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Digital Presses--Making the Grade

October 1998
The teeming class of digital color presses seems to be on the verge of a graduation of sorts. Xeikon celebrated the shipment of its 1,000th digital color press earlier this year, a DCP/32D. Indigo reports well over 1,000 E-Print shipments globally. Xerox boasts more than 4,000 DocuColor 40 units installed worldwide. Heidelberg's Quickmaster DI continues to flood the market.

All this is happening just as Agfa's variable printing Chromapress and the Scitex/KBA-Planeta Karat continue to push the technology forward. But that doesn't mean new classmates, like Screen's recently launched TruePress and the Quickmaster's big brother, the new Speedmaster 74 DI, aren't ready to raise their hands.


BY MARIE RANOIA ALONSO


The rise of on-demand color printing has made for an interesting class of digital printing tools, ranging from digital color copiers driven by advanced RIPs to variable printing solutions to traditional offset presses, digitized and modernized with the ability to image plates mounted directly on the press cylinders.

All are termed digital presses, yet the three classes function differently while still delivering on the concept and vision of print-on-demand. Printing systems and related software technologies from a virtual Who's Who of printing powers proliferate the digital press movement: Agfa, Canon, BARCO Graphics, Heidelberg, IBM, Indigo, Minolta, Omnitrade, Ricoh, Scitex/KBA-Planeta, most recently Screen, T/R Systems, Xeikon, Xerox and other star pupils are among the ranks.

Who started all this? That merit award is shared by Heidelberg and Indigo. Heidelberg's GTO-DI caught great industry attention at PRINT 91, followed by Indigo's 1993 introduction of the E-Print 1000—recognized as the industry's first fully digital, four-color offset press.

With Indigo, perhaps, the fervor for print-on-demand took new meaning—a more viable meaning, based on a more tangible technology. The E-Print, a sheetfed machine that uses a liquid toner to produce a very fine dot for high-quality output, captured the attention and imagination of the digital printing world.

Today, the print-on-demand world is a bit smaller, more crowded, with solutions breaking the digital press market in three distinct categories.

H Devices by innovators such as Canon, Minolta, Ricoh, T/R Systems and Xerox that are toner-based digital color copiers bolstered with advanced software set on flashy digital front-ends. Canon's Color Laser Copier series and the Canon CLC 1000 join T/R Systems' MicroPress cluster printing solution in this category.

H Variable printing solutions, packed with the power of personalization, capture the second segment of digital presses, namely offerings such as the Indigo E-Print 1000; Xeikon's DCP family, chiefly the DCP/32D; Agfa's Chromapress 32i and 50i, both of which employ the Xeikon engine but are delivered with Agfa's IntelliStream digital front-end and the potential of Personalizer X, a QuarkXTension that enables variable-data fields; IBM's InfoColor 70; and Xerox's Docu-Color 70, tanked with the Scitex Darwin XTension for handling variable data.

H The third class of digital presses is perhaps the more "hard iron" of the grouping, with traditional offset press technology sporting on-press imaging functionality. Heidelberg, Omnitrade and KBA-Planeta are the pressmakers bullish in this segment, with offerings such as Heidelberg's Quickmaster DI,

Omnitrade's Omni-Adast 705C DI and the Karat from Scitex/KBA-Planeta generating digital output, in most cases, at numerous offset operations.

For this category, though, Heidelberg gets a gold star. The German press manufacturer blazed trails with help from Presstek with the launch of the GTO-DI and, later, the Quickmaster DI. With sales of its two-up Quickmaster DI digital offset press exceeding 700 units, Heidelberg is about to double the pleasure of facilities that are set to capitalize on the digital printing market, announcing the development of a four-up Direct Imaging (DI) printer.

The New Kid in Class
Designated as the Speedmaster 74 DI, the newest Heidelberg digital press is built around Heidelberg's half-size Speedmaster, which was introduced in 1994. The new DI model will run sheets as large as 271⁄2x191⁄2˝ and will be available in four-, five-, and six-color configurations. It is designed to complement the capabilities of the four-color Quickmaster DI, which is an 18x13˝ machine.

