By Noel Ward, Executive Editor

March 23, 2007 -- Océ's annual Open House is always a showcase of the company's technologies and those of its partners, and this year's event, held earlier this month, was no exception. An elevated red catwalk bisected the busy show floor where at least one of everything Océ makes and sells seemed to be in constant operation. Océ uses this event to roll out new products, schmooze customers and prospects and generally strut its stuff to all who are interested. And this year there was a lot to be interested in.

A View from the Catwalk

Color, Speed and Océ

The biggest news--figuratively and literally--was the new VarioStream 9240, the latest iteration of the VarioStream 9000 line Océ announced at Open House three years ago. Back then, it was a roll-fed one-color machine with single pass duplexing and a print speed of 800 A4 impressions per minute (duplex). At the time, Océ promised color was on the way, and has since added an additional color each year, with the 9220 and 9230 models. The 9240 makes the big box a four color press, still with single-pass duplexing. This latest version delivers color pages at 168 A4 pages (or 174 letter-size pages) per minute. And next year, a fifth color is planned, allowing the use of spot colors on a process-color page. The 9240 will have limited availability in Germany this year and be generally available at the beginning of 2008.

A Little CMYK Theater at the VarioStream 9240

I asked about the lengthy gap between announcement and launch and was told that customers ready to move up to color printing need to plan, both for the purchase itself and for integration of color into their operations. It also, no doubt, may help keep competitors at bay. While some customers will buy a fully loaded 9240, others will come to it from a different path. A unique aspect of the 9240 line is that it is field upgradeable, so customers can start with a black-only machine and add color capability as their needs change. Furthermore, even when fully configured as a four-color press, a 9240 can still print monochrome documents at 800 ppm and two and three-color documents at lesser speeds. This is a uniquely flexible approach that can enable customers to run a wider range of jobs on fewer machines. This allows greater utilization of the machine while reducing a print provider's overall investment in capital equipment.

Still, as competitors, print providers, pundits, and analysts alike have pointed out, Océ has lagged the rest of the market with respect to color. So I talked with Jan Dix, Executive Vice President, Digital Document Systems, to find out more about Océ's approach to the market. Dix said that rather than go out and try to develop a market for full color digital printing--as several competitors have done-- Océ believes it is better to listen to its customers and build the technology that meets their needs. "We know from our customers that the vast majority of printing is still black-only or black on pre-printed forms. Only a relatively small proportion is actually full color. So we want to give our customers the easiest return on their investment by providing a machine that will let them print black-only, use highlight color when they need that, and full color when they need that."

A TransPromo Document Runs off the 9240

This capability lets Océ position the 9240 quite differently than the Xeikon 6000 at 160 ppm or the HP-Indigo w3250 at 133 ppm. Although less expensive than the 9240, neither offers a migration path to color nor are they competitive for speed or cost for black-only printing. The 9240 is clearly a different animal, evolved to deliver what Océ believes its customers want.

"The real focus and the workflow for the 9240 is on direct marketing and transaction printing, not graphic arts," says Dix. "That's where the flexibility and speed pays off. You can do the high volumes in black and white and still migrate step by step to color, but run many types of jobs on just one machine."

Dix says his customers believe the transition to color will take some time, especially for transactional printers. Cost is the big factor and the service bureau owners I've talked with largely agree. While most have some color equipment, they say customers are reluctant to spend several multiples of the cost for monochrome printing to add color. The ever-decreasing cost of color printing will change this, but it will still take time. Given that many of Océ's customers are at the higher volume end of transactional printing (where tiny differences in cost per page often make or break a deal), the company is probably right in its assessment of the demand for color among its customers. For such customers, a system like those in the 9000 line can make a lot of sense when seeking the most flexibility from their investment.

If you'll be at AIIM/On Demand in Boston next month you'll get to see the 9240 in action. We saw one version in Poing, but Océ insiders tell me that a more advanced version will be in Boston, so we'll all get a better idea of what this device is capable of when it becomes available.

