Whatever may be happening to the demand for print, Graph Expo 2011 made one thing abundantly clear: never before have printers had as many options as they now possess for adding beauty, charisma, and value to a piece of paper. But is this mere irony, or is it a fresh opportunity?

On the one hand, there's no disputing the accuracy of an observation made by Vince Lapinski, CEO of manroland, in a media briefing during the show. "Printing has become commoditized," he said. "It's a shame, but it has." Fair enough. But maybe the "shame" lies in not bragging about it.  

If commoditization has occurred, it's precisely because the technologies developed by manroland and all of the other Graph Expo exhibitors have made it relatively easy to print and finish nearly everything superlatively well. The defect-free sameness of the product is both the bad news and the good news about its almost universally high quality.

That's the ironic part. The opportunity springs from the urgency of sharing the message-minus the irony-with creatives, brand owners, media planners, and other marketing-spend influencers who should know, if they do not already, that when it comes to what print can do for them and their multi-channel promotional campaigns, they have never had it so good.

A new emphasis by the Graphic Arts Show Company (GASC) on special-interest areas within the Chicago shows goes part of the way toward giving the news the broader exposure it deserves. Graph Expo 2012 could take a bigger stride in this direction with a pavilion where high-value pieces speak for themselves in a setting dedicated to celebrating the aesthetics of print-a  theme that tends to get lost in the techno-centric atmosphere of the McCormick Place events.

Perhaps creating such a pavilion and making sure that the right people see it could be an agenda item for the "unified print advocacy program" that The Print Council and several other pro-print groups talked about during a strategy meeting at the show on September 13.

Attendance figures and exhibitor reactions from Graph Expo 2011 remain to be reported. Our personal take on the show is that it was one of the most educationally rewarding visits we've made to Chicago in years. Capsules from our card of booth meetings and media briefings follow. There's more news at the show site and of course, right here at WhatTheyThink.

"Massive change" in the print marketplace has made it tougher for printers to justify spending on new equipment, said Lapinski in the remarks cited above. At Graph Expo, his goal was to position manroland offset presses as wise investments for the new, less forgiving reality in which the printing industry is now trying to find its way.

The way to see manroland equipment during Graph Expo was to take a side trip to the company's demo center in nearby Westmont, IL, where the show special was an 18,000-sph Roland 700 HiPrint High Speed press-soon to be delivered to Stephenson Printing of Alexandria, VA. Configured in six colors with coater and UV curing, the 740 mm x 1050 mm (29.13" x 41.33") machine is built for automated makereadies and rapid changeovers. "I'm really looking forward to the press," declared its new owner, George Stephenson, on hand for a manroland media briefing at McCormick Place.

Describing the market for VLF presses "a very exciting business now," Lapinski noted that among manroland's latest offerings to it are a perfecting version of the 73" Roland 900 XXL; and a seven-unit, 56" Roland 907-6 (size 6) press built to the specifications of Zumbiel Packaging, Hebron, KY, which took delivery in April.  

The newspaper press market remains strong outside North America, said Lapinski, adding that heatset- and UV-hybridized web presses from manroland are bringing "almost magazine quality" to newspaper production. The company is supporting its newspaper customers with the newly-launched pressupdate program, which includes on-site upgrading of existing newspaper equipment. The initiative can be expanded to cover manroland commercial webs, Lapinski said.

Graph Expo marked the start of the North American phase of the strategic partnership announced by manroland and digital print systems manufacturer Océ last December. The alliance lets manroland offer its customers inkjet presses  from Océ as part of a comprehensive package of products and services.

The details, including sales responsibilities, are still being worked out. But, Lapinski said the partnership would be a collaborative effort "with the contract being with manroland in the majority of cases."

The partnership calls for consulting, systems, services, and materials to be provided by a single source. "We'll be more than just a distributor of Océ's product," Lapinski said.

Color specialist GMG offers to assist wide-format production with PrintFactory, an integrated workflow product it co-developed with Aurelon (acquired by GMG this year). Jim Summers, president of GMG Americas, described PrintFactory as an all-in-one workflow solution that supports design, prepress, proofing, output, cutting, and finishing in wide-format applications.

PrintFactory is available both in an entry-level version and in an advanced package, PrintFactory GMG Edition, that also contains high-end color management tools from GMG. It can be purchased fully bundled with all functions or as modules of the customer's choosing.

One unique aspect of PrintFactory, Summers said, is its "floating licenses" capability: a feature that lets the software follow a project's workload and activate licensed seats wherever tasks need to be performed, shutting down unused workstations. The load-balancing is aided by a production editor module that builds an instruction list of necessary steps to take. Summers said that PrintFactory's PDF-based, JDF-compliant workflow can drive about 450 wide-format devices and 250 cutters.

