There is an optimism around Kodak that belies its position to the financial sector. The flare up in the share price around announcements in January regarding crypto currency is indicative of either short term thinking, fashion for these things or something else. It is not reflective of reality. Kodak is not going into the crypto currency business.
However, Kodak is partnering with a company that has a connection, part of a strategy of licensing the use of Kodak’s name to companies with a business related to Kodak. In this case the link up is with a specialist in digital rights management.
This technology is geared towards helping photographers track and trace the use of their images using blockchain technology. Once registered with the blockchain, every use of an image carries with it a slice of code that is traceable back to the photographer and a fee applied. Paid for in Kodak coins.
“DRM is a fundamental problem for photographers and the blockchain is a great solution to that. These new technologies have vast promise. What we have taken and propose is about a very specific solution around DRM. We believe that customer acceptance will bring stability and will have a smart currency with it that will enable down stream monetisation.”
It is, however, the real products rather than virtual products that Clarke is really excited about. “We have never had as complete a product set as we do now,” he says. He is talking at the inauguralTaking Print Further event in Rochester, NY, inside the Kodak Centre where 250 customers have come to hear about the product set and to understand how Kodak’s message of sustainability and value added can apply to their businesses.
Most have come from North America with a sprinkling from Europe and beyond. And not all the products that Clarke speaks about are completely in the portfolio. Some are still on the runway waiting to take off.
For example, Ultrastream: this is the next generation print head for high quality applications that might span graphics arts, packaging and industrial print. Last summer the expectation was that a first set of partners who would build commercial print devices around its capabilities would be announced by now. Instead there has been silence.
The development kits have been built and shipped, and Clarke says that commercial availability of the first resulting products will be in 2019. Think Drupa 2020 for a practical launch.
Divisional director Randy Vandagriff says: “There are no delays to the technology and we are working very closely with a number of partners, taking orders for the first couple of kits.” It seems there has been a change in approach. “I’ve told Randy we need to be more selective and choose the bigger opportunities for the launch partners,” says Clarke.
One of the tenets of Kodak going forward is the sustainability of its products. It has adopted the triple bottom line accounting principle that measures a business not just by its financial success, but by its environmental and social impact as well. Kodak can and will be ahead of the game.
On the social responsibility side, it is promoting literacy among the young. The availability and ownership of books among US children from poorer homes is staggering: one book in 30 families in some inner city areas. There are initiatives to change this. Designer, children’s author and illustrator Tad Carpenter has provided the artwork and Kodak has printed thousands of books to gift to kids under a Print4Good campaign.
It is encouraging its customers to do the same, using the same set of artwork, providing customisable dump bins and promising discounts against plates to those companies that sign up. In North America at least and at first. “We will give them the kit and let customers run with it,” says Brad Kruchten. “It doesn’t have to be just a Kodak story.”
The sustainability aspect is very much to the fore. “We believe that one of Kodak’s most significant differentiating factors is our strategy around sustainability. The Sonora X will transform this industry,” says Clarke. Kruchten is more specific: “We believe that many printers using a non bake processed plate can switch,” he says.
This amounts to 80% of plates consumed. Currently around 20% of Kodak’s plates by volume are Sonora XP and variants. It is a growing slice of the market, up 24% for Kodak last year, perhaps as printers retire processors and look at what is available that does not require the highly unpopular cleaning routines and the consumption of chemistry that needs careful disposal.
Growth in the US last year was faster, aided by the success of the newspaper version of the plate persuading violet plate users to make just this switch.
Sonora X is a crucial product for Kodak. It has been subject to the most intensive testing of any plate product the company has introduced. It has been put through 132 presses from 13 manufacturers at 111 sites using different chemistries and inks from 20 suppliers in 25 countries.
This has run the gamut from smaller litho presses to heatset web offset machines, newspaper presses, UV in both commercial and packaging printing. Run lengths have been a close match for existing plates and imaging speed has barely dropped.
The image is fixed in place by the laser and non image areas are softened by the fount and removed in the first eight sheets once ink is applied. A new layer is added to the existing Sonora layer to give the longevity.
Kodak has yet to make any marked improvements in the image contrast, though the reddish brown latent image is different to the blue grey of the Sonora XP. Nor is there any change to the one hour dwell time, meaning that printers cannot produce a whole batch of plates for the night shift to get through.
Scratch resistance is much improved. In an adhoc test one printer placed the new and existing plates face to face in a bag which was then swung around and generally maltreated. Sonora XP was a mass of scratches and had to be thrown out, Sonora X showed only two minor blemishes.
