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B2 digital redux – Andy McCourt’s ReVerb

Tuesday, 23 June 2015
By Andy McCourt

Since my last look at B2 digital just before drupa 2012 many questions concerning the viability of digital in this format have been answered. There was a lot of skepticism about the prospects for B2 digital given the longer run lengths and additional colours, coatings and drying associated with B2 work. What is happening is that the markets – printers and their clients – have spoken and said unto us: “we want B2 digital and its capabilities.”

They say the B2 sheet size is the most printed in the world. B2 is officially 500mm x 707mm but B2 presses usually print larger sheets such as 530mm x  750mm to allow for gripper margins, crops and bleeds; although Heidelberg’s ‘F’ format XL75 offers 605mm x 750mm and Ryobi’s 750GXL 788mm x 600mm – enabling 6-up printing as well as traditional B2 4-up.

In two years since commercialisation, B2 digital press installations have reached over 200 globally, or about two per week. One company alone, Consolidated Graphics of the USA ordered eleven HP Indigo 10000s at drupa 2012. Several other firms are on their second 10000. Curries has just sold its tenth 10000 here and, I am reliably informed since there are about 160 installed worldwide, this represents 6.25% of global sales. When it comes to B2 digital, ANZ printers are punching well above their weight – 2 or 3% would be considered good.

With around 80% of the current world B2 digital sheetfed market, there must be something about the HP Indigo 10000 that has clicked. Perhaps first is availability – Landa Nano’s S7, so wonderfully previewed in 2012, is still not commercialized but expect it to be next year at drupa 2016. The same goes for the Konica Minolta KM-1 inkjet B2, co-developed with Komori who have an each-way bet since they are also a partner with Landa.

Of the other B2 inkjet digital presses shown at drupa 2012, only Fujifilm and Screen have put products into the market; Fujifilm with its Jetpress 720 and Screen with its JetSX as installed at Benefitz in New Zealand. MGI’s Alphajet has gone quiet; the Miyakoshi-Ryobi DP760 joint venture using liquid toner is still under development and the Delphax élan 500 feels like it’s been in Beta testing longer than β has been in the Greek alphabet, although two North American sales are reported at Compumail, California and  Quebec’s Public Works department. In any event, the élan is really an SRA2 press with sheet size of 450mm x 640mm. I think we can forget the Chinese Jadason Qpress.

So what’s driving the success of, mostly HP Indigo, B2 digital? Well a good start is quality. If you are one of the sensible people that keeps past issues of Print21 magazine; take a look at the last issue – the May PrintEx preview. The 6-page with fold-out cover was printed on an HP Indigo 10000 by early adopter CMYKhub. Then go back to September 2014 issue and you’ll see a pocketed 4-page cover with A2 poster and A3 landscape inserts – all printed on the same press. Even under an eyeglass, quality is superb.

 Less can be more

However, if someone were to say to the average printer, Hey, I’ve got this great new B2 press and it does 3,450 4/0 primed sheets per hour unless you are perfecting when it slows to 1,745 and slows further if you add colours other than cmyk but if you drop the black ink and just print cmy, it’ll do 4,600 4/0 sph – they might just brachiate a little and say something like; Look sonny, mine does up to 16,000sph no matter what, prints on any stock, comes up to colour in 20 sheets and I can change all the plates inside 3 minutes.

Reminds me of the old Lindisfarne song ‘Fog on the Tyne’ where a group of pals get together to see who can wet furthest up a wall.  To be a little more couth about it, I’ll quote French scientist Jacques Lafitte who, in 1932 said; “Because we are their makers, we often have deluded ourselves into believing that we knew all there was to know about machines and their applications.”

B2 digital is going gangbusters because customers are flocking towards the services that it can deliver, at prices that they like. Printers are making reasonable profits on the jobs and not killing each other with race-to-the-bottom quotes. As the cost of aluminium rises, so prepress costs for short-run offset plates rises, at a time when ‘click’ charges for digital are dropping. Print runs are shorter and may include varied data; again customers win.

The proof is not from theorists, analysts, pontificators or writers such as me – it is from B2 digital printers themselves. Benson Integrated Marketing Solutions, Atlanta USA, has abandoned offset all together since installing an HP Indigo 10000: ”Our job mix is no longer conducive to offset printing.” They print for 6,000 real estate agents in understandably short runs, mostly ordered online.

Erik Cagle, doyen writer at Printing Impressions, USA, observes that run length is no longer the cross-over point between digital and offset. He says it is variable data – if the job needs it, it’s a digital job. He cites Minnesota’s GLS who installed 2 Indigo 10000s with the idea that they would take the short run, sub 500-sheet, work off their Heidelberg offset presses. What they found is that the demand for non-static, variable print increased to the extent that long runs, such as a 76,000 sheet job, are performed on the 10000s – with multiple versioning. They even do work for highly critical artists who one would order 5,000 sheets of offset once a year but now order a thousand at a time four or fine times annually.

Another US packaging printer, Matlet, has both web and sheetfed offset. It entered digital with HP Indigo 10000s and found typical run lengths ‘north of 3,000 sheets.’ Matlet’s CEO Gary Stiffler nails it in Cagle’s great article by saying: “We’re trying to get people away from thinking ‘short runs should go digital.’ We’re trying to educate them on what today’s technology can do for them.”

Melbourne printer Courtney Colour has installed its second 10000 in response to demand for short run work. Respected Sydney printer Lindsay Yates has gone into digital with the B2 10000. The first one in WA has been ordered.

Naturally, if speed, capacity, multiple processes and UV drying are called for, you can’t beat a good 8 or 10-colour B2 offset machine but the ANZ market is gravitating more towards what B2 digital can do – and the installations reflect this.

There will probably not be a serious challenger to the dominance of HP Indigo in the B2 digital sector until drupa next May; the available inkjet B2s will no doubt continue to be popular in packaging, gifting, photobooks and special applications, with the new B2 inkjets emerging in Düsseldorf but all eyes – once again – will be on Landa Nanography to see what 4 years of development have produced.

Meantime, someone is making a lot of hay in the B2 sunshine!

(My thanks and appreciation to Erik Cagle of Printing Impressions/NAPCO Media for the US case data.)



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