into the inkjet heads positioned around 1mm above the substrate. It is a problem that all sheetfed inkjet presses must solve.
On Fujifilm's Jetpress 720, a vacuum system is used, but this copes only with a limited set of pre-determined paper formats, so that unused vacuum nozzles can be shut off. The Primefire suffers no such limitation here.
And while the smallest sheet it will print is another of the secrets, its maximum stock thickness is not. It can handle 0.6mm board, covering much of the cartonboard market. Its lower limit has not been discovered, but at lower grammages the water reaching the paper from the inks is going to have an deleterious effect. Today the press is being tested on a 350gsm coated paper.
The press is not going to print on corrugated, and the smoothness of what it can print on is another of the tick list of items to check before shipping. Whatever the material, the sheet passes a coating unit after leaving the feeder. The feeder is based on the XL106 unit, though feeding at 2,000 sheets an hour is well within set up speeds of a litho press.
An anilox coater applies a conditioning coat. This is a consumable which works with the ink to separate the pigment from the water it is held in to achieve what Fujifilm calls rapid coagulation. This controls the tendency of inkjet droplets to spread and run into each other with the impact on print quality and so achieve the desired dot shape.
The sheet next reaches the super cylinder where it passes beneath seven inkjet arrays. Each comprises 25 Fujifilm Dimatix Samba heads, the same as in the Jetpress 720. These have 1200x1200 nozzles per inch, deliver droplets of 2-3pl and are greyscale capable. Precisely how many greyscales and the sizes of the droplets is another commercially sensitive issue that will be explained later.
Most likely this is also subject to a final decision as Heidelberg consults with prospects. As on the latest models of the Jetpress, a seized head can be removed without the need to replace the entire array.
The seven colours will ensure that the Primefire can cover the full gamut that packaging brands require without recourse to special colours. These add orange, green and violet to the standard CMYK set. This will be enough to cope with 90% of carton jobs, reckons Plenz. It is not going to deliver the densest black solids nor the metallics that luxury product packaging has tended towards.
The inks are produced from compounds that meet the Swiss Ordinances with regard to ink used in the proximity of food. The use of aqueous inks means too that the carton is fully recyclable, crucial to future proof output, and further indication that this press is aimed firmly at carton printing.
To date digital production has barely scratched the surface of packaging print. If digital is responsible for 2% of all pages in commercial printing, not even 0.2% of cartons are printed digitally.
“The majority of our customers have B1 presses,” says Heidelberg CEO Gerold Linzbach. “The majority of digital presses have come from smaller formats, so have developed B2 presses. The real opportunity is B1.”
Trends towards single occupant households, convenience foods, artisan-type production and consumption of luxury foods in the developed economies, points to shorter runs and perhaps the extra impact that customisation delivers to a brand, if not personalisation.
Heidelberg expects demand to come from Europe, North America and Japan, adding Australia though not China where volume remains the name of the game.
Once printed the sheet is dried through an IR/hot air combination dryer. A second coating unit uses a conventional technology to apply a flood or spot coating. Currently this is an aqueous system, though there is no reason why UV cannot be used. And then to the delivery where Heidelberg has been responsive to the difficulties that carton printers will face.
In a standard carton production, pallets of board are delivered to the feeder and automatically release pallets from the delivery to allow the press to run without stopping. Pallets then queue for cutting and creasing and any additional processes, say window patching, foiling and then to the folder gluer.
Digital production changes this. There will be sheet deflectors in the delivery to separate out less than perfect sheets that the extensive scanners and cameras spot. A blocked nozzle can be compensated immediately, likewise any colour deviation. But the sophistication of the delivery extends further than this. It is just that Heidelberg is not explaining how.
From the outside the delivery fitted to the development machine looks normal, but there is plenty of space within to hold multiple pallets or other sorting systems. If the press is to run non stop between jobs, there needs to be a way to automatically switch to different piles within the delivery for ease of handling at the next process step. It is recognition that the inkjet press alone is only part of the solution.
Beyond the press, Heidelberg has the fast changeover Easymatrix from its partnership with Masterwork. It will host Steinemann’s digital finishing unit in Hall 1 at Drupa. Doubtless there is more to come.
“Primefire alone is not the solution,” says Plenz. “It needs complete integration to handle the number of jobs it has to process.”
This will come from Prinect and from a user interface developed for the litho presses that reduces the touch points in any part of the process to make operation less stressful and more automated. Heidelberg is using its own colour management for example, ensuring consistency across the different print processes.
While the speed for high quality printing with 2-3pl droplets is set at 2,000sph, there could be an option of running at 5,000sph by accepting a comprise on colour by setting the heads to deliver larger droplet sizes.
Heidelberg CEO Gerold Linzbach says: "The majority of our customers have B1 presses. The majority of digital presses have come from smaller formats, so have developed B2 presses.
"The real opportunity is B1."
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