In Boca Raton, Florida this week Océ North America upped the ante in the ultra-high speed printing game. Hosting an audience of about 40 or so industry analysts and press types, Océ rolled out two new continuous feed printing systems, that significantly expand the range of products the company offers.
First up is the VarioStream 8000, which I'll cover in more detail in a later article. The 8000 shares the monochrome, highlight color or MICR capabilities of the 7000 line --a system recognized as a continuous-feed workhorse in the transaction print industry-- but also adds the graphic arts print quality of the VarioStream 9000 line. This machine offers customers the ability to use a single system in single, twin or triplex configurations, for a broader range of documents. According to Océ, which has a history of designing and building products to meet known customer needs, the 8000 meets the requirements of customers who need maximum flexibility from their print engines across a broad range of applications in commercial, corporate and graphic arts. It is not intended to replace either the 7000 or 9000 line, both of which continue as key players in Océ's product line-up. But the 8000 is not the big news.
It can be quite advantageous to be the third player to enter a market because you have the advantage of seeing how the market responds to the offerings of the first companies coming up to bat.
Enter the JetStream
That comes in the rather substantial form of the new Océ JetStream 1100 and 2200 inkjet printers. The JetStream is a 500 feet-per-minute drop-on-demand continuous-feed machine that can be configured as a single or dual engine system with the capacity to handle 18 million linear feet of paper per month. That's over 3400 miles of paper per month or some 60 million impressions.
Unlike some other inkjet printers on the market, that paper can range from the same rolls that run in Océ's electrophotographic printers to newsprint to thin 40-lb stocks. The ability to run "regular" paper should be very appealing to print providers who want the speed and color of inkjet devices but have been hesitant to take on the challenges of putting a wet ink --rather than dry toner-- on their customers' bills, statements and other high volume documents. Several service bureaus I know well have looked closely at the inkjet technology presently available, even testing it in their shops, and all have come away unwilling to take on the challenges of putting ink on a page, especially when the quality needed comes with more expensive papers. For them, this requirement has made other inkjet systems non-starters.
"Being able to use plain paper was an absolute requirement," says Guy Broadhurst, vice president of product marketing at Océ Production Printing Systems. "Our customers often have multiple continuous feed toner-based systems and don't want to have to buy and stock a special paper for an inkjet machine. With the JetStream they will be able to use the same paper they are accustomed to. That could be $350 per roll electrophotographic paper, or an expensive stock for a specialized direct mail application. But it is always a standard paper that does not need a coating or other preparation to handle the ink."
Not surprisingly, a system capable of running tens of millions of impressions per month needs some significant potential markets. Océ sees those as direct mail and transactional documents, and the growing convergence of those, trans-promo. Transactional documents have been an Océ stronghold for many years, and direct mailers have begun turning to Océ for the flexibility its systems offer, a trend likely to continue as the company's VarioStream 9240 and ColorStream 10000 toner-based systems come on line 2008. The JetStream family is a big step up, but its capabilities are ones customers have been asking for. As Mal Baboyian, president of Océ Production Printing Systems explained to me, "Our customers both here North America and in Europe have been asking for more speed and productivity to meet the volume requirements of their customers and businesses. And they've been asking for color. Inkjet provides all of those and the JetStream family provides the power they need to capture new business."
Océ sees the potential markets as direct mail and transactional documents, and the growing convergence of those, trans-promo.
Speeds and Feeds
The JetStream comes in two flavors, the 1100 single-engine system and a 2200 dual-engine version, both using a tight web and paper up to 20.5" wide with a printable area of 20.3' wide. In the 1100, full process color comes at 492 feet per minute which translates into 1,074 letter-size impressions per minute in a two-up simplex format. The 1100 can also deliver the same number of impressions in a one-up duplex format using a narrow web (9.5") in which the paper is rotated using turn bars. The two-engine 2200 model prints at up to 500 fpm to produce 2,148 letter-size impressions per minute in a two-up duplex format. The 1100 model is field-upgradeable to a 2200 version.
The JetStream uses Océ's new SRA IPDS controller to run IPDS and AFP natively, so the new system should fit well with industry standard production workflows as well as the rigorous demands and data-rates of high-speed full-color printing. This should make it easier for customers to integrate variable personalization and even trans-promo documents into IPDS production processes--presently a sticking point for some companies wishing to implement these techniques. According to Océ, IPDS and AFP are just the beginning, reflecting the initial needs of the market. PDF and PostScript are not far behind and should be available before much longer.
