Speed, Color and Innovation in Digital Print
So I’m standing in line with all the other Boarding Zone 1 gate lice in San Diego, eager to get on a flight to Charlotte, when I get an email from Mark Michelson, editor-in-chief of Printing Impressions, asking when I’ll be delivering a blog about the recent pre-drupa event held in Lisbon, Portugal. Sigh. I hate it when I get pinged about something I’m just about to do.
So now back East and finally in my office after spending most of the past two weeks in hotels, airports/planes and meetings, I can actually throw some words on the screen and see if they stick. First up is the Lisbon trip, where I actually was on hand for the briefing. Coming next will be Israel and Germany, which I had to enjoy virtually.
The European PR agency duomedia hosted an event in Lisbon, Portugal, for a couple dozen press and analyst types so some of its clients could fill us in on what to expect at drupa. The answer is quite a bit, especially on the equipment side where I hang out—looking at big digital presses that keep going faster and faster.
Kodak and the Bugatti
Faster is the first point Kodak brought up in Lisbon, announcing the Prosper 6000XL inkjet press, which blows through a roll of 24”-wide paper at 1,000 feet per minute. This means the tail end of your basic five-mile-long roll of paper unwinds into the maw of this machine about 26 minutes after the leading edge.
OK, that is still no where near offset press speeds, but it’s still impressive considering that the press is putting down four colors while squirting ink onto the paper. This speed, according to Kodak, is critical for the high-volume publishing apps the Prosper is intended to produce.
Maybe, but I question the premise. Most printers I talk with say higher print speeds are less important than reliability, consistency, uptime and workflow. Further, shrinking run lengths and overcapacity in the industry makes me liken the added speed of the 6000XL to the Bugatti Veyron, the 1,200-horsepower supercar that can exceed 250 miles an hour. Sadly, there are not many places to enjoy such speeds.
Similarly, the number of applications—or digital printing operations—where 1,000 feet per minute can really make a difference is limited. And given that existing Prosper owners may find it more strategic to buy an additional 5000XL press—for less money—one has to wonder if the added speed is more “we’ve got game” showmanship than meeting a real need. We shall see.
Kodak is also turning up the jets on the Prosper heads it sells for in-line hybrid printing operations. The new S30 heads it will roll out at drupa can fire out ink drops at 3,0000 fpm, enabling them to keep pace with many web-fed offset presses.
Speed does not appear to be a problem for Kodak’s Stream inkjet technology. Less clear, though, is the extent to which demand for hybrid printing—hardly a new process—continues to grow. There’s a fair amount of it being done, but as more full-color inkjet presses reach the market, demand for hybrid printing could well shrink.
Kodak also has new goodies for its venerable NexPress toner-based line. The versatile fifth imaging station on this device has long been home to three additional colors, clear toners and a dimensional toner treatment, giving the machine a compelling advantage.
At drupa 2012, the fifth station will be applying pearlescent and gold toners along with a Pink Panther-worthy pink. I understand the first two, but I do not get that last hue at all. Maybe Kodak has cut a deal with Pink (the edgy singer), Victoria’s Secret, United Artists, or maybe the hot dog joint on La Brea Ave. in LA. And go figure…everyone I mention it to reacts the same way.
A Quantum Leap?
Meanwhile, up in Belgium, the folks at Xeikon are continuing to advance the company’s technology. Three new versions of its longstanding continuous-feed toner presses are now part of a single, field-upgradeable family. The 5000, 6000 and 8000 are no more, but are integrated into the 8500, 8600 and 8800 line.
Specific speeds and features vary, but the key element is that a customer can buy the 8500 entry-level model and upgrade performance as needed, all without calling in a forklift. This is a smart move in these uncertain times because it provides investment protection that adds some security to the deal when buying a new press.
What may be much more interesting from Xeikon is what we don’t know as yet. A few years back, the company quietly acquired rights to an unnamed digital printing technology and has been working on a way to bring it to market. At drupa, we’ll see the fruits of that effort in the form of a Quantum technology demo—often a precursor to an actual product.
My sources tell me this much:
- the printing technology is moderately fast, perhaps in the 400-fpm range; and
- it is not inkjet, but offers inkjet-like operating costs while using some type of polyester toner.
One possibility is that Xeikon has found a way to merge its own EP processes with those that it acquired. Or, it’s something really new. Whichever, I’ve consistently found the folks at Xeikon to be persistent, clever and innovative, so it will be exciting to see if Quantum is just another step—or a leap forward.