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Commentary & Analysis

The Turning Point: Graph Expo as Watershed for Digital Production

As Graph Expo made abundantly clear, there’s no longer any segment of the industry that can’t be addressed by digital solutions that will work as least as well as conventional lithography, at least in shorter runs. The industry’s embrace of digital production is now complete, and all that’s left to debate is how long it will take the pockets of resistance to get on board or go away.

By Patrick Henry
Published: October 19, 2010

In graphic communications, we’ve always had a taste for acronyms: WYSIWYG, CIELAB, ROOM, RIP, and so on. Here’s one that came to mind during treks through the aisles at Graph Expo 2010:

DIGITAL: Do I Get Its Trends At Last?

It’s not very clever, as acronyms go, but the question is a meaningful one. The answer, as Graph Expo made abundantly clear, is that if we still don’t get the trends, we’d better get serious about seeing them for what they truly are.

The main one is that there’s no longer any segment of the industry that can’t be addressed by digital solutions that will work as least as well as conventional lithography, at least in shorter runs. As of Graph Expo 2010, the industry’s embrace of digital production is complete: all that’s left to debate is how long it will take the pockets of resistance to get on board or go away.

Where does that leave offset? In better shape than the show might have suggested to a superficial observer—but we’ll hold those thoughts for another report. Here is a rundown of some of the digital developments that have changed the character of Graph Expo and the profile of its industry forever.

The star of Kodak’s show was the Prosper 5000XL, a color inkjet web press seen for the first time in North America following its worldwide launch at IPEX in April. The first direct marketing company to adopt it, according to Kodak, is Tribune Direct Marketing, which also will install the monochrome version of the platform, the Prosper 1000.

Operating from five plants, Tribune Direct produces and mails 7 million pieces of direct mail per day. Improving the ROI of the personalized share of that volume is the reason for the company’s investment in Prosper technology, said two Tribune Direct executives in a panel discussion presented by Kodak.

Timothy Street, director of operations, described Prosper as a cost-effective solution for variable data printing (VDP) in color—a service that Tribune Direct currently provides by digitally imprinting on offset shells. Prosper’s full-color VDP capability will enable Tribune Direct to offer its financial and retail clients enhanced graphics, quicker turnarounds, and more effective messaging in their printed communications, said Robert Kennedy, manager, information services.

Tribune Direct will install the monochrome Prosper 1000 by end of year and expects to bring in the Prosper 5000 XL during the first quarter of 2011. (“Our sales force is already gearing up,” said Street.) Dan Denofsky, inkjet solutions marketing manager for Kodak, said that the continuous-inkjet Prosper platform will offer Tribune Direct “digital without compromise” as it produces up to 3,600 A4 pages per minute at resolutions up to 175 lpi.

Street added that the Prosper XL 5000 is the only solution on the market that will let Tribune Direct print on glossy papers for postcards and other DM applications. Prosper’s 25.5” web width and 650 fpm running speed should make it possible to turn out 200,000 postcards per hour, he said.

Personalization in full color is the anticipated benefit of replacing offset preprints with versioned matter produced entirely on the Prosper XL 5000. “The data has always been there,” Kennedy said, adding that instead of just adding text to static shells requiring multiple plate changes to produce, fully digital variable output can include on-the-fly text and graphics changes at will.

Personalized niche publications, coupons, and versioned inserts are other potential applications for Prosper technology at Tribune Direct, part of a multimedia conglomerate that owns the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and many other mass-market properties.

Despite various pressures on direct mail, Tribune Direct’s primary product, “we still think the mailbox has value,” Street said. “Consumers still want something in their mailboxes,” and Street said Tribune Direct believes they’ll be highly receptive to the full-color, personalized messaging it intends to produce on the Prosper 5000XL.

With the help of digital output and complementary media services such as PURLs and personalized microsites, “We don’t see print going away anytime soon,” Kennedy added.

No non-impact platform pushes more aggressively into offset lithographic territory than Fujifilm’s Digital Inkjet J Press 720, seen in action for the first time in the U.S. at Graph Expo. At the show, Fujifilm made no bones about positioning it as a digital press built to take short-run work away from offset, declaring it to have the all the size, speed, and quality it will need to encourage migration away from conventional lithography in commercial print environments.

Because the J Press 720 bears a number of similarities to the offset equipment it is out to replace, most printers should find the migration path a reasonably comfortable one to travel. Its 29.5” x 20.8” format is that of a standard four-up offset press, and its mechanical underpinnings include familiar-looking sidelays, grippers, and transfer cylinders. Fujifilm says that J Press 720 can run standard offset coated stocks and is, because of its four-up format, compatible with the kinds of bindery equipment to be found in most commercial shops.

