Kodak Raises the Bar
At PRINT 09 Kodak will formally roll out the Prosper Color XL,
By Noel Ward
Published: July 23, 2009
At PRINT 09 Kodak will formally roll out the Prosper Color XL, the first four-color inkjet system to use the company's much rumored and long anticipated Stream technology. Some other analysts and I saw it this week, and after an up-close-and-personal in Dayton I have to say just one thing: If the output shown is indicative of what this machine can really do, and costs and performance are as claimed, it may not only change the game in high-speed inkjet printing, it could potentially change how a sizable chunk of general commercial printing is done. It appears that Kodak has raised the bar in inkjet printing.
First, the thing is fast, as in up to 650 feet per minute, and prints 24.5" wide on a 25" roll. This works out to some 3,600 A4 pages per minute. According to Kodak, a printer using a Prosper Color XL with an 80 percent uptime could churn out some 120 million pages in an average month. This is something of an overstatement, in my opinion. It assumes a 24/7 operation in which a machine would be fully utilized and running at full throttle and for 80 percent of all available hours in a month (29 days, actually). This is a little unrealistic, but is nevertheless, the volume on which Kodak appears to be basing its AMPV (Average Monthly Print Volume).
Second, and more important than speed, print quality appears comparable to general commercial offset printing in most meaningful ways, which makes sense as Kodak is quoting linescreens of up to 175 lpi. Sure, there are some differences, and an educated eye can pick nits and perceived shortcomings, but the output we saw was pretty much the equal of the offset samples provided.
First up were a pair of glossy supermarket mailers, one printed offset and one on the Prosper Color XL. In comparing them, the images were all fine, with very few differences, and none that would matter. The text was not as quite as crisp as offset, but still more than adequate for the job. The paper used was heavier than what's normally used on most glossy supermarket inserts but was not unlike what you see in many catalogs or direct mail pieces, so it was a reasonable comparison.
We also saw college science text books with full color photos and illustrations. There wasn't an offset comparison for these, but other than a bit more show-through than I'd like, the print and image quality was more than adequate for the job. From a printer's point of view, everything was sellable with few or no reservations.
Printing on uncoated, coated and glossy stocks has been a critical target for this device and has required new head, ink and materials science to get there, plus a different approach to drying. The samples shown in Dayton seemed to satisfy at any initial requirements for printing on smoother and shinier substrates. Admittedly, we were seeing controlled examples of what can be done, but the capability is clearly there and that's what is so promising about this new device. With this machine, Kodak appears locked and loaded to intrude directly into the realm of Heidelberg, Komori, manroland, and other offset presses.
This confluence of speed and quality has Kodak targeting books, direct mail, catalogs and even magazines and newspaper inserts, especially those requiring glossy or coated paper stocks. The Prosper XL is not really intended to take share from toner-based machines and produce statements faster. At least not yet. For now, the existing VL-series will continue to be Kodak's offering for transactional docs, some non-glossy direct mail, newspapers, and trans-promo. And faster models of the VL are being introduced (including higher quality versions) that will raise the bar on that family of machines.
One of Kodak's targets for the Prosper XL has been to control TCO and have it be on a par with offset. It will take time for the real world to filter into this, so for now we can just listen to what Kodak has to say. The run-cost number provided was $0.008 per full-color A4 page at 35 percent coverage and $0.0015 per mono A4 page at 5 percent coverage. These are pretty compelling numbers, and include ink, service and head replacement. Moreover, they are based on running rates of just 20 million pages per month. These costs will probably vary somewhat as real world experience is factored in, but for the moment they are bound to attract some interest.
Heads & Inks
The printheads (aka, jetting modules) are 4.16" across, weigh about three pounds and contain some 2,560 nozzles each. Six heads are needed to span the 25-inch paper roll and provide a 24.5-inch print area. With six heads for each color, 24 are required for each four-color print engine, or 48 heads for a duplex color engine. With limited data available (although several companies are lined up as early adopters), likely head life is still being determined, but Kodak estimates one of the jetting modules will need to be replaced approximately every three shifts.
When a head does require changing, Kodak says it takes about a minute, plus a few minutes for the automatic recalibration process, and it is easily done by the operator. As with Kodak's existing VL printers, used heads will be sent back to Kodak for refurbishing. No information was available regarding other service costs or schedules, but the strategy is to enable remote diagnostics and have operators do much of the general maintenance, similar to what Kodak has done with the NexPress.
One key influencer of head life is the ink. The Prosper XL uses a newly developed "nano-particulate" pigmented ink that relies on colorant particles ground to an extraordinary degree of fineness that provides a narrower range of particle size than other pigmented inks. The particles are kept in continual suspension and flow through print heads that use a thermal pulse to fire variable size ink droplets onto the paper at about 45 miles per hour. At that speed, it doesn't take long to cover the 2mm "throw distance" from the nozzle to the paper. This throw distance is greater than most other inkjet systems and enables the Prosper XL to print on thicker substrates. More importantly, it provides better control of drop size and placement, especially on coated papers. The new inks also use less humectants (wetting agents) which speeds drying on less porous surfaces. Interestingly, ink is dried using infrared dryers after each color is applied, rather than all at once as on other inkjet systems.
Kodak is still working out just what papers will be available. This is likely to be a moving target for some time as it involves work with paper mills to develop cost-competitive papers that are compatible with this device. As with other inkjet presses, the initial range of papers will be somewhat narrow, but this will certainly improve over time. Kodak says that one of its goals with the Prosper Color XL is to simplify the choices of paper for its intended applications, which could be a good thing for economics the paper industry.
The Prosper Color XL looks to be a very promising machine that will offer new alternatives for a wide range of applications. I've written before about the game changing nature of high speed inkjet presses from Océ, HP, InfoPrint/Ricoh, and Kodak's entry is no exception. The print quality and stated performance differentiate it from its competitors —at least for the moment— and I'm looking forward to seeing what the market says as this system rolls out in the market in the first half of 2010 and on into 2011.
When you see the samples from the Prosper Color XL at PRINT 09 and listen to Kodak's story, please let me know what you think. I'll put your comments into a blog entry and we can get a discussion going.