18 September 2017 People

Xeikon’s man with a plan

Benoit Chatelard might never become CEO of Xerox or HP, but as CEO of Flint’s digital print division he can make a real impact in how Xeikon develops.

Benoit Chatelard is ambitious. On a personal scale he has moved jobs, he explains, for a combination of the enjoyment of the challenge, the personal development, and for the financial rewards, the latter being a consequence rather than a motivation.

Over his career this drive has taken him from hardware sales of mainframe computers, into selling digital print engines, for IBM Infotech and then as vice president Ricoh Europe.

The culmination of scaling the corporate ladder was his appointment in May as president of Flint Group’s digital solutions division. Currently this equates to running Xeikon, the Belgian digital press developer that can claim to be the first with a colour digital press.

Flint had acquired Xeikon almost a year earlier and had taken its time to replace the outgoing CEO. When the offer reached Chatelard's desk, Flint was sure it was approaching the right man and Chatelard was equally confident about the job.

“On paper it is a good fit,” he says. “I believe I can add real value to the process. If in a couple of years we are where we are because I have had the privilege of leading the team to where Flint wants it to be, that is the satisfaction,” he says.

He is not detailing where Flint wants the business to be and there are no defined plans to expand either organically or through acquisition.

But Flint clearly has ambitions and resources for Xeikon that its previous shareholders did not have. If the previous CEO was concerned about avoiding major hiccups and keeping Xeikon together to achieve a sale, Chatelard's task is very different. There will be money to spend and the strategy on what to do will be laid out at Labelexpo.

“We are working on that strategy now,” he says. “It will be done by Labelexpo. That’s the time to present it to the market.” Xeikon will be part of the much larger Flint presence at the show. “We are a mid-sized supplier so far and even if we double in size we cannot match HP or Ricoh. We have to be more selective about what we do. We are currently a division two supplier. We have every intention of playing in division one. There is room for expansion.”

Currently the company has feet equally in document printing, veering to high quality and graphic arts applications rather than commoditised transactional and functional print and in labels printing where Xeikon is a clear No2 to market leader HP Indigo. It plans to consolidate that position leveraging the contacts that Flint’s narrow web labels division has with converters, especially in North America and in Asian markets, where Xeikon has previously been unable to establish the presence it deserves.

Xeikon is very successful, but it is under appreciated. It deserves to be better recognised,” says Chatelard. “I truly believe this company has potential. It is not a VC approach of build and sell. It can grow organically or via acquisition, or via partnership.”

This approach is evidenced by the move into inkjet printing. Xeikon has offered the ability to apply a white ink using inkjet as part of a label solution, but that was scarcely inkjet proper. With the Panther, more properly known as the PX3000, Xeikon has a highly viable inkjet press in its portfolio.

The first beta machine has been shipped from the factory at Lier to a company that has experience in inkjet printing. Chatelard is not saying where, other than unlike previous betas, it is not going to a UK company. Orders will be accepted at Labelexpo and more machines will be shipped before the end of the year.

If this is a departure for Xeikon, it is too for Flint. The inks company had been one of the first to develop an inkjet label press, selling the Jetrion business to EFI.

Xeikon customers were asking for inkjet printing, says Chatelard, and no doubt customers of Flint’s narrow web labels division were asking the same questions. Inkjet offers some advantages over electrophotographic dry toner printing. It is faster and can print on heat sensitive materials that are beyond the scope of toner printing, even with lower fusing temperatures.

However, dry toner has distinct advantages. Quality is better and Xeikon has food safe toners while currently there are no food safe UV inkjet inks. “And there are an awful lot of labels for food,” he says. This issue is perhaps a matter of time and the latest developments in the direction of low migration inkjet inks will be seen at Labelexpo.

A real solution must wait until water based inks become available, and that runs into problems in printing on non absorbent plastics and films. Toner will be needed for a few years yet.

But Chatelard is under no illusion that inkjet represents the future. “By 2022, 50% of our revenue will be from inkjet,” he says. “We are a technology agnostic supplier. It is about supplying the right technology for the application. It is not driven by the technology and making the application fit.”

This is going to be a key to both Flint and Xeikon as it moves into new areas. It will remain in document printing, where Chatelard calculates that the number of duplex printing Xeikon 8000 series and 9000 machines is comparable to the inkjet population because each inkjet press comprises two engines.

However, Xeikon technology is not about mono book printing, transactional print or low value direct mail jobs that have filled many of the installed base of inkjet presses. It is about high quality digital printing where the imaging bar delivers 8 micron spot sizes.

This is put to good use on security applications for example. Belgium’s Fedopress produces tax stamps for the government in a high security set up where each stamp, and there can be dozens on a sheet, has a financial value and needs to include anti counterfeiting features as well as variable information. Other tax stamp printing operations are interested in Xeikon as a result, says Chatelard.

