Posts Tagged ‘Israel’

  • In search of Benny – the prophet of Rehovot: Print21 Magazine feature

    By definition the future is unknown, but for some visionaries the blank page it provides is an opportunity to conjure dreams into existence. Such a one is Benny Landa, the father of digital printing. The inventor of the electro-ink printing process has been busy since he sold Indigo to Hewlett Packard in 2002, culminating in the launch of six Landa Nanographic presses at drupa in May. Since then not a lot has been heard from him, so Patrick Howard went to the Landa Labs at Rehovot, Israel, to discover how the future of printing is progressing.

    I first came to Israel in 1992 at the invitation of Benny (Ben Zion) Landa to witness the media launch of his Indigo digital printing press. In the rustic surrounds of a kibbutz north of Tel Aviv we were introduced to the revolutionary concept of high-end digital colour printing which, over the next two decades, was to transform the whole process of printing. With the zeal and belief of an old testament prophet, Benny Landa, in front of the assembled journalists, for the first time made his famous prediction: Everything that can go digital, will go digital.

    There were plenty of sceptics in the audience, journalists who were almost professional cynics inured to the false prophecies of technology. We may not have been able to foresee the flood of hype that would accompany the introduction of digital printing, not only from Indigo but from all the others that would soon follow, but we were not about to totally suspend our disbelief, not yet, not without seeing the presses and the process in operation.

    That opportunity came at the Ipex show in Birmingham the following month. With the showmanship that was to become his trademark, Benny Landa drew back the curtains on his Indigo digital press. The shows were packed and yes! we saw the presses output print although, ironically, the demonstration only reinforced the scepticism that was to dog Indigo for many years to come. In the pressroom later I overheard a not-too-far-fetched proposition that all the sheets were preprinted and shovelled out the back end. There might even have been an operator concealed inside the box. It seemed to be true smoke-and-mirrors stuff and, in the years that followed, the numerous train wrecks and car smashes that characterised the fate of early adopters seemed to vindicate the early doubts.

    But electro-ink proved to be a genuine innovation and, 10 years later, Benny Landa sold to Hewlett Packard for US$800 million. The US giant, the world’s largest computer manufacturer, had the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to fast track the R&D and make HP Indigo into the market leader it is today. Landa stayed on for a few years as a consultant, to work out the revenue targets and generally play the role of elder statesman. However, no matter how fond he may be of his brainchild, he was never comfortable playing second fiddle, even to one of the world’s largest technology corporations.

    On a subsequent occasion when our paths crossed at a HP product launch, over dinner at a restaurant in Singapore I inquired how he was filling his days. “Oh, this and that,” he dissembled, before revealing he had a laboratory in the basement of his home in Israel. He is a hands-on, brilliant research chemist; he bankrolled the development of electro-ink with 700 patents worldwide including over 170 in the US, patents used by every imaging company. Fired with a restless energy, he formed Landa Labs as a research enterprise as soon as he sold Indigo. Over the years, word had it he was engaged in energy research, far removed from digital printing.

    That proved to be true, but also startlingly false in a manner that would rock the printing industry yet again.

    From nano things…

    I arrive by taxi at the looming bunker-like research facilities of Landa Digital Printing in Rehovot, Israel, on a hot hazy day in October. The driver makes a phone call while we wait outside before Ila Bialystok, ex-HP and now Landa Group marcom executive, comes out to greet us. Like so many Landa employees she is a veteran of Indigo, infused with enthusiasm and commitment to the company and its founder. A mother of four, she puts in long days organising everything from the company’s drupa stand to a works outing in Corfu for the company’s 200 employees. She only complains that since there are no presses ready for sale she has little opportunity to practice mainstream marketing.

    Nir Zarmi, head of operations, soon joins us, a relaxed and friendly local who along with the others I’ll meet during the visit is frighteningly well-qualified. In his case, being a mechanical engineer with an MBA gives him the clout he needs to manage the R&D facility. Benny Landa, however, is not here; he’s on the road in London and New York, hitting the financial centres to raise the wind for his latest printing venture.

