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Digital and Offset Press Vendors Are Bringing Printers the Best of Both Worlds

Mar 29, 2012 12:00 AM


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Some experts trace the birth of digital printing to 1978, the year that the IBM 3800 and Xerox 9700 appeared.In 1993, Indigo and Xeikon gave us digitalcolor presses. Early on, Benny Landa, founderof Indigo, famously declared, “Everything that can godigital, will go digital.” It was a brash statement, given thatdesktop publishing was a late 1980s development and thefirst practical Internet browser was barely known in 1993.

Fast forward to Heidelberg’s press conference at Graph Expo2011. “Everything that can go online, will go online,” saidBernhard Schreier, chairman of Heidelberger Druckmaschinen.

Schreier was surrounded by traditional offset presses(Speedmaster SM 52 and SM 74) as well as digital equipment:the Ricoh Pro C901 and EFI VUTek GS3200 grand-format device. We expect more of the same when drupa 2012 takes over Dusseldorf from May 3-16.

DIGITAL PARTNERSHIPS

Other traditional offset players are pairing off with digital partners, too. In March 2011, RR Donnelley and KBA announced an agreement to develop, manufacture and sell next-generation piezoelectric digital inkjet printing solutions to the pack­aging, securities, commercial and newspaper segments. Donnelley will license its Apollo and other digital imaging technologies to KBA; KBA’s new digital press will be introduced at drupa 2012.

In December 2010, Océ and man­roland announced a global strategic alliance in which manroland would market Océ inkjet-based digitalprinting solutions. (manroland, the world’s third-largest producer of offset presses, "led for bankruptcy protection in 2011. In January 2012, its insolvency administrator announced the company will be split into three independent enti-ties.) On December 1, 2011, Kodak announced it had formed Inkjet Technology Partnerships (ITP), a business team that will work with equipment suppliers as well as large print providers to leverage Kodak's Stream inkjet technology. On January 19, Kodak "led for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11. The company has stressed its intention to continue normal business operations during the reorganization-its drupa participation won't change.

CHANGING TIMES

While many pundits have dubbed the 2012 show an "Inkjet drupa," this might just be the Cross Media Confab. "Print is no longer the center of the world," says InfoTrend's Jim Hamilton. "You have to be in a position to support Web, email, social media, QR codes, personalized URLs and call centers, in some cases, for direct marketing and direct mail. Campaign management tools [are important as are] software and workflow tools." Conventional offset won't disappear soon-it's still a $40 to $50 billion dollar market and remains the dominant printing process.

But the impact of a stalled U.S. and global economy, structural changes and technical innovations can't be underestimated. Since 1998, the industry has lost more than 25% of its establishments. Recent news isn't much better: An August 2011 NAPL report found commercial printing industry sales fell 0.9% in the second quarter. In July, just 24.7% of the NAPL Printing Business Panel expected business to improve during the six months ahead-down from 36.1% in April and 39.6% in January. As of November 2009, NAPL found printers of all sizes are most concerned about these structural changes:

  • Internet/electronic alternatives to print.
  • Reduction in order size, page count, etc.
  • Postal increases and related issues.

Participants also were asked to rate the future importance of their primary product markets. Almost 65% of participants with wide-format banners, signage, wraps, etc., as a primary market expect the market to become more important; none expect it to become less important. Other markets with relatively positive "importance gaps" include promotion, direct mail/marketing and packaging.

MAIL STILL DELIVERS MARKETING RESULTS

Razor-thin profit margins, declin-ing print runs and quick turn times are pushing printers to achieve unprecedented efficiencies. On the offset side, innovations include computer-assisted registration, closed-loop color control, automatic defect detection and simultaneous plate changes. Drying technology continues to advance-IST's Com-pact eliminates interdeck UV lamps in favor of a single lamp installed after the last printing unit, while the single-lamp Komori H-UV offers an economical entree into UV printing. We expect to see many UV developments on digital wide-format technology, too.

INKJET'S IMPACT ON OFFSET AND EP

Fujifilm's J Press 720 and the Screen Truepress JetSX are the first B-sized sheetfed inkjet presses; RISO has offered smaller format devices for some time. Targeting runs of 3,500 sheets, Fujifilm's halfsize J Press 720 produces up to 2,700 29.5 × 20.8- inch, 4-up size sheets per hour, or the equivalent of 10,800 8.5 × 11-inch pages per hour. Gilson Graphics is the first J Press 720 installation. Toner and inkjet machines eliminate makeready-an advantage vs. offset devices. Inkjet machines have some substrate limitations, particularly on coated stock, but more options are in development. Inkjet's scalability offers intriguing platform possibili-ties-for example, five print heads in each print bar span the HP T200's 22-inch web while seven print heads span the 30-inch web of the HP T300/T350 and 10 print heads span the 42-inch HP T400.

Offset ink is considerably cheaper than inkjet inks. Offset machines typically also achieve higher uptimes than digital presses. "Digital press operations are plagued with downtime, no matter what the process, make or manufacturer," grumbles one user. "We have dazzling color, yes, but we still have the copier repair technician."

The bottom line: "There is no question that digital output will replace more and more offset output," says Gartner's Pete Basiliere. "But the question is not 'Will one technology replace the other?' but 'What is the best technology for a particular job?'"

TINY SILICON STEPS INTO THE BIG IRON SPOTLIGHT

We often informally refer to traditional printing technology as "Big Iron." At drupa 2012, we expect "Tiny Silicon" to flourish. The next breed of inkjet heads are manu-factured using the same processes employed for integrated-circuit production. Micro-Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMs) generally range in size from a micrometer (a millionth of a meter) to a millimeter (thousandth of a meter) and excel at creating inkjet head nozzles, holes and so targeting outdoor signage, packaging and equipment surfaces and, eventu-ally, these nano-emulsions could be used for topical administration of everything from medicine to hair dye.

As Landa told me last year: "Everything that can become digital will become digital - hair color is no exception!"

Katherine O'Brien is the Senior Editor of OutputLinks' American Printer Division. Contact her at KOB@AmericanPrinter.com.