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The war of the webs: Print 21 magazine article

Monday, 10 March 2008
By Print 21 Online Article
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The market for continuous-feed digital print is hotting up – and speeding up and getting more colourful. Driven by the market expectations for transpromo print, the leading vendors are gearing up to slug it out for dominance. Simon Enticknap visited Océ in Germany to see the first shots fired in what promises to be a hard-fought contest.

In a pre-Christmas pre-emptive strike, Océ unveiled a raft of new digital printing systems at its Poing manufacturing facility in Germany, landing the first blows in what looks like being one of the most hotly-contested print sectors in 2008 – the market for full colour, continuous-feed digital output.

Driven by the lure of new transpromo markets, high-speed transactional printers are gearing up to offer full colour capability to their business customers in the expectation that this will open up new avenues for personalised communication on a mass scale never previously seen.

In the process, the accepted paradigms of full colour digital print are rapidly being re-written as suppliers race to deliver fast, reliable, 100% variable colour on a web. As far as digital print is concerned, it is a watershed moment, and one which provides a glimpse of where its future direction may eventually lie.

Move over cut-sheet
The glamour models of the digital print market have traditionally been found in the full colour cut-sheet sector. These are the head-turners, the ones that flaunt their colour-saturated pages, their lifelike skin tones and ability to convince many punters that they are ‘as good as offset’. It is a world populated by the likes of the Indigo, NexPress, and i-Gen3 where the emphasis is on producing nothing less than four colours, and maybe more, at around 70 to 100 A4 sheets per minute on a variety of stocks. Their target market is ‘graphics’ quality printed media, short-run colour and customised communications.

Beautiful machines, no doubt, and for many years, the pioneers that have set the pace in helping to define and create a market for full colour digital print, not least by striving to reproduce it to a more than acceptable standard.

At the other end of the digital print spectrum, however, are the true workhorses of the industry, the speed machines of the continuous-feed sector whose job it is to churn out millions of bills and statements every year (usually in a single colour – black) while their more up-market colleagues busy themselves with fancy brochures and glossy catalogues in every conceivable hue and shade. Colour in this transactional market has always been regarded as an unnecessary frivolity – too slow, too expensive and lacking any real purpose. Besides, many of the practitioners in this field weren’t really graphics people anyway – they were data managers, systems designers, number crunchers who wouldn’t know a pantone from a pantyhose.

Now, however, all this is set to change as the continuous-feed workaholics start to dip their toes in the colour market and, in the process, promise to make digital colour faster, more personalised and available on a far larger scale than anything seen previously. The magical word here is ‘transpromo’, the combination of essential business communications (bills and statements) with targeted marketing messages in full colour to create a new form of personalised direct mail to counter the inexorable exodus of printed billing to the online world. Although transpromo, as a concept, has yet to prove its value or real worth in the market, many are banking on it becoming a profitable reality and, like rumours of a newly-discovered goldfield, the race is on to be the first to stake a claim to its potential riches.

Already in Australia, we have seen the installation of Fuji Xerox’s DocuColor 980 toner-based systems at Salmat in Melbourne and Sydney, capable of printing in full colour at speeds of up to 900 A4 pages per minute. Kodak also has the Versamark VX5000 inkjet models capable of printing over 2,000 A4 pages per minute, and will be previewing new inkjet technology at drupa.

Keen to preserve its ownership of a market in which it is regarded as the monochrome king, European-based digital print specialists, Océ, also entered the fray just before Christmas when, in a series of product launches at its German manufacturing facility, it outlined its own approach to the digital colour sector.

Best kept secret
My first encounter with Océ was several years ago in the context of the plan-printing and architectural drafting sector in which the company first established itself as a market leader. Since then, it’s been interesting to discover how many different digital print markets the company has been involved in, from wide format printing to photocopying and transactional printing, whilst always, in my mind at least, maintaining a relatively low profile. Industry practitioners recognise its reputation for having good technology but equally the company lacks the high-visibility branding of some of its competitors. While other companies are busy making the headlines, Océ simply gets on with doing what it does best: delivering technology to the market, listening to what its customers want, and making money out of digital print (something which shouldn’t be underestimated).

After a series of press briefings and product demos at the company’s production facility on the outskirts of Munich, what becomes apparent is that the company rather relishes this status as the industry’s ‘best-kept- secret’. Not that it isn’t averse to trumpeting its own numerous achievements in the industry, but there is something distinctively European about its low-key, serious, rather methodical approach to the market, efficient but just a little dull. Just don’t mistake this apparent diffidence for lack of competitive will. These guys are serious, OK, and they mean business.

In other ways, too, Océ is an interesting player. For a start, it is a specialist digital print company, not an offshoot of traditional prepress or consumer electronics corporation. Digital print is what it knows best and it has a vested interest in growing and preserving this market. Secondly, while much of the mainstream commercial print market is focused on colour, Océ’s traditional strength is in the high speed transactional print, direct mail and digital book sectors where the majority of the output is still in the form of continuous black and white print. This is Océ’s heartland, especially in the US and Europe which account for 90 percent of its sales. And it is this market which the company is addressing with its latest releases while at the same time turning its attention to the demand for digital colour in the commercial graphic arts market.

