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FREE: New From Big Blue

Back in 1978 a good friend of mine went to work at IBM as a field tech for this big honkin'

By Noel Ward
Published: September 9, 2005

Back in 1978 a good friend of mine went to work at IBM as a field tech for this big honkin' printer known as the 3700. One night he took me over to the Norwich, Connecticut facility where he worked and showed off this giant box with which he had become intimately familiar. Back then I didn't know diddly about any kind of printing but I could see that it was one impressive machine that was clearly going to replace the line printers with which I had a nodding acquaintance. My pal has since gone on to other adventures at Big Blue, and the company's high-speed digital print engines have steadily evolved.

The latest iteration of the Infoprint 4100 is a great great grandchild of that 3700 and brings several new features on line, most rooted in requests from IBM's customer councils that are routinely queried as part of the product development process. The highlights of the new 4100 and its POWER controller are described in the press release running today at WTT.com, but when I saw the news on Wednesday I called Bob Cooper, Business Line Manager for Production Continuous Forms Solutions at IBM Printing Systems, for some additional detail.

Existing 4100s can be upgraded to the new specs, providing significant investment protection on these costly devices.

Although the release says the POWER controller is available on certain models, that's only temporary, Cooper assured me.

"There is an upgrade path for customers, and the intent is to make the new controller the standard Infoprint controller over the next 18 months."

This is a smart move, and one with broader implications than it first appears. The release later notes that, " . . . the Infoprint POWER Controller helps operations prepare for the future with the AFP Color Emulation feature. This future component is designed to help customers looking to migrate to color printing to start preparations today."

Color Coming

Cooper explained that IBM's AFP Color Consortium has been making significant progress in preparation for announcement (and perhaps even implementation) of an AFP color workflow sometime next year. By making the POWER controller the standard RIP, and having it designed to be capable of handling both monochrome and full color AFP workflows, it opens a new door for IBM customers who have long been limited to black-only applications. Part of this strategy is the use of powerful RISC processors that enable the controller to provide customized, selectable halftones with four screen frequencies and 256 grayscale levels for monochrome simulation of color objects. So, the story goes, assuming for the moment that IBM rolls out a color printer in the near future, users of the new machines and controllers will be better prepared to move to AFP when it becomes available. And making the new controller the standard RIP should help customers migrate to color more quickly. Sounds good. We'll see.

The Speed Need

Print speed is usually rolled out as a differentiator with new machines and the new generation of the 4100 is no exception. Its speed of 1,440 2-up duplex letter-size impressions per-minute puts it ahead of some competitors, as does the 3-up speed for 6 x 9 pages of 2,640 impression per minute. IBM says such speeds drive lower costs. But Cooper indicated the savings is not as much on the click as in somewhat harder to define measures of overall productivity--and by elimination of slower machines.

"For example, a couple of years ago the fast continuous-feed machines were running at about 1,000 impressions per minute. A speed of 1,440 lets you replace four of those with three of the new machines. Or two 700-ipm machines can be replaced by a single new 4100."

This is good logic for those IBM customers with older, slower machines, but there's not quite enough poke, perhaps, for IBM to displace some only slightly slower boxes from Océ that have greater overall functionality with spot color. (And no mention at all of upstaging any DocuTech farms.) A more important feature, thoughj, especially for existing IBM customers, is that the new machines are field upgradeable, so customers can make an initial investment in a slower machine and upgrade later. And furthermore, most existing 4100s can be upgraded to the new specs, providing significant investment protection on these costly devices.

Quality and Productivity

Cooper says print quality is another big advantage on the new boxes. It comes from newly engineered processor boards that enable better modulation of laser intensity, use of a semiconductor blue laser printhead, improved solid-fill calculations, better edge smoothing, and patented "super-cell" technology to enhance halftones. These combine, says Cooper, to give high print quality at high speeds. I'll see these boxes at PRINT 05 and will let you know what I see. And how the quality really looks.

One feature IBM is particularly proud of is Productivity Tracking. "This is a subsystem on the controller that captures every event experienced by the print engine: Operator log on, paper footage, toner loads, interruptions, job IDs and hundreds of other parameters," explains Cooper. "This all goes into a file on the controller. Then it can be extracted and put in a database that can be queried to provide a huge range of comparative analytics of anything the customer or his staff want to measure and evaluate."

Cooper says this capability was in direct response to requests from customers who specified the impressive range of events and functions they wanted to monitor. Other vendors offer similar, but somewhat less comprehensive capes on their machines, but IBM's Productivity Tracking seems to be a step ahead in this regard.

It'll be interesting to take a closer look at these new offerings from IBM, which will be in the Videk and Pitney Bowes booths at PRINT 05. If you'll be here in Chicago, be sure to check them out.



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