The 4,000 existing users will be a first target followed by the 80% of printers that have not so far converted to develop on press plates, whether from Kodakor Agfa, Fujifilm or others. Price will be key. Sonora X will carry a 3% premium over the existing Sonora product, but the real aspect is getting across the value.
“We are not expecting a significant jump in pricing,” says Kruchten. “It is going to deliver significant value to our customers. It is a differentiator for us from the commodity market. We believe this is a fundamental change. None of our competitors has this. Sonora is already doing well in Europe where there is stronger awareness of environmental issues.”
This press should be able to take on more of the offset market with a rated production of more than 1 million pages a month, running at 152ppm and with a lower cost per page. And these pages will be more consistent, printed on a wider range of materials and can be enhanced through more colours to fill the fifth print station.
A loading cart will help the creative printer switch between gold, white, dimensional ink, security and clear toners, red, blue and even custom colours. Coming shortly is a pearlescent which will begin to address the demand for a silver toner when combined with a black. Make ready for this will be a ten minute step.
It will also be possible to mix the sequence of colours. Already white can be placed in the first or final position for enhancement or overprinting on dark or transparent materials. Shortly the software will enable printers to play with any sequence of colours.
“We understand what happens when you overprint white, but we are not sure what happens when you apply CMYK over silver,” says Kruchten.
There have been beta sites in the US and Holland, both producing photobook products. The Dutch company Chris Russell Fotofabriek has subsequently ordered two of the machines recognition that the arguments for the machine are strong. “The beta testing has gone extremely well,” says Kruchten.
“We don’t expect Nexfinity to replace the Nexpress. This is for those companies that have the need for greater capacity, to print on a wider range of substrates, additional inks and at a lower cost per page.”
Throughput is 152ppm maximum with a price point for the machine that could be 20% more than the current top of the line Nexpress model. The lower cost per page is achieved by a 30-40% extension to the life of the Operator Replaceable Components. These are unchanged from the current parts and thus produce the lower cost per page.
The LED imaging head was designed by Swindon company PRP Optoelectrics. It includes sensors to make 256 levels of micro adjustment to the output of each of the diodes on the fly, so delivering consistent colour through a production run. The extra imaging control will result in smoother tints and gradations in areas such as flesh tones or areas of sky which are sensitive to banding effects.
The machine employs the same architecture, sheet transport and toners and fusing unit as the existing Nexpress models. This results in a three product family: the ECO2500, for applications up to 400,000 pages a month; the ZX3900 taking this from 500,000 to 1 million pages a month; and now Nexfinity for more than 1 million pages a month.
Another ink set under development is a laser safe matt toner which will enable the press to print letterheads and stationery that will then be passed through an office laser printer. With a gloss clear varnish printed after the new ink family, a high contrast spot varnish effect is achieved.
Nexfinity and Sonora X join a portfolio where the Flexcel NX flexo plate continues to gain traction. Chris Payne, packaging head, says: “We are reinventing flexo basically, selling to big trade shops and direct to major converters. But key for us is being able to get to the brands and understanding how the printers and trade shops interact with the brands.”
In short Kodak has to provide the incentives to shake up a supply chain that can be very twitchy about changes which might compromise quality, consistency and reliability. Payne has been in talks with the key press suppliers about partnering to get the image quality message across, but faces competition from others making similar claims for their products.
However, Kodak can point to the quality and consistency of its plate through use in printed electronics applications. Kodak's enthusiasm for printed electronics has switched from touch sensitive screens to large scale sensors.
The application that Kodak demonstrated was an antenna that can become part of a window or car windscreen, invisible to the viewer or driver. In a window this is a way to enhance a wireless communications network. In a car, it can become part of the autonomous driving revolution. These low cost sensors could be built into the glass or the sides of a vehicle as part of the system to allow the car to see where it is.
Should it work, and companies like GM or Ford be convinced, this is the way ahead and the impact on Kodak’s share price will be more real than any crypto currency bounce.
The Internet of Things will demand huge numbers of sensors and RFID tags which need not be microscopic in size and which need to be produced in volume at low cost, something that printing is good at.
Nexfinity takes the Nexpress platform into a higher performance bracket marrying lower cost per page with higher quality and a greater range of creative options.
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New inks have been added to the fifth toner station with a whole new matt ink set and pearlescent toners under development.
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Sonora X is a much more robust develop on press plate that can address 80% of the market for litho plates, says Kodak.
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