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The other digital toner company – Print21 magazine feature

Monday, 07 May 2012
By Patrick Howard

When it comes to high-end digital printing engines, the spotlight is usually focused on the big players—Fuji Xerox and HP Indigo. However, Xeikon, the Belgium-based company that was in at the very beginning of the technology in the early 1990s, is still very much in the game. It is now making a bid to steal the limelight at drupa with the launch of its intriguing but highly secret Quantum technology, combining the advantages of electrophotography and inkjet. Patrick Howard went to visit Xeikon in Belgium to get some background on the iconic brand.

The Xeikon toner plant at Heultje in the flat Belgium countryside backs onto an Agfa plant, a solid reminder of the history of digital imaging development. As with so much Belgium-based technology, Agfa was part of the genesis of Xeikon when it first came to market as a high-end digital printing press at the Ipex trade show in Birmingham in 1993—the same year Benny Landa introduced the world to the Indigo. Much has changed since the subsequent departure of Agfa, with Xeikon roller coasting through two decades of innovation, R&D, financial turmoil and buyouts. Today it is a stable and progressive graphic arts manufacturer, with a decent spread of technologies—basysPrint UV platesetters and flexo CTP—in addition to its core digital printing presses.

On this damp, cold February afternoon, I’m getting a deep dive instruction on the secrets of toner production from Dr Lode Deprez (pictured), vice president consumables, Xeikon. An amiable chemist who has been with the company since day one, he takes pains to walk me through the process. For instance, did you know that when they’ve mixed and extruded the toner combination of pigment and resins, it is broken into micron-sized particles in high-speed mechanical mills operating faster than the speed of sound? The subsequent toner particles are separated; nine microns and above and five microns and below are returned to the mixing vat. Only those within the desired tolerance are processed further, to be coated with specially designed surface additives that are mounted to the surface of the toner particle. In the process the rough edges are smoothed, becoming what the company describes as ‘form-adapted toner’. This innovative ‘potato-shaped’ toner is further refined into the almost flowing state of dry toner that is the heart of the Xeikon imaging process.

Toner manufacture is one of the important secret ingredients to the success of Xeikon. That, and its decision to focus on web digital printing, have gained it a substantial and loyal following in both the packaging/label and document sectors. Its one-pass LED-based printing technique delivers 1,200dpi resolution on the widest range of substrates.

Ah yes… but!

There is no mistaking the enthusiasm and dedication of Dr Deprez. In addition to the plant tour, I get a PowerPoint presentation on the innate superiority of dry toner over inkjet for quality, environmental friendliness and utility over the widest range of substrates. He enumerates a number of milestones of Xeikon toner development, lingering over the 2006 breakthrough that resulted in the form-adapted toner (FA) and onwards to the quality adapted (QA) toner that is the current benchmark technology of the company. This means there is a toner specially adapted to focus on the two core Xeikon markets; labelling and packaging, and document printing.

Sometime during the afternoon, an air of unreality starts to creep into our conversation, despite Dr Deprez’s affable hospitality. It begins to dawn on me that despite making the journey to this chilly spot in the Low Countries, I’m not about to get any inside running on the upcoming new Xeikon imaging technology, Quantum, to be announced at drupa.

This is a new twist to the toner saga whereby inkjet is combined with the pigment-based toner. Significantly it is technology that Xeikon bought from its inventors, a break from the tradition of in-house R&D. Without knowing what will be released at drupa, my best guess is that it is either toner delivered in a similar manner to inkjet, but without the liquid, or a lighter coverage of toner that retains superior image quality while increasing the speed to match inkjet.

It is touted as being the foundation on which Xeikon will develop all its future product lines for document printing.

The safest of them all

The new technology is aimed squarely at the high-speed document business in commercial printing. This is where speed matters most. But it also means the company’s current self-manufactured toner will remain the key to its burgeoning packaging and label business. Xeikon is perhaps the only real competitor to HP’s dominance in digital labelling. Its engineers have developed many aspects of packaging and labelling print, including the unique one-pass opaque white for transparent or metallic media. According to Dr Deprez, there are unequivocal advantages in using toner-based digital printing for labels and packaging. Apart from the inherent quality differential that is enhanced by the application-tuned toner (QA-l), he believes it presents far fewer challenges when used in food packaging applications.

