The fight for hearts, minds and investment cash in digital printing is hotting up. A generation of machines that offer the productivity and the quality that once was reserved for top of the range presses is now available from so called light production machines. The issues that beset these presses in the past, around colour consistency, registration and scope to handle different substrates is fading away. In short it is no longer necessary to buy an HP Indigo, Xerox iGen or Kodak Nexpress to achieve predictable litho-like quality.
For the suppliers it remains a market worth pursuing. InfoTrends reckons that the volume of colour digital pages produced on toner devices will rise at 6.2% a year between 2013-18.
In the last year, new machines from Canon, Ricoh, Xerox, Konica Minolta are creating new benchmarks at this point in the market. At the same time the Xerox and Kodak have been stressing the large sheet handling capability of their machines, while HP Indigo has the only toner based cutsheet B2 press available and offers the flexibility of seven colour printing, raised images and other effects. However, this is a stretch of clear blue water that is narrowing fast.
Canon’s flagship digital press is the C7011VP, initially launched as the C7000 in 2007. While the company has continued to enhance the press, the core printing technology is starting to show that it belongs with a previous generation of technology. How it might change is indicated by the presses introduced last year as light production machines, namely the C700 and C800 machines offering 70ppm and 80ppm respectively.
There was a preview of the C800 at a Canon user experience event in Poing in May last year, a more formal launch and first installations in a ‘lead customer programme’ later in the year until by the end of 2014 there were 900 machines on order from Europe alone.
The core technology is built around a new type of toner, called VC by Canon, a new VCSEL laser imaging at 2400dpi and twin belt fuser to extend the range of printable materials. The direction of development, towards greater colour accuracy, stock versatility and consistency is a common theme across the sector.
The latter is achieved through air flow control in the developer unit, the argument being that a build up of temperature over a long run will affect the final output and can be adjusted intelligently according to the profile of different media. The twin fuser belt allied to a lower melting point on the VC toner delivers the ability to print on some heat sensitive materials. Other quality enhancing technology has been imported from the C7011VP, and it is just as likely that technology employed in the C800 will migrate upwards towards the next generation flagship press.
It makes sense for the VC toner to be employed across the range, especially where the lower melting point can be exploited to increase print speeds. The VCSEL laser technology is becoming standard in digital printing and would increase resolution from 1200dpi to 2400dpi at a stroke. Assuming that Canon is working on such a project, it has made no indication for when it might introduce anything. It is however committed to the industry and has released inkjet products, including a cutsheet press this year.
One question Canon will address is whether a new machine might be four colour only or instead have a fifth toner unit. Ricoh has this for its C7100 and Xerox has had a fifth toner for the Color 1000 machine. This year the Color 1000i has added options to print gold and silver in this station as well as a clear toner for spot varnish effects.
On the other hand the Xerox Versant 2100, as its replacement for the long in the tooth DocuColor 8080, is a four colour only machine and is pitched squarely at the light production segment. The Versant 2100 is rated at up to 250,000 pages a month, with a substrate range from 52-300gsm at 100ppm. This drops to 80ppm as the substrate reaches 350gsm.
It has the 2400dpi VCSEL laser, coupling this with a Fiery DFE able to process 10 bit colour separations. Others accept only 8 bit per channel information. The result says Xerox is smoother half tone and gradient rendition.
There is also the Advanced Colour Quality System which was developed for the iGen and Production Accurate Registration to ensure back to back fit. A sheet declarer and inline cooler together with EA toner combine to deliver colour consistency.
The iGen continues to provide volume production and format advantages over the Versant (the 80ppm Versant 80 is also available) and carries a higher price tag. A number of variants of the iGen have been introduced in recent year, but there has been no new engine. Like Canon, Xerox has introduced a sheetfed inkjet press, the Rialto, and this may have a longer future than the high end iGen within the Xerox portfolio. However, the opening of a $35 million expansion of its New York State toner plant to boost production of its EA toner by 40% indicates faith in the technology it invented.
The Versant 2100 was introduced in April last year, a month before the Canon C800 and a month after Konica Minolta unveiled the C1070,70ppm colour printer at Ipex. At the same show it also unveiled the 100ppm C1100 into a new space of high speed, but affordable digital colour printing. The C1100 immediately became the flagship press, the C1070 and the 60ppm C1060, aimed at the light production space. It handles paper to 300gsm, prints withe a 1200dpi laser using a closed loop monitoring system to maintain colour consistency and the chemically grown Simitri HD toner.
The net effect of Konica Minolta models introduced last year has been a 21% increase in sales of its colour production printers. There is a huge commitment to print for the Japanese giant, though like Canon, there are also investments in inkjet: as well as the KM-1 B2 sheetfed inkjet press, there are large format machines for textile printing and a separate inkjet heads operation. Konica Minolta also has a substantial stake in French digital press producer MGI which uses Konica Minolta print engines in its toner presses. At Ipex last year, the company also previewed a rollfed label press using toner technology.
