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Five Technology Trends that May Reshape Your Business

What we learned at SGIA 2014.

I was walking the floor on the second day of SGIA when I ran into an old acquaintance, the owner of an industrial-graphics printing business who is also a dignitary in the industry. We catch up each year at the show. (To spare us both the embarrassment of revealing how many times this has happened, I’ll just say that big hair was in style the first time we crossed paths.) Usually these meetings take place at the magazine’s booth, with the friendly but slightly formal air that often characterizes discussions between members of the press and officers of an industry’s trade association.

So I was more than a little surprised when I heard someone shout my name and turned to see my friend, dressed casually, stepping out from behind an LCD screen at a software vendor’s booth. He motioned to a cluster of people gathered around the monitor, listening intently to the exhibitor’s demonstration, and explained that they were all from his company. He’d brought six members of his team, the most he’d ever taken to a show. “We’re buying,” he said simply. “We came here with a list of things we want to see and put in place at our company as quickly as possible.” Then he excused himself, saying he didn’t want miss any more of the demo.

“Automation,” he called back to me as he rejoined his group. “This business is all about automation today.” And with that he gave his full attention back to the exhibitor.

Encouraging signs
My friend wasn’t the only attendee who came to Las Vegas prepared to invest in his business. Nearly every exhibitor I spoke to reported a strong show, and for the first time in recent memory, the DNA of the vendor (analog or digital, graphics or garment) didn’t appear to color the feedback. SGIA 2014 set records for both exhibitors and attendees, with more than 25,000 reported registrations. Following more than a half decade in which the economy in general and the specialty printing industry in particular were sluggish, the turnout and energy that characterized the Expo were welcome surprises. Most industry veterans I spoke to, when asked for a show of similar magnitude, went back to 2006 or earlier.

Despite the record crowd, SGIA 2014 won’t be remembered as an event where breakthrough technologies were introduced. Most of what our team saw in Las Vegas refined technology that has been emerging over the past five years. Yet in an odd way, this might be the most encouraging sign of all that our industry is on the mend. Printers didn’t come to Las Vegas to see the technology of tomorrow; they came to make strategic investments that they were forced to forestall during the recession.

Without question, and backing up the observation make by my friend, the underlying theme behind much of the technology on display in Las Vegas was automation. As they emerge from a cycle in which costs were cut by necessity, and faced with continuing demands to produce shorter runs more quickly and at tighter margins, printers are increasingly looking for intelligent ways to move orders more quickly through their plants with less waste while passing through fewer hands.

Below are five of the technology trends our staff noticed in Las Vegas with some representative examples. Though not a comprehensive list nor a complete description of the products mentioned, both impossible tasks for so large a show, you can check the SGIA 2014 Product Launch section of www.screenweb.com for details on these and many more products that debuted in Las Vegas.

Trend #1: Streamlined workflows
The data silos that characterize most printing operations can be maddening. Typical scenarios include estimating software that doesn’t fully interface with accounting back ends, RIPs that don’t communicate with workflow-management systems, and different RIP brands for each imagesetter, printer, and digital cutter in the company. During the past few years, RIP and business-management software vendors have been gradually pursuing a common objective of unifying as many of these data streams as possible.

We noticed several RIPs at SGIA that exemplified this trend. Fujifilm Graphic Systems (www.fujifilmgraphics.com) showed its version of ColorGate’s Production Server 8, which drives more than 750 models of digital printers, proofing devices, and finishing systems. Production Server 8 is available in three versions that allow users to start with an entry-level system and expand as their needs become more sophisticated—for example, generating their own color profiles or implementing G7 production. Caldera (www.caldera.com) launched its V10 RIP, which facilitates connections with MIS, accounting, and logistics software to help track jobs from quote to delivery while also offering remote management capabilities. EFI (www.efi.com) featured its Fiery proServer Version 6, compatible with over 500 printer models and including such new features as tiling and dynamic image smoothing.