This is a thorny issue for printing in general and inkjet in particular. Few inks and toners are given clearance for all types of food packaging and labelling. Despite some extravagant claims to the contrary, it all depends on individual cases. Certainly Dr Deprez is not about to claim that Xeikon toner is safe for every instance of food contact, but he does insist that it is the safest on the market. He claims this is an aspect of toner’s superiority, even to offset ink, when it comes to labelling and packaging. Xeikon toner meets FDA guidelines in the USA for direct and indirect contact with dry food substances.

The decision to concentrate on web-fed printing is another defining characteristic of the Xeikon process. Across both the industrial and document sectors, it prints using a web in perfecting or simplex mode. This one-pass patented technology is hugely productive giving up to 260ppm (15,600 pages per hour). Where this will end up with the new Quantum technology is a matter of speculation, but even with the existing format it is a very fast digital press.

It tends to be forgotten in all the hoopla about the new digital B2 presses to be introduced at this drupa that Xeikon is a B2–format digital press and has been for years. With its 500mm imaging width and the ability to image documents of almost any length, it is a remarkably versatile press. This has given Xeikon a handy niche in large format poster printing as well as making it a highly productive engine for everything from transpromo to magazine work.

Whiter shade of paper

During the afternoon, Dr Deprez returns to the environmental story of Xeikon. It is obvious he sees the ongoing recycling problems with inkjet and electro ink as a decided advantage for dry toner.

For those who came in late, the problem derives from the difficulty of de-inking inkjet paper. This is a vital part of the recycling process necessary for the production of most printing paper. It has caused a furore in Europe where, in 2008, the inkjet manufacturers, such as Océ, HP, Kodak and Ricoh, formed the Digital Print De-inking Alliance (DPDA), in part because of dissatisfaction with the pre-existing paper manufacturer-backed International Association of the De-inking Industry (INGEDE). Water-based inkjet print can only be separated from paper with considerable difficulty during the widely-used flotation process—mainly because there are no particles to float to the top. DPDA advocates adding a bleaching process to the proceedings, something which INGEDE says is expensive and doesn’t actually change the composition of the fibres, so the colour may reappear. It also advocates that electro ink paper be only recycled for cardboard.

This debate could be seen as fairly academic at present as inkjet represents such a small part of the overall paper mix, but if the projections for the new generation of high-speed presses are met that will change dramatically. DPDA says this window gives it plenty of time to come up with a solution but Dr Deprez is not so sure, as the small amount of inkjet already causes a decrease of the whiteness of recycled paper.

He believes dry toner, such as Xeikon’s, is the only environmentally responsible digital imaging process. It is easily de-inked and has no volatile organic compounds or heavy metals. He maintains the new Quantum technology will be equally green.

Up and down and around

When the former Punch Graphix changed its name to Xeikon last year, it not only added weight to the brand, it also drew a line under the sometimes troubled financial past of the company. Xeikon now is a relatively broad-based graphics manufacturer, active not only in digital presses but also in UV-offset plate imaging and flexo plate production. It is a mid-size technology firm, financially secure with an established user base around the world and, importantly, now has access via the flexo plate business to many more label printers who may be scoping the advantages of digital printing.

In Australia and New Zealand, Grish Rewal’s Melbourne-based Absolute Electronics represents the brand and services the 15 or so machines in the market. He is delighted with the renewed energy and profile of Xeikon and is confident in the technology, especially for industrial and label processes.

There is much in its IP portfolio that Xeikon keeps under wraps. The toner plant at Heultje has no-go areas, while the details of Quantum technology remain obscure. On the way back to Antwerp, I made a last attempt to wheedle more information from Dr Deprez but without success. For the details of Quantum we’ll have to wait until drupa.

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