Digital Technologies are Front And Center at IPEX

By Sean Milmo, Ink World European Editor | 07.19.10

Digital technologies dominated this year’s IPEX printing exhibition at Birmingham, England – the second largest international printing show after drupa in Germany

Digital technologies dominated this year’s IPEX printing exhibition at Birmingham, England – the second largest international printing show after drupa in Germany.

For the first time at IPEX, which like Drupa is held every four years, more space was taken up by digital printing equipment companies and services than those businesss mainly involved in conventional processes.

Symbolically, HP became the exhibitor with the largest stand, whose area of 3,000 m2 was 50 percent larger than its display at the last IPEX show in 2006. Heidelberg, the global leader in the market for conventional equipment, which is usually by far the most prominent participant, slipped into number two position with a stand of 2,448 m2. The next four biggest exhibitors – Canon, Xerox, Fujifilm and Kodak – are all leading players in the digital sector.

The main ink suppliers to the conventional printing sector – like Sun Chemical, Flint Group and Siegwerk – did not exhibit at all.

The ink technologies attracting the most interest tended to be those developed and marketed by the OEM manufacturers of digital press equipment. They are, after all, the strongest force in R&D in digital inks.

However, the powerful presence at IPEX of companies providing inkjet, electrographic machines and other supporting equipment and services for digital processes – as well as digitalized technologies to enhance the efficiency of conventional process – did not show that digital is taking over the global printing market.

Antonio Perez, chief executive at Kodak, which although predominantly digital still makes equipment for conventional processes, including offset plates, pointed out that out of 76 trillion pages of print produced across the world annually, 90 percent is produced by offset and only 5 to 6 percent by digital presses. “Over the next 10 years that might increase by another 10 percent, (which) would be wonderful,” he said in an interview with the IPEX daily newspaper.

Focusing of Digital

The relative success of this year’s IPEX with an attendance of around 50,000, about the same as in 2006, and with around 1,000 exhibitors from 40 countries, was considered to be a sign of a revival in the printing markets in industrialized countries.

And with many of the visitors focusing on new investment, the main beneficiaries seemed to be those exhibitors demonstrating digital equipment.

“From the sales perspective, it’s very clear that the industry is set for growth as people are looking to invest in the future of their businesses,” said David Preskett, Canon Europe’s professional print director. “Over the course of the show we exceeded our targets.”

HP reported that it experienced a lot of demand for products across its entire graphic arts portfolio. “IPEX 2010 proves that digital printing is the mainstay,” said Richard de Boissezon, worldwide marketing director, HP Graphics Solutions.

After years on the periphery of the graphics sector, digital technologies are being widely welcomed among printers and their customers. They are being regarded as the savior of the print media as it faces unprecedented competition from the Internet.

“The importance of digital printing to the survival of print as a communication medium is now there for everyone to see,” said Neil Falconer, a senior consultant at the printing consultancy Pira International, Leatherhead, England, in an assessment of IPEX. “We are now realistically approaching the tipping point where digital print will become the dominant factor in the industry, if not by volume, certainly by value.”

As a result of the move in many printing markets to jobs with shorter runs, digital presses are helping printers gain new business and also to be more resilient during an economic downturn.

A survey commissioned by Canon of trends in the printing sector last year, mostly in Western Europe, found those printers with digital print capacity were able to cope best with the decrease in demand. They were able to exploit an actual rise in the number of printing jobs in 2009 while overall volumes fell.

IPEX provided a stage for display of fierce competition between the digital and conventional processes. At a press conference Heidelberg denounced the “hype” behind claims made in support of digital technologies.

Inkjet Inks

There were also indications of intensifying rivalry between digital ink systems, not only between inkjet inks and toners but between inkjet ink technologies themselves.

Most of the leading digital OEMs announced at the exhibition new or improved inkjet inks or toner technologies.

