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Upping the ante

Mar 1, 2010 12:00 AM


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The production inkjet field is getting interesting. Kodak has begun briefing the press and analysts on its new Prosper Press line, first introduced at drupa as the Stream Concept Press. (See “Kodak showcases stream inkjet technology” at http://americanprinter.com/news/syndicate.) The company is planning a public launch at Ipex in May. (Consolidated Graphics, or CGX, officially signed the first contract for the 4-color perfecting model on December 9, 2009.) While publicity for HP's T300 Color Inkjet Web Press arguably has been more daring, Kodak is upping the ante with a serious contender.

Prosper is based on Kodak's Stream inkjet technology, developed primarily in the Dayton, OH, facility and the Kodak Research Labs, but separate from the existing Versamark VL line. It represents a new approach to inkjet imaging and a major gamble in an already distressed printing industry. If successful, it will bring inkjet digital printing — and its potential for variable-data output and shorter, more cost-effective press runs — closer to the overall visual quality of offset production.

‘Live long and Prosper’

The Prosper line has already launched the Prosper S10 Imprinting System, which was commercialized in June 2009. Used inline on a conventional press, the 4.16-inch units provide 600-dpi black variable-data printing (VDP), on a variety of coated and uncoated stocks, at speeds up to 1,000 fpm. The list price is $475,000 for a two-headed system with a controller and data station. Direct mail printers in particular have shown interest in the S10, which enables higher quality VDP without the need for a two-step, hybrid process of preprinting offset shells and adding variable data offline.

The 24.5-inch (620mm) print width Prosper 1000 is a 600-dpi, black-only perfecting press, printing up to 3,600 A4 images per minute at the equivalent of 100-133 lpi, and a duty cycle of 120 million A4 impressions per month, assuming 24/7 operations at 80% uptime. Kodak has worked out inline finishing system integrations with Muller Martini, Hunkeler and Lasermax (with others purportedly in the works).

The Prosper 1000 is aimed at the book printing market, for shorter runs of up to 7,000 copies. The variable-data angle is somewhat moot for book publishers, although the potential for teacher's editions and versioning in the education market is attractive. Overall print quality is comparable to offset, and the ability to print on a variety of commercial papers is a plus. In the book printing workflow presented by Kodak, the process of adding separately printed color covers was a manual one, but the overall system is still attractive for short-run trade and educational book printing.

The entire Prosper line is field upgradeable and highly modular, according to Kodak. The 1000 can be upgraded to color, for example, by inserting and configuring new heads and modules. When we viewed (but were not allowed to photograph) the first devices being assembled, the compact, modular press units appeared to be easily movable and compatible with a broad range of shop floor challenges.

The first full-color Prosper 5000XL perfecting press will be installed in the first half of 2010 — presumably at a CGX shop. Like its monochrome cousin, the 5000XL has a print width of 24.5 inches (620mm) on a 25.5-inch-wide web, with speeds approaching 1,000 fpm. The image equivalent for the color press is 133-175 lpi. Individual color jetting modules are followed by their own separate inline drying units (see diagram), contrasted with systems that only have a final drying unit after all four colors have printed. Kodak maintains that this reduces printing problems due to excessive moisture content, thereby improving image quality, color gamut and color fidelity. Interestingly, ink drying is highly customized, based on paper type and ink coverage. Special profiles manage the dryer temperatures throughout the run.

Next Page: Pricing, maintenance and target markets

To support full data variability and versioning at such high speeds, the Prosper requires an imposing digital controller system, the Kodak 700 Print Manager. Version 1.0 supports the usual array of static file formats such as PDF and PostScript, as well as variable data formats like PPML/GA, PPML/VDX, VPS and optimized output from InSite, Darwin and some third-party applications. Version 2.0 will add support for Intelligent Print Data Stream (IPDS), and 2.1 will add support for Xerox VIPP and ASP. A new version of Prinergy (dubbed “Prinergy Digital”) has added some unique analysis and logic approaches for creating more effective variable data campaigns.

The 5000XL will print stochastic color images, comparable to 175-lpi output on glossy stock, according to Kodak. On coated glossy paper, the color gamut is purportedly equal to or greater than that of SWOP or GRACoL, and was reported to be 34% larger than the European Fogra39 color space. The device will include on-board spectrophotometers to help with color management and control. One reason for the large potential color gamut was the formulation of Prosper's nanoparticulate ink — which Kodak claims increases color saturation and requires less overall ink usage.

Samples we viewed had some minor but noticeable color variation from their offset counterparts — particularly in the reds and purples — but we could not tell if this variation was related to software, hardware or consumables. Despite these undoubtedly solvable issues, the Prosper's color quality will impress many customers accustomed to offset work.

Pricing, maintenance and target markets

The capital investment for a Prosper Press ranges from $1.4 to $4 million, depending on color capability and including the Digital Front End (DFE) — but not third-party inline finishing. A range of commercially available papers can be used, and the ink must be purchased from Kodak. A supply of replacement jetting modules is included.

