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Digital Press Market Heats Up
By Bill Esler, Editor in Chief

Printers aren't afraid of digital color presses anymore. The machines themselves have been improving in quality, color fidelity and reliability. And printers have established reasonable levels of expectation for their output, with more clearly targeted applications and a sense of how to integrate them into hybrid premedia workflows. Now, as customers have begun asking printers to install digital presses, they are obliging.

Evergreen Printing, Bellmawr, NJ, has ordered a 5,000 sheet-per-hour Kodak NexPress S2500 digital color press last month. The commercial publication printer does heatset and non-heatset printing and mailing for businesses as well as for magazine and newspaper publishers. “Our core business of providing print and distribution services for newspapers, magazines and trade publications remains strong,” says new owner Carmen Pinto. “But we also have requests from our current customers and prospects for print products with variable data and content.”

Preparing for the NexPress arrival in January, Evergreen will expand its circulation fulfillment and mail list processing department, and has named Rich Routhier to push circulation fulfillment services and digital print sales.

Metzger Printing & Mailing, Toledo, OH, ordered a Xerox iGen4 digital color press at Graph Expo. Being installed this month, it is the first iGen4 in North America—and the first anywhere with integrated, inline saddlestitcher.

“With the automation features on the iGen4, we will be able to reduce the number of hands needed per job from 10 on offset to four with digital,” says president Joe Metzger. “This will get projects out the door within eight hours and free up resources for our company to handle more jobs and increase revenue.”

The 110-ppm iGen4 bundles enhancements that were add-on features on the iGen3, such as reduced cycle time between jobs, upgraded photo imaging and color quality, and a large-size 14.33×22.5´´ paper tray. Metzger will use it for education clients, where he sees demand for personalized college recruiting materials quadrupling. The iGen4 will allow entreé to travel and photo book work, too. “The image quality is awesome,” says Metzger, who expects the iGen to print 500,000 pages monthly within six months.

A trek across Graph Expo in Chicago last month found a much wider range of digital offerings—from Canon's new C1+ 14-ppm sheetfed printer to high-volume rollfed inkjet webs. Quite a few of these digital printers were unveiled at drupa as technology demos and are on sale for the first time in the U.S. As a result, the category of equipment demands a fresh review by commercial printers.

Unlike offset presses, toner-based digital presses use a variety of imaging systems. While most are based on dry toner, LED imaging and transfer belts, the HP Indigo presses employ liquid toner sprayed onto a heated intermediary blanket cylinder that transfers the still-tacky image to the subtrate. Fusing and toner systems vary by manufacturer as well. Most dry toner presses use a combination of heat-pressure fusing. The Océ system uses a reduced temperature fuser with heavier pressure to “crush” toner into the substrate. Xeikon, which exhibited its web-fed model 8000 at the show, uses a radiant fusing technique, and Xerox has developed a unique flash-fusing system for a next-generation 490 dry-toner, web-fed digital print engines.

Inkjet color digital web presses from Agfa (Big Grinotrix), Kodak (Versamark), Screen (JetPress 520), InfoPrint Solutions (model 5000) and Océ (ColorStream) integrate various inkjet print heads with inks tailored to each application. At Graph Expo, Kodak showed a single-color technology demo of its Stream inkjet web using a specialized nano-ink, running on a GSS roll transport with Adphos curing. Also at the show, Océ debuted a breakthrough integrated MICR inkjet unit for its 4-color ColorStream inkjet web.

Direct imaging offset presses—the Presstek 34DI and 52DI models and the Screen Truepress—image offset plates within offset presses: waterless in the case of Presstek, and conventional wet offset polyester plates for Screen. According to a study by InfoTrends, these machines have a hybrid application for versioned runs, not variable, longer than digital can handle and shorter than is typically efficient for conventional offset presses. Two other types of digital press engines represented at Graph Expo bear a mention: the wide-format inkjet printers (numerous models to choose from) and dedicated digital label presses. Five were running at Labelexpo in September; one, the EFI Jetrion, was also at Graph Expo at the Pitman booth, which sells the device.

One way of viewing commercial-style digital presses is as a parallel universe to offset presses. They come in sheetfed and web versions, just like offset presses. In the sheetfed models, unlike offset, they are pretty much relegated to a tabloid (or slightly larger) format. The sheetfed field is usually split into groupings based mostly on speed, not size: short-run (12 to 40 pages per minute or ppm; mid-range (50 to 70 ppm); and high-speed (80 to 110 ppm). Rollfed industrial digital presses is a rapidly growing category encompassing machines faster than 110 ppm, and usually web-fed. Visitors to Graph Expo could compare the capabilities of the two major engine formats—inkjet and toner—and determine their suitability side by side.

