Musings about GraphExpo – the quiet show

My annual GraphExpo journey was, as always, fascinating. GraphExpo, and its companion show, Print, are the big shows for the printing industry in North America. I have been going since the 1970s, and it has been a wild ride for us all over the years.

I mentioned in my Tuesday morning blog that I had attended the press conference/forum for Cabot Corporation where I learned about the new TKS ink-jet press that was installed in Chicago for Newsweb Corporation. That was one of the high points for me.

The Xerox CiPress, from their brochure on the machine. In the middle of this behemoth is a massive engine that prints with melted plastic – a process Xerox calls “waterles ink-jet” printing. The press makes a great impression.

The other was to see the elegant new Xerox digital web press called CiPress. This machine uses the melted plastic “crayon” technology developed at the company’s Wilsonville, Oregon research facility (formerly Tektronix). This new press prints roll-to-roll with a 20.5-inch web, both sides, at 500 feet per minute.

The resolution is 600 x 400 spi at that speed, and that resolution can be increased to 600 x 600 if you slow the web speed down a bit. The engineers I met in the Xerox booth were quick to explain the features under the hood, and quick to show me a printed catalog on 20-pound publications grade paper. They claim that an ink-jet web press cannot do that because the water in the ink would cause the web of paper to fail in short order.

What impresses me about this machine is the overall image quality. It surprised me how nicely the device puts halftones on that fragile paper.

Another fact: you can stand next to the machine and have a normal conversation. It’s almost silent, and that is amazing in a world filled with noisy printing presses, binding machines and other devices.

When I first read about the CiPress, I thought it was odd: a melted-crayon inking device (similar to some Xerox-branded office printers that use the same technology) competing against ink-jet presses from HP, Screen, Océ, TKS, KBA, and others? It didn’t make much sense. But, I confess that the proof is in the printing, and this is very good looking printing!

The only thing about the CiPress that isn’t appealing is the price: $3.6 million. And it only prints on one side of the roll! To print both sides, one would need to buy a pair of these machines and run them in tandem. Xerox promises an upgraded version of the CiPress, one with a bender bar in the middle and a method for imaging on the back of the roll at the same speed. For that much money, I hope they print both sides!

Since I am not standing in line to buy one of these machines, it’s relatively unimportant how much it costs. But, in order for mighty Xerox to succeed with this machine, they will have to address both price and the simplex/duplex problem. Beyond that, there is a market out there for this machine.

In the Heidleberg booth was just one press, a 52 cm. Anicolor model which was being used to demonstrate the improved make-ready of that system. The Snellpressenfabrik has been working on the Anicolor system for years, and is now offering it on many of their presses. The claim? With Anicolor, make-ready can be reduced to near-zero. I have seen it work both in Chicago and in Dusseldorf, and it appears to be true. In a world where more and more pressure is being applied to offset printing by competing technologies, reducing make-ready is probably the smartest thing that Heidelberg can do.

That Heidelberg press was the only offset press on the floor of GraphExpo (as far as I was able to see). Think of this in contrast to the years when Heidelberg would have several presses, including a ten-color 40, and down a few booths were four or five gorgeous Komori presses. One year in the not-too-distant past MAN Roland had a 72-inch offset press running on the floor, printing huge maps. It was often so noisy at the show that one could hardly have a conversation.

I thought, as I ascended the escalator on the south end of the building on Tuesday morning, that this year could have been a jewelry show, or a kitchen show. I heard nothing at all as I entered the hall, spare the din of thousands of conversations going on simultaneously. No big machines were running because no big machines were present.

My friend Michael Rodriguez, recently retired from R.R. Donnelley, said that he thought we have turned a corner at GraphExpo. “It’s a different world now,” he said, referring to the new ink-jet and digital devices. He said this about eight feet from the Xerox CiPress, which was running at full speed. I had no difficulty hearing him because this machine makes very little noise when it runs.

About the loudest thing one could hear at the show this year was the canned/live show being put on by Hewlett-Packard in their booth. It was a bit too flashy for my taste, and the canned parts were condescending to the audience.

But, HP’s new, larger Indigo press was there, and it was mighty impressive. This is the press that has changed the complexion of digital printing for the 12 x 18 world – but the new one is twice as large. It’s equivalent to a 74 cm. sheet-fed press, but it uses electroink – HP’s version of toner – to make a mark on paper.

The wide-format ink-jet printers from Epson, Canon and HP were cranking out (though cranking evokes an image of speed, where these machines do not crank) posters of beautiful women and beautiful cars. In the booths of HP, Fuji, Agfa, and EFI, one could see grand-format printers sliding back and forth printing huge graphics. As in recent years, these machines are proving to be the most important area of growth in outdoor advertising, business graphics, signage, and more.

On my way to the airport on Wednesday morning, I counted billboards. There were over 45 (I lost track), and all of them had been printed by ink-jet technology. This is evidence that the world of outdoor advertising has been irrevocably altered by ink-jet printing. I remain dazzled by these machines and by their impact on the printing industry. The screen printers who used to print large graphics, the offset printers who used to print billboards in sections, the billboard painters who used to stand on scaffoldings with brush and easel in-hand – they are all gone now, replaced by large machines that put microscopic droplets of ink onto various substrates.

It’s a brave new world, a quieter one, and a more colorful one.

About Brian Lawler

Brian Lawler is an Emeritus Professor of Graphic Communication at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and currently Guest Professor at Hochschule München. He writes about graphic arts processes and technologies for various industry publications, and on his blog, The Blognosticator.
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