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DI presses: Where are they now?

Feb 1, 2002 12:00 AM


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At Drupa 2000, 13 direct-imaging (DI) presses were announced. Two years later, a few of these presses haven't made it off the drawing board. Nonetheless, most major press vendors do have their DI ducks in a row. This article presents an overview of current sheetfed DI options and a glimpse into future press developments.

HEIDELBERG

Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) has approximately 700 DI press installations in the U.S. It was the first vendor to enter the DI arena with the introduction of its GTO DI in 1991, a two-up press that featured Presstek (Hudson, NH) imaging heads. It wasn't until Heidelberg launched the Quickmaster (QM) 46-4 DI in 1995, however, that DI became a viable market for press vendors. Heidelberg discontinued manufacturing the GTO when the QM DI became commercially available in 1996.

The QM DI is a four-color, two-up, waterless offset press that reaches speeds up to 10,000 iph. It employs Presstek PEARL imaging and PEARLdry Plus plates, and images at a resolution of either 1270 or 2540 dpi. Plate-changing is completed in less than a minute. Other automated features include plate cleaning, ink-fountain presetting and blanket wash-up.

The Quickmaster DI was updated with new features in 1998 and marketed under the name QM DI Plus. Enhancements included four additional ink zones to enable better ink-coverage control, improved makeready time of four minutes, temperature control and a new RIP that ran on a faster platform.

That same year, Heidelberg introduced the Speedmaster 74-DI, its first four-up DI press. The 74 DI is a conventional offset press that uses fountain solution instead of the QM DI waterless process. It is available in configurations of up to six units, with or without perfecting or coating, and it images at a resolution of 2400 dpi. Imaging technology is provided by Creo Inc. (Burnaby, BC), with an imaging module for each printing unit. Plates are loaded with Autoplate, and all units are imaged simultaneously. Inking is preset using RIPed data from the CPC 32 press-control system. Makeready is completed in approximately eight minutes; the 74 DI prints at 15,000 sheets per hour on substrates ranging from flimsy paper to 0.025-inch stock.

Nearly 580 of the 700 Heidelberg DI installations in the U.S. are the Quickmaster DI or the Quickmaster DI Pro. Joerg Daehnhardt, product manager of direct imaging, attributes its popularity to both the length of time it has been available as well as its position as a direct-to-press stepping stone.

The Quickmaster DI Pro was unveiled in 2001, featuring a new control console based on the Heidelberg CP2000 concept. All control settings are displayed on a touchscreen, including job status, messages, job previews, automatic color presetting and feeder display. The QM DI Pro also includes a stream feeder for five- or six-color printing and a self-adjusting double-sheet detector. The stream feeder enables more precise alignment of substrates and a wider range of stock options.

Delta 7.0, the newest version of the press' RIP software, allows the press to image at 200 lpi in less than four minutes. Printers also have the option of outfitting the press with an infrared dryer.

KBA

A joint venture between Scitex Corp. Ltd. (Herzlia, Israel) and Koenig & Bauer Aktiengesellschaft (KBA) (Wurzburg, Germany) resulted in the 74 Karat, a 20.5 × 29-inch, four-color, waterless offset DI press. The machine was first previewed in 1997 and positioned to compete with Heidelberg's Quickmaster 46-4 DI (the Speedmaster 74 DI was introduced later) and Omni-Adast's 745C DI. It is equipped with Creo imaging technology and runs Presstek PEARLdry aluminum plates.

What differentiates the press from its competitors is its keyless, self-calibrating Gravuflow inking system. Underneath the ink chamber, a ceramic roller is engraved with microscopic cells that fill with ink. Doctor blades apply pressure to the ceramic roller, filling all of the cells evenly and ensuring consistent ink application. The press also utilizes waterless offset ink cartridges, which can be changed while the 74 Karat is running. (There are currently two ink suppliers, with two more in the works).

Thomas Göcke, head of marketing and public relations at KBA's Radebeul, Germany, office, claims that the Gravuflow system avoids the ghosting, ink-roller stripes and print-quality inconsistency problems that often plague conventional inking systems. He notes that the press is ready to print sellable product after about eight sheets, and prints up to 10,000 sph.

