Digital print, some say, has finally caught up with offset lithography in terms of quality, and the digitally driven convergence of the two output technologies is already under way.

Before reacting to this statement with blackjacks or brass knuckles, conventional printers ought to consider the weight of evidence being presented in its favor at On Demand. True, digital presses still can’t deposit ink or coatings, print complex items like magazines and die-cut packaging, or turn litho sized papers into products at thousands of sheets per hour or thousands of feet per minute. But exhibit after exhibit at the event demonstrates that within the range of applications that they were designed for, digital presses can run rings around offset in color that even trained eyes can no longer distinguish from the “real” thing.

And while it’s also true that as an equipment expo On Demand is naturally biased towards digital solutions of all kinds, this doesn’t mean that its enthusiasm for digital presses has to be taken with a grain of anything. Vendor spokespersons like Creo’s Gershon Alon are correct to observe, as he did yesterday (April 8), that the real enthusiasm is coming from traditional printers who are beginning to see that digital output systems can and do complement their conventional equipment.

Mr. Alon, marketing director for Creo’s print-on-demand systems group, expresses a point made by many On Demand exhibitors when he notes that innovations in RIP, server, and workflow technology are making it easier to integrate digital devices into almost any printer’s array of output services. He adds, however, that while printers may be willing to embrace diversity when it comes to output, they will insist upon uniformity on the front end: “Printers want one system that can drive any of these technologies.”

In an open and competitive market for technology, the emergence of “one system” supporting all devices may be a bit much to hope for. A safer bet is to assume that however many competing systems we end up with, they will all have plenty of devices to drive. At On Demand, a healthy crop of new and nearly-new digital presses attests to the fact that the selection is growing broader all the time, and that printers have some serious homework to do. Here is a representative though by no means all-inclusive rundown of what can still be seen (or researched prior to launch) at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center until 2 p.m. today (April 9).

Océ (2501) is now taking orders for the VarioPrint 5160, a cut-sheet, 160 pages per minute (ppm) device with variable-data capability and options for printing in monochrome, with highlight color, or in MICR (magnetic ink character recognition) for checks. The press can have up to eight paper trays, a roll feeder, and a post-insertion device for adding preprints to sheets produced on the press. Also to be seen is the new, 101 ppm VarioPrint 2105, a combination printer-copier-scanner designed for corporate reprographics departments and print rooms (a.k.a. in-plants).

Heidelberg (3301) has announced that it is about to offer a new version of its Digimaster monochrome digital press, the Digimaster 9110cp. The new device, which will be available for sale next month and on display at Graph Expo this fall (Sept. 28-Oct. 1), will feature enhanced paper handling, improved workflow, and greater control over image quality.

From Xerox (3304), there is a pair of continuous-feed digital printers, the DocuPrint 850 and the DocuPrint 425, that can print with a resolution of 600 dpi (dots per inch) at 195 feet per minute. The DocuPrint 850—configured from two DocuPrint 425s—can print 850 two-up duplex impressions per minute. Both can print PostScript and PDF files on pinless and pin-fed papers.

Scitex Digital Printing (3134) originally aimed its fast, roll-fed VersaMark printers at the on demand book publishing market. Now, however, it is positioning the machines for use in something potentially much more lucrative: transactional printing. The VersaMark printers are equipped for what Scitex Digital Printing calls “business color”—300 dpi process color that can be added to invoices and other transactional documents for as little as $0.02 per page, according to Nachum Shamir, president and CEO. The fastest models operate at speeds up to 2,000 ppm.

The InfoPrint 2085 and InfoPrint 2105 from IBM (2945) print at 85 ppm and 105 ppm, respectively, with a 600 dpi resolution. Based on the Ricoh print engine, both devices have been enhanced for improved reliability and throughput. Features of interest include a print driver that functions as a job ticketing editor, enabling the creation of custom job tickets independently of whatever workflow is being used; and e-mail addressability, making it possible to send jobs to the machines via standard e-mail protocols. On the roll-fed side, IBM is displaying the InfoPrint 400, a dual-engine machine that prints what IBM says is the widest (19.5") roll of any device in the industry. The InfoPrint 400 may be seen printing 6 " x 9" pages three-up with room to trim.

At On Demand, Delphax Technologies (3345) will print most of the 6,000 softcover books it intends to donate to seven New York City high schools in its “Books for Schools” program. It will do so on a fully integrated book production line built around the Delphax CR1300P, a high-speed digital web press that can produce 2,400 6" x 9" or 1,300 8 1/2" x 11" pages per minute at 600 dpi. Delphax also is demonstrating its Imaggia II cut-sheet press, a 600 dpi device that can print sheets ranging in size from 11" x 11" to an optional 18.75" x 26". All Delphax presses use electron beam imaging (EBI), an alternative to laser imaging.

In the Imaggia II, toner is deposited onto an image belt that contacts another belt, transferring the image to paper. This is a digital updating of the familiar offset principle that lies at the heart of all lithographic printing. Offset image transfer also is a key feature of Indigo digital presses from Hewlett-Packard . So it can be seen that in the mechanical sense, at least, the “convergence” of analog and digital printing truly is becoming a reality. The press technologies shown at On Demand make it clear that from now on, keeping track of digital-analog convergence will be the most useful way of studying either method.