FESPA 2015 in review: the printers
From the unexpected surprises to the main trends driving development in the sector, Sophie Matthews-Paul identifies how exhibitors are postitioning themselves to meet evolving customer demands.
Every time I turn up at a main FESPA event on its opening day, part of me fully expects it to be bursting at the seams while another side of me wonders how on earth it can continue on its growth trajectory year on year. Back in the days where visitors pitched up expectant of jaw-dropping advances, frenetic activity around the entrance was to be anticipated. Now, even though we are surely aware that the mainstream products associated with ink-jet have levelled out into reliable devices, there is still an air of excitement and impatience when you walk into the halls for the first time.
FESPA no longer needs to draw the crowds by majoring on manufacturers determined to trumpet unusual and new technologies. Instead, what the show brings to its visitors is the opportunity to see, grouped under one roof, a veritable cornucopia of equipment, software, inks, materials and consumables; these sit alongside a raft of complementary services, including integration via workflow tools and management solutions. There's also the chance to assess where the trends lie and what vendors are doing to address them. They must demonstrate their efforts to bring future-proofing into investment patterns, show how they intend to stay ahead of the game in terms of technology demands and explain what those developments mean to end users.
Now that sufficient time has passed in which to draw breath and consider the highlights and overall trends from this year's exhibition, it's easy to pinpoint a few 'must sees' but nigh on impossible to mention every company and every product. Certainly, the badge for most surprising new offering has to be awarded to Durst, whose new Water Technology was presented as an alternative to conventional UV-curable chemistries. This ink formulation claims to be totally non-toxic with no migration, and it's odour-free, yet it enables engines to print directly to rigid and flexible materials. Using a thinner layer of ink results in print speeds of up to 400sq m/hr, as seen during demonstrations on the Rho WT 250 HS – the first, no doubt, in a fleet of platforms.
With speed certainly being one of the primary hooks for this year's FESPA, EFI introduced a dedicated roll-fed printer that is its fastest to date, sharing relevant features incumbent in the existing VUTEk HS100 Pro. Designated the VUTEk HSr Pro, this 3.2m engine has six colours and a multi-layer print capability; it also includes the company's pin-and-cure technology for precision droplet placement and greater control over gloss, satin and matte finishes.
Claims for throughput rates are always designed to pull in punters at trade events, whether this attraction is driven by a genuine need or merely curiosity. Certainly the Italian-manufactured NoeCha1 was pushing speed as a principal USP, with a stated maximum of 700sq m/hr, while HP's latest Scitex 17000, designed for corrugated materials, has a published rate of 1,000sq m/hr.
Print engines not surprisingly dominated the digital floors at FESPA with many new additions being introduced, although many of these were evolutions from existing equipment that had been tweaked and modified for improvements to both quality and speed. Despite the perceived shift at the UV-curable end towards flexible materials, demand is ever-present for machines geared predominantly to rigid substrates; recent launches of Agfa's Jeti Mira, Inca Digital's Onset R40LT and two new models from SwissQPrint endorse demand in this sector.
Within hybrid, or combination, printers the choice broadens. With some being predominantly vacuum table flat-bed devices that have a roll-fed unit either included or available as an optional extra, others are geared for flexible substrates with roll-in, roll-out tables for use when printing boards. EFI's primacy in the arena of the 3.2m bed width multi-purpose machine is now, finally, being challenged by others with the ability to handle both workloads; Screen's Truepress Jet W3200HS is an example of a major player opting for a dual-function engine that doesn't compromise on materials handling and allows print along the long side.
While the higher end machines tend to dominate in terms of splendour, very often it is those manufacturers at the lower end of the scale who score well at trade events because investment in the latest options doesn't require desperately deep pockets. Sitting in the middle is a fleet of printers which return decent productivity for a relatively reasonable purchase price and here, as well as the well-established manufacturers such as EFI, Agfa and HP, we saw newcomers at this year's FESPA. One notable addition was AEG, a brand more commonly associated with household appliances, with the introduction of two Voyager Pro platforms. Interestingly, these are available with either mercury arc or LED curing options, with an upgrade path from the former to the latter if and when required.
Rating speed against other types of versatility also needs to be quantified pre-purchase as not every company rates this as its primary factor when it considers an investment. Ink-jet shouldn't be assumed to be the only technology in town at the lower end of the market; although single-pass arrays are currently in vogue, with HP's PageWide technology now stacking up against Memjet-driven devices such as the Vortex 4200 and Xerox's IJP2000, both Canon's Océ ColorWave CrystalPoint technology and KIP's toner-based machines continue to hold their own.
There is also healthy growth in the low-end market segments with Epson, Mutoh, Mimaki and Roland all extending their platforms for solvent-based and, increasingly, textile production. Meanwhile, Lightbar has provided an interesting option to convert a standard Roland printer into a solvent-UV unit. The demand for good quality in return for a minimal investment continues, with bread-and-butter jobs produced on modest roll-fed engines still proving to be common applications that are required by sign-makers and display producers the world over.
Determination of machine performance isn't purely due to an engine's specification and build; software developers and vendors are also doing their bit to ensure faster speeds and greater colour accuracy. Integration is now becoming a watchword, with the intention of encouraging end-to-end workflows that start with incoming jobs via web-to-print or other online ordering and end with MIS and ERP. Incorporating JDF connectivity is also in the ascendant, with Caldera, EFI and Onyx being notable in this field.
Nonetheless, all too often the relevance of software is underplayed in the midst of all the excitement of new print engines but, without it, we wouldn't have a digitally driven production environment of any kind. This is where third-party specialist businesses can come into play, such as CMA Imaging, with capabilities that might be autonomous yet remain interdependent when it comes to actual processing. Colour management, precision profiling and ink savings are all key benefits to end users as even the longest established RIP companies, such as SAi and ColorGate, now incorporate a wealth of additional colour-specific features.
As this was a full FESPA, and not just a digital show, the screen-printing contingent was out in force but, noticeably, there was strong emphasis on textile, garment and more of the functional side of production rather than graphics. In these areas, too, the evidence of a digital marriage shone through but without detracting from the important role that the screen process still has to play across the whole world of product marking, decoration and manufacture of goods where deposition plays a part in their overall structure.
Although FESPA doesn't set out its stall to be an industrial print exhibition, it is inevitable that there will be some crossover with current trends and forecasts depicting growth in the functional marketplace. On the graphics side of life the segment remains steady, with existing technologies simply being enhanced for the most part; there was remarkably little that could be deemed revolutionary.
As with any production process, it is a sum of the parts of an overall system that combines to promote refinements, and change is very rarely down to one component. This year's FESPA proved that ink and other fluids are the dominant forces in deviations we're likely to witness in the near future, including how they behave in print-heads and on end surfaces. The same principles apply across most ink-jet processes, be they single-pass or scanning, and graphics, textile, décor, garment or industrial applications.
Discussions will continue, no doubt, about the necessity for smaller droplet sizes and higher throughput speeds, too – both requirements that are deemed to be important across many applications. Future shows will bear the fruits of today's labours and doubtless bring forth refinements across the board, including revised ink formulations, media surface behaviour, curing and drying processes, print-head arrays, print engine design and construction, as well as material handling.
While revolutionary changes are thin on the ground, this doesn't mean that evolution will fail to bring about revised and improved methodologies throughout all digital printing processes. Choosing a few examples of manufacturers at this year's FESPA offers a reasonable representation of both the industry's progress in in recent times and the likely shape of things to come.