In 1998, Scitex and KBA signed a mutual termination of the joint-venture agreement, largely because of Scitex's operational realignment after its decision to merge its prepress and digital front-end operations with Creo's. Karat Digital Press GmbH, which sold the 74 Karat, became a KBA company, and now shares development, marketing, sales, production and service responsibilities with its parent. Creo still provides the imaging technology and related software for the 74 Karat.

According to Göcke, there are about 80 74 Karat installations worldwide, with 15 in the U.S. Of these installations, 60 percent are at prepress houses or quick printers, and 40 percent are at commercial printers. The marketing exec notes that buyers' demographics have shifted more toward the prepress side in recent years.

At Print 01, KBA sold six 74 Karat presses before Sept. 11. A floor model was being used to demonstrate one of the press' new optional features, an Internet-based front end. KBA has partnered with Httprint (San Francisco), an Internet-based print procurement and management solutions provider, to create Printanet, a front end that provides estimating, ordering, soft and remote proofing, color management, preflight, file-transfer and transaction functionalities. Göcke notes that there are two beta sites in Europe.

This past October, KBA announced a strategic partnership with Presstek. KBA's two-up, four-color 46 Karat will incorporate Presstek's ProFire imaging technology, which utilizes Presstek PEARLdry plates. The 13 × 18-inch 46 Karat is being assembled by Ryobi Ltd. (Hiroshima, Japan), which assembled KBA's first conventional sheetfed press, the Rapida 72K. The press is similar in construction to the 74 Karat, but utilizes a conventional inking system. Makeready reportedly takes only 10 minutes due to a high level of automation, and the press prints at speeds up to 7,000 sph.

Bob McKinney, marketing director at KBA North America, Inc. (Williston, VT), notes that because the 46 Karat is a European-format machine, KBA has no plans to sell it in the U.S.

At IPEX, KBA will show the 46 Karat as well as a first: the 74 Karat with inline coating.

SAKURAI

At Drupa 2000, Sakurai USA, Inc. (Schaumburg, IL) debuted the Oliver-474EPII DI, a 21 × 29-inch, four-color perfecting press that utilizes Presstek's ProFire imaging system and PEARLgold wet-offset plates. Sakurai positioned the press as a true hybrid press: Although it has direct-imaging capabilities, it can also run conventional plates. The advantage to printers is increased flexibility when dealing with a client list that has varying levels of digital capability.

“If somebody came to the printer and said, ‘I have film, can you run this job for me?’ the printer can image the job and mount conventional plates,” explains Mike Grego, marketing manager at Sakurai USA. “[The Oliver-474EPII] has the versatility of any press out there, plus the ability to do DI.” And yet, Sakurai is not necessarily posing the Oliver-474EPII DI — and its five-color version, the 574 EPII DI — as ideal solutions for all of its commercial-printer customers.

At Print 01, the Sakurai booth featured a live presentation that compared DI to CTP, pitting an Oliver-474EPII DI against one of Sakurai's automated conventional presses teamed with a platesetter. Visitors were encouraged to evaluate both options and draw their own conclusions.

“The important thing to keep in mind is that [Sakurai's DI] press is a 29-inch hybrid — it's not a small duplicator-size machine, which might lend itself a little bit more to DI technology,” Grego says. He adds that, for a commercial printer that already has several conventional presses on the floor, the investment in DI is considerable compared to the added cost of CTP. (The Oliver-474EPII DI has a list price of $1.4 million.)

Printers with a highly automated workflow may appreciate the Oliver-474EPII DI's features: automated perfecting changeover, ink-roller washup, blanket washup and ink clutch, as well as optional automated plate-changing, ink supply and ink-density control. Grego notes that the ink clutch feature is one that sets the Sakurai apart from its competitors. “During the imaging cycle, we're not spinning the press at high speed, tacking up the ink on the ink rollers,” he explains. “We just declutch them during the imaging cycle.” This also comes in handy when running a perfector job — the operator can declutch the ink rollers not in use, and thus avoid having to lubricate them.

Grego says there are currently three installations of the Oliver-474EPII DI, all in Japan. Two are at commercial printers and one is at a prepress house that is growing into printing. At Ipex, Sakurai will show the Oliver-474EPII DI with some enhancements.