Advances in inkjet inks are enabling them to adhere more effectively to paper, plastic and other substrates. In the print media, for example, the aim has been to avoid the use of expensive specialist paper to ensure ink adhesion.

Other objectives were shorter drying times, better color quality, greater durability and, above all, ink systems which reduced overall production costs.

Fujifilm introduced its new Jet Press 720 sheetfed inkjet machine, which can print 2,700 B2 sheets per hour using a paper transport system based on traditional sheetfed rollers and paper grippers to gain higher registration accuracy.

The press uses water-based inks and a pre-coating, both developed by Fujifilm, which enabled the inks to adhere efficiently to standard paper. “Without the pre-coating solution, the ink would flow through the paper fibers,” said Steve Cookman, Fujifilm UK’s product support manager.

One of the most innovative digital inks introduced at the show was for use in a new inkjet device of Xerox which is able to produce more than 2,000 color images per minute.

“Xerox has long been recognized as a leader in toner-based technologies for graphic communications, and now it is investing in applying its significant cache of inkjet technologies and intellectual properties to meet the needs of production users,” said Jim Hamilton, group director of InfoTrends, a market research company.

The ink is derived from Xerox’s solid Color Cube ink technology. Instead of being wax-based as in the Color Cube system, it has a polymeric, dye-based formulation which enabled the ink to be supplied in granular form. This is turned into liquid within the inkjet and then reverts to a solid as soon as its hits the paper where it polymerizes without penetrating the paper fiber.

One of its major advantages is that the ink can be applied on low-cost plain paper without the need for coated stock or pre-treatment on the press. Other benefits include crisp image quality, vibrant colors and easy deinking for recycling.

The ink also has the potential to be used on a variety of substrates, including different plastic films without the necessity for pre-treatments like corona methods. It should also not be susceptible to migration.

Initially, Xerox will be targeting the new inkjet system and its ink at the high-volume transpromo, direct mail and book sectors.

But in the longer term it could be aiming to extend the technology to the packaging market. There is an emerging need among retailers for a capacity to do more packaging printing nearer their outlets. This requires printing systems able to produce variable, on-demand packaging with a range of substrates, supported by an IT platform integrated into the data networks of retailers and brand owners.

“Xerox potentially has these two components with their polymeric resin and dye inkjet ink and the IT capability,” said Mr. Falconer.

IPEX gave other glimpses of the potential for digital technologies to move mainstream printing into new areas of application, especially in industrial markets.

Xennia Technology Ltd., part of Netherlands-based TenCate, introduced a range of inkjet modules with customized inks for a range of industrial sectors. These include ceramics, glass, textiles, product decoration, wall coverings, furniture laminates, printed electronics and the biotechnology and medical field.

The modules comprise print engines, fluid controllers, software and integration support, which with the help of printhead production partners are configured into printing systems.

One modular printer designed by Xennia can decorate digitally metal, plastic and ceramic 3D objects such as car components, tableware, safety helmets and garden products.

“This is a great time for us because we are seeing rapidly growing demand in markets like textiles, ceramics and wall coverings,” said Tim Phillips, marketing manager at Xennia, whose exports account for 90 percent of its sales.

Over the last three years, its international sales have increased by an average 45 percent annually – a growth rate which it expects to be able to maintain for at least another three years.

A key role in this fast expansion has been a 25-strong team of chemists and other specialists in ink formulation, which makes up a third of the company’s total staff of 75.

“Our inks are an important part of the modules we provide,” said Mr. Phillips. “In sectors like ceramics, ink formulations can be a big challenge. They require large pigment particles for strong colors. They have to go through the narrow printhead nozzles and then survive the high temperatures necessary for making tiles and other ceramic products.”

Packaging is seen to be the biggest hope for the future growth of printing. IPEX demonstrated that with the help of digital technologies and ink chemistry, printing has the scope for expansion in some other sectors as well, in contrast to the threat of permanent decline in major markets like the print media.

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