By Noel Ward, Managing Editor

There's an arms race taking place among the monochrome print engine vendors that is much like the ongoing horsepower wars of the auto manufacturers. Just as all the car makers keep rolling out vehicles with ever more powerful engines, digital presses and printers keep getting faster. And just as there are people who will choose a car because it has more power than another, high volume print providers consider speed when deciding on which machines to sign the lease deal. Because unlike with cars, the extra speed of digital presses can be put to use.

It's not that any of the high-end production machines on the market are exactly relegated to the slow lane. There are several big continuous-feed monochrome machines that comfortably produce well over 1,000 letter-size impressions per minute (two-up), but others are now running faster still. Three new machines from Océ are clearly at home in the left lane of the autobahn.

Océ VarioStream Speeds Up
The Océ VarioStream 9000 family of digital presses was launched four years ago as a core platform for extensive future development.  At the time, the message was that this line would be a key part of Océ's migration to color, and the fruition of that is the VarioStream 9240 announced in April and the ColorStream 10000 model shown at Graph Expo. But it turns out there's still more depth to this platform. The new VarioStream 9510, 9610 and 9710 bring new levels of speed to market, primarily targeting transactional printing and book production. The new models run at 1136, 1364, and 1515 U.S. letter-size images per minute, respectively, making them some of the fastest toner-based digital print engines available.

So fast, in fact, they would appear to compete with some of the company's VarioStream 7000 family (which can top 1300 ipm), but the machines actually serve different needs. The 9000 line is duplex by design and while highlight or full color can be added to a page, they cannot do MICR printing. The VS7000 models are simplex printers that must be run in tandem for duplex printing or when adding MICR toner or a single highlight color to a document. According to Mal Baboyian, president of Océ's Commercial Printing Division, the new VS9000 models are expected to find homes in Océ strongholds like service bureaus and book manufacturing, where the added throughput will help meet tight print windows. While an additional 100 or so pages per minute on an already fast machine might not seem like a big difference, it can be very important to a company running two or even three shifts per day and have demanding service level agreements. The incremental gains adds up fast, and when combined with good post-processing equipment, convert raw speed into productivity.

All the firms making this class of equipment say speed remains a critical component and decision factor, and all indications are that we'll see still greater print speeds in the near future. I'm already hearing about what we'll see at drupa from some of the key players, and it's a safe bet that speed will continue to be a draw for monochrome printing. Then there's color, engaged in its own arms race, but that's a story for another time.

What's interesting about HP
HP is perhaps the most interesting of companies in the print industry because it reaches into so many markets and niches--both commercial and consumer. With its big presence in IT, consumer, office, and commercial printing the company just seems to see things differently and more importantly, has an ability to share its thinking across the company. It makes them fun to watch.

Earlier this year, HP announced a new strategy called Print 2.0 which leverages the evolving concept of Web 2.0 in which the internet becomes a new means of communication and interaction for a global audience. So far, Print 2.0 focuses on three key areas:

Make it easier to print from websites such as blogs and travel sites, and bring new printing capabilities to online properties
Extend the company's digital content creation and publishing platforms --for example, Snapfish and Logoworks-- across customer segments spanning from consumers to enterprises
Deliver a digital printing platform that increases print speeds and lowers the cost of printing for high-volume commercial markets.

Many  of these points were addressed in Chicago, which was the first Graph Expo at which HP Indigo, HP Designjet and HP Scitex solutions are presented together in a single location," said Rich Raimondi, vice president and general manager for HP's U.S. Graphic Arts Organization. It is, after all, printing, and HP has made some significant upgrades to its product portfolio in the second part of this year. The key components where on the show floor for everyone to see. On the production printing side, the high points included:

The top-of-the-line HP Indigo press 5500, which delivers improved productivity and profit potential with increased compatibility with off-the-shelf media, fast replacement of spot color inks, and new print resolutions up to 1,200 dots per inch.

Next is the company's first branded finishing accessory, the HP Indigo UV Coater. This is no minor addition to the product line. Being able to provide UV coatings on digital prints is vital for image durability on applications such as marketing collateral, photography and direct mail. Availability of a HP-branded coating option is a productivity advantage with the potential to streamline workflows at HP Indigo shops. In fact, mere availability of this device may help sell some Indigo presses.
Third is the new HP Indigo press 3500. This box provides something HP has needed: a new entry-level digital production press at a price point attractive for those looking to start digital printing or upgrade from color copiers. And yes, it does 7-color printing, just like its big brother, and has Pantone emulation. It runs at 68-ppm in color and 136 in black-only.

Also on the print engine side was the HP CM8050/8060 Color MFPs with Edgeline Technology. These aren't production machines but still bear mentioning. Coming out of the company's $1.4 billion investment in Scalable Printing Technology, Edgeline is a new ink jet print engine that could very well become the archrival of toner based printing, and these smaller office-class machines are just the first troops hitting the beach. They are presently intended to give enterprise and small to midsize business users faster print speeds, attractive operating costs, and excellent print quality. Keep a close watch on this technology. Given the way HP works, sooner or later, it could be coming to a production print engine near you.

The Bump Factor
Kemal Carr of Madison Advisors measures how busy a show is by The Bump Factor --how many people you bump up against as you walk across the show floor. "In Chicago," he says, "the Bump Factor seemed pretty high."

That Bump Factor proved true with a final tally of 20,285 verified attendees. That's the bottom line once you take out all the exhibitor staffs and free-loading press, consultant, and analyst types. It's about 3% more than 2006, but more telling was the overall sense of busy-ness on the floor. Shows that start on a Sunday often have a soft first day because there's lots better things to do on a weekend --even for out-of-towners-- than go to a trade show. But Graph Expo was reasonably busy on opening day, and both Monday and Tuesday saw steady crowds on the show floor. Even Wednesday, when the kids from trade schools descend on McCormick Place to scarf up all the posters and other tchotchkes, there was still good "real" traffic. I know I sure bumped into a lot of them rushing around that morning before heading to O'Hare.

To my mind, the traffic and energy at Graph Expo 2007 is important to this industry. Every vendor I spoke with was very positive on the traffic at the show, pleased with the volume of leads generated, and found many visitors to their stands to be in "buying mode" as opposed to kicking tires. That bodes well for 2008 and its two early shows, Graphics of the Americas and On Demand, as well as for drupa in June. And looking to next fall, Chris Price, VP and General Manager of the show tells me Graph Expo 2008 (Oct. 26-29) is already 80% reserved, further proof that this year's show was a success for the companies paying the freight.

And that's a wrap for us here at WTT. We still have plenty of Graph Expo video interviews to come and there are other reports and stories that'll grow out of the show, so stay tuned. And as for shows we'll be back before long.