RYOBI

Another Drupa introduction was Ryobi's 3404DI, a two-up, four-color offset DI press developed jointly with Presstek. The waterless press uses Presstek's ProFire imaging technology and PEARLdry plates. Ryobi is squarely targeting the commercial printer, repro shop and in-plant markets with its press.

“There are increasingly larger numbers of short-run, multicolor jobs,” observes Don Trytten, general manager and vice president of the import group at xpedx (Lenexa, KS), the U.S. Ryobi importer and distributor. He adds that commercial printers with conventional equipment are often not well equipped to handle these jobs, which makes DI a possible solution.

But Trytten notes that the major reason Ryobi's printer customers are attracted to DI is money. “It's an inexpensive and fast way of producing short-run, four-color jobs that they were really not equipped to produce. I think those jobs, because of their type and urgency, can be quite profitable.”

And then there are printers that move into DI simply because they see it as the future of printing. Rockford Litho Center (Rockford, IL), a 17-employee general commercial printer that was founded in 1972, bought a Ryobi 3404DI this past September in an attempt to leapfrog its competitors. Owner Lynn Perry explains that to him, DI is “the future technology for printing. I think that with the way things are going direct to plate, direct to press just makes sense. And I'm actually just trying to skip direct to plate and move right into direct to press.”

Rockford Litho already had two five-color and two two-color conventional Heidelberg presses before it decided to invest in the Ryobi 3404DI. Perry was impressed by the press' ease of operation and automation. It features automatic ink-roller, blanket and impression-cylinder cleaning. Plates advance for the next job at the push of a button; a new plate is loaded onto the cylinder while the used plate is wound onto a roll inside the plate cylinder. Most operations can be done by remote control from the operator's console.

“The press operator pretty much just enters an impression count, clicks his or her mouse a couple times, and [the press] is printing and then cleans itself up,” Perry notes. “There's not a lot for the press operator to do.” The exec says that the DI press runs mostly short-run, four-color process jobs, including business cards, postcards, 8.5 × 11-inch flyers and 11 × 17-inch newsletters; he adds, however, that the 3404DI has also begun handling work that was typically run on the bigger presses. This is due in part to the DI press' faster makeready: 12 minutes versus almost an hour on one of Rockford Litho's conventional presses of the same format. “In an hour, I can have almost two jobs done on the DI press,” Perry observes.

The Ryobi 3404DI has a base price of around $400,000. (Xerox is reselling the press as its DocuColor 233DI.) This price reflects the press' cost-effective, compact design: a V-shaped, five-cylinder arrangement with a triple-diameter impression cylinder at the center and two double-diameter blanket and plate cylinders. Two ProFire imaging systems are mounted in the press, and they can image two plates of two different colors on a single plate cylinder.

Trytten notes that there are currently about 13 to 15 U.S. installations of the Ryobi 3404DI, and approximately 100 worldwide. He adds that xpedx is currently in the process of training its Ryobi dealers on the DI press, which is why the press' presence in the U.S. has been modest.

ADAST

In March 1995, Czech press manufacturer Omni-Adast and Presstek debuted the first four-up DI press, the 745C DI. A five-color version, the 755C DI, was introduced soon after. The waterless press, which is manufactured in the Czech Republic, has a Presstek PEARL imaging system and uses PEARLdry plates. It also has optional perfecting and coating units, as well as an optional infrared dryer and numbering, perforating and imprinting attachment. There are approximately 25 installations of the Adast 705C DI in the U.S., and three installations in progress.

The 705C DI series also features Digital Press Intelligence, a press operating system through which all press functions are routed. When an operator pushes a button, the control computer first determines if the press is ready before it allows an operation to proceed, preventing operator error. Through a flat touchscreen, operators have access to ink sweep settings, variable-speed dampening, remote register, inking, running speed and preset run lengths. The press also offers INKFLOW, which provides remote control of register and ink sweep.

Tomas Krysl, vice president of marketing at Adast America (Arvada, CO), notes that Adast is targeting the Adast 705C DI series at commercial printers as well as prepress houses that want to enter printing. In the commercial print arena, however, four-up DI has its skeptics: Some feel a press of that size with direct-imaging capability does not have the same productive potential as a stable of conventional four-up presses with CTP.

