Beer, Chocolate, and Xeikon: Good things come out of Belgium By Noel Ward, Executive Editor February 5, 2007 -- The Boeing seven-six came out of the low clouds barely 100 feet above the runway in Brussels, Belgium touching down with a quiet thump and we trundled through the fog to the terminal, and shortly thereafter, to Lier and the home of Punch Graphix and Xeikon. Some sixty print industry journalists from the U.S. and Europe were on hand to get a closer look at Xeikon and hear the company's latest announcements about products and successes. Xeikon and Punch Graphix HQ, Leir, Belgium Xeikon was one of the first companies to roll out a full-color digital press, back in 1993, and has remained in the hunt, albeit with a low profile. Still, we came to Leir not knowing quite what to expect at this soirée, what with the impressive 6000 version of the Xeikon press being launched just last September. Some printers were signing up for that box and its 160-ppm speed and increased productivity at GraphExpo, even as competitors were curious about its market-leading speed and new FA toner. Now, although Xeikon seems the quietest of the companies vying for share in the digital press market, its tagline of "Dream. Dare. Do." and the technology under the Ferrari-red skins of its continuous-feed presses, appear to be gaining mind-share in a market dominated by the cut-sheet devices of HP, Kodak and Xerox. The new offerings announced in Lier give the company more to talk about New Offerings First up is the new Xeikon 4000, which, while not an entry level machine in the sense of many lower-end production machines, offers the key features of the Xeikon 5000 and 6000 machines at an affordable (not yet finalized) price point. It uses Xeikon's unique One-Pass-Duplex ability but is limited to CMYK. It features a single 50-cm (19.7-inch) print width and a 130-ppm print speed that Xeikon says works out to 3.5 million A4/Letter-size images per month. It can handle substrates from 40 to 250 gsm and uses the X-800 front-end common to its larger siblings. To ensure image quality, the 4000 uses the new FA toner which uses smaller, more consistently shaped particles that yield a distinct improvement in image quality. All in all, the 4000 looks to be an excellent way for printers who need a powerful digital press but whose client- and application-base don’t require the flexibility, speed and broader color palettes of the 5000 and 6000 models. It would also work well for many digital printers who need the print width or virtually unlimited length Xeikons are noted for. Are shops that buy this box likely to upgrade to more capable Xeikon later? Probably. But that's how this business goes. Until then, the 4000 certainly seems like a good place to start. Also rolled out was the 130-ppm Xeikon 5000plus, an updated version of the previous 5000 model. The 'plus' can run both 32 and 50 centimeter rolls of substrates up to 350 gsm at volumes up to 4 million A4/letter-size pages per month. It has an inline densitometer to help ensure color accuracy and consistency with the four CMYK colors as well as the numerous additional hues that can be added via the fifth toner station. It can print with the new FA toner and can be field upgraded to the top-of-the-line 6000 when higher volumes dictate more performance. The Making of the Very Small Xeikon's FA (Form Adapted) toner is unique to the company and we took a ride in the country to visit the plant where the stuff is made. I guess it's the nature of technology that the smaller the end product, the proportionally larger and more complex the facility required to make it. Toner is certainly no exception. Down a narrow tree-lined lane in the farm country east of Lier, is a building where 1100-pound bags of a certain polyester resin are mixed with an arcane brew of polymers, pigments and additives to produce the 8 micron dust that winds up as the images that stream off Xeikon presses. I couldn't take pictures in the plant, so you'll have to use your imagination. The "Toner for Dummies" version works something like this. The various components are poured in precise amounts into funnel-like hoppers about three feet across and four-a-half feet high. The hoppers dump their contents into a three-story high machine machine that mixes them further and heats the brew into a thick, semi-viscous blob. The blob goes into an extruder that produces very brittle, randomly shaped shards of toner about a millimeter or so thick. These shards go to a machine that breaks them into the powder we know as toner by grinding and using compressed air to slam the particles against each other in a maelstrom of collisions, probably not unlike the way solar systems and galaxies are formed. The particles, explained Dr. Lode DePrez, Xeikon's resident toner god, are fired at each other at about the speed of sound, a velocity at which even virtually mass-less particles like toner get broken down into very small pieces. As with most toner particles, these pieces are actually fairly rough edged, like gravel, only on a microscopic scale. The next step addresses that, and makes the FA toner. A proprietary process rounds down the jagged-edged, non-uniform standard toner shapes into more uniform ones, hence "Form Adapted." Think eroded beach pebbles compared to gravel. The result on press is improved print quality, a larger color gamut and higher light-fastness. The new toner is FDA approved and is recyclable on paper and packaging. Xeikon reports strong demand from current 5000-model customers to switch to FA toner (available as a field upgrade), and given that the new 4000 model is FA-toner ready, it's clear that FA toner is becoming the standard toner from Xeikon. Microphotographs of conventional Xeikon toner (left) and FA toner The FA toner is not limited to CMYK. The expanded palette for the fifth toner station on the 5000 and 6000 models includes red, green, blue, orange, extra magenta, white, and clear toners, all available in both standard and FA flavors. So why the FA toner when some other vendors are rolling out chemical, or grown, toners? According to Xeikon, adding the production steps that modify toner shape is easier and much less expensive than building a new chemical toner facility (not to mention the necessary R&D for such a venture), but more practically, chemical toners have several technical issues that would require significant engineering changes to the print engines, so rounding off the rough edges is a better approach. The Road Ahead Seeing all this first hand, it's clear that Xeikon has a focus on R & D and will continue leveraging its technology as it competes with its much larger competition. According to Chief Technology Officer Frank Deschuytere, the overall focus is on print engines, consumables and the RIPs that drive the big red and gray boxes. Some 10 percent of the company's total revenue and a fifth of the Punch Graphix staff is dedicated to R & D. With respect to Xeikon, the primary effort is on further improvement in machine speed and capacity, image quality and consistency, increasing the range of applications that can be accommodated, and reducing TCO, especially where it can accelerate high-volume applications. And, he notes, we should expect major product launches every two years. This quick trip to Belgium made it clear that Punch Graphix and Xeikon are fully committed to digital print and plan to continue moving forward. And while this event focused on Xeikon, there are obvious strength, synergies and resources from BaysPrint and the rest of Punch that will help keep Xeikon a worthy competitor to its larger adversaries. Oh, yeah, the beer and chocolate? Belgian chocolate is amazing and as for beer, I thought the De Koninck was good until I found a local brew called Kwak down in Brugge. Please offer your feedback to Noel. He can be reached at [email protected] See More Exclusive Articles