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Digital Printing Observations — The Technology Race Is On

January 2008 By William C. Lamparter
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THE PRINTING industry is bulging with new and improved process technology, but implementation of what is available proceeds at a faltering snail’s pace. With Drupa 2008—the global printing big box superstore—opening its showroom in late May, the technology bulge is about to turn into a confusing avalanche of competing technologies and products.

Suppliers have started to hold their pre-Drupa show briefings for analysts and the trade press. Clearly, the technology race is on.

While the announcements of new print software to the introduction of heavy pressroom iron and automated, fault tolerant postpress equipment accelerates, what leads the differentiating innovation pack with the promise of a quantum leap forward is digital printing.

The commercial printer’s growing interest in digital printing was evident at Graph Expo ’07 where, for the first time, there were more digital presses on the show floor than offset units.

Color digital printing circa 2008 is well beyond the digital color capabilities of the turn of the century color digital technology. It is faster, more reliable and less costly. Quality is not an issue. Digital color has a wider gamut than offset, and most digital presses have more built-in color controls than the typical offset press. Digital color has/is replacing offset at increasingly longer run lengths and, with variable imaging capability, creates new applications not possible with other processes.

It is the combination of this evolving technology and its creative application that has led to on-press “digitalography” capturing an estimated 17 percent of the print process market share by the end of 2007, as is detailed in the above “Process Market Share” table.

Name any printing process except digital and the nature of the technology is immediately clear. Digital printing encompasses multiple technologies and a variety of different technology subsets. Digitalography is a collective term used to describe the multiple imaging processes that are employed by a digital printing technology. Digitalography includes ink-jet, electrophotography, ionography, magnetography, laser ablation, direct thermal, thermal transfer, field effect imaging, electrocoagulation, various forms of digital imaging changeover and others—when used to print fixed, variable or a combination of output directly to paper or other substrates.

Among the printing industry analysts and consulting community there are differing estimates and opinions as to how much digital printing is actually being produced. But there is virtually unanimous agreement that lithography is declining and digital printing is growing. The only difference of opinion is on the degree of change.

It is what is happening!

There are, however, wider differences of opinion as to the eventual degree and timing of digital’s displacement of offset. PrintCom’s analysis detailed in the accompanying Process Share chart is that by the 2012 to 2015 timeframe, lithography and digitalography will each have about a one-third share of the process market, with the final third split among flexo, gravure, screen and hybrid press technologies. This forecast, which is considered to be bullish by some analysts and conservative by a few others, is contingent upon the continuing development of several strains of digitalography.

But the PrintCom analysis of digital print systems just coming to market, as well as behind-the-scenes looks at research and development efforts and products in the pipeline, suggests that the one-third digital process market share estimate by 2012-2015 may be conservative.

The penetration of digital printing into mainstream commercial printing has been limited by the relatively slow output speed of the process, as well as the high cost of toner. Although ink-jet printers are the dominant output technology in the small office/home office output equipment market segment, and are the almost universal method for addressing catalogs, magazines and a significant portion of direct mail, the process’ penetration into digital production color has been almost nil.

Ink-jet has a speed advantage over toner and its water-based dye inks can be an order of magnitude less expensive than toner. What production color ink-jet has lacked is commercially acceptable print quality.

All of the established boundaries are now changing.

Ink-jet Taxiing to Take Off

Digital color product announcements since Graph Expo, Drupa previews and progress reports from recent conferences on ink-jet developments all indicate advancements in product functionality, cost performance and print quality. Samples of digital print futures are impressive! PrintCom’s digital production printing forecast is for major new and improved digitalography product announcements and introductions to be made leading up to what many industry analysts believe will be the “Ink-jet Drupa.”

PrintCom forecasts that Drupa ’08 will be the benchmark beginning of a process battle between digital toner and ink-jet—a battle that will focus on the competitive inter-relationship of speed and image quality.

Xerox, best known for its sheetfed lines of digital equipment, kicked off the coming toner vs. ink-jet press battle last summer with a 223 fpm, 600 dpi toner-xerographic engine continuous-feed press from Fuji Xerox. Now available in Japan and Australia, arrival in the North American market is anticipated in the third quarter of 2008.

The new Xerox entry uses light-based flash fusing instead of the hot roll fusing commonly used in sheetfed toner-based color engines. While flash fusing is one of the keys to increasing xerographic engine speed, the approach has what some call limitations and others label as characteristics. Most notably, flash fused prints have a low gloss image appearance. The process is an energy hog, which may have an impact on as yet unknown operating costs.

