Thursday, June 26, 2014

The upcoming “showdown” - HP PageWide wide-format printer vs. Memjet-enabled wide-format printers vs. LED wide-format b/w and color printers. Also, the impact of technology changes on the reprographics business and industry.

Do the impacts (on the reprographics business and industry) of previous technology changes provide us any insight into the potential impact that HP’s PageWide wide-format print systems may have on the reprographics business and industry?  I think so.  But, admittedly, I’m often wrong about what I think.  (And, according to my close friends, “what I think” is of no importance to anyone but me.)

First, let me mention that I’m a history buff.  I loved the history courses I took in high-school and college, and, even today, I continue to read books about history and historical events. One overall lesson I learned about history is that history often repeats itself, even though we try not to repeat bad outcomes of events that happened in the past.

Second, I’d like to take a “look back” at technology changes that took place in the reprographics business, but rather than just look at technology changes, I’d like to “air out” the affects of past technology changes on the reprographics business and industry.  All of the following pertains to “large-format” reprographics and imaging.

Full-color, photo-realistic prints

Do you remember when these types of prints, when orders called for “short-run” quantities, were the exclusive domain of color photo labs?
Sometime around the beginning of the 1990’s, Cactus introduced a RIP that enabled one to produce full-color, photorealistic prints on a Xerox electrostatic plotter.  If I’m recalling this correctly, the first Cactus “system” sold for more than $200,000, and the system included a Xerox electrostatic plotter and the Cactus RIP.  It was very slow, and, by today’s standards, the prints the system produced were lacking in sharpness and quality.  But, whatever, it wasn’t all that difficult to sell prints produced by that system. I remember that we sold a job for a cellular phone company – a job where we produced 200 24” x 48” prints, and we got a lot of money for that one job.  The prints had to be laminated.  RasterGraphics improved on the Cactus system; RasterGraphics electrostatic printers (which sold for in excess of $100,000) were faster, and most companies acquired Onyx RIP’s to drive their RasterGraphics large-format, digital color, wide-format printers.  Not too long after the first Cactus systems started showing up at reprographics companies, DisplayMaker (the former “Big Color” company) came out with an ink-jet printer with RIP that produced large-format color photorealistic prints.  At around $35,000, that system was a good bit slower than the Cactus electrostatic system, but it was also a lot less expensive to buy.  The first DisplayMaker ink-jet systems produced a whopping 12 sq ft of output per hour. Hmmm.  It wasn’t all that difficult to get $14.00-$18.00 per sq ft for color, photorealistic ink-jet prints. For less than $20,000 today, you can acquire an ink-jet print system (printer and RIP) that prints blazing fast compared to ink-jet printers from years ago.  And, reportedly, prices for full-color photorealistic ink-jet prints are down below $4.00 per sq ft.  The point being that as technology improved, speed-of-output increased exponentially, quality of output increased exponentially, but the prices prints sell for have gone down substantially; factors affecting that; ink prices have come down, media prices have come down, the cost of equipment has gone down dramatically, productivity has increased a lot, and there are a lot more competitors (a whole lot more competitors) who offer large-format color photorealistic printing services today than there were back when this technology was primarily owned and offered by the reprographer marketplace.  Lower prices compress margins.  The point of this paragraph being, short-run, photo-realistic color prints were the exclusive domain of color photo labs until large-format “digital” printers hit the market.  Because of their experience with “plotters”, reprographers were the first to enter the short-run, large-format, full-color, photo-realistic printing market.  That early advantage was short-lived, for, over the next several years, quite a number of different Printing and Graphics Industry “sub-industries” began offering those services.  Competition increased substantially, driving prices down, down, down.  Print equipment that produces color poster prints and banners (etc.) has come a long, long way since the first “digital” devices hit the market.  Today, a large number of companies offer wide-format digital color printing equipment, including HP, Canon/OCE, Epson, Xerox, KIP, Roland, Mimaki, OCE, etc., etc., etc.

