Now that I have had a chance to recoup from the marathon called drupa, I wanted to share some thoughts and highlights. I have been to eight drupa’s since my first one in 1986. As a result, I have been witness to many developments that have impacted our industry over that time, including the move from analog design and prepress to digital, the first wave of digital electrophotographic presses, and many other incremental developments that have led us to where we are today. But for me, drupa 2016 showed more promise for the future of graphic arts than any of the others I can remember. I would even go so far as to call it a watershed event, although it really did take years of incremental and parallel development efforts in many areas to get to this point. 

The excitement at Messe Düsseldorf during the show was palpable. While the total visitor count for the show was down from 2012, this was mostly attributable to the shortened length of the show. In fact, the visitors per day count this year was actually up on most days. More importantly, the vendors had very innovative products that are much more compatible with the future and the changing requirements of print production and content distribution. And for the attendees, there was not just a willingness to purchase; in many cases they did it with a vengeance, planning new directions and retooling of complete plants of equipment.

True Digital End-to-End Workflow is Here

This excitement was in part driven by the availability of ‘true digital’ end to end workflow and equipment solutions and processes. This starts with the design process, and continues through to order entry, plant scheduling, automated or semi-automated production, from print through finishing, tracking, shipping and invoicing. And the interesting and perhaps more important part is that, while this could be done with single vendor systems in the past, now it can be accomplished with disparate systems and equipment. This is increasingly crucial, since demand for purpose design systems is increasing, and would usually require a multi vendor approach.

Production Inkjet Takes On a New Life but Offset is Not Dead

Continuous feed web production inkjet solutions were there in volume, and as expected and written about in my production inkjet series, they are ready to support a much broader base of applications beyond transaction and direct mail. However, while the arrival of production inkjet for use beyond its historic transactional, direct mail and book markets was apparent throughout the show, it was not just in continuous feed web presses; there were also multiple sheetfed solutions. Heidelberg showed impressive results with its Primefire B1 sheetfed production aqueous based inkjet press, although the company also showed its XL 106 Offset press make ready and print of three 16 page forms in about 7.5 minutes. With that kind of performance, I would expect Heidelberg will be selling offset presses for a while. There were other sheetfed production inkjet presses being offered for sale and delivery. In aqueous based inkjet they also include the B2 Fujifilm JPress 720S, the A3 Canon Océ VarioPrint i300, and the new Xerox Brenva B3+ press. Additionally, we were introduced to the Canon Voyager, a surprise technology demo. This 7- color B2 sheetfed ‘offset’ production inkjet press was running at 3000 sph and producing photographic quality print on a wide variety of untreated substrates. I am looking forward to seeing where Canon takes this. In the “almost ready for primetime, but not shipping in the very near future” category, we also saw the Landa portfolio of aqueous based inkjet presses up and running. Konica Minolta and Komori showed co-developed UV based sheetfed production inkjet presses. Komori showed its Ipremia IS29, while Konica Minolta officially launched the B2 format AccurioJet KM-1. Konica Minolta also showed a technology demo of a B1 format press, the KM-C. 

Taking Ink to the Next Level

If you have been reading my articles on production inkjet, you know ink that will support lots of non-treated substrates, especially offset coated, has been one of the constraints to rapid adoption. We are finally starting to see significant developments in inks that can print on untreated offset coated stocks, most recently with the introduction of the new Xerox High Fusion inks on its continuous feed Trivor web press, and Canon with its latest ink set available on the ColorStream. We expect to see more availability of these type of ink advancements from the other press manufacturers, although as in offset there will probably always need to be specific inks or pretreatment for certain types of media. Even the latest press offerings from HP Indigo can include media pretreatment support. 

Digital Direct to Corrugated was Hot

The diversity and volume of production inkjet corrugated press applications was a bit of a surprise, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense. Corrugated board is more economical than SBS and other folding carton substrates, and even more so if you can eliminate the need to double box a product for shipping. A range of corrugated solutions were shown, by EFI, HP, Durst, and others.

Suppliers Teaming Up for Unique Hybrid Solutions

To address the growing application purpose design requirement, there were many hybrid solutions that combined different printing processes, and/or printing and finishing processes. There were many on the floor, but a couple of examples are the new build to order B1 format KBA VariJET 106 Folding Carton press powered by Xerox, and the HP Indigo Digital Combination press, designed for flexible packaging production. With the increased availability of modular OEM inkjet component solutions from Kodak, HP, Xerox, Memjet and Xaar, there were lots of unique application specific solutions shown, and we can expect many more to come. I will be reporting about Xaar and taking a fresh look at Memjet over the next few months. This new availability is really driving tools for mass customization.

Integrating Print Into Packaging Lines

In line with application purpose design, one of the more interesting trends to watch will be the integration of print solutions directly into packaging lines. Historically the production model was that you print labels offline and apply them inline on a container as a part of the product manufacturing process. Now we are seeing solutions either directly or as OEM products from Agfa, Heidelberg, HP, Xerox, and many others, that actually print directly on the packaging regardless of the shape or material. This opens up an entirely new flexibility for consumer product companies to deliver smaller and more targeted products to the market.

Beyond Pure Print Production

But this hybridization trend goes beyond the print production process. Dalim, Agfa, and Xerox all showed solutions that support multi-channel publishing from print PDF files. We are also starting to see it in the development of fairly narrow scope application-specific pressroom management software, as an alternative to full blown MIS or Workflow systems. An interesting example is a cloud based standalone solution from SpencerMetrics for measuring productivity in the pressroom. This new modular approach to business and production management is also evident in a solution from Ironsides Technology, which focuses on production tracking. Of course, applications like Enfocus Switch make the integration of these and many other new modular solutions much easier.

Less Hype … More Reality

As is always the case with drupa, it is important to separate the hype from the reality of what is being shown and said. I was surprised to see that while there were a lot of ‘technical demonstrations’ of new concepts, the vast majority of products and solutions shown were either available for sale and delivery today or planned to be available within the next 6 months. This means that the industry is poised to go through some major transformation, again…

And what are you to do?

For those of you who have been sitting on the sidelines waiting for the right time to jump in and look at retooling your workflows to support the new market requirements, you should be aware that many have already made the jump. As evidenced by the drupa 2016 excitement, there are very viable solutions that exist today offering true end-to-end digital workflows. There will always be a new solution developed and offered next month, or next year, but there are many companies who have already started to prepare and even implement these forward-looking solutions.

More to Come …

Even more exciting is that drupa 2016 was not the end of this new wave of innovation, but just the beginning. Beyond the hype, and exhibits that were behind black curtains for the select few to see, there are many more products and solutions that never even made it to Düsseldorf. I will continue to present those to you as the information becomes public so that you can make informed decisions about the future of your business. 

I will be bringing you more detailed information as we have done in the past to review in greater detail the solutions shown at drupa, to help you prepare for your investigation into production inkjet and other investments. As a refresher, I would suggest that you do a ‘review’ of the original production inkjet and workflow series. It not only covers the vendors and machines that have made it to market, but also the driving technology, requirements and impediments.