Drupa 2016: Touching the Future of Print

Düsseldorf exhibitors surprised many attendees with unexpected advances in the printing of corrugated materials; additive manufacturing; postpress automation; and more.

Every four years, the global printing industry gathers in Düsseldorf, Germany, for drupa, the world’s largest exhibition of printing technology. And, within a day of the massive fair’s opening, the journalists in attendance (nearly 2000 of us) begin jockeying to coin a moniker that best captures the essence of the technology we see.

At prior shows, we settled on the “digital drupa,” the “JDF drupa,” the “transactional drupa,” the “inkjet drupa,” and so on, themes that seldom aligned with those used to market the events, but looked snappier in headlines (and, later, hashtags).

So, it’s odd that “Touch the Future” – among the more ambiguous themes chosen for a drupa promotional campaign – may end up being the catchphrase that sticks for the 2016 show. It was characterized by a great number of technology demonstrations and previews of far-ranging R&D plans, not unheard of at drupa, but this year they painted an unusually consistent and promising picture of where printing technology is headed. At a time when print itself is in the midst of an unprecedented identity crisis as traditional markets evaporate and core technologies await what appears to be inevitable displacement, drupa 2016 underscored why, and how, print will continue to thrive.

Attempting to curate drupa is a bit like describing Las Vegas to someone who has never been there. The scale of the show alone is incomprehensible to those who haven’t experienced it, with a quarter of a million visitors spread across 19 packed halls over 11 days. But for those of you who couldn’t be there, we’ll summarize a few of the technology trends we witnessed that have the most relevance to Big Picture readers – with no pretensions that our review of such a massive event could possibly be comprehensive.

Corrugated Poised for Liftoff
One of the bigger surprises at drupa was a sudden, intense interest among inkjet OEMs to crack the corrugated cardboard market. Several companies previewed extremely fast, single-pass print lines with fully automated material handling systems – unusually comprehensive units for technology demonstrations, even at drupa. (And the weather in Düsseldorf the first week of the show, with nearly constant rain and equatorial humidity, presented the strongest possible test for printing a substrate that is notoriously prone to severe warping and dimensional changes under such conditions.)

Corrugated cardboard isn’t exactly part of the large-format print industry as we define it today, even though it is used in both display and packaging applications, and it’s not an entirely new target for inkjet developers. HP Scitex, for example, has been working to establish a foothold in corrugated printing for close to 10 years, and Inca showed a technology preview of a single-pass full-color printer for corrugated cardboard, called the Fastjet, 12 years ago at drupa. What has changed is the speed, scale, and print quality of these prototypes, with vendors using the latest printhead technology and material automation systems (some borrowed from wide-format inkjet machines) to create production lines designed to provide an alternative to flexography. Given the size of the corrugated packaging market, which some estimate to be as much as 25 times larger (by print volume) than wide-format signage and graphics, the flurry of activity in this sector makes sense.

Durst’s entry into the single-pass corrugated printer category was the Rho 130 SPC, which can print boards up to 51.2 x 98.4 inches at speeds reaching 100,643 square feet per hour. The six-color model, which uses the company’s new Durst Water Technology inks, can print stock up to 0.47 inches thick at resolutions up to 800 dpi. Expected in the first quarter of 2017, the 130 SPC is part of a FlexLine fully automated system that includes a non-contact feeder to eliminate crushing the fragile corrugated stock; a pre-print QC Table to identify and remove out-of-spec stock before it reaches the printer; and a hybrid dryer designed specifically for coated fiber-based boards to eliminate stacking issues.

Based on UV-LED rather than aqueous ink technology, EFI’s Nozomi C18000 will give users a choice of printing at a maximum sheet size of 70.9 x 118.1 inches or using a double-lane feeding system to print two 31.5 x 23.6-inch boards simultaneously. The seven-color machine can print white, and includes an inline primer that allows users to control dot gain and absorption on different types of corrugated substrates. Maximum print speed is quoted at 87,188 square feet per hour. EFI expects installations of the Nozomi C18000 to begin by the end of the second quarter of 2017.

Two other machines to watch for were announced, though not shown, at drupa. HP unveiled plans for a new direct-to-corrugated printer called the PageWide C500, a single-pass thermal inkjet printer that is said to have a 70.9 x 118.1-inch print size, employ more than one million inkjet nozzles, and use the company’s Corrugated Grip Technology to enable direct printing of substrates ranging from micro-flute stock to double-wall corrugated boards. HP also announced a partnership with Smurfit Kappa, a paperboard packaging company with more than 100 converting plants in Europe, to refine the technology. HP says that beta testing will begin in 2017 with commercial shipments expected in 2018.

