Samples from Drupa have come in for criticism and the company accused of falling down on promises to have market ready machines at Drupa. However, this has not deterred a wide spread of customers from engaging in deep conversations about the development timetable and costing models and then subsequently signing up for the first machines, even if they cannot be sure when they might take delivery.
The history of technological development in the printing industry is littered with evolutionary dead ends. Few can remember the digital imaging technologies that Manroland demonstrated alongside its ill fated DicoWeb; only the geeks will remember Elcorsy, a Canadian technology to print digital colour on low grade paper. And this is without the stunning ideas for new print technologies that failed to move from the page into a concept.
With every failure like this, established suppliers of litho and digital print have breathed more comfortably. Industry disruption is not conducive to their business planning and management. Yet disruption is precisely what Landa Digital Printing is all about.
Here is a technology that shows few signs of disappearing and that threatens to challenge the business models that litho and digital press suppliers operate to. No wonder these companies are quick to point out the flaws in the technology as judged by the few print samples that have fallen into public hands. These show the continued presence of artefacts, what are claimed to misplaced dots, and are printed on amenable paper and then coated. The samples are free from measurable control strips and the register marks that would be needed in production. On the other hand the machines are Drupa are only at the pre-beta stage.
Four years ago, their streaks and artefacts were plentiful and the printed sheets were certainly unsaleable. At Drupa last month, the majority of these had disappeared. The Landa S10 had moved from a futuristic looking concept machine to a serious piece of printing equipment just as cars that are shown as concept vehicles at the Geneva Motor Show rarely reach the streets in that original eye catching guise.
It ran and produced samples that could be taken away instead of being pinned up behind Perspex. The first beta sites, due to receive presses later this year, were announced. The machines would be going to serious printers that having examined the technology decided they would be happy to put a press through the final paces before it becomes a commercial prospect.
This means that machines at Drupa must be considered alpha machines at best, probably better to call them late concept machines. And yet, Landa could point to orders worth €450 million at the close of the show. These were no longer the expressions of interest accompanied by returnable $10,000 cheques from four years ago, but down payments on what customers believe will become reality this side of some distant event horizon.
No wonder competing suppliers were keen to point out the flaws, that samples were on ‘friendly’ ideal paper and that the presses ran only for ten minutes during each demonstration. Some have wondered whether the technology will ever be reliable enough or robust enough for industrial print applications, while technology they displayed was often not yet ready for prime time.
None of this slowed the flood of printers wanting to talk business, nor the brands that came to Drupa to understand the potential of all printing technologies on view, not just Landa’s.
Four years ago, Landa could be considered a one-man operation and while founder Benny Landa remains the focus of the operation, there is a strong team around him. One, Yishai Amir, is now chief executive. Four years ago he was running HP’s graphics business across North America and watched the Landa announcements from outside the company. What did he think then? He pauses before answering: “I never underestimated the Landa team and what Benny can do. If he stands on a stage, nobody should underestimate him. He has done it first time and there was no doubt that he would be successful.”
Amir has first hand knowledge having been one of the first employees to join Indigo more than 20 years. He stayed with the operation while it was taken over, moving after the split in HP, though this has nothing to do with his decision he says.
“There is nothing else at Drupa that provides the quality on any substrate and with the highest production speeds,” he says. “And the lowest cost per print.
“When combined all together in one solution this is the Holy Grail of printing.” It is thus both the reason for the broad interest from across the industry and why many are skeptical about nanography. Many have claimed to have identified the historical Holy Grail, but nothing has been verified and the search goes on.
“I have been talking with printers for 22 years in this industry and they have all said that ‘this is what I want for my business’,” says Amir.
To judge by the interest that has also been stirred up among brands and other customers buying packaging print, it is also what print buyers have been looking for. There was unexpected interest in the potential for the flexible packaging press, according to chairman Benny Landa.
“Brand owners are particularly excited because for them, the ability to do mass customisation, perhaps different language versions in Europe, to respond quickly and decide on run lengths that are much shorter without having to use special colours because of the seven-colour process, has been lacking,” he says.
And it will continue to be missing for the immediate period because the first beta of the webfed machine is not due for delivery until next year. They will wait just as printers will wait. And they know this, says Amir.
“The people we have been talking to are not making decisions for their business for the next week or the next month. If they need something immediately to satisfy a new customer, we can make a recommendation of who to talk to. They know this.
“They are talking to us about a longer term solution, discussing positions and pricing and are looking art a business solution. They are not making choices based on their business today. This is a significant investment in capital equipment, not something that is paid back in two years. It is about them understanding what to chose to give the best solution and to give them a competitive edge. That’s what we believe that people will wait.”
In the meantime, Landa Digital Printing has been speaking to potential funders, organising a network of different companies in different countries to support the roll out of the presses. Initially the company had wanted to forge a relationship with one global provider, but was steered towards working with companies that have local knowledge and experience.
There will still be discussions about residual values, though the presence of Komori as the engineering partner will be reassuring. On the other hand, Amir recognises that this is still a new technology and that depreciation rates are not known. “There are a lot of elements to the press that are about traditional heavy metal and we expect an eight or nine year depreciation for the press,” he says.
There will be upgrades in this time, an increase in running speed from 6,500sph to 13,000sph is already promised. And as the imaging unit and software are separate components, these should have a degree of upgradeability. It will make the funding calculations easier he points out. “Customers will not need to replace the press every three to five years to stay competitive,” he explains. “This is not about the next year, it’s about the next years. We want customers to print for many many years.”
The first customers will be selected carefully. While Landa is building an infrastructure of engineers and sales teams in the three territories: Europe, US and Asia-Pacific that it will focus on, it will look after the initial customers rather than create the support network before there are customers. It will keep costs under control and ensure that support is in place specifically for the first customers. It will mean that many contributing to the €450 million of on paper sale will be unfulfilled, perhaps until the next Drupa.
As well as building the teams, Landa will be building the facilities to ensure that the machines can be fed with inks and consumables. According to the chairman there will be no difficulty in ramping up production of the nano pigment particles that underpin the whole process.
A physical grinding process can take pigment size to a primary particle size. This is the process that pigment companies have used for generations. The additional element is how these particles are broken apart by Landa's technology. “This is what we have discovered how to do,” he says. “We can do it extremely efficiently, creating the sub primary sized particles that display the extraordinary optical properties and have the narrow size distribution we need. And because the process is so efficient we can believe we can produce the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of pigment we will need each year.”
The results from this ink are seen in the experience defying printed sheets seen at Drupa. The last challenge is to complete the work that will ensure that the crucial imaging belt remains clean for millions of impressions, that the ink remains where it lands on the belt to link with neighbouring droplets into the image matrix that is transferred to the paper time after time, that registration remains precise and that the software can calculate and compensate for any artefacts that might appear.
This needs to be done before the first beta machines are shipped to customers, ideally before the end of this year and to new partners like QuadGraphics and others that wish to remain unknown for the moment.
The securing of so much business and completion of a second Drupa where all presentations were filled and thousands visited the stand was cause for celebration. Staff were granted a holiday as a result. But three days later they were back at work.