Mutoh America (www.mutoh.com) introduced its G7 Calibrator specifically for shops pursuing G7 certification, a part of its Color Verify Pro/67 process-color software. Onyx Graphics (www.onyxgfx.com) offered Version 11.1, which, in addition to improved cutting functionality (a trend we’ll revisit), also allows users to generate custom ICC profiles for mapping their unique printing environments. Version 11.1 is also offered in a Textile Edition with application-specific features including step-and-repeat pattern making and ink-and color-management functions tuned to textile printing. These and other newer RIPs incorporate the latest Adobe PDF Print Engine (APPE), which allows dramatically faster RIP times of very large image files, removing a common bottleneck in high-volume graphics plants.

In analog prepress, screen printers continue to look to CTS imaging systems, automatic coating and screen-processing technology, and (particularly on the garment side of the industry) UV LED screen-exposure units to shorten their time to press. Most of the systems we saw in these areas had been introduced earlier in the year, but they were generating a lot of interest on the floor. Typifying this trend, M+R’s (www.mrprint.com) booth featured a Digital Screen Room surrounded by light-safe Plexiglas panels where automatic coating, CTS imaging/exposure, washout, and drying were done on the company’s latest machines throughout the show. We saw a new UV LED exposure system from Lawson Screen & Digital Products (www.golawson.com), a horizontal riff on its vertical LED 5000 CTS unit that could be placed on top of other screenroom equipment to save space. We also saw several stencil system manufacturers incorporating features in their latest emulsions to fine-tune them for LED exposure, including Chromaline Screen Printing Products (www.chromaline.com) with its ChromaLime emulsion and Kiwo (www.kiwo.com) with Polycol Versa-Tex Plus.

Trend #2: Productivity gains in high-speed garment printing
The top end of the automatic garment press market is no longer defined by whose machine cycles the fastest. Facing the same market dynamics that challenged P-O-P screen printers over a decade ago—shorter runs of complex jobs that must be turned around and delivered quickly—today’s high-volume garment specialists are looking past an automatic press’s indexing system and more closely at machine features that allow for fast setup, rapid changeover, and minimal downtime.

MHM (www.mhm.at) launched what it said was its fastest ever press, the S-Type Xtreme. Features include a central control display based on an Android tablet, which provides intuitive feedback to the press operator as well as remote diagnostic capabilities. Independent control stations at each printhead, tool-free adjustments for common press settings, and quick-release platens, squeegees, and floodbars enable fast job setup and changeover. M+R debuted its Gauntlet III press featuring a large touchscreen control panel with onboard self-diagnostics and a reminder system to alert press operators when scheduled maintenance is due. Among the features designed to maximize uptime were a squeegee/floodbar “park” setting for easy changeover, a Squeegee Dam for water-based inks that helps prevent ink from flowing into the image areas of the screen when the press is idle, and an automatic platen preheat mode with built-in temperature sensors that allows users to bring platens up to the desired temperature with the flash-curing units and maintain it throughout the run.

We saw three new oval automatics on display in Las Vegas, each with modular designs that allow for more than 50 print stations in a single machine. MHM’s iQ-Oval features the company’s new iDS Intelligent Drive System, with small drive motors on each platen arm that permit each station to be operated independently while ensuring smooth motion in both print directions and the ability to do single, double, or triple indexing. The RoqPrint Oval Pro from sRoque (www.sroque.com) features a touchscreen control panel, “zero” position for screens to enable fast setup, laser markers, and command functions that can be individually controlled from each printhead. M+R’s Stryker features a new servo-drive system that allows for higher-speed operation with reduced maintenance, while incorporating many of the same productivity features introduced on the company’s top-end carousel models.

Two unusual new garment dryers caught our eye at the show, both designed to bring more productivity into a smaller footprint. The FireFly from BrownDigital (www.brownmfg.net) was shown with multiple, individually controlled belts in a single drying chamber to allow several jobs with different drying parameters to be run simultaneously. The accompanying software, which can be run from the central control panel or from any smart phone, features 36 stored running programs, job costing information, independent heat lane control, and a thermal imprint-monitoring screen that can track each garment through the unit. M+R’s Spring 3000T Series features a triple-decker conveyor that bring 30 ft of belt travel into a 12-ft unit. Operators can store and retrieve settings for similar substrate/ink combinations from the color touchscreen interface, and a temperature monitor issues alarms when the settings fall outside of user-set parameters, shutting down the heating elements while leaving the blower and belts running until the chamber has cooled so production can continue.