    Nanography stole the show at drupa. The Landa theatre was packed out for the whole 14 days, with Landa putting in a marathon effort of seven presentations a day, even to the final afternoon when eager show visitors were still queuing up as the exhibition wound down. Over 200 printers, companies and individual owners laid their money down to secure a place in the production queue for the initial Landa presses, in addition to hundreds of others who signed letters of intent. Ila Bialystok said they had only, only, 15 salespeople at the show, otherwise they would have taken many more orders. In an industry that in recent years has developed an almost pathological fear of investment, that is a phenomenal vote of confidence not only in the potential of the new technology but also in Benny Landa’s reputation.

    There are three offset press manufacturers who have licensed the technology; Komori, manroland and Heidelberg. Benny Landa has this riff about how Xerox held its technology – xerography – too close until the patents ran out. Sure they made a lot of money in the 1950s and 60s, but the big cash only started to flow when the Japanese manufacturers, Canon, Brother and Konica et al, got into the game in the 1970s. He wants to spread the joy early, encourage investment by printers because of the brand names involved. It makes sense but there is no altruism involved; Landa will be the only source of the Nanography ink.

    Over two hours, I probe to discover how far along the path the new Landa digital printing project has come. There is a new set of print samples from the ones we saw at drupa. Nir Zarmi is keen to point out the improvements in resolution, in colour, in the clarity of the images. Side-by-side, it’s easy to see how far the process has come but equally how far it has to go. The images are still not saleable print, marred by streaking and other artefacts. And they are for looking at only, not for taking away. Nanography is shrouded in secret intellectual properties.

    There are a number of clever aspects. The ink, of course, is a water-based carrier for nano-sized particles of pigment. But are the particles grown from micro beginnings or a result of being broken down from larger entities? Nir Zarmi is not saying. And apart from water, what else is in the carrier? Again, not for publication. The wafer-thin image created on a carrier belt, supposedly even thinner than offset ink, follows the contours of the paper and is much cheaper to use than conventional toners. But what is the proprietary belt made of? No one is saying. The image is laminated onto the paper. Does it contain an adhesive in the pigment? Sorry.

    There is nothing sinister here. Landa Digital Printing is a work in progress, focused on the development of what is undoubtedly the most revolutionary advance in printing since, well, since the Indigo. They are not going to hand out samples until they are of saleable quality. Landa is big on protecting the intellectual property; he lodged 50 patents before drupa to secure the process. “We must keep some secrets from our competitors,” says Zarmi. “Yes, it’s [Nanography] difficult, but if it was easy everyone would do it.”

    Bridging the profitability gap

    Benny Landa is supremely confident that his Nanography will transform printing. He bases this on the comparative cost of his process to conventional toner, on the one hand, and offset ink for small runs on the other. He has a cute diagram illustrating what he terms the profitability gap, that amount of printing above, say, 1,000 copies and below 5,000. Above is too expensive for conventional digital printing, below too expensive for offset.

    Well, it’s a theory, one that I know many competitors, including HP Indigo and Heidelberg, would challenge.

    Nanography is supposedly water-based, no solvents or aromatic oils, nothing to be extracted from the work environment, nothing to be burned off. There are undoubtedly other ingredients in the carrier but we must take Nir Zarmi’s word for it that Nanographic ink contains mostly water which is evaporated when it lands on the carrier belt. I suspect this is what is giving them difficulty in getting the image quality up to scratch. Oils are easier to control but, as Benny Landa maintains, future technologies must be environmentally neutral. Water-based printing is a good green story, one the industry will undoubtedly pay for.

