Conventional wisdom says that you should never ride two horses in the same stream. Conventional wisdom says that like Kodak, suppliers to the printing industry should be cutting their cloth to match the arc of the industry. Xeikon doesn’t do conventional wisdom.
As a company its roots lie in Agfa’s R&D department a generation ago. It has been a pioneer of colour digital printing and its story was detailed in a commemorative book last year celebrating 35 years of the business and 25 years of colour digital printing. It has rarely been a smooth journey, flirting with bankruptcy and technology dead ends as well as initiatives that have been ahead of their time or for other reasons have fallen on the deaf ears of the market.
Today the business is in unfamiliar smooth waters. It is now a subsidiary of Flint Group which has the resources to enable Xeikon to take advantage of opportunities that arise, to build its teams, to increase distribution and market awareness. And to ride two horses concurrently.
Those mounts are the traditional dry toner electrophotographic technology that Xeikon is built on and the newer inkjet technology. Every supplier of print technology needs to have an inkjet offer, to take print into new areas, to replace litho or flexo printing or perhaps to replace toner printing. But that is not happening yet.
“Xeikon grew 15% last year,” says CEO Benoit Chatelard. “This is driven by expansion into China, and mainly by expansion into the US where growth was 40%. This was helped by the acquisition of Jetrion, but the growth is not entirely due to Jetrion.”
It has been selling the CX500 flagship label press in droves. This is the 520mm wide, 30m/min press for labels and flexible packaging. Every machine produced was sold last year and production is almost sold out for this, he says.
Jetrion has the largest population of narrow web inkjet presses in North America, partly the impact of being the only option in the market for some years. The inks continue to be supplied by EFI, Jetrion’s previous owner. Before that Jetrion in its early days was an offshoot of Flint when a privately owned company. However, the future is about inkjet developed and supplied by Xeikon. “Almost half the R&D effort is dedicated to the inkjet business,” says Chatelard. The money is vested in the ink.
Coming to the technology a little later than others and with deep experience in digital printing has meant Xeikon is not playing catch up. The initial inkjet label press, dubbed Panther, was announced two years ago, and will be a star of the show come late September at Labelexpo in Brussels where Xeikon plans to have its largest stand to date alongside Flint. It will follow that with a Drupa stand twice the size of 2016 which will bring a first sighting of the company’s post print corrugated inkjet press.
The technology on Panther is a UV cured inkjet, though dependent neither on mercury vapour lamps nor on LED. Xeikon's Duracure approach uses LED to pin inks in place with mercury vapour lamps to deliver the final cure.
Part of the reason is that the narrow spectrum LED has strong deep cure characteristics, but can leave the surface a little tacky. Conventional lamps deliver the coup de grace for a complete cure. It is an approach and a technology that Xeikon is patenting.
“It’s about delivering the maximum cure performance using the lowest amount of energy, a combination of the Duracure drying and the Panther inks,” says Jeron Van Bauwel, director of product management. “We will print a white ink on a clear film, then pin the white to prevent CMYK bleeding into the white, then will use LED to pin these colours and increase the gloss levels before the final cure combining LED and mercury vapour.”
The combination increases the range of substrates that can be cured because LED generates no heat at the point of cure, so any impact from the broad spectrum of energy from a conventional tube is minimised.
UV inkjet is also characterised by raised ink on non absorbent substrates. This can be a desirable effect to provide a tactile finish for a plain paper label by printing white and over printing with colour, and the Panther technology can produce this. But it can also be an unwanted side effect of ink laid upon ink and is remarked upon by those selling dry and liquid toner technology.
The Xeikon way to minimise this is to manage the lay down of all inks, white included. For the colours, UCR and similar technologies come into play, though these are far more nuanced and subtle than replace every possible instance with black. Likewise white file generation is managed automatically by its ColorMagic option.
Where opacity is need, beneath a pastel shade for example, the appropriate level of white is applied, but where the opacity created by the remaining colours is adequate, white can be switched off.
This is functionality built into the X-800, Xeikon’s own workflow that has been enhanced along with the press technology over 25 years. PDF is accepted, tweaked and delivered to a Rip in a colour controlled way, optimising impositions and sequencing to achieve the least waste from a job.
Integration to MIS is now a key theme for the next period. One of the key mantras for Xeikon is Be Agile.
Chatelard explains: “For us this is about the workflow. We try as much as we can to get prepress to be a zero touch process. We believe we have a best in class workflow and we need to move to enterprise level workflows with integration to MIS. We have no intention of becoming an MIS provider, but you need that integration to build the zero touch process.”
With the arrival of inkjet in the stable, the DFE also has to manage colour matching across not only substrates, but also the two digital print technologies. This comes through Xeikon ColorControl its cloud hosted service to ensure colour consistency using ICC profiles and press characterisation.
Xeikon has given little away about its corrugated venture, other than that it will make a debut at Drupa in 12 months’ time. It will be behind sheetfed post print corrugated sheets so will come up against machines from HP, Barberan, Koenig & Bauer, Durst and especially EFI. It has a very strong card in that Flint is already the leading supplier of ink for corrugated board printing in the world. In short, Xeikon has a foot inside the door.
It is also trying to get a foot inside the door of the entry level label print business, those making a first step from flexo into digital printing, a company looking for a support machine or a commercial printer looking to expand into label printing.
The Xeikon 3030 with a dedicated integrated finishing unit, the DCoat 330, becomes the starter package that will take on the growing number of entry level units using toner technology.
“We have the lowest total cost of ownership than any of these,” says Filip Weymans, VP marketing. “We beat any competitive dry toner equipment and water based inkjet that is targeting the entry level. To justify this we analysed a basket of ten jobs for a company producing 1,000 metres labels a day.” Toner was the cost effective technology.
“This is an industrial level press able to address 85% of the European market. And with the ICE toner option that becomes 90% by extending to reach PE materials as well as the standard label substrates which can’t be printed with water based inkjet.
“A package like this will suit a graphic arts business taking a first step into packaging or a small label printer that has not yet transitioned into digital printing.”
One customer is a pharmaceutical company with an in-house printing unit to cope with the proliferation of Skus. These all require labels, which while simple to look at require small text and consistency for the brand colours first level security check. Xeikon has demonstrated its ability through imaging at 1,200 dpi to print micro text and using a special toner invisible in normal light, but glowing under the right conditions.
Flint also supplies the plates for flexo printing, the dominant technology that inkjet must replace. Xeikon has a stake with the Thermoflexx imagers for flexo plates.
In combination with platesetters for newspapers and for imaging conventional presensitised plates with a UV laser, it can claim to have produced 7,000 platesetters in 20 years.
The company then is used to balancing the needs of different applications and technology. And as inkjet gains further ground Xeikon's experience in toner based digital printing is going to pay off as inkjet becomes a major force in print.
By Gareth Ward