A prototype Speedmaster 74 DI made its industry debut at IPEX in Birmingham, England, last month. Production models are scheduled to ship during the second half of 1999.

Marcel Kiessling, head of Heidelberg's Direct Imaging business unit, reports that the impetus for the creation of the larger machine came from a recent study of DI users that was commissioned by Heidelberg. The survey said not only were the majority of Heidelberg DI-equipped facilities profiting from their digital offset presses, but that many were ready to increase their direct-to-press capabilities with a four-up direct imaging machine.

Other Classmates
Beyond Heidelberg, other recent activities on the digital press front include the following initiatives.

H Dainippon Screen, the parent company of Screen (USA), is entering the digital press field with the new TruePress NP-1500/HC-110 digital imaging system. The TruePress runs on a PC platform under Windows NT, incorporating an Adobe PostScript 3 RIP. On the unit, flexible plates are imaged directly onto the cylinder, where resolutions of up to 3,000 dpi are supported.

H T/R Systems and Minolta are locked in a joint development and distribution agreement to provide on-demand printing solutions. The agreement provides for joint connectivity development of the Minolta Di620 to T/R's patented MicroPress cluster printing system, as well as provides Minolta the ability to distribute the MicroPress connected to the Di620.

H Xerox is strongly marketing its recently launched DocuColor 70 digital color press, based on the upgraded DCP/32D engine from Xeikon. The latest Xerox offering can produce as many as 70 impressions per minute in duplex mode.

H Xeikon continues to showcase its Private-I Designer, a variable data printing authoring tool that gives graphic designers the ability to create personalized materials on the Xeikon digital press family. Private-I is a standalone software package running on a Power Macintosh.

Turning to personalization, Agfa has introduced version 2.0 of its Personalizer X QuarkXTension, which works with Agfa's Chromapress IntelliStream architecture and, in addition, is compatible with Xpress 4.0.

Agfa's latest Personalizer provides up to 256 variable fields on a page and allows documents to be created using virtual fields via a Data File Link, rather than waiting for live data. This most recent Personalizer offering keeps track of variable data printed materials through barcodes that verify quantity and content.

At Indigo, the introduction of Yours Truly variable data printing complements Indigo's TurboStream architecture, which allows large files to be rasterized off-line. Raster data can then be transferred to the TurboStream unit and the personalized job placed directly into the print queue to be run continuously.

As for Scitex—partners in the Karat press—the latest introduction of Darwin, Darwin Desktop 2.0, includes some critical features missing from Darwin's initial showing. It runs as a standalone application on a Macintosh, rather than in the client-server setup of the original application.

The new version can work with any PostScript imaging device, whereas version 1.0 only worked with Scitex devices. Interfacing with Xpress 4.0 as an XTension, Darwin allows variable data fields to be dragged and dropped into position on a layout.

Both the Scitex SX-3000 digital front-end and Scitex Darwin XTension for handling variable data are featured on Xerox's DocuColor 70.

"Documents containing variable data, printed in full color, will become a major source of revenue for commercial printers over the next few years," states Joe McGrath, vice president and general manager, Color Production Systems, at Xerox. "Information collected and stored on customers' buying habits and preferences will continue to be useful when transformed into marketing campaigns, individually tailored to specific customers. This will cause a revolution in marketing, creating amazing opportunities to perform one-to-one, targeted marketing."

Xerox's McGrath argues that to realize the potential of variable data, the entire industry—from vendors to designers to commercial print shop managers—will need to integrate document layout and database management, as well as mine available customer databases for relevant information to drive document customization.

"The acceptance and use of variable data printing is having a major impact on digital color print volumes and is moving digital printing from the 'short-run' print solution into longer-run solutions using personalized communications," contends Robert J. Barbera, senior business line manager for the Agfa Chromapress.