These features and a top running speed of 2,700 sheets per hour are said by Fujifilm to make the J Press 720 competitive with offset on a cost-per-sheet basis in runs up to about 4,000 impressions—the range in which the majority of commercial jobs are produced. The press runs without click charges, and Fujifilm says it will not impose mandatory service contracts upon purchasers of the $1.8 million (MSRP) machine.

But make no mistake—the printing method is a radical departure from what most commercial printers are used to. The first fluid to touch the paper is a water-based precoat solution, dispensed from an anilox roller, that assures acceptance and retention of the ink. The ink comes from a four-bar array of CMYK inkjet heads over a central imaging drum. Each bar contains 17 piezo drop-on-demand inkjet heads, and each head drives 2,048 nozzles to a print resolution of 1,200 dpi x 1,200 dpi with four levels of gray. Stochastic (FM) screening is used, and the output, says Fujifilm, can be 100% variable.

The finishing touch is a hot-air system that sends the sheets to the delivery in the same manner as an offset press, but completely dry for duplexing in a second pass. After drying, the sheets are inspected by a pair of internal CCD cameras that enable the press to make print quality adjustments on the fly—even to the tiny extent of changing the ink metering of a single nozzle, according to Fujifilm.

Carl Joachim, vice president of marketing for the production printing business group of Ricoh, reported that the company has done well with its Pro C720 and Pro C900 series color digital printing systems, having installed 2,000 of the toner-based units since their introduction in the third quarter of 2008. This success provided a backdrop for the Graph Expo launch of two advanced versions of the platform, the Pro C901 and Pro C901s.

These “graphic arts edition” printers, aimed at mid-level production environments, can print at 90 ppm on sheets as large as 13" x 19" and as heavy as 300 gsm, simplex or duplex. Paper capacity is 11,000 sheets, and the claimed duty cycle is 580,000 impressions. The Pro C901s is an MFP with a built-in color scanner and document storage software for print-on-demand applications.

Chemical-toner imaging with small particles and oil-free fusing at a reduced temperature is said to yield offset-quality color at 1,200 dpi x 1,200 dpi. Variable-data printing is supported, and a “paper library” feature permits stock settings to be stored and recalled.

Accompanying the launch of the Pro C901 and Pro C901s was the introduction of their front-end controllers, the Fiery E-41 and E-81 servers from EFI. A server from the Creo business unit of Kodak, the C-81, also will be available for the graphic arts edition printers.

Screen says that its Truepress Jet520 inkjet continuous-feed printing system, introduced in 2006, now has a worldwide installed base of more than 200 presses. Hoping to expand that base still further, Screen came to Graph Expo with two new models and options for enhancing the performance of the entire series.

The line’s new flagship is the Truepress Jet520ZZ, a high-speed (721.7 fpm) drop-on-demand inkjet press with a 22.4" web width, a maximum imaging resolution of 720 dpi x 720 dpi, and a variety of features for producing personalized color prints in quantities up to 190,000 81/2" x 11" pages per hour. It is intended, Screen said in a press release, for “direct mail, books, magazines and other high-volume work that traditionally has been printed offset.”

To printers seeking an entry-level solution for inkjet production printing in color, Screen now offers the Truepress Jet520EX, a smaller, slower, and lower-resolution version of the basic 520 platform. This device is said to deliver full-color variable printing at a maximum speed of 210 fpm at 360 dpi x 360 dpi—more than adequate for the efficient output of many different kinds of short-run work.

Truepress Jet520 accessories introduced at the show included an external drying unit that, says Screen, lets operators “use paper types that have posed drying challenges in the past, such as inkjet matte coated paper and inkjet glossy coated paper”; a camera inspection system that captures bar codes and OCR fonts in variable output; and an ink saving system said to be capable of reducing ink usage by up to 15%.

To introduce the newest digital press in its portfolio, Océ reprised a demonstration that it put on with Canon, its new parent company, in a joint showing in New York City last month. Graph Expo goers saw the Canon imagePRESS C7010VP, now available from Océ, print color covers and interior color pages for three softcover, perfect-bound books that also contained black and white pages printed on the Océ VarioPrint 6320 Ultra system. The imagePress C7010VP also produced saddle-stitched booklets, posters, and personalized postcards throughout the show.

Océ showcased its own capabilities in book printing and finishing, transactional and transpromotional printing, display graphics, and workflow, with supporting testimony from customers who have successfully used these solutions. One of them was Larry Vaughn, president of Ideal Printers (Houston, TX) who told a meeting of journalists and analysts during the show that his company now is completing an average of 3,000 on-demand kitting jobs per day with the help of Océ VarioPrint high-speed duplexing printers.