Screen Graphic and Precision Solutions also plans to enter the corrugated market through a partnership, working with BHS Corrugated, a $513-million supplier of corrugating equipment, to jointly develop the BHS Corrugated Inline Digital Printing Solution. Unlike the other machines previewed at drupa, the Screen/BHS platform will be a reel-to-sheet system, imaging the liner before the corrugating process takes place, effectively allowing manufacturers to produce exactly how much printed stock they need for each job in line rather than producing the blank corrugated sheets and then printing them in a secondary process. The unit will be a single-pass aqueous inkjet system with a print width of 9 feet and a linear belt speed that was reported at 984 feet per minute, suggesting that the print speed could eclipse 500,000 square feet per hour.

A final note on the Screen/BHS announcement: A new company called Screen GP IJC, located near subsidiary Inca Digital’s manufacturing plant in Cambridge, UK, has been formed to develop the print engine solution under the direction of Bill Baxter, co-founder and managing director of Inca Digital when it developed the Fastjet single-pass corrugated printer and later the Onset high-production UV flatbed printer for signage and graphics.

A New Dimension in 3D
Additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, has made a remarkably deep impression on the general public, but its place within the traditional graphic arts industry hasn’t been entirely clear. Additive manufacturing has been shown at previous drupas, but it had a much stronger presence this year than ever before, with more than 20 exhibitors demonstrating the technology. And the tie-in with commercial printing was clearer, with more big-name print vendors jumping in and some new applications displayed that better connect the dots between additive manufacturing and a typical PSP’s activities.

The biggest development on this front – literally – was the first public showing by Massivit 3D. The Israeli company, with roots in both wide-format inkjet and 3D printing, is the first to focus specifically on bringing additive manufacturing into wide-format applications. The company’s Massivit 1800 unit uses a proprietary gel-based technology and is capable of printing objects as big as 6 x 5 x 4 feet at a build rate of a foot per hour. The samples at the Massivit booth – ranging from statues and theater props to mannequins and giant cookies – were clearly meant to illustrate the technology’s potential to produce one-of-a-kind custom products in P-O-P, outdoor advertising, and display applications [see our May article, "Can Print Shops Benefit from 3D Printing?" for more].

Also announcing a new oversized printer at drupa was Dutch OEM Leapfrog 3D Printers with a prototype of the Xcel, featuring a maximum print size of 7.6 x 1.8 x 1.7 feet. Company representatives indicated that the machine has been developed for a number of applications ranging from furniture and architectural models to flexographic printing sleeves.

Demonstrating its understanding of 3D printing’s potential in the graphic arts world, Mimaki showed samples from a machine that is anticipated to be commercially available in early 2017, an as-yet unnamed unit with the distinctive ability to print in full CMYK as it builds objects rather than requiring the finished product to be painted or decorated through other means. Samples at the booth leveraged the color capabilities of the device and suggested markets ranging from custom signage to biomedical applications.

HP’s Multi Jet Fusion printer drew a lot of attention at drupa as well, originally launched at an additive manufacturing conference earlier this year but shown for the first time to a commercial printing audience in Düsseldorf. The Multi Jet Fusion builds objects using a unique three-step process across the full working area of the printer, allowing for speeds up to 100 times faster than other 3D technologies, according to HP. Though the printer is clearly aimed at parts manufacturing – supported by the fact that half of the parts of the printer shown at drupa were reportedly printed by the device (raising an interesting chicken and egg question) – its speed and potential to control not just the color but also the composition of each “voxel” (the 3D equivalent of a pixel) point to a myriad of potential uses inside and outside the graphic arts as the technology and range of jettable materials develop.

The fact remains that familiar graphic arts vendors such as Roland and Ricoh continue to pursue 3D printing, and more and more major players are joining them. Among other announcements at the show, Canon and Konica Minolta discussed new distribution arrangements with 3D OEMs, Kodak announced a partnership with printer manufacturer Carbon to develop specialized jettable materials, and both Xaar and Memjet announced new printheads specifically for additive manufacturing. The technology clearly belongs at the show, and we’ll undoubtedly see more of it at drupa 2020.