Faster, Faster

But the 9240 was only part of the 9000 family news in Poing. Océ also announced a significant speed upgrade to the 9210, which can now stream out black-only pages at the rate of 1,350 per minute. This is actually slightly faster than the company's own VarioStream 7650, which is widely used in transactional print environments. Yet, while the speeds may be similar, the machines are more complimentary than competitive. For comparison, the 7000 is a family of one-color simplex printers that provides duplex, MICR and highlight color printing via twin or triplex configurations, but does not offer a pathway to full color. The 9000 line features single pass duplexing, a migration path to color, and in its Graphic Arts Plus configuration, delivers high quality images for publishing applications. It was that quality that enticed Lightning Source to buy 15 9210s, with another four likely to be shipped when a new facility comes on line.

That kind of speed, and the associated throughput of these devices, puts a lot of stress on the machinery. Unless all the critical parts are up to the task, operating costs can quickly get out of control and lead to unhappy customers. Crit Driessen, Vice President, Strategy and Business Development, filled me in on one part of Océ's approach to this challenge. "We look at what the customer needs in terms of length of service of consumable parts like belts and drums. While it is more complex and technically harder to make these parts last for multiple millions of impressions, we are building that capability because it is what our customers need in terms of longevity and to reduce their TCO."

Still More Color

A Little Music with Your VarioPrint 6200

Open House Color was not limited to the 9240. Océ has cut an OEM deal with Konica Minolta to sell its own version of the 50-ppm KM's bizHUB 6500 Pro. Océ will have two models, the CS 620 and the CS650. Open House was the second time in less than a month that I had a chance to look at the output of this print engine. I saw it last month at the Konica Minolta dealer convention in New Orleans where I came away impressed with its near offset image quality and attractive pricing. Some people have referred to the machines of some Japanese manufacturers as "fast plastic," a reference to their lighter weight and large number of plastic parts under their skins. That is not the case with Konica Minoltas printers and my take is that this is an excellent machine for Océ's line-up --even some long time Océ engineers are pleased with how the machine is designed and built. The question, of course, is to what extent it will compete with Océ's seven-color CPS 800 and 900 machines. They target different markets, but there is always crossover in the world of mid-range digital color presses. That market, while crowded, seems to have room for many players with different attributes. Time will tell.

Big Color

For most people in this business, a less known fact about Océ is that it has a very significant presence in the wide format market, offering everything from monochrome printers for engineering and architectural apps to full color machines that print signs, banners and more. The latest device is the Arizona 250 GT, which sounds like either a potent ice tea drink or a very fast car. Instead, this is a big flat-bed printer designed to print on rigid material such as poster board, but you could easily slide doors, wallboard, and sheets of plywood or Plexiglas onto the table and hit print. The print quality is excellent. How good? Well, imagine your average desktop inkjet printer--the one you print family photos on--and scale it up so it fits in your garage. Except the ink drops stay small. We're talking pretty much photo quality, here. Nice. Very nice indeed.

Cut Sheet Speed

This Open House was also the launching pad for the newest versions of the VarioPrint 6000 line, the 6160 and 6200. These are slowed down versions of the 6250 model introduced last year, which delivers 250 duplex sheets per minute, the fastest cut sheet machine currently available. The new models, at 160 and 200 prints per minute, offer all the same features and have a variety of finishing options, but at lower entry fees. Océ is offering these for customers who don't need the throughput of the 6250 model or who are seeking lower price points. In true Océ fashion, both models are field upgradeable, and Océ envisions customers ordering a mix of 6000 models to add capacity, balance production demands, provide redundancy, and as a base for upgrades as volume dictates.

The New VarioPrint 6160

Also rolled out for the 6000 family was the new roll-feed system and sheeter for the 6250 which enables the machine to run for extended periods. With the roll feed connected, the machine still retains its ability to pull pre-printed pages from any paper tray and interpose them on the fly. The roll unit can be de-coupled as necessary, providing flexibility for short, moderate or long run lengths and production volumes.

A Small Pork Knuckle. Really!

OH 2008?

So, aside from the great snackage at the show, music, a bit of theatre, and proximity to the restaurants and beer halls of Munich, that's a quick look at Océ Open House 2007. As of the moment, it may be the last until 2009, as next year will bring us all once again to Drupa at the end of May. The quadrennial

Dusseldorf fair is such a massive undertaking for companies that Océ may forego Open House next year as it prepares for a big presence at Drupa. But Océ has other things planned between now and then, at least for U.S. customers and prospects, and I'll fill you in if I find out anything you need to hear.

Please offer your feedback to Noel. He can be reached at [email protected]

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