Ironically, the highest speed digital presses sometimes are not the most productive. As they have grown in size and speed, they have required more cycle time between jobs. So, sometimes, a 70-ppm printer will actually deliver more output than a press rated 50% faster. For digital presses, like the copiers in the office, there is a warm-up period and a cycle-up and cycle-down time between jobs. Some slower machines take less time for this, so they can be more efficient if you are running lots of very short-run work, just as a 6-up sheetfed presses might makeready faster between jobs than larger, higher speed offset presses.

Well-known brands with high-speed sheetfed and industrial web machines include Xerox, Xeikon, HP, InfoPrint, Ricoh, Screen and Océ. Midrange devices would be found at Kodak, Konica Minolta, Océ, Ricoh and Canon. Unique application digital devices are offered by Agfa, Xanté and MGI, for printing lenticulars, envelopes and specialized substrates. Another unusual print engine is the Riso 5500, which uses inkjet printed onto a transfer belt for short-run work.

Commercial offset printers researching digital printing presses for the first time may be surprised to discover something called the “click charge.” Unlike offset press makers, digital press manufactures generally lease machines, bundled with service and supply contracts. Like mileage in automobile leases, there is a certain targeted volume of copies, or “clicks,” based on duty cycle and projected volume. Once exceeded, extra click charges can apply. The billing structures can get complicated. On some models, users report, scanning hard copies to merge into print runs may activate a click charge. On other devices, specific drawers are designated for gathering and inserting preprinted materials and covers into projects. These do not activate click charges; but not all drawers can be set to handle click-free gathering. For inkjet-based machines, the billing model is based on consumables, not clicks.

Another area of billing that differs from offset is maintenance. Most digital presses are maintained by the manufacturer or dealers. But on some models—notably the Kodak NexPress—certain wear parts are defined as operator replaceable components. This appeals to commercial printers who are used to replacing rollers and blankets on offset presses.

At Graph Expo, Canon launched the Customer Productivity Program for its imagePress 70-ppm C7000VP and 60-ppm C6000VP models. The program allows qualified operators, trained by their servicing dealer, to perform proactive maintenance procedures, self-service and print quality diagnostics. Certified key operators within an organization can enter the Operator Maintenance Mode, via the user interface on the imagePress, to monitor parts usage, place the device into Replacement/Cleaning Mode, clear parts counters or perform digital press adjustments. The key operator has access to on-screen maintenance, cleaning and adjustment procedures.

Among other digital presses, Agfa can add traditional UV flexo printing stations that can also serve as coating or varnishing alleys. Slitting and diecutting as well as sheeter installations can be added to complete the engine.

Mid-range (50 ppm to 70 ppm) engines at Graph Expo included the Xerox DocuColor 5000, the Xerox 700, the Océ 665 and the Canon imagePRESS. Konica Minolta Business Solutions introduced the bizhub PRO C6501/C6501P/C5501 series of 55- and 65-ppm printers. Océ uses this platform for its model CS665 Pro. At Graph Expo, the 65-ppm CS665 Pro system was shown in two configurations: one integrated to an EFI Fiery color server, the other to a Creo front-end controller. The CS665 Pro with the EFI Fiery color server is the first digital color production system to be certified by Fogra as a validation of the printing system's predictable output.

Graph Expo was the official North American launch of the Ricoh Pro C900. Capable of speeds up to 90 ppm for both black-and-white and color print jobs. Ricoh says it runs full rated speed even handling its maximum heavy stock paper, up to 110-lb. cover. It can be configured to support long runs, and operators can load paper and toner on-the-fly.

The C900 is driven by an EFI Fiery controller, which allows it to optimize color and speed, and also manages it for variable data printing applications. It features a range of in-line finishing options, including: a 3,000-sheet finisher with a 100-sheet stapler; a GBC StreamPunch finisher that produces punched documents in a variety of styles; a Plockmatic bookletmaker that delivers booklets with one-side and square folding options; and a ring bind finisher that automates the entire bonding process. Perhaps most dramatic of the pricing on such a high-speed digital machine, this printer was launched with a suggested retail price of $117,500.
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