Finishing and Automation
As traditional markets have contracted over the past decade and profit margins have tightened, commercial printers responded by streamlining their workflows to improve efficiency, cut waste, and allow more product to be produced by fewer people. This theme was nearly universal throughout drupa. For example, Heidelberg discussed the development of a streamlined end-to-end workflow dubbed “Push to Stop” that the company says could double the productivity of a print line whether analog or digital. Fujifilm went a step further, showing concepts for an entirely mechanized printing plant with robotic technology controlling every aspect of production from inventory through shipping.

For wide-format PSPs, the predominant focus for automation in recent years has been the finishing department, which has become the bottleneck in most high-volume facilities, and several exhibitors showed new systems designed to address this problem. Esko showed its new Kongsberg C24 digital cutter operating with a robotic loader and unloader. The device, with a 9.2-foot reach, can handle substrates from multiple pallets and can also be set up to support two cutting tables simultaneously. Esko also showed a new series of iBF high-capacity sheet feeders available in three models that, together with the robotic loader, could allow for further unattended operation.

Other robotic takeoff devices were shown by Mimaki, whose prototype loaded and unloaded compact discs from its UJF-7151 UV-LED flatbed printer; swissQprint with the Rob, demonstrated on its Impala 2 UV flatbed printer; and Zünd, which showed a unit operating with its S3 flatbed digital cutter.

Zünd also debuted a new series of cutters, the D3 line, featuring a dual-beam cutting system. Each beam operates independently and can carry up to three tool modules, allowing up to twice the output of single-beam tables. D3 cutters are offered in four sizes ranging from 71 x 126 inches to 126 x 126 inches.

Canon, in partnership with Zünd, showed a prototype for a new system designed to automate finishing work on Océ and Zünd flatbed digital cutters. Dubbed the View & Cut system, the prototype used Canon’s EOS imaging technology to recognize registration marks on the media, identify complete job specifications through Océ’s proCut Vision technology, and process the jobs automatically with minimal operator involvement.

SPS Technoscreen, a German manufacturer of cylinder screen-printing presses, introduced its first digital system with a unit designed to facilitate spot UV coating on analog or digitally printed sheets. The spot.jet, developed in conjunction with MGI, uses 15 Konica Minolta heads and delivers clear-coat thicknesses of 125 microns in single-drop (satin) mode and 250 microns in double-drop (high-gloss) mode. A three-drop ultra-gloss mode is also available. The unit, expected in the first quarter of 2017, has a maximum sheet size of 29.5 x 41.3 inches with speeds ranging from 1400 to 2800 sheets per hour.

New Wide-Format Printers
Perhaps it’s a sign that OEMs have fewer frontiers to conquer in wide-format inkjet printing. Perhaps it’s more indicative of the fierce competition between leading vendors and the need to bring innovations to market immediately. Either way, while virtually all of the leading wide-format printer manufacturers showed their latest models in Düsseldorf, there were fewer product introductions than at any recent drupa. Two that caught our attention:

Canon launched the Océ Arizona 2200 series of UV flatbed printers, touting improved image quality with the Océ VariaDot grayscale technology as well as higher productivity, with a maximum print speed of 682.4 square feet per hour. Other features include up to eight ink channels (CMYKcm with optional white and clear), an Automated Printhead Maintenance System, and improved UV-curing technology with a 15-percent reduction in heat buildup, allowing a greater range of temperature-sensitive substrates to be printed.

Teckwin showed its new Jet Box, a wide-format unit designed for corrugated boards. The CMYK Jet Box uses Fujifilm Dimatix Starfire SG1024 printheads and has a maximum print width of 98.4 inches, and can automatically feed boards ranging in thickness from 0.088 to 0.315 inches; boards up to 1.97 inches thick can be printed on the machine. Maximum speed for the Jet Box, which will reportedly debut in the US at the SGIA show in September, is 5382 square feet per hour.

Scratching the Surface
Historically, drupa was predominantly a show about putting ink onto paper, weighted heavily towards the conventional markets for offset and other analog printing technologies. The future of print will lie beyond publications, marketing collateral, and business forms, and the most encouraging thing about this year’s drupa was the range of possibilities that are beyond the scope of this short review. Printed textiles, direct-to-object product decoration, inkjet technologies for shrink wrap and other packaging materials, printed electronics, and countless other applications that didn’t have a place at drupa in the not-so-distant past were on display. The challenges that are being solved in these specialty applications are being more broadly applied to parallel fields. Vendors are more readily partnering with one another to bring new technologies to market much more rapidly than they could do on their own. The result was a sold-out, well-attended exhibition with perhaps the most exciting new technology ever shown at drupa. It bodes very well for the future we all hope to touch.

Explore the rest of our August 2016 "Rockin' Vinyl" issue.

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