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Technological Developments — More Changes Reshaping the Industry

January 2008 By William C. Lamparter
Print has become a digital-centric process with software, the glue that controls and holds the diverse elements of print production together. As traditional printing processes decline in volume, digitalography is growing with a developing technology race among the diverse strains of digital output (as is detailed in the January issue of Printing Impressions).

This PI e-posting picks up where the print article left off with the forecast of a process race between toner and ink-jet digital printing. Product showing and announcements at Drupa 08 in May will serve as a process competitive benchmark in the race, which really seriously started at Graph Expo ’07, continues with the pre-Drupa analysts and trade press briefings, into the Düsseldorf fairgrounds and the two weeks of the global print superstore operations.

During the four years between Drupa ’08 and the global show’s next outing in 2012, the two digital processes will offer often confusing claims and counter-claims as they fight for market share. By 2012, each will have claimed the market segments most appropriate for their capabilities while offset process share continues to be displaced and shrink. Don’t be surprised if during this time period a new, probably digital, print technology is unveiled. Large amounts of money are being spent to improve current digital process, as well as to identify new imaging concepts.

Three digital production applications that were not included in the PI printed version analysis are: hybrid presses, mail table and similar digital imaging applications, and wide-format production.

Hybrid Presses

A hybrid press is one that includes two or more printing processes in a single, integrated printing press. Hybrid presses linking two processes such as screen printing and flexo are frequently found in package printing plants. Single color and spot color ink-jet have been coupled with offset printing for more than 30 years.

PrintCom has previously forecast growth in this approach mating ink-jet with both sheetfed and webfed offset processes. This forecast has proven to be too optimistic for 2007. PrintCom has no indication of any showings of this approach being planned for commercial printing applications at Drupa. However, at a recent IFRA newspaper conference, Kodak Versamark announced the availability of mono color ink-jet as an auxiliary for newspaper presses at 1,000, 2,000 and 3,000 fpm. This is a concept that may have application on high-speed web publication presses, as well as on newspaper equipment.

Mail Table Digital

At the Spring 2007 HP Graphic Arts Summit in Rome, a small three-color (CMY) print engine with six thermal ink-jet heads printing a width of 1.7˝ was demonstrated. The equipment, called the mPrint 1700c, was designed to be integrated with an existing black printer, primarily for use on equipment such as mailing tables and folders. The equipment had a rated top speed of 300 fpm at resolutions lower than its top rated 600 dpi. The interesting thing about this technology was its potential to bring process color ink-jet imaging to envelopes, postcards and solo mailers. Scheduled for U.S. showing at Graph Expo ’07, the mPrint 1700c was a no-show withdrawn at the last minute for product improvement. PrintCom suspects that this product will show up at Drupa ’08. It is worth watching for.

Another interesting product, but one that we have not seen, is the Lexmark Mustang printer, which is said to use 2˝-wide thermal printheads that can be stitched together to give an 8˝ print width. While the HP approach is designed to add process color to applications, the Lexmark approach is basically a black printer with some spot color capability.

Both of these products are interesting because they expand digital printing capability at what is generally the under-the-radar low end of applications.

Wide-Format Printing

Digital ink-jet wide-format printing is another market segment that was not covered in the PI print version analysis. Digital wide-format equipment from 24 inches to several feet wide, using six or more colors producing images that are better than photographic quality, have become relatively commonplace in the United Staes. It is anticipated that the number of manufacturers offering a proliferating variety of wide-format brands and models will peak at Drupa ’08. As the market becomes saturated and gradually but globally becomes a replacement market subject to digital electronic and e-paper substitution, look for a shakeout and manufacturer consolidation starting in 2009.

Disruptive Technologies

Two potentially disruptive technologies were unveiled at Graph Expo ’07—Pantone’s new color matching system and a new file format from Microsoft, which is a part of the Windows Vista structure. Both are somewhat controversial. While both intend to overcome limitations of current approaches, their implementation could result in as many new problems as the old problems they intend to cure.

Color Specifying

Pantone’s new system for specifying color, the first major change since the introduction of its spot color matching system 45 years ago, took the printing industry by surprise. The aftermath of the announcement leaves some doubt as to the broad acceptance of the expanded approach to color specifying. Designers polled after Graph Expo said they like the fact that the new system is based on 2,058 colors as compared to the 1,114 colors in the old Pantone system. Designers also like the fact that the new system gives them more color specificity and, at the same time, more color flexibility, as well as an improved color communications tool.

Designers seemed to be better informed about the new system; some printers queried after Graph Expo were not aware of the existence of Goe. Few printers seemed to understand it and those that did questioned its bottom line value. The fact that the number of stock inks required for Pantone color matching is reduced from the old system’s 14 to Goe’s 10 received a “ho hum” reaction.

Printers are questioning whether or not a new system is needed, the benefits to them if any, and the prospects of having to maintain two color specifying systems: the new Goe and the old or classic entrenched Pantone system. Although Pantone says there is an approximately 40 percent crossover match from the old system to the new one, printers are concerned about the 60 percent for which there is no crossover color. Although Pantone contends the differences are minimal, skeptics noted that this has yet to be proven. Some have also questioned the Pantone claim that because the system is designed for printing uniform ink film thickness, it results in equal drying times, less use of spray powders and more control when matching color on-press.

While the new color matching system appears to offer potential advantages in color communications and perhaps in printers’ operations, PrintCom’s take is that because the design community sees advantages in the new system, it will be adopted. But because printers see little advantage in it for them, printers will resist adding the new system and slow down its adoption. For the next several years, it appears likely that there will be two spot color matching and specifying systems: classic Pantone and the new Pantone Goe.

