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Mar 9, 2011

What if instead of using inkjet heads to jet ink they were used to apply an ink-resistant substance to subtract part of an offset litho produced image (like a photographic negative blocks light) as it was being printed?

It would combine the economic cost benefits of offset with variable data. Such a development could completely transform the printing market.

It may sound like science fiction, but according to R.R. Donnelley (RRD) it will soon be printing fact and the firm will begin producing direct mail using the process later this year.

RRD calls this process Apollo and it is part of the firm’s agreement with KBA. In fact the further details about Apollo are the most significant news to emerge from this announcement, and of the recent digital developments from major litho press manufacturers this is the most noteworthy because it goes beyond distribution and addresses technology development.

Last week KBA and RRD announced that they had signed an agreement to develop, manufacture and sell piezo inkjet presses for packaging, security, commercial, and newspaper applications.

Under the terms of the agreement, RRD will license Apollo and other digital imaging technologies to KBA which will incorporate them into its press offerings. KBA’s new digital press will be introduced at Drupa in May 2012.

RRD has built up an impressive array of digital printing technology and expertise. In addition to Apollo it also has ProteusJet, which is already in production.

Apollo is significant because it works with conventional inks, stocks and presses. Rather than attempting to jet conventional inks, which are far to viscous to be applied by inkjet heads, or use special inkjet optimized inks with their own cost and application issues, the firm has developed a fluid that works with the offset process to enable variable imaging. It works as a mask applied to the paper just before the printing unit. The inkjet print head applies an oleophobic – that is oil repelling – fluid to the paper which prevents the paper from receiving ink in areas where it isn’t required. In other respects the offset production is normal, there is a plate with an image on it that is transferred to the blanket cylinder, and the oleophobic mask modulates the image on the blanket restricting what is transferred onto the paper.

The implications are significant. Producing variable data using standard stocks and inks on an existing heatset web offset press blows the economics of other digital processes out of the water. It also enables RRD to meet its strategic goals in digital printing. These are to maximize the lifetime and return on investment from its paper transport systems (conventional offset presses and finishing lines) while having the option to upgrade those with the latest digital printing technologies as often as is appropriate.

This implementation of the Apollo technology is only one of 12 that RRD has conceived and applied for patents to cover. Others will follow with the potential for applications such as printable electronics as well as graphics.

ProteusJet is a more conventional inkjet technology using jettable inks. RRD has already deployed the drop-on-demand technology in a number of configurations, both as imprinting units onto pre-printed stock either on press or a finishing transport and as standalone white-paper in continuous feed digital press lines. Applications include book, direct mail, transactional and statement printing, running at 400 feet per minute (fpm) in four-colour or 800 fpm in monochrome.

To date most of the ProteusJet engines deployed by RRD have been based on thermal inkjet technology however, it has also been working on a piezo version, and it is this implementation that is being licensed by KBA. So far it has deployed piezo-based ProteusJet engines for labeling applications, which have been running since last summer. Further versions for other applications will be introduced within the firm in the third quarter of 2011.

Proteus is also getting bigger. RRD announced in October 2010 it was developing a wider version of the technology, which is currently limited to 30” widths. This summer 60” single colour machines running at 800 fpm, with inline binding will be introduced for book printing.

With its demands for flexibility and cost-effective technologies it is significant that RRD has opted to use a mix of both off-the-shelf inkjet drop-on-demand inkjet and to develop its own novel processes. This indicates that the most appropriate technologies will continue to be application specific, and there will be no one size fits all digital print technology.

RRD is in a unique position as the world’s largest printing company and one of the few printing companies large enough to run its own R&D department. It’s an area where it has invested significantly in recent years. Its development of inkjet printing technology is based on its own requirements. This is a huge advantage as it has a thorough understanding of client requirements, the competitive landscape and its own pain points. It also has a deep understanding of the economics of high-volume print production, in particular the cost of ink and paper and how the value of digital print relates to the price customers are willing to pay for different types of product.

As a producer it also knows how the entire production process works and can consider pre-press and post-press along with the printing process and how these all interact.

This deal is a coup for KBA, as a result of the alliance KBA’s offering will, in part at least, be developed by a printer for printers. This compares to Manroland and Heidelberg’s recent announcements of alliances to sell digital printers supplied by other vendors, Océ and Ricoh respectively.

It is significant that rather than keep its technology to itself RRD has chosen to partner with a press vendor to sell its proprietary technology to its competitors. The firm has said that it will benefit from the ability to address markets that it doesn’t yet serve, although hasn’t revealed which ones. It also said that by partnering with KBA it is able to leverage its own R&D spending and get a better return.

Without significant steps forward in print’s competitiveness versus other media the entire industry will suffer. As the largest firm in the industry RRD has more to lose than most. Therefore sharing its technology to enable print to compete effectively against other media is sound business for RRD.

Even based on the limited information disclosed to date, this is by far the most significant of the digital developments announced by the German giants of offset printing because of the innovative technology development process that is part of it.

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