Labeled the Xerox 490/980, the 20˝-wide press uses an LED imaging array rather than multi-beam laser scanning imaging systems. When we saw a prototype running in Rochester, NY, this past summer, the output quality was not as good as is produced on sheetfed xerographic equipment. By the time the product reaches the U.S. market, we expect to see quality improvements but, nevertheless, with output a cut below sheetfed digital. However, this quality range will be more than adequate for the transactional printing market and for many direct mail applications, which are the target markets.

High speed, medium quality, ink-jet capability has been added to Océ’s digital press larder. Although perhaps less known to the commercial printing community, Océ is a digital press leader in the transaction and high-volume credit card and related customer acquisition field with continuous-feed toner-based, primarily monochrome and spot-color capable equipment. Recent web toner additions and now two models of a high-speed ink-jet web signal Océ’s attempt to become a broad-based production color supplier.

Océ’s new ink-jet equipment is being offered in two versions. The JetStream 1100 model is a single engine system which, when running a half-web, can produce two-sided printing. The JetStream 2200 utilizes two engines and the full width of the web to produce two-sided printing. Both systems print at 492 fpm with a print width of 20.3˝ and a paper width of 20.5˝. Optionally, the format can be stretched to a paper width of 21.4˝ with a print width increase to 21.2˝.

The Océ JetStream uses piezoelectric drop-on-demand ink-jet heads. Jetting of small, variable-size drops (which Océ has trademarked as DigiDot) is the key to the system’s print quality. In a recent technology demonstration, the Océ ink-jet unit ran at full speed producing a medium quality print—not as good as digital sheetfed, but at least on a par and perhaps better than other available ink-jet systems.

With the introduction of Océ’s ink-jet, which is manufactured by Myakoshi using imaging heads from Brother/Kyocera, it joins Screen, Ricoh/IBM InfoPrint Solutions and Kodak Versamark in the ink-jet vs. toner contest. Screen and InfoPrint utilize the same Screen-built engine based on Epson drop-on-demand imaging heads, with the prime difference between the two machines being the operating software. Both presses produce at just more than 200 fpm. Kodak Versamark is the ink-jet speed leader at 500 fpm, but currently with output at a lesser quality level than some of its competitors.

However, Kodak has been known for some time to be working on improved ink-jet image quality under the code name “Stream.” Kodak CEO Antonio Perez has indicated on several recent occasions that there will be some commercially available implementations of Stream technology available at Drupa, as well as technology demonstrations of the improved quality. Stream technology is expected to become commercially available sometime in 2009. He has described the Stream technology as incredibly fast, very low cost, variable data printing.

In the longer term, it is expected that Stream ink-jet technology will be available in different size formats and in several shapes and forms. Kodak’s Drupa objective is to demonstrate that the Stream technology is real and that it is offset-class imaging quality. Kodak’s obvious goal is to bring its ink-jet image quality capability up to commercial printing standards without being bested in the speed category.

Other ink-jet technology that could compete in this same arena includes the Agfa Dotrix Transcolor and the French Impika 600. From the toner world, Océ’s Vario­Stream 9240, the Graph Expo-introduced 10000 and the more recently launched Océ 8000 line will also be competing for a share of the upper end, high-speed, quality market.

Going Digital a Must Do

During the four years between Drupa ’08 and the global show’s next outing in 2012, proponents of 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.

Digital developments that make the process more universally applicable give rise to speculation about the future of traditional offset-only press manufacturers. Can a press manufacturer live on offset alone. . .For how long? Drupa could well bring some new digital press players, including surprising offset- digital alliances or mergers.

For individual printers, digital developments give rise to a similar question: Can a printer that has not adopted some form of digital printing continue to survive without it? It is a question for each printer to individually answer—but to do so requires an up-to-date education in digital printing developments.

Drupa is the place to get that education. One caveat about Drupa is the fact that many of the products introduced at the show are not commercially available in the United States until Graph Expo in the Fall. A reason why some U.S. printers stay away from Drupa and focus on Graph Expo and its up-to-date educational sessions.

The printer who is in jeopardy is the one who stays home all of the time and fails to understand the business opportunities offered by new technology. It is time to look, learn and implement. PI

Part II: Technological Developments — More Changes Reshaping the Industry

About the Author
William 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 trends. He can be reached at (704) 843-5350 or by e-mail at PrintCom@aol.com.
 

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