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Is Digital Ready For (Commercial) Print?


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By:  Nick Howard  |  Date: March 2012  |  Contact the Author
Part 1 | Part 2

With Drupa 2012 around the corner, there is the potential for a break-through from digital to Industrial Digital. Maybe not all seen at this Drupa, but it would seem that with most of the R & D being deployed [into] Electrophotography, what’s coming will shatter the traditional printing platform forever. Perhaps, it should be called: The What's Next Drupa.

The one unit printing press is an almost obsolete machine in the litho world. But, when the laboratories of the giants finally unleash a clog-free, cheap, low cost piezoelectric head or some other liquid/toner-based device, that could be mounted on a single unit press that needs no color control, blankets, water, etch or plate - this is the beginning of the future. In the new pressroom, there will be a simplified process that could redefine and even potentially eliminate the long perfector. Think how even a 16-32 pp web press could radically change?

The future is coming, but as any profitable printing company knows – one cannot wait for the unproven, because waiting for something that is not yet refined puts your business at risk. Litho, even at the next Drupa will be front and center.

Watch for traditional press manufacturer’s new digital offerings this year. Heidelberg was in the digital toner business much too early but they knew, even then, that eventually all print production would head this way. In partnering with Kodak, Heidelberg took a gamble that cost it hundreds of millions. Joint ventures between litho and digital is one way of covering all bases, but again watch for the company that actually launches through their own R & D a new machine. Signs indicate it will come from Japan. This tiny dynamic country has made some of the greatest technological advancements in low volume digital devices. Most laser, thermal and piezoelectric devices were born there.

The German giants already partner with many non-German digital businesses. Entirely unheard of even 10 years ago, German/Japanese collaboration is a marriage of necessity. Can anyone imagine a company like Heidelberg selling Ricoh or KBA partnering with RR Donnelly on a bespoke RRD designed application? This KBA/RRD device is showing at Drupa.

This leads to a question. What has been going on in the research departments of the Big 2 in Germany? Devices are a well kept secret. Heidelberg is still the world’s largest press and finishing equipment maker. They also have a formidable world-wide presence. No doubt the management (of Heidelberg) wants to take more advantage of this huge sales channel to sell products other than their own making. Manroland may not have the capital needed to spend on R & D. Miyakoshi, Hamada and Ryobi have for many years used their press making skills to provide components for HP, Presstek and Océ. Komori may use the vast richness of technology “made in Japan” to showcase radical new platforms that could dazzle and surprise Drupa goers. Fujifilm also just announced their Jet Press 720 (28”) is in full production and now for sale.

Industrial Digital has the potential for lowering the costs of print. Less space, no make-ready and virtually no waste. Trickle-up technology could mean that for the first time heavy duty equipment made by the big litho manufacturers will dwarf what the HP’s, Xeikons and the like are currently making. Those companies make good products but they need industrial iron platforms that can bridge the gap. But - and there is a but - industrial digital success depends on laboratories and engineers. Without a super fast solid dependable imaging head there can be no leap. Even though every office on the planet has some sort of toner or inkjet, this is not a precursor for success in pressrooms.

Conceptually, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine a 40” press with a very large impression cylinder and a multitude of imaging heads mounted over it. Maybe it perfects and duplicates the same thing on a second unit. If this near future machine comes, it must be inexpensive and not tied to so-called “click” charges as are smaller devices. The inks used must have better density properties and cheap. Finally, the service or maintenance must be reasonable and not subject to very expensive cleaning and repairing.

The limitations currently have to do with three things: speed, price and cost of ownership. Speed is definitely a detractor for all current digital or direct to paper technologies. Speeds (or IPH) must reach for at least the 10-12,000 sheets-per-hour level in order to attract mainstream attention. Fujifilm’s Jet Press 720 has only a through-put of 2,700 sph in a 20" x 29” format. Price is also an issue. Slow speeds along with sticker price would seem to show that the device could only claim a small portion of the printing business for now.

Getting a finance package on one’s own when machines are currently much higher than litho – a lot higher - will be a challenge. Cost of ownership is a very big issue as it covers not only the costs of running the machine but also maintenance. If the heads cannot be serviced easily and last past 5 million sheets without reconditioning, this becomes a problem because litho with its mature construction and features can still clobber digital with price and quality. Litho remains viable because it’s a low cost tool to produce work in the 29-40” size.

This will continue until digital can showcase a similar platform that runs almost as fast, costs virtually the same and has similar maintenance costs. Working from a roll is not practical for most of commercial print. The roll has a fixed width and not easy to handle. Certainly, it's fine for longer runs, books or direct mail applications - especially variable data - but we need a machine that works like a sheetfed and can handle any size and thickness up to at least .8 mm (.032”). That’s what we need to see at Drupa this year.


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