21 November 2016 Digital Printing Technologies

Small is flexible as Oki is keen to demonstrate

To those in the know the Oki technology is robust and surprisingly powerful. Now the Japanese company is looking to widen the pool of users.

Oki’s Pro printers have achieved, but kept secret, status among those that have them. The company introduced five-colour printing as part of a strategic goal of driving into the graphics arts three years ago. If it hasn’t quite achieved this goal, it is not the fault of the technology.

European managing director Terry Kagoshima admits that the company under estimated the difficulty of the task. “We were absolutely convinced this was the right way forwards, but it has proved to be more challenging than we initially thought,” he says. “Nevertheless we have made significant progress in our efforts to understand the customer’s pain points.”

It has also recruited to fill gaps with those with industry knowledge and last year acquired the wide format inkjet interests of Seiko. Further acquisitions are not ruled out. If it has not been a straightforward as the company hoped, Oki is not walking away.

The technology it has built its reputation on is sound. Instead of lasers to image a photoreceptive drum, Oki uses LEDs. An array can be placed closer to the imaged surface and can write at 1200dpi. This results in a more compact printer, perhaps leading some to overlook its capabilities. For as well as high quality imaging, the technology allows a flatter paper path and lower fusing temperatures.

“It is vital that we make these advantages relevant to our customers,” he says. “Consequently we have brought in experts from the industries we address to help us accelerate developments.”

These advantages include an ability to print on materials that other electrophotographic technologies simply cannot and on thicknesses that they cannot cope with. Add in the impact of five-colour printing and the technology is worth looking at. The fifth toner position is used for a white, at higher opacity than the white toner from other suppliers, Kagoshima points out, a clear toner as a spot varnish and now a neon toner.

For short run cards, invitations or even packaging this is an interesting combination. The prospects in packaging are especially interesting he believes, reeling off the Smithers Pira forecast numbers as well as those from Infotrends that estimate that just 1% of a $350 billion printed labels market is supplied by digital printing.

The size of the opportunity has numerous companies salivating and Kagoshima explains that Oki is planning to bring a label press to market within the next 12-18 months.

The company has a heritage in labels, having supplied dot matrix printers before introducing LED printing in 2003. It has grown to become one of the leading producers of LEDs supplying all manner of companies, including KIP which employs them in a very fast wide format printer.

Its own wide format interests will remain built on inkjet. Likewise Seiko supplies print heads to third parties, corrugated inkjet press provider Barbéran uses Seiko heads in its Jetmaster range, for example. The development teams from Seiko and Oki have been brought together and manufacturing of the Seiko printers has switched from third party providers to Oki’s own Chinese factories.

Sales and distribution have likewise been brought together. And the first new large format models have been announced for commercial launch next year.

There is an obvious opportunity for sign and display printers using Seiko printers to offer small format digital printing, and for those using the Oki machine to offer access to wide format inkjet. This may prove useful in some of the other industries that the company targets. From a global perspective these are healthcare and retail, with a more local focus on construction in the UK and hospitality in Ireland.

Much of this will be served by a new range of office and inplant focused printers which it claims for the first time at this level to have inbuilt intelligence and internet connectivity. It means that Oki supports a distributed print model, where a central location drives what is printed locally.

For a retail chain this means that collateral can be distributed as digital files, perhaps templates that provide limited local editing for offers relevant to a particular store, while someone in the store can print out that day’s price tickets or displays.

The instore operator goes to the touch pad on the printer, logs in to see a selection of job images, selects and prints the number of each job allocated to that store. There are no distribution costs, a much faster response time to market conditions, say hot weather promoting thoughts of barbecues, and no storage for marketing collateral, which can now be allocated to revenue generating items.

The ability to print 1.4 metre long banners means the printers can produce standee graphics, printing on a ferrite coated paper that matches the elegant magnetised stand. A banner can be changed in seconds by untrained shop staff, providing further benefit to the retailers that adopt this approach to in shop marketing.

Currently there are five or six retailers in the UK working with Oki in this way, 50-60 across Europe. “We want to convince retailers that signage is crucial to their business and our advantage is that our large format printers are more stable than rival devices. We want to convince retailers to work with local providers with Seiko printers,” says product marketing manager Lee Webster.

Retail suits a business that has always supported distributed printing. It has no legacy of large centrally located devices. The new range of A4 and A3 printers link instead to a server or the cloud. These include Oki’s SXP platform which enables support for third-party software applications, such as the retail solutions which are chosen according to local market needs and support.

One of these is Paper Cut, which is a document management application intended to be affordable for smaller enterprises. The printers thus support scanning into a number of formats, including searchable PDF, the ability to assign documents to individuals who can then print out on any printer that forms part of the network. In an estate agent chain, this will be useful for forms that need filling in or house particulars which are needed on demand, and which do not need further finishing.

But these are not graphic arts applications. Where others are hesitant about the future for printed documents: hence HP’s acquisition of Samsung’s printer business, Oki remains confident about the future of print.

European marketing director Tetsuya Kuri points out that not everything is going digital. “The idea that the proliferation of digital media will reduce the demand for printed media is a misconception. There is simply too much email for any email message to make an impression. Therefore digital marketing communications are losing their impact as the volume at the business users receive increases exponentially.

“Business communications has to change, so we expect demand for printed communications for business to increase. Personalised mail with eye catching effects delivers a higher retention rate and greater ROI than email.”

This is highly suitable for Oki’s technology if printing in-house. The LED system is inherently better than single-pass inkjet which requires special papers if it is not to soak into the paper with deadening effects on image quality, says Kagoshima.

It has led Oki to a 30% market share in this part of the office printer market according to figures from IDC. It is a similar share in this entry level part of the graphic arts market.

UK managing director Hagiwara says this bodes well for future growth. “We had a very ambitious target for growth when we launched the five-colour products and with the addition of neon we can do more. So the strategy has not changed, but we just need to accelerate the the plan announced three years ago.

“We see a slow decline in print for transactional purposes, but there will be growth in marketing materials, print on demand and in professional print.”

And there is the packaging market. Oki, says Kagoshima, is working on narrower LED arrays which would be ideal for a reel to reel label press, printing on plastic materials as well as paper thanks to the low fusing characteristics of LED. “According to all the forecasts, all the research, the opportunity in packaging is enormous.”

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Oki C900

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Oki's LED imaging technology enables a more compact print engine design, ability to print on thicker and heat sensitive materials and on banner length strips. It is also able to print a fifth colour, initially a clear toner for spot varnish and a white and now also including a neon effect.

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Oki made its initial tilt at the graphic arts three years ago, and quickly found that the market would not roll over immediately. Now the company is looking again at the printing industry and plans to introduce a dedicated label press in the next year and having acquired Seiko's wide format inkjet business last year.

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