Krysl concedes that while the trend toward DI seems stronger in the prepress area, there are instances where four-up DI can benefit commercial printers. “In some cases — and that's exactly what we anticipated with our on-press imaging — [printers] are running seven jobs that really require a high turnaround and small run lengths, and it's more efficient for them to go direct to press.”

Adast has also entered the two-up DI market with its Drupa 2000 introduction, the 557 DI. A five-color, 15 × 20.5-inch press, the 557 DI uses Presstek's ProFire imaging technology and PEARLdry Plus plates, and runs at speeds up to 12,000 sph. It features automated plate cylinders, plate cleaning and blanket washers. Makeready reportedly lasts about eight minutes for jobs imaged at regular resolution, and 12 minutes for high-resolution jobs. Krysl notes that Adast does not sell the 557 DI; rather, Xerox resells the press as the DocuColor 400 DI.

The exec says that Adast is working on automated plate-loading capability for the 705C DI press, which it hopes to debut at Graph Expo 2002.

SCREEN

Electronic prepress vendor Dainippon Screen Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (Kyoto, Japan) moved into the DI market in 1998 with the introduction of its TruePress 544 four-color, two-up DI press. The press is unique in that it is wet offset rather than waterless, and doesn't image thermal plates. Rather, the press utilizes Mitsubishi Silver Digiplate polyester plates and Screen's own 633-nm imaging technology. Its list price is $450,000.

Screen (as the company now calls itself) markets these two characteristics as major selling points of the TruePress 544. In fact, it prefers to call the press an “offset-style digital-printing system.” The company maintains that the press' plates and consumables are much more affordable than those of its competitors. The TruePress 544's printing speed, however, is also slowest at 3,200 sph, which Screen claims is due to the press' higher imaging resolution, and reportedly results in a higher-quality product.

The press' digital imaging and printing units consist of two impression and printing cylinders, each with the capability to hold two plates. The plates can be used four-over-one or two-over-two printing. Automated functions include ink control, blanket cleaning and print-pressure control. At Ipex, Screen will show the TruePress 544 with a new option: TrueFit, a built-in, inline ink-density measuring unit. The device will reportedly simplify the stabilization of print quality across all print runs.

According to Yukiyoshi Tanaka, Screen (USA) (Rolling Meadows, IL) marketing specialist, there are 40 installations of the TruePress 544 worldwide. He says that rather than being deterred by the TruePress' conventional approach to printing, printers appreciate the press' high offset quality. “Some users consider that water is necessary not only to obtain offset quality, but also to control the machine's temperature and to remove dust,” he explains.

Screen has also developed two four-up presses, the two-color TruePress 742 and the four-color TruePress 744, which were previewed in September 1999. The presses were developed with Sakurai, which reportedly provides the chassis while Screen provides the imaging and printing components.

Unlike the 544, the 744 features two imaging units, one per printing unit (it is actually two 742 models combined). It also has a high-speed paper feeder and delivery. This enables the press to produce four-color, simplex printing at up to 8,000 sph. An optional perfecting mechanism enables two-color duplex printing.

Large-format, 660-nm imaging is made possible through the same technology Screen uses in its external-drum imagesetters. Automation includes ink-key control, blanket cleaning, ink-roller cleaning, print-pressure adjustment and plate loading and unloading.

Tanaka notes that Screen is currently re-engineering the TruePress 742 and 744; the company hopes to have the product re-development effort finished this spring. He adds that Screen is also working on developing five and/or six-color versions of the TruePress 544, although he declined to specify when the press(es) may be introduced.

XEROX

At Drupa 2000, Xerox introduced the DocuColor 233 DI and the DocuColor 400 DI. The DocuColor 233 is a two-page, four-color offset press that is based on Ryobi's 3404 DI. It incorporates Presstek ProFire imaging and plates, and features an oversized impression cylinder that holds two sheets at once. Makeready is said to be under nine minutes, due to automated plate imaging and ink-key presetting, as well as automated cleaners for the ink rollers, plates, blankets and impression cylinder. It reaches maximum speeds of 7,000 iph.