Or maybe there will be three—at least in the packaging arena. Following Graph Expo, in early October Sun Chemical entered the color specifying arena with SmartColor, a color suite of tools targeted at segments of the packaging industries with the claimed virtue of taking the guesswork out of predicting brand colors or packaging dress colors. The colors will reproduce across a variety of substrates, ranging from brown corrugated to clear film to white polypropylene as reproduced by several printing processes.

The Sun chemical suite consists of four components.

• SmartColor Digibase, a brand-specific digital database generated from physical standards proofed using different processes and substrates.

• SmartColor DigiGuide, a technology for generating and developing digital printing of hard copy physical color standards using brand and category color pallets.

• SmartColor DigiProof, a digitally printed color reference.

Unlike Pantone, which provides swatchbooks to specify color, DigiGuides and DigiProofs are printed by the printer on a multi-color ink-jet proofing system as specified by Sun Chemical.

The fourth component of the system is SmartColor iVue operating as an Adobe PhotoShop plug-in. SmartColor IVue allows packaging creators to access the Sun Chemical database so as to see claimed real color as it might be printed by offset, flexo or gravure any time in the preparation workflow. Sun Chemical claims a massive database of real ink colors on common packaging substrates printed by all processes will allow users to consider multiple alternatives to deliver a specified brand color on one or more packaging materials.

This approach might provide a designer with an advantage over the Pantone color matching system, which does not provide the ability to see how a defined Pantone color will look on a range of substrates. Sun’s SmartColor approach enables color to be selected based on specific inks, defined substrates and specific printing processes.

The Sun Chemical approach appears to be well-suited for packaging applications where color matching of six or eight colors might be utilized across a variety of substrates printed by different processes. Its limitation is that it is a supplier-specific system, which appears to ignore the ICC device- and supplier-independent color standards developed over the past decade. From a creative designer perspective, the Sun system seems to overlook the fact that packaging design is primarily done in Adobe Illustrator, InDesign and perhaps Quark, while SmartColor iVue uses Adobe PhotoShop software rarely used by package designers. Nevertheless, Sun Chemical’s approach to color specifying has intriguing potential for the packaging designer and printer.

XPS—A New File Format

The other potentially disruptive technology touted at Graph Expo was XPS, a new file format specification promulgated by Microsoft. “XPS” stands for XML Paper Specification, which is a core printing technology in Microsoft’s new Vista operating system. XPS claims to be a complete XML-based specification for a printer page description language based on a new print path, a color management device-independent and resolution-independent vector-based format, which is an exact representation of printed output and supports printing features such as gradients, transparencies, CMYK color space, named colors, printer calibration and print schemas.

The specification describes the appearance of fixed format documents by using a structured XML document format. The XPS document format consists of XML markup that defines the layout of a document and the visual appearance of each page along with rendering rules for distributing, archiving, rendering, processing and printing the documents.

XPS is a serious Microsoft effort to enter the commercial-quality printing output marketplace and as such could prove disruptive to the almost universally used PDF format and the established protocols of commercial prepress.

Working with Microsoft and demonstrating XPS at Graph Expo were Quality Logic, Quark, Konica-Minolta, Xerox, Global Graphics, Screen, Xitron, Software Imaging and Zoran. While many of the industry’s big players were not represented in Graph Expo’s XPS showcase, the initial level of support indicates that the technology may have legs and disrupt Postscript and PDF, the legacy Adobe file formats that are deeply entrenched in the professional print production arena.

What appears likely to PrintCom is that since XPS is the default print mechanism for Vista, it will gradually penetrate the high-end printing market through corporate document preparers that currently use files like Word and PowerPoint to prepare files for commercial printing output. While it appears that XPS could be a significant improvement over Word-type files, our best take is that it will not be a cure-all.

The approach is too new and minimally tried to know what the real impact of this new file format will be. However, any printer that is now receiving files in Word or PowerPoint would be prudent to consider XPS as a likely file input from enterprise customers that lack professional commercial creative and prepress personnel. It would be wise to be prepared before the files start showing up, since we believe that they inevitably will.

Proofing

Proofing, a keystone element in the success of color producing commercial printers, has been and continues to undergo a continuum of technological change. A printer’s internal proofs assist in achieving customer required color. Contract proof sign-offs are a customer satisfaction tool and the legal bedrock of proving that customer requirements have been met.

These proofing functions remain a vital part of print production, but the technology of achieving them is undergoing change. As film has been replaced by digital technology, it has also faded as the primary proofing medium. The majority of proofs in 2007 were produced by digital ink-jet output. A growing portion of ink-jet proofs are being done through remote links—printer to customer and, in some cases, customer to printer. Lithographic press proofs and in-plant press checks are declining.

Some printers have been able to calibrate color digital printing output to their offset litho output, enabling digital production presses to be used to generate proofs for offset. Starting in 2005, proofs produced on digital production equipment are included in the press proofing category. The net growth in this category is a result of the growth in production digital printing as an offset proofing method less the decline in litho press proofs and press checks.

Even as these newest proofing changes take root, the seeds have been planted for the next generation of proofing technology—soft on-screen paperless proofing. Proofing screens are now beginning to appear on press consoles. PrintCom believes that ink-jet proofing either peaked in 2007 or will peak in 2008 as it is replaced by soft on-screen proofing and, to a much smaller degree by, production digital color proofing. The accompanying table shows lithographic proofing trends to 2012.

The technology race is on!

Profit leader printers will become participants and not just spectators. PI

About the Author
William C. Lamparter is the president and principal of the PrintCom Consulting Group and is well known worldwide as an analyst with a track record for correctly forecasting printing industry business and technological trends. He can be reached at (704) 843-5350 or by e-mail at PrintCom@aol.com. Both articles present opinions held by the author, and not necessarily this publication.
 

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