Engineering photographic services

Where are our engineering photographic labs?!!!  Gone.  Rendered obsolete by wide-format xerographic equipment (first the Xerox 1860, then the Xerox 2080, then the Shacoh 920 and, finally, the remarkable, game-changing OCE 9800) and by wide-format “digital” plotting systems.  Many reprographers had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their engineering photographic operations/departments; multiple giant cameras, multiple large-format film processors (Cronalar, Crovex, etc.) and darkrooms (and highly technical personnel.)  All gone.  We used to get premium prices “per sq ft” for film negatives, film positives, photo-prints and for fixed-line and wash-off mylars.  $2.00 - $5.00 per sq ft.  All that revenue, all that margin …. gone.  I don’t know of any reprographers in the U.S. who still offer engineering photographic services.

CAD plotting services; CAD plotting service bureaus

Most older reprographers (and, sadly, I’m now one of those) will remember when the first wide-format b/w electrostatic plotters hit the market; they were rather expensive (over $80,000) which meant that most of our A/E customers could not afford to acquire them on their own, and that opened up a new service from reprographers, “the plotting service dept”.  Primarily plotting on vellum and mylar, prices ranged from $2.00 to $4.00 per sq ft.  At Rowley-Scher in 1984, we established “The CAD Support Center”, which offered plotting services, and, when we finally stripped out everything we were trying to do that made no sense at all to offer in the first place, we wound up offering only plotting services.  I can remember a month where our plotting revenues, from one plotter, were $35,000 – one technician, alone, handled that volume of work.  That business dried up for two reasons, but the main reason (as best I can recall) was the invention of the HP DesignJet ink-jet plotter. 

HP DesignJet ink-jet plotters for CAD plotting

This one invention changed the reprographics world, because the equipment was so inexpensive to buy and operate, it gave every reason to A/E firms to acquire their own CAD plotters and stop outsourcing b/w “check-plots” (and, in some cases, ‘final plots”) to reprographers.  Reprographers were a bit slow to catch on to the dramatic affect HP’s DesignJet plotters had on the reprographics business and industry.  HP’s first DesignJet plotters were b/w only, but later development extended HP DesignJet Plotter to enable color plotting.  The speed-of-output offered by early model HP DesignJet CAD-type plotters still left plotting by reprographers a viable business, especially when customers need to plot lots of drawings, quickly, all at one time.

Diazo printing (bluelines, blacklines, sepias and diazo mylars)

I’m not old enough to have been around when the diazo printing process replaced the (wet and messy) blueprinting process.  I view the change – from blueprints to whiteprints (the latter being prints produced by the diazo process) as an “evolutionary” change rather than a “revolutionary” change.  Both processes required operators to feed originals, one by one, and both processes made only 1 copy of each original. (Yes, there were later models that did retain the original, allowing for multiple prints of the same drawing, but those machines were terrible.)  Apparently, there was no big change in print production speed between blueprinting and diazo printing.  About diazo printing, I do remember that we were able to generate (per machine) around 500 to 600 - 24-36 prints per hour (approximately 3,000 – 3,600 sq ft per hour.  Speed of output was highly dependent on the operator (and on the print-speed of the paper you were using), not on the machine.   Cost of production model diazo equipment (new), $25k - $35k.  Reprographers made a ton of profits on diazo printing services, print prices (for blueline and blacklines) ranged from $.20 per sq ft to $.03 per sq ft, and reprographers also were able to charge for sepias and mylars (ranging from $.25 per sq ft to $2.00 per sq ft or thereabouts.)  I don’t know of any reprographers in the U.S. who still offer diazo printing services.