The Report Card
In 1997, Barbera reports, approximately 25 percent of the Chromapress pages printed in the United States contained variable information, including text and images. "These variable data projects are not competing on price with offset, but are offering a new level of customized, personalized printing.

"These variable data printing applications have much longer run lengths than some may realize, in the thousands rather than in the hundreds. One of our users was printing 400,000 pieces per month for one client," he continues. "Sounds like an offset job, but since the job required personalized and customized work, digital printing was the only way to produce the final piece."

Not knowing what digital technologies await, it's doubtful, at this point in time, that digital presses will ever substantially outnumber or outclass the traditional offset press for long-run performance. However, that doesn't mean that the digital press won't continue to offer choices to the commercial printer.

And since more digital presses are being absorbed into the market—many finding homes in traditional offset operations and former prepress shops—it might be choice, coupled with time and technology, that eventually makes the digital press a true contender against traditional devices for some long-run applications.


An Analysis: The Digital Press

A former commercial printer, Doug Clott, now North American marketing director for the Karat digital press, offers his perspective on the logic and projected longevity of the digital press:

As traditional offset presses continue to meet and exceed the quality and high run length demands of the high-end print market, the cost difference between these presses and newer digital presses will increase, resulting in a few factors:

  • more jobs will migrate to the digital technology as the significantly lower costs are too enticing for customers to ignore;

  • cost and speed advantages of new digital technologies allow for new jobs to be considered and committed to print; and

  • slightly modified acceptance of what constitutes high quality due to the new advantages digital presses bring: cost, speed, ease of doing business.


Digital press, to me, means any press that accepts a digital file and prints without other equipment between the file and the press. It assumes a maximum of manufacturing automation, a reduction in processes and time, and a lack of flexibility in changing the output parameters except in a digital fashion. This means digital presses can, but not exclusively, be electrostatic in nature. Digitized offset presses, many types of ink-jet printing technologies and more could, under the right circumstances, be classified as a digital press.

So, how to profit from all this?

Owners of digital presses will make marketing gains by not assuming the customer will demand exactly the same type and style of service that they currently receive on traditional press platforms. This doesn't mean less quality or less service, just different quality and a different type of service. For example, continuous tone images will look equally good on a digital press, but the job may not have seven colors and two varnishes, as the traditional offset press will provide.

On the positive side, working in a totally digital environment—design, digital prepress, digital proofing—allows for a very different printing company from a manufacturing perspective, as well as very different communications between printer and customer.


The Next Digital Honor Roll

Bitstream's PageFlex
Bitstream has announced PageFlex version 1.0, a one-to-one marketing tool integrated with the MediaBank asset manager and IBM InfoColor 70, which generates customized pages on-demand.

A client/server application that enables the design and production of customized and/or personalized documents such as brochures, direct mail and catalogs, version 1.0 of PageFlex supports the dynamic generation of PostScript for output on an IBM InfoColor 70 digital press.

PageFlex uses flexible templates to capture the form of the page. Within a page template, any number of text, image or graphic containers can be defined. Associated with each of these containers is a recipe that specifies which of several alternative text or image content blocks should be included, based on a customer's profile.

Portalis' PressPort
From hard copy originals to hard copy replicas in minutes, that is the promise. PressPort, from Portalis, is a new concept in print production that creates a digital replica of a hard copy within minutes for printing on a digital press.

PressPort transforms a digital color press into an off-the-glass system with the capability to capture and replicate hard copy originals automatically and rapidly. In short, the system combines the simplicity of a color copier with advanced scanning, color management and other technologies.

To enable the transfer of PostScript, PDF and raster files, in addition to hard copies from remote sites, Portalis offers PressPort Remote, which is configured with a PressPort RIP, raster input and storage devices, and proofing unit.

At present, PressPort is compatible with Indigo, Heidelberg and Xeikon digital presses. Portalis has established a close level of cooperation with Indigo and Xeikon, particularly. Look for more cooperative measures between Portalis and other manufacturers of digital presses.
 

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