The Kodak flag flies proudly alongside the Stars and Stripes and the rather more idiosyncratic state flag of Ohio. Twelve months ago this was not guaranteed. Twelve months ago Kodak had put its Prosper inkjet business up for sale and the flag lowered at the facility in Dayton, the sixth largest city in Ohio, which is home to Prosper and the new Ultrastream printhead. This is the uncut diamond that Kodak hopes to polish into a multifaceted gem.
This year, as if to confirm the re-found faith in what the facility does, Kodak is sponsoring an exhibit at the Dayton’s historical museum to mark 50 years of its involvement in inkjet printing.
It is not a continuous involvement: the business began as paper company Mead sought a way to drive demand for its papers; it was taken over by Kodak in 1982, sold to Scitex in 1994 and returned to Kodak in 2002. In 2016 the business was put up for sale, with reluctance. At the time the signs were not auspicious. The early presses had encountered teething problems, causing some to be replaced, and the sales cycle was longer than had been anticipated.
Prosper was dragging down the debt laden Kodak, fresh out of Chapter 11. A sales process began and the division was treated as a discontinued business to keep it off balance sheet. All kinds of rumours about potential buyers circulated in a high stakes game of poker. More parties came sniffing either to prepare a bid or to find out what they could about Ultrastream project.
In the event, Kodak found a new long term investor able to inject $200 million in loans into the business at better rates than the borrowings needed to escape Chapter 11. These loans may later be converted into equity if all goes well.
At the same time the rate of bleeding slowed until Prosper was no longer an embarrassment on the financials. This year Kodak explained that no buyer could match the valuation that it had placed on the business and Prosper returned to the fold. The flag could fly proudly again.
The next few years will show whether the would-be suitor’s assessment of the business is right or whether they will be kicking themselves for not stumping up what Kodak wanted.
The move has been costly. Randy Vandagriff became president of the Enterprise Inkjet Division when Philip Cullimore decided he would rather spend more time in Hertfordshire than five miles above the planet flying between Europe, American and Asia, answering the questions of potential buyers and their advisers.
The company has recognised that it can only support a limited number of presses because of the liability that would sit on the balance sheet.
Chief finance officerDave Bullwinkle suggests that Kodak cannot supply more than 15-20 presses a year because of this. Not surprisingly, it no longer wants to sell Prospers to all and sundry, but instead to focus on high volume applications in direct mail, book printing, and commercial print where the advantages of speed, quality and versatility in high volumes mitigate the initial cost. Kodak also wants to take the machine into packaging, showing a single-sided version of the press to this end at Drupa last year.
The Uteco machine sits in the Dayton factory under the flags of each nation where Kodak has installed inkjet presses. These stretch the width of the plant and represent not just Prosper 1000 generation machines but also the older Versamark presses, which in some instances used a Panasonic drop on demand piezo printhead rather than the continuous head developed in Dayton.
The Italian packaging press manufacturer has been responsible for the material transport under the four inkjet heads printing on film for labels or flexible packaging. Uteco will be responsible for sales while Kodak will manage the inkjet elements. It marks a step forwards for the relationship which began with Kodak supplying one printhead for imprinting purposes on a CI flexo press.
There are important advantages for packaging using the Kodak technology apart from its speed, which enables Prosper to run at up to 300 metres/minute. Continuous inkjet is less likely to suffer nozzle blockages than piezo; the ink is water based which is almost essential for many packaging applications; there are fewer humectants to increase the complexity of the ink; it uses nano pigment particles made by a milling process developed in the heydays of film; these provide a higher quality result. And the ink is cheaper, necessary to cope with higher coverage applications.
This kind of application is key. The Prosper inkjet head comes in a number of forms for different speeds, up to 300m/min, and a range of resolutions. It is fitted in numerous industry applications: for printing variable promotion codes on the inside of a carton along a high speed folder-gluer; for printing lucky numbers on newspapers at high speed; for printing variable colour side by side with web offset colour as at
Gask & Hawley.