The company claims that the average cost of producing an A4-size CMYK page (35% coverage) will be $0.008, while the average cost of producing an A4-size monochrome page (5% coverage) will be $0.0015. Before embracing these estimates, however, potential buyers should discover the impact of maintenance/service charges, energy usage and other factors that might be different from those of offset operations. Kodak stresses the relatively low number (6) of jetting modules per color and the ease with which the modules can be replaced. Prosper customers will be supplied with additional jetting modules for replacement, which takes about one minute plus an additional five minutes to bring the press fully back online.

Prosper is intended for several markets, including short-run books (50-7,000 copies), variable direct mail (16,500-26,000 signatures/hr.) and catalogs and inserts (50-3,000 versioned copies at 19,500-23,000 signatures/hr.). Kodak's “Market Pioneer” customers in these markets include education and trade book printer Webcrafters (Madison, WI), as well as CGX.

The 2010 outlook

As Kodak rolls out the Prosper line, comparisons with HP's press will become more intense. The T300 boasts a wider 30-inch web and 1,200 x 600-dpi resolution, but its maximum speed — 400 fpm — is less than that of Prosper. Evaluations of the two devices' color quality and consistency, especially vs. offset, will have to wait until there has been some impartial testing.

Kodak will make considerable noise about printability on commercially available coated stock, although we expect HP to counter with its undercoating process, plus the argument that the Prosper does in fact require coated paper to be specially treated, either at the mill or by an inline module.

The real question is whether to compare the T300 with Prosper or with existing inkjet presses, such as the Versamark VL and other piezoelectric DOD devices. The T300 is based on DOD technology, which Kodak insists is a limiting factor while HP clearly believes otherwise.

Quality, productivity and pricing issues are only the tip of the iceberg. The ideal medium of such presses is variable-data printing, versioning and extremely short runs — preferably strung together, with minimal makeready. To handle such work profitably on a fast web press, the automated workflow must be capable of keeping the pipeline full and handling a multitude of small details with extreme accuracy, before and after the actual printing happens. Above all, each printer's sales force must learn how to design and sell complex, automatable projects — as opposed to individual print jobs — if they hope to become manufacturing supply chain players. Hardware, no matter how attractive, is only one aspect of a far larger challenge.


John Parsons is an independent consultant, analyst and writer. Contact him at john@bytemedianews.com.

Check out John Parsons'APTV appearance in the February 17 archive at americanprinter.com/tv/viewing.

OPM purchases Prosper 1000

Offset Paperback Manufacturers (OPM) (www.opm.com), a Bertelsmann company, chose the Kodak Prosper Press with an integrated Muller Martini SigmaLine inline finishing system for its book printing operation in Laflin, PA. The fully automated production line will provide OPM with a complete solution — from PDF to finished book in a single operation, managed by the end-to-end workflow system Connex. See www.prosper.kodak.com.

Next Page: Don't cross the Stream

Don't cross the Stream

According to Kodak, Stream (the underlying technology for the Prosper Press) is a wholly new approach to non-impact digital printing. It is not a drop-on-demand (DOD) approach, nor is it a conventional continuous inkjet (CIJ) process. DOD produces a pattern of ink droplets via a vibrating crystal or other electronic “gating” element for each inkjet nozzle. Although Kodak uses DOD in its existing Versamark line, the company holds that DOD has inherent speed and usability limitations for “offset-comparable” inkjet production.

Prosper is a CIJ approach — but with significant differences. The ink droplets are not electrically charged or separated magnetically. (This conventional approach, Kodak maintains, is naturally subject to electrical shorting and other limitations.) Instead, each stream of ink is subjected to miniscule heat pulses (measured in nanojoules — billionths of a joule), which changes the fluid's surface tension and divides the stream into large or small droplets. A steady air current pushes the smaller, lighter droplets aside — into a recycling path — so only the larger, heavier droplets reach the paper. There are few moving parts, potentially more nozzles per array and, Kodak maintains, lower inkjet head failure rates. There also are fewer inkjet heads to deal with: only 48 in the 24.5-inch, 4-color perfecting press.

The paper chase

Another major difference between Stream and DOD is the former's ability to print on commercially available coated stocks. Because DOD inks contain more wetting agents — to prevent clogging in the print heads — it is extremely difficult to apply them to non-porous stock, such as matte/gloss-coated or supercalendered paper. Stream ink contains only trace amounts of wetting agents, as well as finer pigment particles. In combination with interstation dryers, Stream inks purportedly offer improved drying with better adhesion characteristics to coated papers. Non-porous papers still must be roll-coated at the mill, although Kodak maintains that the treatment does not visually alter the paper and is affordable. The company has negotiated with major paper companies to provide ample supplies of roughly 24 common stocks for Prosper use. In 2011, Kodak will introduce an inline roll-coating station for treating a wider range of papers not treated at the mill.

All in all, Stream technology appears to be a major break from traditional inkjet thinking. With fewer moving parts and a simpler architecture, it is arguably more scalable and practical for high-speed output than DOD or conventional CIJ. In theory, it could eventually erode a significant portion of offset's market share — beginning with short- to medium-run work. What it means for other digital print approaches, including NexPress and other toner devices, will depend on whether Kodak can deliver on Stream's quality and speed claims.