A year ago Ricoh launched the VC60000, an inkjet web press that could print on standard offset papers, the answer to one of the key issues that any company contemplating a move to high productivity digital printing must consider.
The press would offer breakthrough quality thanks to a combination of press design, Ricoh's printheads and its ink.
A rush of installations has not followed. This is not because there is not interest, far from it. It is because Ricoh is moving cautiously. It does not want to overcook the market and have the experience of bad deals queering the sector for a long time to come.
There have been installations: in Europe at companies in Sweden, Finland and Holland for example and others in North America. And next year there will be more.
The early adopters are providing the necessary feedback about applications and the response of their customers that will shape the positioning of this machine.
Is it for direct mail, for book printing, for producing commercial print like brochures and catalogues? And if so how important is variable data?
In turn Ricoh is feeding this information back to paper mills to help them in their scramble to create inkjet suitable coated papers at a price that the market will bear. It was these meetings that drove Dave Bell, product marketing manger from Ricoh Americas, to Europe this month, coinciding with Ricoh’s European Council meeting, a collective comprising its largest customers to help it understand the dynamics shaping the printers’ business.
“The mills are excited that inkjet is growing and they want to get guidance from us because we can provide feedback from our customers,” says Bell. “Most inkjet product currently is treated uncoated paper, now we are trying to focus the attention of the coated paper producers. Few are making inkjet papers at present.”
The VC60000 will print on a standard paper, but must apply a priming coat to do so. Adding this inkjet receptive layer at the paper mill would result in more economical printing and greater choice.
Bell is optimistic. “We believe there will be a whole rush of papers coming to the market, but the question is at what price point?” It is a classic chicken and egg situation: the mills will not develop paper for a market that is too small; printers will not invest if the paper is too expensive because not enough is being produced.
Assuming that suitable papers do become available, that will run at the range of speeds that this press and others can operate at, the applications must follow. “But coated papers are a key requirement,” he adds.
Inkjet, which Mike Herold, director of marketing; inkjet technologies from Ricoh Production Print in Boulder Colorado, points out, Ricoh introduced in 2007 as a drop on demand technology, has converted the transactional printing space.
It has made significant inroads into mono books, even colour where printed on uncoated substrates. The next hurdle is direct mail, where the ability to print in high levels of colour and with full variable data will overcome the issues of paper cost, machine format and speed.
“We can reach versioning and short run commercial applications, but for economic reasons we are a long way from capturing long run commercial print work,” he says. “The question is what is the tipping point in number of impressions?”
Currently digital printing accounts for just 2% by volume of the world’s printed pages. Forecasts anticipate this rising to 5% by 2020, a huge increase in a short space of time. This will be made up by growing the number of pages produced on digital presses currently, helped by the availability of larger format machines. But it must also include a vast number of pages switching from offset production methods.
For Ricoh this will come from pages where digital production can add value, by being more responsive as much as being personalised, where inkjet can lower the cost of production through enabling efficiencies at other parts of the process (by printing books in collated order for example).
“We want to put printers in a position where they can offer new value to customers, to find ways to create new margins and opportunities. And we are trying to resolve the technical challenges as we do that,” says Herold.
In effect the company is trying to find its way into this new territory without a map to show where the good roads are and where the traps are hidden. This is how it introduced the InfoPrint 5000, a press which was developed as a drop in replacement for an electrophotographic technology.
“But at the time a demand for drop on demand inkjet did not exist,” he says. The VC60000 will replace some of these IP5000s where the demand is for higher productivity, but its real future must lie in converting new customers to inkjet. Hence what Herold calls the “philosophy of a conservative roll out”.
“We want to help customers,” he says. “For customers an investment like this means risk. Therefore they will look to go into this market by selecting good partners with a clear understanding of what they are trying to accomplish.”
That is coming back to Ricoh from the early adopters. Hansaprint has had Ricoh inkjet previously and has created applications in direct mail and now wants to begin printing books; Zalsman in Holland is more of a commercial printer with a range of applications under development or in use; Parajett in Sweden is producing classic transpromo work, transactional statements with a high marketing element. Its VC60000 is initially replacing other technologies.
This experience is being captured for the benefit of customers that come in 2016 and beyond. With a stampede of early business, Ricoh would have been stretched beyond its capacity to support installations.
“There is a risk from overcommitting to the market place. It hurst the industry if you do that and it results in commitments that cannot be fulfilled, or if a customer finds that he cannot do something that he was expecting. That damages the industry. When something fails, people step back and recalculate.”
Herold explains: “We want satisfied customers, not the largest market share. While there is a risk that others can come in where you have opened the door, we believe that Ricoh UK has some unique activities and advantages that others would find difficult to replicate.”
There is also work underway to develop the market. It is in communication with the end users to try to develop a pull effect on the market.
In the US, its Publishers Symposium introduced the book world to the inkjet technology and the benefits that would accrue, resulting in an endorsement from Pearson that Ricoh inkjet quality would be acceptable in future. A similar exercise is taking place with marketing agencies to stoke awareness of inkjet for direct mail.
“It provides opportunities for marketers to communicate with their customers with a new level of quality and in a higher value way. In order for the printed communication stream to thrive it has to increase its level of relevance to the end user. It has to be of more value and deliver more information than other channels in the communication stream. And the VC60000 enables that,” he says.
Whether this will be enough to swing pages that are produced on litho machines to inkjet remains an unanswerable question. It will depend on the economic factors and on the perceived quality, whether the extra value of relevance can overcome any perception that quality is not quite a match for the offset product.
The technology in the press is set up to address that. Ricoh uses both pigment and dye inks with a higher level of colourant than others. This means that the ink requires less water to carry it to the substrate, a function of the piezo head technology used.
In turn this means less effort is needed to drive off the water, less cockling of the paper and greater stability when printing on the reverse of the web.
There is no need for remoistening, though that is possible if required in future, and the paper can be chilled after printing and drying on one side before reaching the second print unit.
There is as yet no partnership with a reel stand provider, but Tecnau has a suitable technology Herold points out. “The VC60000 has brought quality to a new level. It is not a direct replacement for a Heidelberg Speedmaster, but it is coming awfully close. This opens new markets for us and our customers. It becomes about converting offset pages.”
There will be no wider format versions, at least not in the immediate future. Wider webs risk introducing fit issues when printing on both sides of the paper and require a suitable investment in finishing technology.
“We see a significant opportunity at 520mm wide,” says Herold. “There is also a cost factor in going wider and such a machine would need huge volumes of print, which shrinks the market opportunity.
“There are a lot of factors behind what makes a successful installation, differing from one customer to the next. It is about the applications and market that a customer has, but it is also about the internal culture of a business because this needs a completely different sales approach. This is a transformative change.”
The predictions of the potential in digital production of packaging make the market too significant to ignore. The only issue, says Mike Herold, is “how to figure out how to address that”.
There is also potential in industrial printing. Ricoh has already tested the waters in 3D printing and more must surely follow.
Other areas of industrial printing are also interesting, participating in the Inprint show for example. “Ricoh views industrial printing as a blue ocean opportunity,” he says.
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