Say Hello, Wave Goodbye

Apologies to anyone of a delicate disposition for the dodgy pop reference but it’s the end of the year, and so time to look back at some of the machines that entered service in 2014 and to ask what goodies 2015 is likely to bring us.

_DC14850_Web_Christmas2014However, the most important element is the economy, which does seem to be showing signs of a recovery, here in the UK at least. There seems to me to be a greater optimism amongst managing directors of print businesses across the board from wide format through to commercial printers. This is borne out both by the BPIF’s quarterly surveys and the sales of new printing kit, including B1 offset presses. That said, quite a few print companies have disappeared and those that have survived have put off investment for as long as they dared.

At the same time, the offset press manufacturers have been busy reorganising themselves over the last couple of years, with most starting to see positive revenues again this year. They have concentrated their press sales on the emerging markets and reinvented their European businesses as service and support organisations. Kodak, which has returned to profitability this year following its chapter 11 bankruptcy, will probably adopt the same strategy. Meanwhile, the big digital giants, HP and Xerox, seem to be concentrating more on enterprise computing and managed business services, with print as a relatively minor focus.

 

Software

In terms of software, there seems to be a greater acceptance of the idea of paying for ongoing licenses rather than owning a computer program outright. Several software vendors have introduced cloud licensing plans this year, following on from Adobe’s lead back in 2012. The advantage is that it can be accounted for as an ongoing cost rather than an occasional capital outlay. Also, it means that users can have the most up to date software, providing their hardware can keep up. But the downside is that it will become more expensive as prices inevitably rise and companies won’t be able to postpone the cost if they run into a downturn.

I think that we’ll also see an even greater reliance on cloud services. There are already several cloud-based colour management services and clearly some developers are looking at hybrid solutions that mix the distributive nature of the Internet with the security of local storage. Thus Canto has already announced a hybrid element for its Cumulus asset management program.

It’s possible that a greater use of cloud computing could mean some of the heavy duty processing work being done on cloud servers, meaning that there would be less pressure to keep updating the computer hardware to run all this software. That said, we’ve yet to see a genuinely cloud-based RIP.

 

Canon targeted the mid-range wide format market with this new, larger Arizona 6100 series UV flatbed.
Canon targeted the mid-range wide format market with this new, larger Arizona 6100 series UV flatbed.

Wide format

The most significant area of improvement has been wide format with a number of vendors having updated their printers, mainly due to new, faster printheads from the likes of Ricoh and Konica Minolta.

The market for UV flatbeds seems to be changing. This has been largely split between the slower machines, typically under £100,000, such as the Arizona, and the bigger machines like the Onsets, costing £500,000 or more. The smaller machines have offered lower costs with very good image quality, while the bigger machines are a lot more productive with ‘good enough’ image quality. But there’s a lot of machines in the middle ground now, including Canon’s 6100 series Arizonas that was announced at Fespa back in May and has been shipping since September. It’s up against Screen’s W3200UV, the SwissQprint Nyala and Agfa’s Titans.

At the same time, the market for entry-level solvent printers still seems to be holding up, despite predictions of its demise from people keen to sell latex and UV printers. Legislation on the use of solvents has led to some new ink formulations but there are plenty of new solvent printers around, such as Mimaki’s JV300, which is capable of excellent quality on banners at high speeds.

However, I think the market for wide format textile printing for graphics use has slowed down. There are still plenty of textile printers, but they’re mainly aimed at the garment sector and this is still a growing area so that we’re likely to see more of the larger textile printers. But on the graphics side, although there are still good reasons for using textiles for soft signage I don’t think there’s enough growth in this sector to warrant a lot of new machines coming to the market. It seems instead that most graphics users are more likely to use a latex printer for the occasional flag or T-shirt.

The idea of using wide format printers and their technology for industrial applications has been steadily growing but the inaugural InPrint show has put this area firmly on the map. All of the wide format vendors see industrial printing as the next big growth area, though it’s worth noting that screen printing is still widely used due to the longer run lengths.

 

Digital presses

2014 proved to be a slightly disappointing year in terms of digital presses. I had expected to see more, given that this was an Ipex year. Instead, I’m left wondering if we’ll ever see another Ipex show. Of the presses that were announced, the most interesting, on paper at least, was probably the new L-series Rotajets from KBA, though KBA doesn’t seem to have had much success in actually selling any of its Rotajet machines yet. But also worth noting was the Ricoh V60000/ Screen TPJ520HD, which appears to offer excellent print quality at a reasonable speed from the sample that I’ve seen. Kodak and Fujifilm both announced new printers, and in both cases these proved to simply be the machines they had promised from the start. Thus Kodak’s Prosper 6000 and Fujifilm’s 720S have the same specifications as their predecessors but both claim improved productivity.

The year also saw a number of new dry toner presses, including the 2100 Versant from Xerox and the C9100 series from Ricoh. However, it’s surely only a matter of time before inkjet printers render this technology obsolete. Look inside any toner press and you’ll see that it’s packed with electronics and moving parts that make these presses expensive to keep running. On the other hand, there’s a lot more room inside the casing of similarly sized inkjet printers, which are considerably simpler and easier to maintain with correspondingly lower annual running costs. It’s simply a matter of time before inkjet printers can offer the same sort of image quality at speed and before suitable substrates become widely available.

But I don’t think that 2015 will see a sudden rush of inkjet printers – most vendors are quietly predicting 2018 to be the break-through year, presumably due to the availability of suitable printheads.

That said, we will see some high speed digital presses launched in 2015 and we can expect a lot of announcements at the end of the year in the run up to Drupa.

Konica Minolta showed its KM1 inkjet press, which should enter beta testing in 2015.
Konica Minolta showed its KM1 inkjet press, which should enter beta testing in 2015.

Indeed, several of the printers that were shown as prototypes at the last Drupa show are now approaching their commercial launches. This includes the Landa presses, which are finally due to start their beta testing with the first Israeli site likely to be announced around Q2 of 2015, though it will probably be the second quarter of 2016 before the actual commercial launch.

HP should be officially launching its B2 Indigo 20000 and 30000 models, aimed at flexible packaging and carton board respectively. These have been on a worldwide beta over the last few months but should be commercially available in most regions within the first half of 2015.

Konica Minolta is also due to start the first beta for its KM1 inkjet press at the start of 2015, with a full commercial launch still slated for the end of the year.

I’d be surprised if we don’t also hear more from Impika and learn more of the Fujifilm–Heidelberg partnership. But whereas the first round of high speed digital printers concentrated on transactional printing, the image quality of the latest printheads has improved to the point where packaging is going to be targeted more closely.

Thus one of the most interesting areas to watch will be inkjet label printers, with many vendors looking to labels as an entry point into the wider packaging market.

Finally, 3D printing has been slowly growing in popularity over the last decade or so but noticeably in the last year or two. The big battle is in developing a greater range of materials that can be used with these printers and lowering the cost point. But the fact that astronauts on the International Space Station have been able to print tools without having to wait for the next supply shuttle is a useful demonstration of the potential of this technology. So it seems inevitable that we’re going to see a lot more about 3D printing in 2015 – both in the consumer space and in commercial manufacturing. It’s a technology that print companies have a unique skill set to exploit, though it’s still a challenge to make a return on investment. But then people said that about digital printing back in the mid-nineties!

 

 


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