More recently Kodak has supplied the print units to the Lettershop Group in Leeds where the company has retained the flying splicer from a 16pp Goss, added a coater of its own design to apply Kodak's optimising coating and at the end of press, installed the old rewind unit and a Vits sheeter.
TLG was the first to run four-colour inks though the S series printheads having encouraged Kodak to supply the four-colour inks for a set of heads mounted on a special products finishing line when Kodak was insisting that only black inks were available.
Likewise Zumbiel persuaded Kodak that Prosper head mounted on a press with exo units before and after the inkjet would result in an effective machine for printing cartons. Director Ed Zumbiel says: “We approached Kodak with this suggestion and it was as if we had suggested mating a dolphin and a pig.” He prevailed, Kodak listened and the result is a machine designed to print up to 30 million cartons a year and that is now going into production. A second machine has been ordered, though its specification will depend on experiences from the first.
Prosper was developed from the outset as a technology to replace litho. Kodak director Will Mansfield says: “We designed Stream to migrate work from offset, to allow the print head to put down a lot of ink on glossy paper at speed.”
Many of the competitors began in the transactional world, replacing electro-photographic presses with inkjet and moving into graphic arts applications as head technology improves.
But in many instances they remain committed to designs that were effective at lower speeds and lower ink coverages. The move towards magazines and better quality print creates problems for drying, recognised by Océ in the radical change in its latest drying unit.
Now the company has responded to concerns about possible issues on registration because of the gap between the cyan and yellow print units.
It has always used camera inspection after all colours have been laid down, but any correction that results involves a time lapse.
The feed forward system places an extra set of heads after the yellow. As long-time-served litho printers know, any registration problems can be solved by adjusting the image on the black plate. This appears to be the digital equivalent.
Where the Prosper head uses a thermal actuator to create larger (9pl) and small droplets which are deflected away from the paper by air, Ultrastream uses electrostatic plates to return the larger unwanted droplets into the ink system, allowing the smaller droplets to pass and achieve a resolution to 1800dpi.
Currently 19 partners have signed up including Uteco and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Some of those unnamed partners come from industrial applications, notably printing on laminates for wooden flooring or furniture where the Ultrastream's resolution delivers a breakthrough quality advantage.
Kodak's inkjet could have the same impact in this area as piezo inkjet has had on ceramic tile production, through shortening supply chains, introducing greater flexibility and eliminating vast amounts of waste.
This is a niche application certainly, but it is a very big niche. The bigger prize is in packaging where Kodak hopes to break the constraints that have limited digital to producing short runs for product testing and launches, for special events and gifting and perhaps for end of life products.
“Our technology is different,” says Don Allred, director of OEM partner development. “It fits right across the spectrum with a production speed equivalent to 12,000 B1 sheets an hour, which allows brands to executive campaigns quickly.”
Prosper head have been used to add information to packaging, promotional codes, lines of text and content on the inside of a package. This is more demanding and is a better quality than coding, but still a long way from printing the whole pack.
Conversations are underway with brands and their converters as Kodak tries to explain to one group the benefits of partnering with the other to achieve just in time production, lower overall costs and greater impact. Kodak does not call this an engagement, but with Ultrastream it has the diamond ready to cement any union.
The Kodak flag flies proudly alongside the Stars and Stripes and the rather more idiosyncratic state flag of Ohio. Twelve months ago this was not guaranteed.
Twelve months ago Kodak had put its Prosper inkjet business up for sale and the flag lowered at the facility in Dayton, the sixth largest city in Ohio, which is home to Prosper and the new Ultrastream printhead. This is the uncut diamond that Kodak hopes to polish into a multifaceted gem.
Story 1 of 3
Conversations are underway with brands and their converters as Kodak tries to explain to one group the benefits of partnering with the other to achieve just in time production, lower overall costs and greater impact.
Story 2 of 3
Continuous inkjet is less likely to suffer nozzle blockages than piezo; the ink is water based which is almost essential for many packaging applications; there are fewer humectants to increase the complexity of the ink; it uses nano pigment particles made by a milling process developed in the heydays of film; these provide a higher quality result. And the ink is cheaper, necessary to cope with higher coverage applications.
Story 3 of 3
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