Xerox 1860, 2080 and then the Shacoh 920

In spite of the fact that I would have preferred not to, we acquired a Xerox 1860 back around 1974, shortly after we had relocated to a larger facility.  We rented it at first, but later bought it; cost was around $115,000.  (I’ll never get over that shock.)  I never liked the 1860, for it had so many problems; our service tech virtually lived in our Xerox 1860 department.  And, who in the hell decided that the machine should allow 24” wide input, but only 18” wide output!  What it did do was make it easy for us to produce vellums that were “half-size” (provided that originals were 24 x 36 or smaller.  To this very day, I still hate the term “half-size”.  All that did was make it easier for reprographers to reduce their revenues.  The vellums we produced were used as masters to print “half-size” bluelines and blacklines on our diazo equipment.  The Xerox 2080, costing more than $125,000, was Xerox’s next greatest xerographic wide-format device.  Improved operating performance, less down-time than an 1860, but still “output” limitations – 36” wide input, but only 24” wide output.  The next generation of wide-format xerographic equipment was the Shacoh 920, which came to the U.S. all the way from Japan.  Relatively slow operating speed, but it did produce very high quality prints on plain bond, vellum or mylar.  The greatest feature – it would accept 36” wide originals AND produce 36” wide output.  Shacoh clobbered the Xerox 2080.  Xerox did eventually come out with its own 36” wide output device, but, by the time Xerox came out with its 36” wide output device, Shacoh had already established a grand foot-hold in the U.S. reprographer marketplace.  In other words, Xerox left the door open, and Shacoh blazed through that open door!  In my opinion, the advent of the Shacoh 920 was the “sign on the wall” that engineering photo services would go by the wayside.  Print prices for Shacoh (and Xerox 2080) output; $1.00 per sq ft for bond, $1.50 per sq ft for vellum, $3.00 per sq ft for mylar.  The early wide-format xerographic “copiers” were replaced by “digital” copier/plotters.

The remarkable OCE 9800

Yes, before there was an OCE 9800, Xerox 8830’s and 8845’s were on the market. But, again, Xerox left the door wide open, and another equipment manufacturer, this time OCE, came blazing through the open door.  Offering faster output speed than any Xerox wide-format b/w system, offering the amazing OCE “copypress” imaging technology, offering highly reliable, day-in-day-out operating performance and offering crisp, precision print quality (1 pixel instead of 3 pixels - and, even today, I have no clue what that meant even though I was told that that was important), the OCE 9800 quickly led OCE to the front of the pack.  When speaking to other reprographers and to A/E customers, I often referred to the OCE 9800 as “a repro shop in a box” – it did what four separate reprographer “departments” formerly did – it produced copies from hard-copy originals (eliminating the need for diazo printing), it produced fast, high-quality plots from digital files (virtually eliminating the need for slower ink-jet, e-stat or xerographic process plotters, except when color plots were required), it put a second death-knell on the engineering photo lab business, and it eliminated the need for a separate wide-format xerographic department.  Damn, a repro shop in one box.  Now, what the hell do I do with pricing?  The OCE 9800 proved to be disruptive technology – disruptive in the sense that it eliminated the need for separate departments reprographers were operating – disruptive in terms of facility-space requirements (you now needed less space to operate your business) – disruptive in terms of “operator” requirements – and disruptive to pricing.  The funniest situation that developed – at reprographers who acquired OCE 9800’s but were still offering/pushing diazo printing – you’d look to the right and see an OCE 9800 sitting there doing little work (because of price) and look to the left and see your diazo print personnel pumping out lots of bluelines and blacklnes, full-well knowing that, if you moved the diazo print volume to the OCE 9800, it would (actually) cost you less to produce “plain-paper” prints on the OCE than it would cost you to produce “diazo prints” on your diazo printing equipment.  Most reprographers were slow to move customers from one print process to the other, because doing so would “upset” (be very disruptive to) existing reprographics pricing models.  But, as all great technology does, change does happen.  (In fact, one of the smartest people to ever grace the reprographics industry, Mohan, wrote a treatise - for reprographers - that, in essence, spoke to the issue of “managing a successful transition from analog to digital.” Time to go back and read that treatise?)