Colour is coming
While 95 percent of the output in Océ’s traditional transactional/direct mail market is still black and white – and likely to remain so for some time – both Océ and its customers recognise that ‘colour is coming’. As a result, Océ sees its role as being to gently and successfully lead its customers into a colour world. As anybody who has made this transition knows, whether it’s in commercial print, packaging, newspapers or quick print, delivering more colour brings its own set of unique challenges that encompass more than just the printing technology. To do colour well, you need to understand how it works.

It is this transition from B+W to more colour – even if it’s not full colour – which makes the transactional print market so intriguing at the moment. We’ve become so used to seeing other graphics markets where colour is so widespread to the point that it is just a matter of fact, as noteworthy as the sun rising and the changing of the seasons. So it’s quite remarkable to witness a print sector still taking its first few baby steps along the path to a multi-coloured world and, in the process, finding out how to do it, when to deploy it and, most crucially, how to control it.

As the rest of the graphic arts industry can no doubt confirm, taking on colour is not something which is done lightly, bringing with it, as it does, all sorts of added complications and variables that must be mastered and coordinated. Shifting from one colour to four-colour printing is not simply a difference of three but rather the addition of several million new variables. All it takes is one incorrectly reproduced logo to bring the best-laid plans unstuck.

Océ’s strategic approach to colour is evident in its new releases: on the one hand, taking care of its B+W base – increasing productivity and introducing enhanced grey scale reproduction – while simultaneously introducing more colour in a staged, progressive manner whether it’s one, two, three or even full four colour printing for those who are ready for it. Trust us, seems to be the Océ message; you trusted us to deliver the best B+W digital print technology, now let us show you what we can do with colour.

The lure of transpromo
But who is driving this demand for digital colour? Océ identifies a number of markets that it will be targeting – personalised direct mail, digital books with colour pages, even newspapers and short-run commercial print, but it is ‘transpromo’ that is on everybody’s lips. The idea of combining ads with bills is nothing new but what is changing is the possibility of doing it in colour, inline, and making it much more affordable. After all, most billing is already accompanied by some form of collateral direct marketing which needs to printed offline and then inserted, an additional cost and processing stage. In addition, blank pages also need to be preprinted and stored ready for over-printing as required. How much easier then if all this colour could be printed at the same time as the bill. Not only would it be easier and cheaper, but instead of having a few inserts to chose from, marketing messages could in theory be infinitely variable.

For the large corporates, this shifts bill printing from being a necessary cost to becoming potentially another revenue generator. This is the appeal of transpromo and the reason why nobody wants to get caught short if and when it does take off.

Of course, the hazards of transpromo communications are well-known – the fact that consumers might not want to view marketing messages on their utility bills and, indeed, are already in a negative frame of mind at having to open such ‘essential’ mail so will likely react in hostile fashion to anybody tempting them to spend yet more money.

Sebastian Landesberger, CEO of Océ Printing Systems, who presided over the pre-Christmas event, made the point, however, that transpromo is more than just ‘ads on bills’, no matter how well-designed and targeted they be. In fact he gives this market a different title – business colour – which can be used encompass all sorts of ways introducing a bit of colour into a previously monochromatic world in order to deliver a variety of messages.

One of the most interesting briefings in this context was by Michael Ehrhart, Océ executive director, who highlighted the different ways in which colour can be used effectively in printed communications. Rather cringingly for the sole Australian journalist at the briefing, Ehrhart started off by highlighting a rather gaudy insert from the Sydney Morning Herald as an example of how not to use colour in a promotional item.

The examples of effective use of colour that Ehrhart showed demonstrated that it is not a question of how much colour is used but rather how effectively it is applied. Examples included a tax form from California on which the inclusion of just a tiny amount of spot colour helped to save $200,000 in reduced telephone queries from tax-payers and as well as $5 million in interest due to payments being made on time. Not a bad return for a little dab of coloured toner.

Other examples of award-winning direct mail, including one flyer from Amnesty International, amply demonstrate the effectiveness of a well-designed application of colour, even if it is fluoro.

Blown away by JetStream

The new flagship in Océ’s assault on the transpromo colour market is the JetStream which, in a significant shift from the company’s existing toner technology, is a high-speed inkjet system using water-based dye inks. Available in two web widths, the top-of the range model is capable of delivering full colour at a rate of 150 metres per minute, or 2,052 A4 pages in 2-up duplex format.

This is a serious colour production machine and Océ are quoting duty cycles of over 60 million impressions per month. The US is the prime market, at least initially, followed by Europe. Although declining nominate any sales targets, Sebastian Landesberger conceded that the worldwide market for these types of machine was not huge due to their high productivity. But while unit sales may be by the handful rather than the hundreds, impression numbers will climb into the billions.

Does that include Australia? With our comparatively small market for digital print, is there really room for a high-speed transpromo express train like the JetStream?

"Absolutely," responds Servio Notermans, MD of Océ Australia. "Of course, what you need for such a device is the volume and, in Australia, there are a couple of segments that we’re looking at, one of which is the transactional area."

It seems though that it’s not just the traditional bill printers who are following developments in this continuous feed market. Commercial printers, too, are starting to take an interest as they see speeds and quality improve to point at which different applications become more viable. It’s not going to replace offset and it’s not going to happen overnight but fast inkjet devices such as the JetStream are the first step along the way.

Whatever the future holds, it certainly promises to be an interesting year ahead in the race for high-speed digital colour.

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