On a recent assignment to cover the installation of a Kodak PROSPER 5000XL digital color inkjet press at Mercury Print Productions, we also had the opportunity to review another digital print solution from Kodak—the NexPress color production platform, which has just entered its SX generation. Seeing it in action was a reminder that while inkjet systems have tended to snare most of the attention from the graphic arts trade media of late, there’s still plenty of technical innovation to write about on the toner-based side as well.

R&D and manufacturing for the NexPress are carried out at Kodak’s Manitou technical facility in Rochester, NY. There, Kodak engineers have crammed the latest iteration of NexPress with features aimed at satisfying the most stringent demands for quality and productivity that any high-end print application is likely to involve. Particularly impressive are the platform’s expanded color gamut and its dry-ink special effects—advantages that digital inkjet systems limited to basic CMYK can’t duplicate.

Last month, Kodak announced the commercial availability of the NexPress SX, a new version that equips the platform to print larger formats at higher speeds with finer detail. Shipping in both standard and photo-specific configurations, NexPress SX models can run four colors of dry ink plus ink or coating from a fifth imaging unit at A4/letter speeds up to 131 ppm.

An optional long-sheet feeder enables the NexPress SX platform to handle sheets as large as 14" x 26", boosting its productivity in the commercial and photo printing applications for which it was designed. In that format, it rivals the 14.33" x 26" Xerox iGen4 EXP, displayed at Graph Expo last year.

The five-color capability of the NexPress SX isn’t unique among toner-based presses. Some of the competitive HP Indigo models can print up to seven colors in a single pass, and a fifth-station option is available for Xerox’s Color 800/1000 equipment. But, the fifth imaging unit of the NexPress SX adds versatility of its own by dispensing not just additional color in the form of a new 6-micron dry ink, but also a clear coating that creates an unusual dimensional effect.

Used for dry ink, the fifth unit can mix red, green, or blue toner with the CMYK for Pantone builds and other color-matching requirements. For photo-quality reproduction, it also can lay down a light black dry ink; for checks and documents, MICR; and for security and novelty applications, a fluorescing red ink that glows vividly under ultraviolet light.

When the fifth imaging unit is employed as an inline coater, it becomes analogous to a UV unit used for that purpose on an offset litho press. A type of toner that Kodak calls Dimensional Clear Dry Ink overprints the page, fusing to create a raised effect similar to thermography but with much more tactile authenticity than the older, offline process. Like UV coating, the dimensional treatment adds value to the piece by protecting its surface and enhancing its visual impact.

Standard papers supplied from twin feeders can range in weight from 40-lb offset to 18-pt board—the latter heavy enough for packaging. Label stock, transparencies, foils, synthetics, and other specialty substrates also can be processed on the NexPress SX. The press perfects by means of an inverter belt that resembles a helix of red tubing: the sheet flips at the point where the loops cross for smooth, efficient second-side printing.

Although mechanically complex, the NexPress platform is built for extensive on-site maintenance and parts replacement. Kodak says, for example, that operators using simple tools can change an imaging drum or a blanket cylinder in about 15 minutes. Operator-replaceable parts eliminate the need for about 90% of typical service calls, according to Kodak.

Printing static or variable content at 600 dpi, the NexPress SX is thoroughly endowed with advanced software controls. It is the first digital press, says Kodak, to support Adobe PDF Print Engine 2.5, a VDP workflow architecture. Kodak furnishes “Print Genius,” a suite of software modules and other features that optimize image quality and assure consistency. With Print Genius’s help the platform can, among other functions, monitor and automatically modify color using inline densitometry; walk operators through diagnostic and corrective procedures; and self-adjust to unique substrate characteristics.

The NexPress SX platforms (3900, 3300, and 2700, each also available as a photo press) follow the smaller-format SE series (3600, 3000, and 2500). Kodak has engineered the entire NexPress line for backward compatibility as a benefit of ownership, enabling older models to be field-upgraded to more recent capabilities. Kodak says that its technicians can turn a NexPress SE into a NexPress SX in an afternoon. Vintage NexPress Plus models can advance to SE (but not SX) status after about two and a half days of refitting.

The NexPress platform has a long pedigree in the digital print equipment marketplace, having premiered at drupa 2000 after several years of joint development by Kodak and an offset press manufacturer that later exited the partnership. Kodak won’t disclose the number of NexPress units it has sold since the device first began shipping in 2001.

The company does say, however, that the base price of the top-of-the-line NexPress SX3900 is $682,000 and that the NexPress Photo 3900, with a photo front end and other photo-specific features, is $722,000. Ownership plans can be based either on click charges or on consumables used.

Prices, running speeds, features, and options vary by model. Kodak will promote the NexPress SX at its booth (2018) at Graph Expo 2011.