Memjet- the first wide-format to offer high-speed, high-volume output and capable of producing prints in b/w or in color

No, I’m not forgetting that KIP introduced the KIP Color 80 and followed that up with the introduction of the KIP c7800.  I’m “just saying” that comparing the output speed of a KIP c7800 to a Memjet-enabled wide-format system isn’t a direct comparison.  The KIP c7800 is fast, but it is not “blazing” fast.  It produces color prints far slower than an OCE TDS 800 does. (And, produces color prints slower far slower than the fastest KIP b/w-only device.)  Now, back to Memjet.  I’ve been following Memjet wide-format developments for four years by now (well, maybe three years, but who’s counting.)  To the best of my knowledge, there are now four different Memjet-enabled wide-format printers on the market.  The OCE ColorWave 900, the Xerox IJP 2000, the RTI Vortex 4200, and the Xante Excelagraphix 4200.  It’s my understanding that all come with a price tag in excess of $100,000.  (However, if these devices are highly reliable and productive and offer great quality, their price tags are not all that much of a stumbling block, especially when you consider what reprographers paid in previous times for e-stat plotters, Shacoh 920’s, Xerox 1860’s and 2080’s, etc. and for OCE 9800’s.)

I’ve only heard of a few reprographers who’ve, so far, acquired Memjet-enabled wide-format printers.  [I’m sure there must be a lot of reprographers who’ve acquired these printers; it’s just that people who’ve acquired them must be keeping that a secret!]  But, the point I would make is that, until the reprographics community “says they are”, I won’t consider Memjet-enabled wide-format printers to be game-changers, because, even thought they print very fast, the issues of reliability, productivity, down-time, quality-of-output and operating cost will ultimately determine their success (or failure.)

The RTI Vortex 4200
The Vortex™ 4200 wide format printer targets several print applications, including CAD, AEC, GIS and point-of-sale graphics with a combination of speed and quality never before thought possible.

Inside the Vortex 4200 is revolutionary Memjet technology with five printheads for single-pass wide format printing of uncompromised speed and quality. Compared to traditional inkjet, the Vortex™ 4200 prints up to eight times faster for incredible job turnaround times and attractive total cost of ownership.

Coupled with some of the most environmentally friendly inks available and very low power consumption, the Vortex 4200 wide format printer is not only fast, flexible and of premium quality, but also a friendly product for our environment.

The Xanté Excelagraphix 4200
The Xanté Excelagraphix 4200 Inkjet Print System changes everything you know about high speed wide format printing. It features the revolutionary Memjet Waterfall Printhead Technology™ that delivers more than 3 billion drops of ink per second, for print speeds up to 8 times faster than traditional inkjet technology.  Now you can print over-sized architectural / engineering documents, maps, indoor signage, P-O-P displays, packaging, folding cartons, corrugated boxes, newspapers, and more, all on-demand.

The Océ ColorWave 900
The concept behind the Océ ColorWave 900 poster printer is to leverage Canon's expertise in developing production print systems and integrate with high speed inkjet printing technology for large format applications. To deliver on this promise of speed, the Océ ColorWave 900 printer incorporates paper handling features from Canon's high volume large format equipment. This results in a printing machine capable of printing more than 6,000 square feet per hour at a speed of 12 inches per second.

Xerox IJP 2000
Single Pass Printing opens a new world of print speeds – print up to 4,520 square feet (420 square meters) per hour.

HP PageWide technology wide-format printers, the “next” wide-format to offer high-speed, high-volume output and capable of producing prints in b/w or in color

Look for them to hit the market in the 2nd half of 2015.  If you really want to know what I think of HP PageWide wide-format, visit the other articles on my blog about this subject!  Reportedly, HP’s production model wide-format printer, which, apparently, will target the technical document printing market, will print faster than any other wide-format printer on the market and have lower operating costs than any other wide-format printer on the market.  Those are very bold claims.  We’ll have to “wait and see.”  But, if the claims are close to what we later see from HP, this new line of printers will, I suspect, like the OCE 9800 was, be truly disruptive to the reprographics marketplace.  In terms of speed of output, quality of output, productivity and operating cost.  Forcing disruption in pricing models.  As I said, the first production model PageWide wide-format printer is targeted at the CAD market.

The upcoming "showdown":  HP PageWide vs. OCE and KIP B/W LED vs. Memjet-enabled Wide-Format:  What information (facts and numbers) will Reprographers want to know and want to be able to compare?

Well, I’ve worked up a “showdown comparison chart”, which is now posted in my Google Drive library.  Here’s a link to the chart:

That’s the end of this post, thanks for bearing with me!

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