25 March 2019 Events

Postcards from Lucerne: what happened when the UK print industry went to Hunkeler Innovation Days

The Hunkeler Innovation Days always provides an excellent platform to look at the printing industry’s short term future. This time the ability of inkjet to challenge for commercial print jobs and the march of automation dominated.

There is a strong argument which says that Hunkeler Innovation Days is second only to Drupa in the league table of industry exhibitions. Whisper it quietly, but some even suggest that four days in Lucerne is more important than 11 days by the Rhine.

But this ignores the world of sheetfed printing, label printing, cartons, flexible packaging and magazines which combine to make up this broad industry of ours but which are not yet reflected at the Hunkeler Innovation Days. Not yet.

For what was clear from the technology on show and the discussions being had, magazine and packaging printers will be taking more interest in the automation that is assumed by the combination of inkjet printing and webfed paper processing that Hunkeler is capable of.

Already the event is immensely popular, attracting 6,500 visitors from across the globe and has started to attract commercial printers. Inkjet is almost ubiquitous and having become the dominant technology over recent iterations of the show, it is poised to get to a true offset replacement technology. A sign on the Xeikon stand made the point: “Here to invest in inkjet? Again?”

It was making the point that while inkjet remains untested, toner can deliver the quality and the productivity that is needed. The latest 30 metres a minute Xeikon XM500 delivers high quality, on a broad spread of papers, with 1200dpi imaging, no problems with drying.

These are the issues that suppliers of inkjet presses have been grappling with and which toner long ago overcame, said Xeikon CEO Benoit Chatelard. Nipson returned to the show with a 300m/minute mono only Magyspeed press. An awful lot of pages for books, manuals and even mailing do not need colour. And at approximately £300,000 it is a lot cheaper than the inkjet presses facing it across the aisle.

The inkjet presses though were the main attraction and this time those visitors checking the progress of inkjet could only be satisfied. They could walk a few minutes to compare the approach taken by Screen, by Xerox, by Canon, Ricoh and HP and each time be judging highly sellable colour printing.

Of course, each supplier was on their best behaviour, running well practised jobs with dryer and press settings that had been honed to perfection. The samples on GPrint or Arctic Matt, Lumiart or UPM Finesse were printed with untypically high levels of ink, yet signs of cockling were few.

Most are new types of ink developed to have no need for a pre coat or post coat of a binding agent. This is instead contained in the ink, acting on the paper to both prevent ink soaking into the paper and to help it dry. The ink that Ricoh has developed has increased levels of pigment and contains less water as well as the less publicised ingredients. This delivers a more extensive gamut than standard offset inks, the company says.

Only HP retains the bonding agent. This applied not through printheads but as an overall coating before the colours are applied. Others will supply different inks according to application, high pigment formulations for the coated papers and offset replacement print, others for the less expensive transactional and direct mail jobs that do not need the top levels of quality.

This has been sufficient for most books, for example. Yet the higher quality full colour and coffee table titles have been out of reach. This is no longer the case: every supplier had colour books to show quality. Canon used this as an example on its Prostream, the flagship press that was introduced at HID 2017.

The machine is now shipping and has been installed in seven locations with an eighth sold. Canon had taken the example of a photographer’s book, creating special magazines, spin off themed excerpts and using images as vinyl wrap to apply to the sides of the press.

The book received a public launch at a bookshop in Munich where the owner was exceedingly enthusiastic about the collateral produced, according to Peter Wolff.

A second application that Canon had been involved with is with the Bonprix home shopping brand. Customers receive an offset printed catalogue with a cover personalised according to their individual profile and purchasing history. These customers had gone on to purchase more frequently and more goods from the website.

Home shopping had been mentioned by all others with the technology in what Xerox described as trigger marketing. This was when a customer had browsed a site, adding items to a basket, but had not checked out. A few days later, a postcard or letter with discount offers drops through the letterbox to prompt the completion of the purchase.

Others reported similar thoughts about the applications that can be driven by high speed inkjet beyond short runs of colour books. More need to be discovered and developed.

The breakthrough for this iteration of the event was in the choice of papers that are available for inkjet printing. These flagship machines can print on coated offset stocks, but not necessarily all coated offset stocks. In the analogue world the papers have been optimised for known preconditions, where presses can switch between inks, plates and fount with few implications. Standard profiles can be applied to these papers.

But in inkjet the inks are specific to a supplier and while some of the chemistry is known, how that chemistry reacts with the coatings on paper is not as well understood. Consequently not all papers will behave in the same way. This was evident with some coalescence spotted on some of the samples shown.

Equally not all nozzles in a printhead are the same. This can result in problems in producing consistent print, unless corrected for. This is the purpose of the Global Graphics development of PrintFlat as part of its Screenpro software. That aims to control the amount of ink that is applied in an inkjet press. As the ink has a high water content, the level of ink reaching the paper is important and percentage coverage will be lower than on an offset press.

Printflat is intended to address the problem seen when ink levels are low and deficiencies become visible in tint areas. “It can make print unsaleable,” says CTO Martin Bailey. “All display graphics printers have had to turn away jobs because this effect means that they can’t print them. It can be a real problem in ceramics and decor printing where it is vital that one edge of a roll of wallpaper matches the other edge.”

What the software does is use a test page to adapt the instructions reaching each nozzle. This profile is used to iron differences out, one colour at a time. “We create the test pages, across the full width of the printer. We scan this and create a vector for change on each nozzle.”

So far the interest has come from large format and scanning printers rather than from single-pass machines says Bailey. “And we have worked with multiple vendors on the electronics, the majority have been UV presses.”

In short the technology for controlled printing is falling into place, though inkjet will always be more expensive than litho printing at the ink on press stage. The gain will be from reducing the overall file to delivery costs. The digital print process is more easily automated than a technology which depends on the analogue interaction of ink, founts, plates and blankets.

All press vendors offered large monitor displays of job progress and press performance with a huge amount of data to analyse for those drilling down into the depths. All have workflows that are automated at least from the point of sign off and can batch jobs of a similar nature to reduce some of the variables in changing paper type and especially the finishing set up.

Hunkeler Innovation Days is naturally all about automation in finishing, from creating folded signatures, folded mail pieces, tickets that have security features applied in finishing.

Where Hunkeler leaves off the likes of Muller Martini and Horizon take over, producing small batches of books with no skilled operators to be seen. Meccanotecnica showed printed reel to sewn section book printing making the point that adhesive binding is not suited to books with images that run into or across the spine.

Hunkeler itself showed sheeting and cutting systems that run inline. Bowe and Kern, returning to the event after ceasing to develop its own reel handling technology, had the systems for the mailing and inserting industry.

But the focus was on the presses and their suitability for commercial print. One UK commercial printer present certainly intends to make the investment, calling this the “letterpress to litho moment for offset”. He was talking about the advantage that continuous feed inkjet has over litho in managing short print runs.

Another factor comes into play, one that HP’s David Murphy mentions. “The cost of labour is a huge concern for print providers and the average age of a press operator in the US is in the mid 50s. Printers have difficulties in attracting lesser skilled workers while postage rates and paper prices are increasing.”

In short automation is needed to ease a skills crisis that is going to break over the printing industry. Companies may not want to invest in high volume digital printing, but ultimately they may have little choice.

By Gareth Ward

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