SMP Group has ended an 18-month search for a high productivity flatbed inkjet press by becoming the beta site for Inca’s Onset X3, the Cambridge company’s most powerful machine yet.
The X series follows from the S and R Onsets and is intended to be a future proof platform that will remain competitive for more than the next two or three years thanks to enhancements to Inca's Scalable Architecture concept. The X3 has up to 14 channels to run three sets of CMYK inks with additional channels for white or orange ink to provide the print performance.
The beta machine that has been in operation at SMP in Woolwich since late summer is running with 12 channels while the company decides whether to run white or the special colour through the last sets of heads. It is, however, capable of reaching the 900m2/hr that is its top speed for four-pass printing.
“We started looking around 18 months ago,” says SMP managing director Bradley Slade. “We scoured the market, looked at and tested the whole market and every competitor to this machine before reaching our decision which was based on considerations of quality, flexibility and speed.”
The company, the largest producer for the out of home market and one of the top five display printers in the UK, has run a number of platforms, including HP, Agfa, Durst and EFI, but never previously, Inca. It had been the UK beta site for Agfa’s Mpress, a machine which Agfa has ceased to develop, leaving SMP with the need to find a machine to match the performance of the Agfa press.
While Inca accepts findings of IT strategies that that the market for high end flatbed inkjet presses above $200,000, is in slow decline, it has no plans to quit the market. The new designs are instead designed to help a business expand by allowing it to increase productivity by adding to the number of heads in the machine, or replacing them entirely should a new style of head deliver additional performance. Previously a company would replace a machine very three or five years even though the mechanics were in perfect working order.
As a consequence, the X series models are intended to be infinitely upgradeable. As a first step this means moving from a four-channel X1 (running at up to 560m2/hr) to the nine-channel X2 (725m2/hr) and ultimately to the X3 with 14 channels, each with 28 printheads. The Fujifilm Dimatix Q class inkjet heads can be specified as 9pl, 27pl or more likely 14pl droplet sizes.
This offers the combination of speed and quality that European and American markets are looking for, says Inca managing director John Mills. The south east Asian market, where Inca has relatively little share but aims to grow, is fixated on the close up quality that 9pl droplets deliver.
“When everyone introduced 9pl at Fespa 2013, we thought demand would follow, but it turns out that the market developed differently. People wanted to print faster and 14pl became the sweet spot between quality and performance speed,” he says. "We are selling more machines with 14p than we are 9pl machines.”
The design of the new machines is intended to cope with this. As well as increasing the number of heads in a machine, the type of head can be changed, either for a different droplet size or in future as new heads with different characteristics are developed. This flexibility underpins the assertion that the machine is future proofed.
Inca took feedback from more than 200 customers as part of the design process, says Mills, to understand where the pressure points for a business lay. “It was about their ability to deliver quickly, to produce 2,000 sheets for afternoon delivery when artwork is released only in the morning. It is not necessarily about running at this rate around the clock, but to meet periods of peak demand.”
The transport system, housing, 10-litre non-stop ink supply and UV dryers will remain the same across the range. Inca is testing diodes for UV curing in anticipation that power will reach suitable levels over time. When that falls into place, Inca will be able to switch units for presses in the field if required.
In order to reach the 180 beds an hour maximum throughput, Inca has changed the design of its vacuum bed. This has eliminated the need for masking the bed, by dividing it into 25 switchable zones and allowing 25% of a zone to be unmasked without losing draw down force.
The UV lamps have added fast response shuttering to prevent the risk of UV bounce back from unmasked areas which might cause ink to cure in the nozzle or nozzle plate, particularly when printing thicker substrates.
When this is combined with a strict maintenance regime (helped by the remote monitoring and diagnostics possible with IncaVision to provide preventative maintenance) this accounts for the remarkably low level of replacement heads that Inca ships. Last year it needed to replace just 75 heads it says. This is further helped by the silicon nozzle plate on each Q head which is much harder than nickel or gold in earlier heads.
The UV lamps are controlled to adjust power for different passes under the inkjet heads to create different gloss effects and to match the characteristics of different substrates.
The user interface has been modernised with touch control, the ability to locate jobs and position them on the bed independently of the Rip. This is necessary to be able to process the number of small batch jobs without increasing operator errors.
Automated handling is speeded up with different levels including one for printing on corrugated boards. This is a largely undeveloped market, but one with is starting to take to inkjet to cope with increased numbers of small batch orders, customisation and to cut the impact of transporting lightweight large format boards over long distances.
The sweet spot for inkjet in corrugated is reckoned to be up to 2,500m2 using machines running at 1,000m2/hr which the X3 can reach with two-pass printing. This is sufficient to more than match the quality of direct flexo printing, with the option of higher quality to replicate litho lamination.
The two-pass printing method, with the bed passing under the print head arrays in both directions offers the reassurance that blocked nozzles will not cause defects that is always a risk when printing using a single pass under the heads.
Mills is also looking at other market sectors for Inca’s technology, hence participation in Inprint, the show for industrial print taking place in Munich next month. “We are kissing a lot of frogs,” he says.
In the meantime the Onset X3 is continuing Inca’s reputation for setting new barriers for flatbed inkjet. At SMP, Inca has worked to match the output quality of its other machines even where this means adjusting quality and gloss levels. “With flatbed printing we have found that certain machines together with the ink like certain substrates better than others, but with the Inca we haven’t found a substrate it doesn’t print on,” says Slade.
“It doesn’t mean that our other machines are redundant. With colour matching and profiling it matches their output well and it is a user friendly machine that operators have picked up using it very easily. I can see us adding another of these machines in the not too distant future. We have started our journey with Inca.”
Inca Digital's Onset X3 is the top of the range for the new X series flatbed printers. It offers up to 180 beds an hour printing and will address the requirements of corrugated board printers as well as display graphics suppliers.