    According to Zarmi and Bialystok, the company is on track to deliver workable presses by 2013. There are currently seven presses in existence, the same cohort that was on display at drupa. There are six different types; three commercial sheetfed presses of different sizes (S5, S7, S10 – this latter a B1-size press), two Landa label and flexible packaging web presses (W5, W10), and the Landa W50 for publishing, a fast web press rated at 200 metres a minute. It’s an ambitious line-up, no doubt about it, but there is no indication as to which machine will be the first to market. “We have not decided yet,” says Bialystok.

    After poring over the comparative printouts and reaching the limits of what can be revealed, which is not much more than we got at drupa, it’s time to take a walk around the factory floor. The presses with their iPad-like wall-sized touch control panels are still as impressive in their future orientation as ever. This is the way all presses will be controlled. Is Benny Landa the Steve Jobs of the printing industry? No one else thought of it, simple really once you see it.

    On the factory floor, technicians and scientists are working on the print outs, battling the streaking and generally crummy output. I keep reminding myself that they are trying to do almost the impossible; print on any type of untreated paper and off-the-shelf plastic wraps and label stock with water-based nano-particle ink, faster than any previous digital engine. It’s a big ask.

    I find it hard to share the confidence of the Landa people that all the problems will be solved within 12 months. But then, I’m not one of the 200 who have put their money down as an expression of faith in the technology and in Benny Landa. He delivered once; surely he can do so again because, if he does, nothing will ever be the same in the printing industry.

    Energy out of thin air

    It’s a 15-minute ride across town from Landa Digital Printing to Landa Labs in downtown Rehovot. For the printing fraternity, it may seem strange that the whole Nanography venture is actually a spin-off from Benny Landa’s main game, using nano science to generate energy. He has always been a big vision guy and the work going on at Landa Labs is nothing if not ambitious.

    In the air-conditioned rooms on the sixth floor of a modern building, the expertise on tap is impressive. Of the 120 individuals beavering away at esoteric research into solid-state energy generation, most are PhDs in physics and chemistry. It’s the type of workforce you could not put together anywhere in the world for the price other than in Israel. People want to work at Landa Digital Printing because of the cachet of Benny’s reputation and the groundbreaking research that is its raison d’être.

    Koby Waldman is in charge, enjoying the title of corporate vice president, operations. A mild-mannered scientist, he was the first guy on board when Landa established the laboratory in the basement of his home 10 years ago. Now he is running one of the world’s leading energy research companies that operates around the clock; the works canteen is open 24 hours a day serving breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as midnight snacks for those burning the midnight oil.

    So what are they doing?

    Landa Labs is exploring ways to convert ambient heat into energy using the particular properties of nano-particles. The research enterprise is focused on developing nano-materials to discover which ones give the best reactions ­ hence the spin-off into Nanography. Nano particle ink was an early discovery but Landa Labs is still after bigger fish – or should that be smaller ones?

    Walking by the rows of laboratories populated by serious young men and women, Waldman is keen to show me his latest prize, a million-dollar Olympic Magellan Atomic Force microscope, one of three powerful microscopes in the facility that examine materials down to atomic levels. He explains the process in the most general terms as one of ‘sandwiching’ pieces of exotic material, separated by micro spaces, filling the space with nano particles and measuring the result. The theory is that the heat generated by electron movements can be extracted as a form of energy.

    I will not pretend to understand the finer points but the goal of alternative energy utilising the heat in the world around us is the kind of grand vision we’ve become accustomed to associate with Benny Landa. So far he has funded the research of both Landa Labs and Landa Digital Printing from his own pocket, supposedly to the tune of $40 million per year. Waldman says he expects some commercial energy applications within the next two years, but it’s no wonder that Landa is on the road looking for a reported $200 million investment.

    Everyone in Rehovot knows Benny Landa, everyone in Israel really. Certainly in the printing industry he remains our only ‘star’. If his visions of both energy generation and Nanography come to fruition, all our lives will be changed.

    No wonder we listen when the Prophet of Rehovot speaks.