Ricoh has not been as a broad in its approach, though does have an inkjet heads division which is supplying a number of OEMs, notably Mimaki, and produces its own large format printers and now the high speed inkjet web press.
It has made its greatest incursion with cutsheet presses, first the C901 and C651/751 and last year introduced the C7100 and C9100. The latter is a 130ppm digital printer which takes the fight to the heavyweight production digital presses but at a much lower price point. The C7100 is the mid production machine which is now being shipped in quantity.
The press uses a low temperature fuser and with the addition of a special feeder can print banner length materials (once unique to the MGI press design) up to 700mm. More importantly it has a fifth toner station to print a clear toner as a varnish or a white, making it the first machine in this category to offer this. Above it the Indigo can print white, while at the entry level OKI has a white option for its bench top printers.
Like other machines in this space, Ricoh uses the latest VCSEL laser diodes giving 1200 x 4800dpi imaging resolution. It will run at 80ppm for the C7100, up to 90ppm for the C7110 version with a monthly volume of 240,000 pages, almost the same as the early versions of the Xerox iGen when it was launched.
There is support for media to 360gsm and with the lower fusing temperatures an extended range of synthetic materials that can be printed.
Ricoh adds a choice of EFI Fiery digital front ends and has its own colour management. Both these become Heidelberg supplied components in the Linoprint CV, its digital press that is based on the Ricoh print engine. This is the second generation of machines covered by the cooperation between German litho press supplier and Japanese digital printer producer and shows for the first time a clear distinction between the two machines.
Digital press manufacturers are adopting VCSEL to deliver the energy to the charge drum in electrophotographic printing, an this is behind the leaps in quality and performance that allows light and mid production machines to match the performance of the previous generation of high end machines.
The Vertical Cavity Surface Emitting Laser is a silicon technology that was first introduced less than 20 years and continues to be developed. As speed and power increase, this could be reflected in the performance of printing machines using VCSEL technology. The telecommunications industry consumes vast quantities of VCSEL lasers for fibre optic communication.
A VCSEL unit can image more precisely than other technologies, hence four beams can be positioned in the space previously occupied by one. Resolution improves from 600 x600dpi to 2400 x 2400dpi or 1200 x 4800 dpi depending on the arrangement. Smaller toner particles can be addressed, giving smoother results in tints and flesh tone areas. It also means thinner layers of toner for a more litho like finish.
The widespread use of chemically grown toner rather than milled toners has also had huge impact on improving colour quality thanks to the more even particles and their size.
The technology is also easier and less wasteful to produce resulting in lower cost, reflected in the possibility of larger imaging arrays. The power requirements are one tenth those of conventional edge-emitting lasers according to Fuji-Xerox. Its VCSEL unit has 32 channels to address 2400dpi.
Ricoh’s VCSEL laser reaches 4800dpi using 40 lasers to create the image in an area that is less than 1 sq mm.
The technology is also proving more reliable than previous IR laser systems, coupled with enhanced performance and lower unit cost, lower power consumption.
Story 1 of 7
The Ricoh Pro C7100 builds on the success of the Pro C5100, the company's entry level printer, borrowing the core imaging technology and adding quality enhancements, the ability to handle a wider range of stock and a fifth toner station currently used for clear or white toners.
Story 2 of 7
The Konica Minolta C8000 is no longer the flagship machine for the Japanese manufacturer, but offers an impressive feature set for mid production requirements. As well as through Konica Minolta's own channels, the C8000 and C7000 are available through Apex Digital Solutions and, in theory, from Komori.
Story 3 of 7
The Xerox Versant 2100 was launched in 2014 as the replacement for the somewhat long in the tooth DC8080. Aimed at the highly competitive mid production digital colour segment, the press has enabled Xerox to recapture some lost market share. It sits below the Color 1000i which has the benefit of a fifth colour, this year extended to print metallic silver and gold toners as well as clear varnish.
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The Canon C800 fits below the C7000 series of machines and above the ImageRunner machines. Launched in 2014 the press has been a quick success with more than 800 ordered or installed by the end of the year. The press offers on paper enhancements over the more senior press and makes Canon highly competitive in the sector.
Story 5 of 7
Heidelberg is adding its own colour management and a new digital front end to the Ricoh C7100 press to create the Linoprint CV, as the versatile option for digital printing. There are close ties to its litho workflows to produce a close match for products that require both technologies,
Story 6 of 7
Canon has launched the C10000VP to replace the C7100VP as the flagship in the range. It offers 2400dpi imaging thanks to VCSEL imaging.
Story 7 of 7