One of the highlights of the recent drupa, and no doubt also of the forthcoming GraphExpo, is the arrival of all the new inkjet presses in both continuous feed and sheeted formats. At drupa apart from one or two of these we were really looking at previews of these presses and few were yet ready for delivery to the market. One of the most impressive of these new inkjet presses was the HP Inkjet Web Press as it was the largest, fastest and lowest cost of all those being shown.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the HP annual analyst and press event in San Diego at which the company further developed its Print 2.0 strategy. At this HP announced a number of new partnerships mainly for growing the demand for printing on its desktop printers. These included an agreement with both MySpace and MTV to integrate HP printing technology across multiple areas and to encourage the young web users to print. It also added new functionality and branding to its Logoworks operation by the introduction of MarketSplash. This structure is designed to help SMBs (Small and Medium Businesses) to compete with online offerings for the creation and production of many forms of printed material.

For me however the highlight of this event was an invitation afterwards to visit the HP facility at Corvallis, Oregon. This is HP’s center of excellence for inkjet and the location where the new HP Inkjet Web Press is being built. As I stated before I felt the Inkjet Web Press was one of the highlights of the recent drupa event so I welcomed the opportunity to get an update on the development of this press. At drupa HP showed what was a demonstration of what was seen as a new category of product rather than just a technical demonstration of capabilities. This press is built using HP’s Scalable Printing Technology of thermal inkjet printheads. The press at drupa showed that this technology could be used to produce units where multiple heads were stitched together to provide almost any single pass print width. The press at drupa printed a 36-inch wide web whereas HP stated the first production presses would be printing a 30-inch wide web.

What I saw at Corvallis more than impressed me that HP is on the right track to produce real market winning products with the current and future versions of the Inkjet Web Press. When I entered the area where the first presses were being tested it felt more like I was entering a large-scale web offset printing operation with a number of large presses working.  Among them were 30-inch wide presses, whereas another press was a 20-inch wide machine used for testing substrates, inks and future technology concepts. One of the 30-inch width production presses is due to be shipped in December to the first beta customer O’Neil Data Systems in Los Angeles. O’Neil will act as a collaborating partner working together with HP to evaluate the workings of the system in real production conditions. All of these presses were running at a web speed of 400 ft/minute.

While the new 30-inch width presses looking similar to the press shown at drupa there were many key changes in the product. The press still used five separate inkjet print arrays, each comprising two sets of printheads to provide massive nozzle redundancy. Four of these arrays are for the four printing colors of CMYK, and the fifth is for the special ink-bonding agent that is unique to this press. This agent that is imaged before the ink only at the exact positions where ink is to be printed and it stops the ink penetrating into the fibres of the paper. This reduces show through and also gives a much brighter and sharper image on the paper. There is however another very major benefit of this that has been ascertained after drupa and which makes the HP Inkjet Web Press unique compared with all the competitive inkjet web presses from other suppliers. Testing of inkjet printed output from all these presses show that the output from the HP Inkjet Web Press is suitable for paper recycling. It appears from testing by the Ingede organization in Germany (the international organization of the deinking industry) that this bonding agent appears to turn the ink into hydrophobic particles that allows them to float off the paper in the deinking process. The ink printed on other inkjet presses remains water-soluble and is proving very difficult to remove from the paper in deinking without leaving the paper colored. This assessment by Ingede was based upon testing of samples collected from many of the new inkjet presses shown at drupa. HP’s position is that it has a number of approaches at their disposal using these chemistries that show signs of improved performance. They are in the process of characterizing and determining which approach is best, and are actively driving and participating in de-inking strategies in the industry.

Some of the key new developments on the HP Inkjet Web Press included the following.

  • The press has a very high volume ink handling and management system. At drupa the press was shown taking ink from 4-gallon size containers. The production presses have a separate ink system where the ink and bonding agent is supplied in 100-liter sized drums, and even larger drums can be used where required. This however is not a new development for HP. It is based upon technology that HP has developed for the production of inkjet cartridges for all their other desktop and enterprise printers. This ink system can be in a separate area from the press, so multiple presses in one operation could have all their ink systems in a common area.
  • A second major development is in the press control systems. At drupa the press was running static pages held on disk. The production presses have a high performance digital front end made up of multiple HP Blade servers. The RIP facility runs on this. On the system I saw running in Corvallis 140 concurrent RIPs were running on what I believe was around 60 processors to prove that the press was capable of handling 2,200 unique and highly complex pages every minute. (To put this speed into context and show just how fast this is, I remember in the late 1980s where Seybold Publications was running the PostScript speed tests, how euphoric we all were when our single Musicians test page was first ripped in less than 10 minutes). This control system makes use of the HP SmartStream Print Server technology that was introduced at drupa on the HP Indigo presses. After ripping the data is held in the HP ripped data format and is then passed to the press control system to feed data to all the imaging units.
  • The link from the press control system to the press is via fibre optics links with individual fibres going to each print head. The structure of this allows the SmartStream Server and the press control system to be remotely sited from the press. This can be more than 1 kilometer away. This allows for the press control center to be in a separate location from the pres if required.

One of the claims by HP of the benefits of the Inkjet Web Press is that it leverages on all the developments of the company in inkjet technology. This is shown in the fact that the print heads are the same as those used in a number of other HP products such as the new HP Designjet L65500 printer and the HP 8050/8060 MFP. While in Corvallis for a technology visit I had discussions on some of the plans for the future of Scalable Printing Technology. It can be seen from this that the HP Inkjet Presses that will start volume shipping in 2009 will be the first of a family of products. One can expect ongoing developments to include printing on coated and other substrates, printing with special inks, printing in higher resolutions and even printing at higher speeds.

The HP team running this project emphasized to me that their immediate approach is to focus on the success with the customers that have been selected for 2009, rather than spreading their resources too thinly. This strategy is to put a solutions development team with each of their customers and to put tremendous focus on their implementation success in this new category of digital printing.