There are other applications where the press is printing brand logos on the transparent paper used to wrap high value goods in the fashion industry. The value of the print overcomes any limitation of speed, while the Xeikon has been able to produce a B2 sheet well before Indigo or the crop of inkjet machines that are appearing.

That there are relatively few Xeikons in mainstream graphic arts printers is down to perception. When it comes to specialist applications, the company punches above its weight. This is a consequence both of the relative lack of resources available for sales and marketing and also to the company’s culture.

It has tried for the mainstream, a sheetfed Xeikon in 2000 for example, but nothing has ever reached best seller status. However, Xeikon is highly effective at creating solutions. It has built wallpaper production lines (“from file to wall” Chatelard explains) involving workflow for the application as well as the print engine. It has a folding carton suite and developed its X800 front end into one of the most powerful DFEs in the industry.

“I have never seen a company that offers as much though integration,” he says. “Xeikon is used to producing end to end solutions, it’s very much into solutions design.”

Part of the new strategy will be to expand this software expertise. An immediate move is into colour management, brought about by managing twin technology streams in dry toner and inkjet. But this is also about the thousands of customers that Flint has. In the briefest outline, Xeikon will create a database of colours that will mean consistency for printers using either of its digital presses and for analogue printing, either litho or flexo, on whatever substrate they are using. It is a resource that will help the industry transition into digital and remove a barrier both to converters and their customers.

In order to do this Xeikon has become adept at partnering with outside suppliers under first its Aura partner network and now with the Fusion approach where the entire line comes under the control of the Xeikon DFE. The PX-3000 is also a machine where Xeikon has used its core competences to add value in software, colour and media handling. It is not going into printhead design, says Chatelard.

He explains: “In future we might sometimes create the electronics around the printhead, sometimes the ink supply systems. There will be more partnerships, some open like Bosch supplying electronics to car manufacturers, some that are hidden.

“More business is going to be about co-development with other companies and for us the important thing is knowing where we can add the most value through integration.”

There will be continued research into liquid toner technology. Five years ago at Drupa, Xeikon introduced the concept and at the show last year, it unveiled the Trillium, a high speed four-colour digital press.

Since then the project has stalled, partly because there has been a rethink on some of the components of the toner to avoid harmful substances and partly because the build up of heat was unsetting the evaporation rates of the oils uses to carry the pigment to paper. Run time has consistently improved, says Chatelard, with the development machine now running non stop for shifts at a time.

The project has also spawned spin offs in unexpected directions. Xeikon is investigating the suitability of the technology for flexo printing. The lower fusing temperature of liquid toner compared to conventional dry toner means that it can print on films and foils.

“We are masters of toner, especially of high speed toners,” says Chatelard. “We need to discover the applications for liquid toner.” The original plan was to target a document producing or commercial print customer. However, the options around inkjet compared to a what will essentially be an expensive machine, to buy if not necessarily to operate, limit the applications. “We need to choose areas where we can differentiate,” he says.

Developments in flexo will fit with Flint’s core base in packaging, enhancing the synergies between owner and its subsidiary. Likewise there will be projects around other areas of packaging where Flint has a strong presence.

Chatelard explains that corrugated packaging is an obvious target. “The folding carton market is largely sheetfed, flexo needs water based inks and is at the fundamental research stage. Corrugated is far closer, though the question is whether pre or post print corrugated is the bigger opportunity.

“We believe post print is the biggest opportunity. And the requirements are already part of our core competencies. It needs very high quality single-pass printing without errors,” he says. To some extent, decorating on a stream of corrugated material is like printing a very large label, perhaps down different lanes across the material.

“Corrugated is a huge market for Flint and it has contacts with all the converters. It needs a digital platform. We can already do something with UV and we can move the media. But that is not suitable yet for food boxes.

“We have some ideas about how to develop, but it is a ten-year transition from where digital currently is in the corrugated sector. If 20% of labels are printed digitally, only 0.1% of corrugated is printed digitally. Even 2% is a vast market.”

And where the wider Flint group scores is that it is not pushing one technology to the detriment of another. It can continue to provide analogue plates and inks helping the transition when the time is right. “Flint knows the corrugated converters and these companies want a supplier to help them on the path to digital, not to push one technology at the expense of another,” he says.

Xeikon’s approach will be clear by Drupa, though if ready before then, the company will introduce a product rather than wait until the show. It participated at the last Interpack, one of a handful of printing technology providers to do so. It will have learned much from the experience.

As far as Chatelard is concerned the time to show some of the cards in his hand will be at Labelexpo. Already he has influenced thinking behind the need to ensure that products comply with RAS thinking – reliability, availability and serviceability – making machines into production platforms that are simpler to look after. It is the thinking about the technology within those platforms that will be crucial.

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Benoit Chatelard

Benoit Chatelard

Benoit Chatelard is under no illusion that inkjet represents the future of Xeikon.

“By 2022, 50% of our revenue will be from inkjet,” he says. “We are a technology agnostic supplier. It is about supplying the right technology for the application. It is not driven by the technology and making the application fit.”

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