Introduced by GMG at Graph Expo was GMG P3 System, a proof / prototype / print solution that permits two-sided, fully registered contract proofing on actual production stocks. The proofing device is an automatic sheet-feeding, 30" UV inkjet printer by Roland DGA; GMG software provides a color-managed match to whichever printing method will be used. P3 is the alternative to costly press proofs that many print customers have long hoped for, Summers said.  

Graph Expo afforded Konica Minolta an ideal opportunity to publicize a technical milestone: the designation of its bizhub PRESS C8000 as the first digital press to receive  Digital Press Certification from IDEAlliance. This is a declaration that the press consistently can meet the production requirements of IDEAlliance's GRACoL color reproduction specifications.

Kevin Kern, senior vice president - marketing, Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A., said that the designation, achieved after several weeks of testing, gives "legitimacy" to the idea of combining digital and conventional systems in the same production environment. He added that three of every four bizhub C8000 presses that Konica Minolta sells are bought by commercial printers, a group that understands the significance of IDEAlliance certification.

Although it manufactures piezo inkjet heads and has developed an inkjet press for textile printing, Konica Minolta does not have an inkjet press for graphic reproduction. It does, however, have a partnership with Screen to market such a system, and that suite of devices was on display in the Konica Minolta booth at Graph Expo.

The fully integrated production line consisted of a pair of variable-data Screen Truepress Jet520 inkjet engines (one per printed side) fed by a Hunkeler winder and connected to a saddlestitched book finishing equipment from Standard Horizon. With a maximum print width of 19 ¾", the 420-fpm system is said to be capable of producing 6,000 saddle-stitched booklets per hour. The line, first seen at On Demand in March, has not yet been installed in the U.S., but Kern said that there has been a great deal of interest in it on the part of Konica Minolta's bizhub customers.

Anyone interested in digitally controlled, short-run label and package production did well to visit the EskoArtwork stand, where a Kongsberg i-XE10 Auto automated cutting table was in operation throughout the show. Its bar-code reading i-cut Vision Pro software automatically matches cutting patterns to layouts imported from Adobe Illustrator and other software for package design. i-cut Vision Pro also reads registration marks and, if necessary, adjusts the cutting path to compensate for any misalignment that may have occurred.

The dieless Kongsberg i-XE10 Auto can cut, strip, and blank labels and packaging forms from sheet or roll stock at speeds up to 65 linear inches per minute, depending on the intricacy of the cut. iCut's fully variable cutting capability lets each repeat be a different design. Stocks as thick as C-flute corrugated (1/8") can be processed, making the system suitable for package prototyping as well as customized short runs.

Vitaly M. Golomb, founder and CEO of Keen Systems, knows the graphic communications business well, having run a family-owned printing firm and a multinational design and marketing agency. He has spent the last three years distilling that experience into Keen, a print-specific e-commerce platform that had its formal launch at Graph Expo.

Golomb is positioning Keen as a turnkey, end-to-end e-commerce engine that also provides tools for CRM (customer relationship management) on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) basis. Keen is unique among Web-to-print solutions, Golomb says, in its quick setup, its highly flexible configurability, its ease of use, and the quality of the end-user experience it offers.

For various monthly fees, Keen lets printers create and personalize storefronts without limits on the number of users, customers, files stored, or orders transacted. Tools for search engine optimization, billing, and fulfillment also are built in. Keen should be integrable, said Golomb, with most of the MIS currently used by print shops.

Canon and Océ exhibited jointly to showcase their newly combined prowess in electrophotographic and inkjet digital printing. Embodying the synergy was a toner-based, cut-sheet book production setup that paired a Canon imagePRESS C7010VPS and an Océ VarioPrint 6320 Ultra-the Canon device for color covers, the Océ platform for interior pages with inline finishing.

Océ also premiered the ColorStream 3500, a 1,073-ppm color inkjet production system that was to be shipped from Graph Expo to its new owner, the direct marketing services provider SourceLink. Canon demonstrated the recently introduced DreamLabo 5000, a photo printer that, according to the manufacturer, produces color prints rivaling silver-halide processing in quality.

Océ decorated part of its booth space with pizza-shop themed materials produced on an Arizona flatbed UV inkjet printer, its platform for signage and display graphics. With the help of droplet-manipulating VarioDot technology, Arizona can do with just four colors what other flatbeds need an extended gamut of five or six colors to accomplish, Océ says. A Océ ProCut finishing system provided precision knife cutting.

Continue reading Part 2 here