Inkjet is gradually making further inroads into Europe’s mainstream printing sectors, reinforcing the view that in the long term, the future lies with digital.
However new technologies announced at and around the time of drupa 2012, the big international printing exhibition in Dusseldorf, Germany, in May, have triggered predictions that the switch to digital may take place more quickly than previously forecast. Expectations have in particular been raised by the disclosure by Landa Corporation of its new nano pigment ink for digital printing.
The belief has been that the takeup of inkjet and/or electrophotographic systems by most printers across Europe would be done at a slow pace. The vast majority of print shops in the region would continue to be dominated by conventional processes, although there would be some degree of hybridization among most printers through the linking of traditional and digital technologies.
Growth in digital equipment sales in Europe has been faltering over the past year because of the crisis in the euro zone.
Demand is likely to pick up again in the next few years after the problems of the euro zone have been resolved. As printers start investing in the upgrading of their presses, they may be much more willing to expand into digital printing. This impetus will not only come from innovations in the engineering of digital presses, but above all, in the chemistry of their inks.
The big breakthroughs will include the development of digital inks based on nanotechnologies, which not only considerably raise the quality of color print but also substantially lower its cost.
The introduction of the novel inks and new machines to print them could be led by Landa of Israel, which presented at drupa six new Nanographic presses – three sheetfed and three web – using inks with nano colorants.
The ink consists of billions of microscopic water-based droplets with pigment particles only tens of nanometers in size. The water evaporates as the droplets land on a heated blanket conveyor belt to form an ultra-thin dry polymeric film of 500 nanometers thickness, less than half that of offset images.
The images are then transferred to a substrate, like coated or uncoated paper or a plastic packaging film, which does not require pre-treating. The ink instantly bonds to the surface, forming a tough, abrasion-resistant laminated layer without leaving any residual ink on the blanket.
In addition to its potential for high quality printing, the major attraction of Nanographic is that it is relatively cheap to run. Its operating costs are low because it uses much less ink, less energy to dry the ink and generates less waste.
“That’s why Nanographic offers the lowest cost per page of any printing process,” said Benny Landa, Landa’s founder, chairman and chief executive.
Meanwhile, the margins on offset printing have been shrinking in the face of rising costs and falling demand.
“Digital printing has higher costs per page with a limited format size and speed,” said Mr. Landa. “It also has become less and less profitable. That is why we have developed Nanographic to enable you (the printer) to be profitable – from runs of one to a thousand B1-sized copies.”
Mr. Landa, now 65 years old, has an unrivalled record as an innovator in digital printing after inventing the Indigo digital printing press in the early 1990s. It was also based on a similar concept of inkjetted droplets being turned into a plastic film when falling on a heated blanket.
A large proportion of the $880 million proceeds from the sale of the Indigo technology and business to Hewlett-Packard 10 years ago have been used to develop the Nanographic process and its NanoInk. Much of the R&D effort has been focused on perfecting the nanotechnology behind the ink.
“If Landa Corp. lives up to what it is promising, it will lead to big changes in the digital sector,” said Mark Alexander, marketing director at Xaar, a UK-based leader in the development and production of inkjet printheads especially those which through their design and architecture of printheads enhance the performance of inks.
“If Nanographic can provide print with a strong color concentration with a low pigment loading, printing will be much more economical,” Mr. Alexander continued. “That will result in more demand for digital equipment, which will be good for us and the digital sector.”
Benny Landa with the Landa S10 Nanographic Printing Press at drupa 2012
But as happened with the Indigo project, Nanographic and its NanoInk could also have rivals within a relatively short time. Other digital equipment manufacturers with their own ink R&D and production facilities are known to be working on advanced nano particle systems.
However, Landa, which expects to launch the first of its Nanographic presses commercially by the end of next year, should have the advantage of not only being first into the market, but being supported by production and marketing alliances with a formidable array of leading equipment companies.
After a period of hesitation about how much they should be involved in the digital sector, manufacturers of conventional printing presses have started to commit themselves to inclusion of inkjet technologies within their portfolios.
For major offset press manufacturers, the attraction of Landa’s Nanographic machines is that they perform at levels comparable with offset. The Landa S7 Nanographic press, for B2 (28 inch) formats, is capable of single- or double-sided printing at speeds of up 12,000 sheets per hour (sph), while the Landa W10 1,020 mm (41 inch) press is able to do single-sided printing at up to 200 meters per minute. With both presses, the resolution is up to 600 dots per inch (dpi).
Shortly before the opening of drupa, Heidelberg, the global market leader in sheetfed offset press production, and Landa announced a global strategic partnership in the development of the Nanographic printing presses with the aim of expanding digital technologies into “mainstream printing.”
The impetus behind the creation of the alliance came from the awareness of customers’ needs for “cost effective printing of short runs and quick turnaround times,” said Bernhard Schreier, Heidelberg’s chief executive and chairman.
Also prior to drupa, Landa agreed to a partnership with manroland sheetfed GmbH, another major offset press manufacturer.
The most innovative and productive solutions for today’s mainstream printing industry must include digital, said Raphael Penuela, manroland sheetfed’s executive vice-president.
“Our goal will be to deliver to our customers new digital printing solutions by converting their existing offset presses to Nanographic,” Mr. Penuela added.
Komori Corp., another leading maker of offset presses, signed a partnership agreement at drupa with Landa to manufacture and market Nanographic machines. Yoshiharu Komori, Komori’s president, chairman and chief executive, said that the Nanographic technology would help meet the “ever-growing customer demand for shorter and shorter run lengths as well as very short turnaround times.”
Prominent among the leading conventional press manufacturers not to have forged an alliance with Landa is Koenig & Bauer AG (KBA). In a partnership with the R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., it launched at drupa RotaJET 76, an inkjet web press with a speed of 150 meters per minute and an output of 3,000 full-color AR pages per minute.
Landa Corp.’s strategy of forming production and marketing partnerships for the selling of its machines has raised speculation that its main source of income from the Nanographic presses will be the inks and other consumables like the blankets.
The company has been secretive about the technology behind its NanoInk, with a series of patents on it being taken out only recently.
A key aspect is that the pigment particles of tens of nanometers in size and based on organic compounds are able to absorb more and scatter less light than conventional pigment particles. Nano pigments “have extraordinary properties and become extraordinarily powerful,” said Mr. Landa.
The Nanographic process can use most printheads, which the company says “ejects” rather than “jets” its ink, although they have to be modified for printing with NanoInk.
All the Nanographic presses presented at drupa used printheads made by Kyocera Corp. and modified by Graph-Tech AG, an integrator of printheads and other components of inkjet printers. Graph-Tech has also recently introduced MonoCube, its own family of digital presses.
Shortly after drupa, Domino Printing, a manufacturer of inkjet presses and inks, which held a 19% share in Graph-Tech, bought the remaining shares in the company. Domino’s presses also use Kyocera printheads modified by Graph-Tech.
Domino denies that the 100% acquisition of Graph-Tech has been triggered by the Swiss company’s close ties with Landa.
“The acquisition fitted in with our strategy of expanding into full-color technologies in which we had already been in partnership with Graph-Tech,” said Philip Easton, director of the digital printing business at Domino, which specializes in printing of packaging security codes and labeling. “If Landa’s innovative ink turns out to be a success, it will represent a big change in the digital market not only because of the reduced quantities of inks being used but also the wider color gamut.”
If Landa’s NanoInk does precipitate a shake-up in the digital sector, it could be unusual as it would have stemmed from an innovation in ink chemistry rather than one in printing engineering.
European Editor Sean Milmo is an Essex, UK-based writer specializing in coverage of the chemical industry.