Another was Charles Barkley, president of The Buhl Press (Berkeley, IL), which now uses Océ’s Arizona flatbed UV printers to produce POP and outdoor signage. As a 50-year old lithography business, Barkley said, “we approached digital printing with, frankly, the arrogance of an offset printer” until Océ’s solutions opened everyone’s eyes to the advantages of digital production.

HP made Graph Expo history by being the first all-digital print provider to hold court in the show’s largest booth. The booth was located, some might say symbolically, in the same space traditionally occupied by Graph Expo’s largest exhibitor of conventional printing equipment: Heidelberg, which did not take part in the show this year. (Heidelberg is expected to return in 2011.)

There would have been plenty of room in the booth for the machine that HP said it “unveiled” at Graph Expo without actually bringing it to McCormick Place: the HP T350 Color Inkjet Web Press, a faster version of the T300 model that has been on the market since O’Neil Data Systems (Los Angeles, CA) beta-tested and subsequently purchased the first one in December 2008. Aimed at the high-volume book, direct mail, transpromo, and transactional printing markets, the T350 was described as a 30" wide, 600 fpm (vs. 400 ppm for the T300), thermal inkjet platform capable of producing 3,297 letter-sized pages per hour in full color.

Scheduled for commercial launch in the second half of 2011, the T350 also features extended 1,200 dpi x 600 dpi resolution, a new writing system, and an improved data processing workflow. The first T350 beta unit has been installed at O'Neil Data Systems, which also is beta-testing the HP T200: a 20.5" wide, single-engine press built to run at 200 fpm in color and 400 fpm in monochrome. (The T200 also is expected to go to market in the second half of next year.)

Present and available for inspection in the HP booth were three HP Indigo digital color presses: the highly automated, seven-color HP Indigo 7500, billed as the line’s flagship printing machine; the HP Indigo W7200 web press, shown for the first time with advanced color management capabilities for high-end photo and publication work; and the HP Indigo 3550, described as an entry-level press capable of printing 300,000 pages per month in up to five colors. HP also showed an assortment of large-format printers from its DesignJet and Scitex lines.

Of all that there was to see or learn about at the Xerox stand—including the offset-challenging Color 800/1000 presses and the new, broader-shouldered (14.33" x 26") EXP iGen4 EXP—nothing was more intriguing than its version of the Espresso Book Machine (EBM): a compact, all-in-one, in-store manufacturing system meant to function as an “ATM for books.”

Last month, Xerox and On Demand Books, the device’s creator, announced that in 2011, Xerox will market, sell or lease, and service the EBM worldwide in a configuration built around Xerox’s 4112 copier/printer. The 4112 is housed along with an Epson color inkjet cover printer and a suite of binding, trimming, and finishing tools in an integrated structure that measures 63.8" (H) x 34.5" (D) x 80.79 " (W)—compact enough for convenient use in bookstores, libraries, university in-plants, and wherever else there is an opportunity to sell and print perfect-bound paperbacks on demand in quantities as small as one.

On Demand Books says that the EBM has electronic access to about 800,000 in-copyright titles and to millions of public-domain works through arrangements with Google and the Internet Archive. According to Xerox, these files can be downloaded and turned into fully printed and bound books of 40 to 830 pages, in trim sizes from 4.5" x 5.0" to 8.25" x 10.5", in about four minutes.

At Graph Expo, Xerox would not discuss the unit cost of books produced on its version of the EBM. At its web site, On Demand Books states that the cost of consumables (paper, cover stock, toner, ink, and glue) for a “typical” book comes to about one penny per page. Xerox says that it has developed a ProfitAccelerator® Espresso Book Machine Essentials Kit to help EBM users build business in the on-demand book market.

Patrick Henry, Executive Editor for WhatTheyThink.com is also the director of Liberty or Death Communications, a consultancy specializing in research, education, promotional, and editorial support services for the printing and publishing industries.

Patrick Henry is available for speaking engagements and consulting projects. To get more information contact us here.

Please offer your feedback to Patrick. He can be reached at patrick.henry@whattheythink.com.

 

Discussion

By Martin Rego on Oct 19, 2010

What about Konica Minolta?

 

By Clint Bolte on Oct 19, 2010

Keep in mind that there still exists no published variable cost estimates from any of the digital print manufacturers and their full line of equipment. Select "independent" consultants have suggested variable cost comparisons but again there is no third party verification as these independents are assuming very modest coverage.

 

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