Xeikon has pulled the plug on its Trillium liquid toner press, which can’t have been an easy decision given that the company poured several years into this project, not to mention a large amount of money.
Benoit Chatelard, president and CEO of Digital Solutions for Flint Group, claimed: “We continuously review our portfolio and we are confident the segments we operate can be well served with our current dry toner technology and the newly launched Panther UV inkjet technology.” Well, he would say that, but I suspect that a more accurate reaction would be: “Oh bother (or words to that effect), we’re right up the creek without a paddle now.”
The company first showed off a liquid print technology demonstration at the Drupa 2012 show, albeit a mono simplex machine behind a glass wall in a separate room. That year, there were several inkjet presses on show, clearly demonstrating that inkjet could offer high speed and a reasonable image quality, with a new pricing model that did away with click charges. These inkjet presses threatened to undermine dry toner technology for the high speed high volume print market so the Trillium technology demonstration kept Xeikon in the game.
By Ipex 2014 Xeikon claimed to have a four-colour duplex machine running in its R&D centre and was talking about a commercial launch in 2015. By Drupa 2016 Xeikon showed off the Trillium One press, declaring that the first machines would be delivered within a year. But behind the scenes the liquid toner was switched from a mineral oil carrier to a vegetable oil carrier amidst worries over whether or not the press could achieve usable results consistently enough for commercial printing.
Chatelard cited a number of factors in the final decision, saying: “Changing market dynamics but mainly ongoing technical issues in developing the liquid toner technology, including press uptime issues, encouraged us to take this difficult decision.”
In retrospect there was only ever a narrow window of opportunity, which Xeikon missed. Back in 2010 when Xeikon first started looking at liquid toner, that opportunity was to develop a machine capable of producing good quality 1200 dpi images at speeds of 100mpm and higher. At that time, the quality from inkjet presses was best suited to transpromo applications but it was always inevitable that the output from those inkjet presses would improve, giving Xeikon a limited amount of time to establish Trillium. It was a reasonable gamble to take given Xeikon’s proven expertise in toner technology. However, although the results were good, there were problems in getting it to run consistently and the company simply ran out of time.
So Xeikon now has a huge problem, because if Trillium is not the answer to its need for a high-speed document printer to compete against the inkjet printers, then what is?
There is a vague suggestion that Xeikon could do something with inkjet, namely its Panther inkjet presses, but these are narrow web label presses that use UV inks and run at 600dpi so as not to compete with the dry toner Cheetah presses. Besides, the first Panther, the PX3000 is still being beta tested and won’t be fully ready until next year. A high speed document printer that could replace Trillium would require a completely different imaging system, with 1200 dpi printheads and water-based inks, plus the attendant drying system and a much more robust media transport system that could handle wider webs. More to the point, Xeikon doesn’t completely own this technology but has instead partnered with an as yet unnamed company. So it is not in a position to quickly repurpose its inkjet approach to develop a fast document printer that could satisfy the needs of high end direct mail customers.
Then again, Xeikon could simply stick with its existing dry toner presses, abandon the high speed document segment and concentrate on developing faster devices for the flexible packaging market, which probably offers more opportunities and is a better fit with the Flint Group that now owns Xeikon.
But I suspect that the real challenge is whether Xeikon can change its mindset from being a toner company to truly become the technology-agnostic company that it claims to now aspire to be. Lode DePrez, Xeikon’s Vice President R&D consumables and process digital solutions, says that both EP and inkjet have their advantages, pointing out that dry toner is more suitable for food-safe applications. But to be truly technology agnostic, the company will have to offer the very best of both technologies.
However, looking at its label offerings, Xeikon seems to feel that customers will choose between the excellent image quality of its dry toner Cheetah presses or the speed of its inkjet Panther machines but there’s no solution for customers that want both speed and image quality. Instead it feels as if Xeikon is struggling to define itself and the closure of the Trillium program only serves to throw this into sharp relief.