The DocuColor 233 became commercially available in June 2001, and there are currently 10 installations. According to Ron Kendig, general manager of direct imaging at Xerox, the DocuColor 233 customers vary widely in terms of background, focus and market niche. “Traditionally, DI buyers came from service bureaus, the quick-print sector or smaller shops — they were looking to grow either from doing just film to printing, or from black-and-white to color,” says the exec. “But that's changing. We're seeing renewed interest from government organizations and commercial printers that are looking to complement their traditional business.”

Xerox established a new sales force at the beginning of 2002 that is focused on commercial print customers. Members of the team are referred to as commercial print solutions executives (CPSEs) and they average 12 years of experience each in the commercial print sector. “More commercial printers are interested in digital printing devices, and if they are going to make that jump, they want to talk to someone who understands their business. So we've hired people who understand commercial printing,” Kendig says. Xerox has also maintained its customer-support team of six DI specialists.

Kendig says that one of the distinctions between the DocuColor 233 DI and the competition is that it includes four form rollers, instead of just three, reportedly to prevent ghosting. He also notes that users can pair their DocuColor DI press with a Xerox variable-information printer or another toner-based device, enabling more functionality and customization. At Drupa and Graph Expo, Xerox showcased applications produced on the DocuColor DI and then personalized on DocuTechs. The DI press produced batch versioning (different variations based on geography, language and demographics), and the toner-based equipment produced fully personalized documents by overprinting. (See “Combining digital and offset,” September 2001, p. 44.)

The DocuColor 400 DI is a two-page, multi-towered press, available in four- or five-color configurations (Adast introduced it as its 557 DI at Drupa). A perfecting unit as well as a coating tower are optional, or the fifth printing unit can be used for other applications, such as versioning. The DocuColor 400 uses Presstek's ProFire imaging heads, internal plate cylinder and PEARLdry Plus plates. It is suitable for runs between 200 and 5,000, and images at 2540 dpi, with output up to 12,000 iph. Automated makeready features include plate, paper and ink loading; plate cleaning; ink-key profiling; register and color balance. It is currently in beta testing in two locations and is scheduled to be commercially available in March.

The imaging technology

Presstek (Hudson, NH) and Creo Inc. (Burnaby, BC) are the two main providers of direct-imaging (DI) technology to press manufacturers.

Presstek technology drives nearly 1,000 installed KBA, Heidelberg, Ryobi, Adast, Sakurai and Xerox DI presses in the U.S. Presstek's ProFire laser-imaging system integrates lasers, laser drivers, digital electronics and motion-control technology into a single modular package. ProFire earned a 2001 GATF (Sewickely, PA) InterTech Technology Award.

The modularity of ProFire makes it adaptable to many printing applications. The Ryobi 3404DI press, for example, uses two ProFire imaging systems each with six FirePower diodes; a five-color Xerox DocuColor 400 DI uses five ProFire modules each with eight FirePower diodes; and a Presstek Dimension 400 CTP system uses one ProFire system with 16 diodes.

The ProFire system includes FirePower laser diodes that are engineered to achieve greater speed and resolution without adding size or cost to the imaging system. Each FirePower diode delivers four independently addressable beams to the printing plate. The FireStation digital controller and data server are the “brains” of the system, and the FireWire interface provides high-speed connection to the imaging head, delivering 64 million pixels per second to each single head. Pixel data are forwarded to the lasers through drivers that have a 70-nanosecond rise time, enabling sharp dot formation on the plate.

A successful DI press, according to Stan Najmr, director of direct imaging at Presstek, “requires laser-imaging, printing-plate and press-design technology to work in unison. We are firmly committed to the further development of these DI technologies and believe that in the future, DI functionality will be available on all presses as an option.”

The exec says Presstek's goals include finding a way to combine the benefits of a DI press with the personalization capabilities of a toner-based system. Other goals are to increase the usability of DI plates by taking the process-free characteristics of Presstek's current thermal CTP plate, Anthem, and implementing them into a DI plate.

Creo's DI technology is featured on approximately 30 installed presses in the U.S. Its SQUAREspot thermal-imaging technology powers Heidelberg, Komori, MAN Roland DI presses, and the 74 Karat features its plate imaging technology.

