The year ahead

The start of a new year always seems like a good idea to make idle predictions of some of the things that we might encounter over the next 12 months, which is absolutely nothing to do with any intoxicating alcoholic beverages that might have been consumed over the Christmas holidays. But, no matter, this is a Drupa year, so something’s bound to turn up.

The Mcor HD Iris uses paper to create 3D objects.
The Mcor HD Iris uses paper to create 3D objects.

For a start, several presses were announced at the last drupa that have yet to be commercially released. Chief amongst these is Landa, which made such a splash with its nanography announcements last time around but has been noticeably quiet over the last year.

As it happens I bumped into Benny Landa a few months ago at the InPrint show. Naturally, I asked him about the progress with his presses but he wouldn’t tell me anything, other than to say that the company had increased the size of its stand at drupa, with a promise to reveal more at the show.

But what else could he say when I put him on the spot? Because, make no mistake, 2016 is make or break for Landa, which signed a lot of customers to letters of intent in 2012 and by my reckoning is now two years behind schedule.

I’ve also heard persistent rumours about sheetfed inkjet presses. To date, most of the inkjet presses have been web fed, largely because the tension inherent in a roll-to-roll system makes it much easier to maintain a consistent distance between the media and the printhead, which has a direct impact on the print quality. But a web-fed press only makes sense if you can persuade most of your customers to use the same type of paper. This works in some applications such as transpromo where the combination of personalisation, good image quality and relatively low cost is the main issue. But commercial printers have to handle a wide range of different types of jobs and would prefer to have the flexibility of a sheet-fed system.

So it’s hardly surprising that several vendors have hinted that they are looking at sheetfed inkjet presses. We’re bound to see some new sheetfed systems at Drupa, though its unlikely that these will be commercially viable this year. For that, we’d need a new approach to the transport system and/or new printheads.

Hybrid inks

I’m fairly confident that we are going to see a number of hybrid aqueous inks announced this year, largely based on the sheer number of ink vendors who looked distinctly uncomfortable when I asked about this. A hybrid UV ink is one that contains a volatile compound, which could be solvent but these days is more likely to be water because of the perceived ecological benefits of a water-based ink. The advantage is that it’s easier to control the viscosity, which might in turn allow for higher production speeds, a broader range of substrates or particular qualities such as a thinner film. Also, such inks are complex and therefore it’s harder for competitors to keep up or for after market ink vendors to make similar alternatives. But these inks do require two drying systems, which add to the size and cost of the printers.

Several ink manufacturers are currently working on hybrid aqueous UV inks. Sun Chemical has been the first to break cover with its AquaCureT inks, though it hasn’t released many details over than to say that its looking for partners. Indeed, I believe that Sun Chemical has already partnered with Durst, which showed off an interesting wide format printer at the Fespa Cologne show last year. The WT250 takes materials up to 250cm wide and can produce up to 400 sqm/hr. It’s quite large because the ink requires both an air dryer to get rid of the water and infrared curing. Durst says that it was designed to meet customer demands for a more environmentally-friendly solution.

Durst demonstrated its water technology inks with this WT250 hybrid printer. The hybrid inks require both UV curing and air drying so it's a big machine.
Durst demonstrated its water technology inks with this WT250 hybrid printer. The hybrid inks require both UV curing and air drying so it’s a big machine.

It’s mainly meant for printing to paper based substrates such as carton board and corrugated. But the holy grail is plastic and particularly flexible films, as well as shrinking the curing/ drying part of the printer.

Finally, I think we’re going to hear a lot more about 3D and industrial printing. 3D printing has been growing steadily for several years now but I think that in 2016 we will see a step change with new players focussed entirely on the larger commercial market. The biggest of these is HP, which has already talked about its Multi Jet Fusion concept. Essentially this uses a sintering process where a laser fuses a nylon plastic powder, though HP is also looking at metals and ceramics. So its possible that this may be the year that 3D printing moves beyond prototyping into actual production.

Equally, many vendors are becoming more open about their involvement with industrial printing as new inks allow for printing direct to a range of different materials and surfaces. This covers a huge range, from garments and furnishing through to packaging. Plenty of wide format service providers are already working for industrial customers – it remains to be seen if other printing companies can follow this lead.

This means that I start the new year wondering if I should rename this website and drop the ‘graphic arts’ reference. For most of my working life printing has clearly been part of the graphic arts, and yet as printing technology develops it seems to be outgrowing this. Either way, 2016 should be an exciting time to be writing about printing technology!

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