Trend #3: The digital speed/quality compromise may be over
Just before the recession, machines such as the first Inca Onset and the discontinued Agfa M-Press showed that the print-speed limitation that had restricted wide-format digital printing’s use for long runs could be overcome through the use of extremely large printhead arrays. Since then, a sort of arms race took place among the handful of vendors in this niche to produce machines that were not only fast, but also delivered higher-resolution prints with more ink and imaging options. This combination of features was desirable not just to the very large P-O-P and outdoor advertising companies that have traditionally attended SGIA, but also to the commercial offset printing firms that are increasingly paying attention to them.

As one of these vendors remarked at the start of its SGIA press conference, the quality wars in this class of machinery are pretty much over. The latest models of high-speed UV flatbeds (with top speeds over 4000 sq ft/hr) were on display in Las Vegas, each employing high-resolution heads and features designed to make these printers part of larger, efficient production lines.

Durst (www.durstus.com) launched the Rho 1312, a 1000-dpi machine with output speeds up to 6600 sq ft/hr and a variety of color options including light cyan/light magenta and Process Color Addition (with a choice of orange/green or orange/violet). The 1312 is available with fully automated sheeters and stackers, though it was shown in Las Vegas in ¾-automatic mode without automated loading. A mechanical two-point registration system allows two boards to be printed side by side. Fujifilm featured the Inca Onset R40i, with a 14-pL droplet size and a choice of color configurations to enable print speeds up to 4305 sq ft/hr, or 80 full-sized boards. The R40i is compatible with Inca’s latest automation system, offering a choice of fully automatic or ¾-automatic production.

EFI showed new automatic loading and unloading systems for its HS100 hybrid printer, capable of printing up to 100 full-sized boards per hour. The HS100 was also shown with a new material-edge guiding system for feeding and registering corrugated boards and other challenging substrates. The HP (www.hp.com) stand featured the FB10000 UV flatbed press introduced in 2013, with fully automatic loading/unloading, the company’s HRD (high dynamic range) variable-droplet technology, and print speeds up to 6458 sq ft/hr, about 120 full-sized boards.

In addition to these fully automated print lines, we saw a number of new UV machines from:
Agfa (www.agfa.com) with the Anapurna M2500i, a 98-in. hybrid printer available with an automatic board feeder.
Canon Oce (www.usa.canon.com), which had the North American debut of its Oce Arizona 6100 Series, a 98.4 x 120-in. UV flatbed available in two models, one adding extra ink channels for light cyan and light magenta.
CET Color (www.cetcolor.com) with its Q5-series, available in three sizes (with 64-, 98-, or 126-in. print widths) in either flatbed or hybrid configurations.
Durst, which showed its Rho P10 250 HS, a 96-in., 1000-dpi hybrid machine with print speeds up to 4000 sq ft/hr.
EFI with the Vutek H2000, a 98-in. hybrid printer with a variety of upgradeable features including ink options and roll-to-roll media handling.
Fujifilm with the Acuity F, a 98.8 x 120.4-in. flatbed printer featuring a print table that can be operated with two independent zones as well as pneumatic registration pins, light process inks, and an automatic maintenance system.
Matan Digital Printers (www.matanprinters.com), which launched the Quantum, a 1200-dpi hybrid UV printer with an ID Backprint feature that can print job information on the reverse side of the media through a separate head.
Mutoh with its ValueJet VJ-1626UH, a 64-in. hybrid printer that can print 2 x CMYK or CMYK plus white and varnish.
Polytype America (www.polytypeamerica.com) with the swissQprint Nyala 2, a 78.7 x 120-in. flatbed printer, 25% larger than the original Nyala model.
Roland DGA’s (www.rolanddga.com) VersaUV LEJ-640FT, a 1440-dpi UV LED flatbed with a 64 x 98-in. print bed that can handle substrates up to 6 in. thick and weighing up to 220 lb.
Screen USA (www.screenusa.com) with its Truepress Jet W3200UV HS, which can print up to 1614 sq ft/hr, almost double the speed of the previous Truepress model.