Verification Built In
With statements coming off a JetStream at rapid pace, an error, such as a mis-matching of data between one side of a statement and the other, could be all but catastrophic. To avoid such disasters, the JetStream features a patented data synchronization technology to ensure the front and back pages will match.
High speed also raises the challenge of measuring print quality. Stopping the printer would obviously hinder productivity, so the JetStream uses (optional) integrated verification cameras that can view any portion of a page so operators can check print quality without stopping the machine.
The JetStream is not about to threaten the territory of iGens, Indigos, or NexPress digital presses, nor is it intended to.
And Then There's Print Quality
Inkjet can work well for putting out pages at a high-rate of speed, but quality tends to suffer. This is not really a big deal because the documents produced don't require anything much beyond what is usually called "pleasing" or "business" color. The JetStream is not about to threaten the territory of iGens, Indigos, or NexPress digital presses, nor is it intended to. But I was surprised at just how good it is --significantly better than the output I've seen from the Kodak VersaMark and InfoPrint 5000 systems. The real comparison will come from seeing the same images produced on all the various devices, and for real jobs, but for the moment at least, the JetStream wins the image quality battle in my humble opinion. The colors I saw in samples were bright , solids looked good and details were more than acceptable for the typical range of applications this system will be used for.
Some of quality comes from the front end, but where the ink finally hits the paper it’s the job of the JetStream's DigiDot piezoelectric drop-on-demand print heads that deliver 600 x 600 dpi images using variable sized droplets of ink ranging from 7 to 15 picoliters. Varying the size of the drop results in higher quality images and smoother halftones, while using less ink and producing less waste. Using less ink also reduces the likelihood of paper curl --a problem with inkjet printing-- which should make post-processing more reliable.
Consider also that 7 to 15 picoliters is a seriously tiny drop, especially given the speed at which the ink is being deposited on the paper. Competing equipment uses drops several times this size and drop size is going to be a key aspect of the battle for print quality in the high-speed ink jet game. Word on the street is that Kodak will be also sporting some very small drop sizes as it rolls out its Stream technology, so expect the drop-size battle to heat up. In so many things, size really does matter.
Finally, it all comes down to workflow. No one who invests in a JetStream is going to be new to digital printing. They'll have farms of DocuTechs, DocuPrints, VarioStreams, InfoPrints or other high-end production systems. And they'll all have workflows, either commercially developed, homegrown, or both. Coming from Océ, the JetStream is designed to work with PRISMA, Océ's award-winning workflow software, just like the company's other continuous-feed printers transactional and direct. While operator's will have to be trained to run the big inkjet box, handling the transactional, direct mail and trans-promo jobs coming across the network will be pretty much the same as if they were being printed on a VarioStream 7000, 9000 or the new 8000 model.
"It's a big machine," says Guy Broadhurst, "but in terms of fitting it into a company's workflow, it's really plug-and-play if they are already running other Océ systems and using PRISMA software."
As you might expect, the speed and performance of the JetStream does not come cheap. The dual configuration has a list price well north of $5 million, but considering its speed and a variety of productivity features --and the pricing of other top-of-the-line inkjet systems, it's certainly in the range printers will expect to pay to produce the types of variable data, full-color monthly volumes this system is capable of handling. Like any high-end system, it is not for every print shop, but there is certainly a market for these devices and print providers with high volume requirements have already indicated interest in the system.
It can be quite advantageous to be the third player to enter a market because you have the advantage of seeing how the market responds to the offerings of the first companies coming up to bat. In Océ's case, they have seen how customers have responded to the challenges of adopting inkjet as a production printing technology, and done the extra R & D necessary to address some of those. That's largely behind Océ's use of piezo drop on demand head technology, the ability of the JetStream to use plain paper, print IPDS natively, and integration of proven workflow software into its initial product offering.
There are certain to be some significant announcements in ultra high-speed inkjet at (or even before) drupa. In fact, Kodak is rumored to be making an announcement next week, perhaps regarding new capabilities of their Versamark systems. The game goes on, and there are moving targets everywhere, but for the moment, the JetStream looks to be the next generation of this class of machine.