Commentary & Analysis
The "Great Communicator" Wows 'em in the Windy City with Something Very Tiny-and Potentially Very Huge
By Patrick Henry
Published: October 11, 2012
With his stately bearing, his sonorous voice, and his peerless reputation as a technical innovator, Benny Landa is the undisputed Great Communicator of graphic communications. So influential is his word that an entire industry has all but put itself on hold as he readies a printing technology that some are already calling "transformative" and "disruptive"-even though it may be two years before any printer makes the first dollar using it.
"Nanography" is the new thing's name, and as anyone who attended drupa 2012 can testify, blowing up existing assumptions about the outlook for print production is its immediate claim to fame. The person behind it, however, is someone who has redrawn the printing landscape once before and has every reason to be confident of being able to do it again.
Landa is the founder of Landa Corporation, the company whose Landa Digital Printing Unit expects to bring nanographic presses to market at some point in 2014. Having held drupa in thrall with elaborate demonstrations of prototype models in May, Landa brought his rollout of nanographic printing to the U.S. with a presentation at Graph Expo on October 8. There were no presses to see, but there was plenty of the Landa effect to be inspired by-the warm feeling kindled by a vision of promised breakthroughs that this audience, like the crowds at drupa, seemed every bit as ready as the speaker to stake their faith in.
Landa appeared courtesy of Infotrends, a research and consulting organization to the graphics industry. He needed little introduction as the developer of a landmark printing process used by many in the room: Indigo electrophotography, the first commercially successful system for static and variable digital printing in color. Landa began researching the process in 1977, produced the first press to use it in 1993, and sold the technology to HP in 2002.
He said that despite being responsible for profound effect that Indigo had on the market for digital printing, "I felt I had to do something more to change the world." His next quest became achieving low-temperature thermal energy conversion from environmental heat: extracting, as he described it, "energy out of thin air" as a potentially boundless source of power for cell phones, homes, and even automobiles. Landa Labs, the R&D unit of Landa Corporation, has been in pursuit of its secrets for 10 years and may find, according to Landa, "signs of life" in it for commercial purposes in another four or five.
Turning environmental heat into useful energy meant finding a new way of breaking down substances into nanoparticles-bits of matter measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Landa's scientists figured out that certain kinds of nanoparticles might be used to make ultra-personalized hair dyes. Landa thought of nanopigments for printing ink.
"I'd never intended to go back to printing" prior to this eureka moment, he said. But when the potential link to printing became clear, "the whole world just opened up."
In nanography, almost inconceivably small droplets of nanoink are jetted onto a heated transfer surface for deposition onto paper, where they dry and harden instantly into a solid, scratch-resistant film just 500 nanometers thick. Landa explained that because the process is more akin to thermal lamination than to wet printing processes, there is virtually no penetration of ink into the substrate-and no opportunity for moisture to interact unhelpfully with paper fibers.
The result, according to Landa, is a low-cost, high speed printing method with resolution and color fidelity sufficient "to really challenge offset in the mainstream."
He threw down that gauntlet at drupa by unveiling six nanographic presses-three sheetfed, three web-that played theatrically to crowds five times a day throughout the 14 days of the event. Despite the fact that the equipment did not run any live work, and with reproduction flaws plain to see in the preprinted samples that were shown, buyers placed what Landa said were $1 billion worth of advance orders for presses that even the manufacturer acknowledged were far from being ready for commercial release.
That wasn't all. During drupa, three top manufacturers of offset lithographic presses-Heidelberg, Komori, and manroland-announced that they had signed on with Landa Corporation as developmental partners. "Nanography has given them hope," Landa said, claiming that their business has been "decimated" over the last five years by a "precipitous drop in confidence" on the part of their customers.
The "great fear" among offset printers, according to Landa, is that the conventional presses they buy today could become obsolete tomorrow, while they still owe money on them. That is why Heidelberg, Komori, and manroland see the prospect of selling nanographic presses as a much-needed chance "to put some wind in their sails," he said.
As for the printers, Landa said they are "suffering" as average run lengths drop into low quantities that are hard to run profitably on offset equipment. "Printers don't know how to make money with the jobs they already have," he declared, adding that a "huge profitability gap" exists for these shops in volumes up to 10,000 copies. This is precisely the gap that Landa nanographic presses, with their large paper formats and their offset-like running speeds, will be aimed at filling.
At Graph Expo, as at drupa, Landa took pains to avoid positioning nanography as an offset-killer. Although he said he expects the process to be highly desirable for many of the kinds of work that commercial printers do, he also noted that no printing method can possibly be all things to all printers. As Landa put it, "every technology has its sweet spot," but only up to a point. Inkjet, for example, has made little headway against toner-based reprographics in the office.
Collaboration among print technology vendors will serve their interests better than competition, Landa concluded. Their common goal is to help customers become more profitable, and rivalries shouldn't be permitted to get in the way of joint progress toward it.
"There is never an 'ultimate technology,'" said the man who many believe has come up with one in nanography.