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Text book launch for new technology – Print21 magazine feature

Tuesday, 13 March 2012
By Print21

Introducing new technology is as much of an art as a science. When the results of years of research and development come into contact with the realities of the market there are no certainties and no guarantees of results. Success depends as much on having a well-planned launch strategy as it does on superior technology. Bruno Turcato is confident the arrival of the SurePress will exceed the label industry’s expectations. He talks to Patrick Howard about ensuring the disciplined delivery of Epson’s first digital label press.

The label converting sector has a complex relationship with digital printing. Overall, label printers have been slow to take up the technology, only lately coming to recognise the potential of short-run, variable data imaging. Market forces are the main drivers in disrupting established methods of printing labels. Manufacturers are demanding more frequent changes to marketing campaigns, more targeted versions of labels with seasonal and geographic appeal along with greater tracking and security information on the label. Meeting this demand has fuelled a growing recognition within the sector that digital imaging will play a vital role in most label companies’ futures.

Which makes this a propitious time for the entry of Epson’s SurePress into the market under the watchful eye of Bruno Turcato, managing director of the Australian company. A pragmatic and seasoned executive, he has led Epson Australia for nine years. During that time the company has become one of the mainstay brands in the graphic arts. He has overseen the introduction and development of Epson’s entry into the graphic arts with MicroPiezo inkjet printers. This remarkably successful invention fired a revolution in the way the printing industry operates. It transformed proofing, pioneering digital processes that swept away analogue film-based processes. It proved seminal in popularising wide-format printing, now a multi-billion dollar sector globally, by providing a defining alternative to thermal inkjet while capitalising on Epson graphic arts quality.

“MicroPiezo is at the heart of our future,” says Turcato. “It is one of three core technologies, along with 3LCD for projectors and QMEMS for highly accurate sensing devices, that form the basis of Epson’s business. We have always been primarily a technology and manufacturing company. We produce our products from go to whoa! The technology is ours as well as the manufacturing skills.”

MicroPiezo inkjet was invented in the early 1990s by a team led by Epson’s current president, Minoru Usui. It powers the company’s ubiquitous inkjet printers for the home and office as well as being the basis for many of the printing industry’s leading OEM products. It is now more than ever core to Epson’s plans. Following a reassessment of corporate strategy in 2009 that gave rise to a business strategy dubbed SE15, the company actually decreased its size by sloughing a number of non-core activities. It now wants to concentrate on bringing its MicroPiezo technology to market in its own larger presses, the first of which is the SurePress. “We have the engineering capacity to upscale our manufacturing,” said Turcato.

The sweet spot

The advent of the SurePress marks a turning point for Epson. It has seen the company realign some production capacity in its factories in Japan, gearing up to develop and manufacture the full-scale press. While the company has always been involved in manufacturing inkjet printers, fabricating presses of this size is a radical departure. The US $11.8 billion enterprise operates in three key divisions including commercial and industrial (C&I) where it interfaces with the printing industry.

For Bruno Turcato, the morphing of Epson from being mainly an IT company whose success depended on the development of patented technologies to one that is deeply involved in high-end engineering and manufacturing seems a logical progression.

“Epson has a large R&D budget, always has. The difference now is an emphasis on getting the fruits of that research into manufactured products,” he said. “We see there are gaps in the digital space, especially in the label industry. There are expensive high-end digital presses and very small ones, but nothing in the middle. We expect good growth in the sector and so we have put together a solution to deliver Epson value and quality to our customers, the SurePress.”

Late last year, Epson Australia took delivery of the first showroom model of the SurePress L-4033A at its headquarters in North Ryde. A specially-designed showroom has since become the focus of a continuing stream of industry professionals keen to see the long awaited press in action. Well-known industry identity and C&I business unit manager, Craig Heckenberg, has put together an experienced team to introduce the product to the Australian and New Zealand label market.

The current SurePress was first officially shown at Ipex 2010 and launched to the market worldwide last year. It is far from being a first generation technology. Initial models have been in beta operation in Japan for over three years. Epson’s defining emphasis on quality ensured it was only made generally available when it was considered to be a thoroughly tested and proven product. The inkjet press employs Epson’s well-known six-colour (cyan, magenta, yellow, black, orange and green), water-based ink sets. A two-stage drying process allows it to print without pre-treatment or top coating directly onto industry standard substrates up to 330mm wide.

