On thin ice

So, we’ve more or less reached the end of the year and it’s time to look back over some of the major stories of the year. I’ll deal with predictions for 2019 in the next featured blog.

Ice skating at Somerset house, central London.

But for now let’s look at some of the trends from 2018. Thus, the use of LED arrays for curing UV inks has clearly come of age with a much wider choice of inks formulated for use with LEDs. The obvious benefits are lower energy costs with more consistent results. However, this has to be set against a limited choice of working wavelengths and more complex solutions to ensure that the ink has fully cured. Nonetheless, most of the wide format printers launched in 2018 have used LED curing, including several mid-volume machines such as the Vutek H-series and Agfa’s H3300. LED curing is also starting to become more commonplace in narrow web flexo and even with some offset presses. 

HP redeveloped its latex technology to come up with a hybrid device capable of printing to rigid materials and with the added bonus of a white ink option. Meanwhile, Ricoh has also developed its own latex printer and inks, showing off a prototype of its new L5160 roll to roll printer at the Fespa show in May. This printer should be available early 2019. It’s worth noting that Ricoh’s first foray into latex – the L4100, which was co-developed with Mimaki – prompted HP to upgrade its latex technology with its third generation machines back in 2014.  

Mutoh’s MP31 inks can be stretched and thermoformed into a range of different shapes.

I think this should be seen in the wider context of large format vendors exploring different types of ink to take them into new areas. Durst has already gone down this route with its hybrid UV/ water-based ink as used in its WT250 printer. Earlier this month Mutoh announced a solvent resin ink that should offer a good alternative to latex for some applications and with a lower film height than UV ink. Meanwhile, Ricoh sees industrial print as a way to expand its footprint and in 2018 has acquired several companies, including the RIP vendor Colorgate, to help with this ambition. 

It struck me at the InPrint 2018 show in Milan that Industrial printing is really starting to come into its own now. This is a very different market to graphics as each application requires a bespoke solution. Nonetheless it was obvious in Milan that most vendors were happy to collaborate together to develop those solutions and most reported that the customers also had a better understanding of what industrial inkjet printing would involve than was the case even just a couple of years ago. The industrial market is really going to be one of the most interesting areas in printing over the next couple of years. This is something that everyone in printing should pay attention to because the industrial market is driving the development of inkjet inks with its demands to adhere to unconventional substrates in aggressive environments. This in turn will benefit the graphics market, particularly in the packaging area.

The Xerox Iridesse is a six colour dry toner press that can produce metallic effects in a single pass.

There were a surprising number of toner-based machines in 2018 with Ricoh and Konica Minolta in particular upgrading their product range. Overall, most of these new printers promise more consistent results, with automated colour management, and with several also offering additional colours or effects. The most notable of these is the Xerox Iridesse which can be configured with up to six channels for gold and silver metallics as well as clear and white plus CMYK. In most cases the emphasis has been on improving overall throughput of work rather than the engine speeds or even the average monthly volumes. 

Most of the new inkjet presses have been aimed at the packaging market, which I’ll deal with in the next post. That said, Memjet has clearly had a really good year with several new printers using its heads, including the Gallus Smartfire and the MGI Alphajet.

Xerox has had a rough year, beginning with an audacious attempt to gift the company to Fujifilm that ended in several lawsuits and a dramatic boardroom clear-out. Xerox has survived intact, apparently with a plan to rebuild though the option of selling the company is still clearly on the table. Indeed, Fujifilm still has an outstanding lawsuit aimed at forcing Xerox to honour the terms of its original deal though it’s not clear exactly how Fujifilm hopes to prevail.

Overall, there does seem to have been quite a few corporate acquistions, ranging from Plockmatic picking up Watkiss to Heidelberg taking over MBO, not to mention Kodak selling off its flexo division. This consolidation suggests to me that the vendors are battening down the hatches and preparing to ride out the worsening economic conditions of a shrinking print market, US trade wars and a general downturn in many western economies.

Dr John Anderson, Director and vice president business development flexographic packaging division for Kodak.

And then there is Brexit, which is bound to have an impact on the printing and manufacturing sectors in the UK, though it’s hard to prepare for since we still do not know what form this Brexit will take. But it seems inevitable to me that any form of Brexit is going to lead to a massive restructuring of the British economy and many people are going to be worse off from it. If the country was led by giants such as Churchill or Gladstone then maybe it would turn out alright and leave people wondering what all the fuss was about. But with leaders like May, Johnson, Fox and Rees Mogg it’s more likely to be a complete disaster. 

The tragedy of Brexit is that nobody really knows what the original referendum result actually means because the question asked was too vague. It could mean a mandate for a hard Brexit, or just as equally for a soft Brexit, or it could just mean that people were really fed up with David Cameron’s government and its austerity policies. In any case, most people have now learned far more about our relationship with the EU than they did before, plus we know what the government’s deal is, which in my view necessitates a second referendum. Anyone that argues that more voting would somehow undermine democracy really hasn’t understood how democracy works. 

On that note, I’ll stop and wish everyone a Happy New Year for 2019.

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