Trend #4: New efficiencies in finishing
The typical production bottleneck in a graphics print shop is moving downstream from the print room, and not just because digital printing machines are getting faster. Shorter print runs, orders involving version changes, on-demand delivery expectations, and (particularly for companies in the P-O-P business) jobs with more complex finishing requirements have all placed greater pressure on the finishing department. Owners of larger shops want equipment that can automate as many of these steps as possible while interfacing easily with the rest of the production workflow.

Esko (www.esko.com) exemplified the trend with its i-Cut Production Console, a new operating system with a more intuitive user interface that was shown running several Kongsberg cutting tables. Esko also highlighted its top-end Kongsberg C64, designed as a multifunction finishing system for superwide graphics with the ability to cut, crease, route, and mill a wide variety of materials up to 126 x 126 in. Featuring a composite traverse technology that allows for faster and more precise operation, the C64 was shown with a fully automatic feeding system. Also new to SGIA was the Kongsberg V cutter, designed as more of an entry-level option for signage and graphics companies that are adding in-house finishing.

Zund (www.zund.com) highlighted a number of new automation features on its G3 digital cutting system. A robotic takeoff assembly was being used to take smaller cut items being finished multiple-up across the cutting table and place them into shipping boxes. Zund also introduced QR-driven job identification and loading, an upgrade over barcode systems that is now available on all of its lines.

Mimaki USA (www.mimakiusa.com) introduced the CJV300 series of eco-solvent print-and-cut devices, featuring a new staggered printhead configuration that permits print speeds up to 1140 sq ft/hr. The machines also have a cut-and-print feature that allows materials to be pre-cut prior to printing. Two sizes are offered: the CJV300-130 is 54 in. wide, while the CJV-160 is 64 in. wide. Mimaki also introduced the CJV150 entry-level line of print-and-cut devices for signage and graphics, textiles, or apparel production.

In addition to the improved cutting functionality of several RIPs mentioned earlier, SA International (www.thinksai.com) added a suite of performance-enhancing finishing tools for its SAi Flexi signmaking software. For banner applications, users can now add grommets, folds, stitch marks, and bleeds in the RIP, eliminating the need to add these elements in the design software. The company also added a new QR Code Creator that automatically converts text into QR codes.

Trend #5: Textiles take off
Industry analysts have been predicting that the market for digitally printed textiles in the US was about to explode for nearly 20 years. While there have been some successes outside of direct-to-garment inkjet printing (notably dye-sublimation printing for soft signage applications), textile printing in the US hasn’t grown as quickly as it has in the rest of the world, particularly Europe.

Based on the interest we saw in textile printing among attendees in Las Vegas, the dynamic in the American market may be changing. In the SGIA’s Digital Textile Printing Zone, Mimaki USA partnered with web-to-print specialists PrintForm to create a working production line, allowing attendees to upload their own images and print wraparound images on tote bags. (Mimaki was also doing custom prints on iPhone cases using the PrintForm system.) We also saw several significant new printers for textile applications:
Durst launched the Rhotex HS, a 130-in., 1200-dpi machine designed specifically for high-volume soft signage applications with print speeds up to 4300 sq ft/hr.
Roland DGA showed its Texart RT-640 dye-sublimation printer for the first time in North America. The 64-in. machine is powered by an ErgoSoft RIP and can print in four or eight colors, adding light cyan, light magenta, orange, and violet.
• Also making its North American debut was the JPKevo from MS Printing Solutions (www.msitaly.com), a high-production 600-dpi unit with a top speed approaching 9000 sq ft/hr. The 126-in. machine can print any type of textile with acid, dispersion, or reactive dyes.

Looking ahead
Shortly after the show, I spoke with my industrial-printing friend. His staff came back from the Las Vegas show with a list of eight products the company planned to acquire, ranging from new ink systems and emulsions to automatic liquid laminators and digital finishing systems, all with an eye towards making the existing production lines more efficient. I’m looking forward to learning how many of the plans were implemented successfully when I see him in Atlanta next November at the 2015 SGIA Expo.
 

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