Turcato lists the reasons why Epson decided to focus on the label sector for its first foray into larger inkjet presses. “The label sector is growing by 15 per cent per annum over a number of years. It is ready to take advantage of the technology. SurePress has the high quality the industry expects, first class colour, reliability and it is particularly cost effective,” he said.

“This combination is designed for the digital age in labels. It is a perfect fit for certain market segments and will change the way the industry operates.”

He recognises the leap of faith required for a printer to adopt the first iteration of a new technology.

“Early adopters of our technology will be positioned to survive any changes later on,” he said. “It is cost effective. The output is superior. When Epson brings a product to market it is ready. It [the label sector] is a competitive market but we believe SurePress represents outstanding value.

“Epson has a quality heritage of customer service. We are well-known as a quality product organisation. Our customers know Epson is there to stand behind its products.”

Taking time to do it right

The launch of the SurePress in Australia and New Zealand is about 12 months behind Japan, Europe and the USA. It has been a challenging time for all manufac­turers in the region, especially in Japan. The disruption caused by the tsunami, although relatively minor for Epson, was compounded by the effects of floods in Thailand where it sources many of its components. In addition, bringing the SurePress to Australia is a major challenge for the local 110 people strong company. It necessitates considerable investment and the development of specialised skills.

“It requires us to change our thinking, to build new resources. We have hired technical support people both in sales and service, individuals who know the label industry very well,” said Turcato. “We are training our technicians by sending them to Japan. We will also have factory personnel here for all installations. In addition we are working on a range of substrates for the local market, working with customers and learning from them.

“It is important to have discipline when bringing new products to market. We are very pleased with the initial response from the industry. There are customers champing at the bit to install the SurePress but we need to make sure everything is in place. First installation will be in the first quarter of this year.”

Although there is no announcement yet, the Kiwis may again prove to be the first out of the traps, living up to their national reputation of being early adopters. One of the defining characteristics and market advantages of the SurePress is its price below $400,000. This puts it into a class of its own.

“Label converters baulk at the prospect of making a large investment in digital. They are not sure if they have the business. At the same time they recognise that unless they move to a digital solution they won’t have a future. SurePress is the affordable option,” said Turcato. “We see the change in the market, with more run lengths of around 5,000 to 10,000 labels. It has to do with the pace of change. Customers are all moving in the same direction. Like MicroPiezo proofing technology, at the start no one thought it would change the industry, but the technology was refined, produced better colours and sharpness and eventually it transformed the proofing business. We believe the SurePress will do the same for labels.

“In developing the SurePress, it proved vital to balance production requirements with the optimum cost factors. In our conversations with customers, speed has taken a back seat to quality for short-run label production. Quality is what our customers are concerned about because at five metres per minute, SurePress can already handle short-run lengths with ease. We believe we have the right balance. When people buy products off the shelf, quite often it is the quality of the label that sells.”

Quality comes first.

This emphasis on quality lies at the heart of the Epson corporate philosophy. “We have an established reputation. The company’s image and culture is based on exceeding customers’ quality expectations. The Epson logo means getting the best quality I could ever expect,” assures Turcato.

He believes the breadth of Epson technology enables the SurePress to meet and surpass the label sector’s expectations. Building on its pioneering experience in inkjet, it has acquired a wide knowledge of all the necessary parameters, especially in areas such as colour control.

“We continually demonstrate Epson quality in colour expertise, from proofing to wide format printing to gallery quality photographic prints and in market leading 3LCD projection. We are able to back up our offering with experience. Epson MicroPiezo is not only about imaging it also involves ink knowledge. We know ink chemistry, pigments, water-based inks, solvents, white ink for proofing and newer technology. There will be some good news coming out this year, more than likely at drupa,” said Turcato.

Epson is on track to become an even larger player in the graphic arts. The industry benefits immeasurably from the company’s engagement with technologies in retail and soho imaging. It is a focused technology company, typical of the new breed that is defining the printing industry. Its technologies have already transformed many parts of the industry and with the SurePress it is declaring ‘game on’ in the digital production space.

The SurePress is a dedicated label press but the inkjet engine that drives it has immense capabilities that can be harnessed to other production sectors. Epson has proven it has the ability to invent, develop and manufacture technology to scale.

The SurePress is the beginning of a new era.

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