Drupa is a bit like running with the bulls in Pamplona. There's this herd of large companies charging a massive number of people come here voluntarily, who can't get out of the way, and are all but trampled under the overwhelming force of new product introductions, dramatically spun overstatement, marketing hype, and promises of a perfectly digital future. And this digitally perfect future is assured, the bulls trumpet, for all those people who will buy the latest NexGenDigo PressStream 10000 VPP (Very Profitable Press) all its associated software.

The difficulty of running with the bulls at drupa 08 is the need to absorb, understand, assimilate, and coherently think about what you're seeing. What makes sense, what doesn't; what is real and what is an illusion. We'll get to illusion later, but today I'll pull a couple of bulls from the herd and take some very quick looks at what they are offering here in warm, humid and rainy Dusseldorf. I'll start with a couple of new wide format machines that could be game changers.

Digital Screen Printing

First up is the new DS series (as in Digital Screen printer) from EFI VUTEk. This is the first of what is sure to be many such devices reaching the market as digital print further encroaches on traditional analog printing techniques. This big flat bed UV machine can churn out a 4 x 8-foot image in about 40 seconds. In production terms, that's around 6,000 square feet per hour, a rate VUTEk says crosses a new productivity frontier in the superwide format market. It has eight ink channels, can print in 600 and 1200 dpi modes and has short makeready times, which VUTEk vice president of marketing Chuck Dourlet says makes the DS Series is the first digital UV superwide format flatbed printer capable of cost-effectively producing high volume runs.

The first model in the line, the DS 3000 features a fixed array of print heads and a bed that moves back and forth, a key to its high speed abilities. It comes with substantial  ink supplies that let it print in four- or eight-color mode using the initial ink sets will include CMYK, plus Light Cyan, Light Magenta, Light Yellow and Light Black. EFI VUTEk is planning to expand the range of available inks in the future to include White and Clear.

For screen printers, the shift to digital offers a number of advantages. It reduces prepress time and complexity and eliminates the costs and time associated with screen manufacturing, removal and reclamation. In addition, digital technology greatly reduces the inventory levels needed for ink, screens and films. The ability to turn jobs around faster makes it possible to provide high volume production for same day delivery. Digital also makes it easier to accommodate customized jobs, as well as samples or regionalized versions of larger jobs, using the same cost dynamics as high volume work.

I was impressed by the image quality from this device and suspect it will have a lot of appeal to high volume screen printers who have been waiting to make the shift to digital but were waiting for the speed a flexibility the DS 3000 seems to offer. It will be available in early 2009.

Latex: It's not just for walls anymore

I'd been hearing about the new latex ink from HP for a few weeks but to honest, was having a hard time wrapping my head around the concept. I kept thinking "latex paint," and wondering how this worked in a large format printer. Then I saw the output and talked with HP's Phil Cagle.

Cagle says the latex inkjet program at HP began before the company went on its large format acquisition quest of the last couple of years and survived because latex was seen to offer four advantages the company felt were important moving forward.

First, it is an aqueous ink which makes it environmentally friendly. It can be used indoors without special venting and all supplies can be handled without worries about hazardous waste.  Next, it is about equal to solvent inks with respect to durability, image quality and print speed. The L65500 prints outdoor quality prints at up to 800 square feet/our and indoor quality at 400 fph. The prints are cured inside the machine and come out ready to use, finish or ship. Third, it is a scalable technology, meaning we can expect to see more latex inkjet systems coming out of HP in the future.

The machine being showcased here at drupa is the DesignJet L65500, which HP says is the first of a new category of large format signage printers. This one is a roll fed device that can take a roll 104" wide and can support most low-cost, uncoated, solvent compatible media. HP has over a dozen of its own media types from banners to films to fabrics and more, several of which are easily recyclable. Some of these media --notably Tyvek and high density polyethylene-- are treated to ensure the ink adheres correctly, but overall substrate choice should be relatively straightforward. Cagle says that the L65500 can print on virtually any material that a solvent ink printer can accommodate.

As with other thermal inkjet heads, the heads themselves are a consumable, much as those of various eco-solvent printers presently on the market. Actual head life is still being determined, but Cagle estimates that heads will require replacing after about 50 liters of ink have been fired through them --probably once a month in an average production environment. Heads are easily user replaceable. Just lift a lever and pull them out, not unlike those in HP's desktop devices.

I looked at print samples on a variety of substrates  and thought they looked good up close, so will be fine for the typical display applications. Type on some samples was slightly fuzzy, but this is not really an issue for signage meant to be read at a distance of feet or yards. For outdoor use prints are claimed to be good for 3 years unlaminated and 5 years with lamination, although there are the expected disclaimers on longevity based on substrate and where an image is used. But that's true with any type of print used outdoors.

There's some more large format devices that are worth a look and we'll get to a couple more of those next time, and we'll also take a look at a host of narrow format production printers.  There's some great stuff here and I'll tell you more in a couple of days, so stay tuned.

Right now I gotta go dodge some more bulls.