The SQUAREspot direct-on-press imaging system can image at an optical resolution of 10,000 dpi. It features data transfer rates above 100 Mbps, more than 200 laser channels and 18-W laser power, which enable the system to image eight-up plates in less than four minutes at 2400 dpi. SQUAREspot supports imaging of ablative, thermal transfer and conventional thermal materials. It can be incorporated on conventional offset presses without eliminating the dampening system, thereby facilitating the use of a wide range of conventional offset inks and papers.

Creo is developing plateless digital-printing technology, which it demonstrated at Graph Expo 2000. Brad Palmer, vice president of on-press technologies at Creo, stresses, however, that the plateless technology will not be commercially available for a few years. “The challenge is that we need to tightly integrate the technology into the press,” says Palmer, noting that press design timelines can be lengthy. Nevertheless, Palmer reports that development of the technology is on track with a number of press manufacturers.

Beyond small-format DI presses

On-press imaging isn't just for small- and medium-format presses. Komori (Rolling Meadows, IL) announced the first North American customer for its full-sized Project D press at Print 01. Quebecor World MIL Inc. (Don Mills, ON) will use the 40-inch direct-imaging (DI) press to increase its annual-report, high-end collateral and general-commercial printing capabilities.

MAN Roland (Westmont, IL) recently celebrated its first DICOweb installation in Germany at Nussbaum Medien GmbH & Co. KG.

The publishing company, with headquarters in Weil der Stadt (near Stuttgart), produces official bulletins and notifications in coldset operations for about 250 municipalities and local authorities in runs ranging from 440 to 30,000 copies.

The new press has been in operation since June 2001. Unlike the system shown at Drupa 2000, it does not have a dryer. It also has a shorter ink train, with a simpler inking cycle.

DICOweb, winner of a 2001 InterTech award, allows imaging, erasing and re-imaging directly to a plate-like form cylinder. The technology involves the use of an on-press Creo Inc. (Burnaby, BC) thermal imaging head to image a thermotransfer tape. Resembling a videotape cassette, the tape consists of a thermotransfer layer on a thin carrier film. The transferred image is heated to give the ink-receptive substance durability, and the form-cylinder surface is conditioned to make it water receptive. Imaging may take as little as two minutes, depending on format. After the press run, the ink and thermotransfer material are wiped off, making the form cylinder ready for the next job.

The recommended run length for the DICOweb is between 1,000 and 30,000 impressions, making it suitable for short-run color applications.

What happened to the Drupa Dozen?

Not all of the presses announced around Drupa got off the ground. And some vendors seemingly poised for a direct-imaging (DI) introduction haven't made a move. Read more about Akiyama, Didde, Shinohara and Goss at www.americanprinter.com. You'll also find more DI stories in our online article archive.

Current sheetfed DI offerings
MANUFACTURER IMAGING SYSTEM MEDIA COLORS MAX. SPEED (IPH) NOTES
TWO UP
Heidelberg Quickmaster DI 46-4 Presstek PEARL Presstek PEARLdry Plus four 10,000 automatic blanket washer
Karat 46 Presstek ProFire Presstek PEARLdry four 7,000 not available in U.S.
Ryobi 3404DI Presstek ProFire Presstek PEARLdry Plus four 7,000 resold by Xerox as DocuColor 233DI
Screen TruePress 544 Screen 633-nm diode Mitsubishi Silver Digiplate four 3,200 wet offset
Xerox DocuColor 233 DI Presstek ProFire Presstek PEARLdry Plus four 7,000 a.k.a. Ryobi 3404 DI
FOUR UP
Adast 705C DI Presstek PEARL Presstek PEARLdry four or five 10,000 optional IR dryer
Heidelberg Speedmaster 74 DI Creo SQUAREspot most thermal CTP plates four to six 15,000 perfecting unit
Karat 74 Creo laser diodes Presstek PEARLdry four 10,000 features Gravuflow inking
Sakurai Oliver 474EPII DI Presstek ProFire Presstek PEARLgold or conventional four or five 13,000 auto plate changer, CIP3, ink-density control
Screen TruePress 742 Screen 633-nm diode Mitsubishi Silver Digiplate two 8,000 not yet available
Screen TruePress 744 Screen 660-nm diode Mitsubishi Silver Digiplate four 8,000 twin 742 models; not yet available
Xerox DocuColor 400 DI Presstek ProFire Presstek PEARLdry Plus four or five 12,000 a.k.a. Adast 557 DI