30 January 2017 Digital Printing Technologies

Konica Minolta is preparing to join the party

The Japanese digital press supplier has expertise in inkjet and toner printing and is putting together the resources needed to be a strong player in the European commercial print arena.

Konica Minolta has some catching up to do. It is later to the party than Canon, Ricoh and Fuji, its Japanese rivals, but is following the same path from office printing to production printing, from mono to colour printing, that these have trodden.

Konica Minolta though is doing things slightly differently. It has no inkjet web press as yet, though there is a collaboration with IIJ which has designed such a press; it has invested in print management company Charterhouse in Europe to expand its footprint into print services; and it has not one but two sheetfed inkjet press designs, the KM-1 B2 machine developed with Komori and the larger KM-C, shown as a concept press for packaging at Drupa 2016.

Whether the Konica Minolta sales and service organisation can support these developments is a moot point and has to be tested, but there is no immediate pressure to do so. The first KM-1s are starting to be installed and the first field test for the KM-C is scheduled for the end of this year.

It is, however, making a start. At the end of last year, the company opened a demonstration area and showroom in Hanover with the full range of equipment on site, configured so that customers might come and run jobs.

The Digital Imaging Square includes the Accurio Press C1100, its flagship 100ppm cut sheet press and the high speed 2250 mono machine, this operating in line to a Watkiss PowerSquare. On the industrial print side of the Square, there is a KM-1 being put through its paces on customer work, and on different papers from a variety of mills.

Alongside is the KM digital label press, an MGI JetVarnish 3D and EFI H1625 large format inkjet press. It seems to be a diverse collection, and is certainly not a me-too approach, albeit that Ricoh also sells the EFI large format machine and Fujifilm has this style of inkjet press in its portfolio. Neither of these can offer the digital enhancement machine nor a label press.

The investment is about putting Konica Minolta on the map, raising the company’s profile among the commercial printers that are the target for the production digital machines. And this follows on from a huge investment in Drupa when Konica Minolta took the sixth largest stand at the show.

“Our aim at Drupa was to reach the larger commercial printers, to be seen a serious player,” says Olaf Lorenz, general manager of production print at Konica Minolta Europe. “Our largest installed base is with the SME printers who will have just one or two devices each. Our largest customer has 11 C1100 presses and we want to expand this type of customer.

“Our product portfolio is changing to help us move away from a perception that we are an MFP supplier and to let us reach the larger commercial printers while retaining the existing business.

“We see that print is slowly shrinking and that while CRD remains significant, commercial print is shrinking most. Yet only €11 billion of a €305 billion total addressable market has moved to digital printing. This is the opportunity.”

Shorter production runs, frequent top up runs and shorter turnarounds are all pushing printers towards digital print production, in all areas. This accounts for the expansion of digital printing into B2 formats and the growing sophistication of digital presses, able to offer additional colours, to print on a wider spread of substrates and applications.

For example, nobody else has an equivalent to the C71CF label press, a toner based digital machine that is pitched as an affordable first step into digital label printing for a commercial printer, a press to handle short runs for established label printers. Intriguingly it is not an inkjet machine. Toner printing offers some advantages over inkjet, not least in maintenance.

Nor can anyone else offer the MGI printers. MGI is a French company that started by using Konica Minolta print engines in a press able to print on plastic cards and to a limitless print length well before others added banner capability. MGI moved into UV inkjet to offer both spot varnish and high build varnishes, hence the 3D and it has now hitched inkjet with a suitable polymer to offer inline digital foiling, its unique feature being that it uses hot foils in their vast array of colours rather than the limited pallet available with cold applied foils.

For Lorenz this is the opportunity for printers. “The MGI offers unlimited colour by using hot foils rather than a single extra colour with a fifth toner station,” he says.

Then there is the KM-1. It has been well trailed since a first appearance at Drupa 2012. The first European beta trial is coming to an end and customer PLS is expected to convert the agreement into a purchase. Others have been sold to companies in Asia and the US, including a bulk deal which for the moment remains under wraps. Komori has also started to announce sales for its version of the same machine.

The KM-1 is in outline a B2 inkjet press combining Konica Minolta’s considerable inkjet expertise with Komori’s paper transport experience. It has a modified Komori feeder, able to support speeds well in excess of the 3,000sph this press runs at. The sheet arrives at a set of grippers, set so that they do not protrude above the surface of the cylinder to damage the inkjet heads.

Because this is using LED UVs to cure the ink, there is no need for application of a priming coat to prepare the sheet, nor any need for hot air or IR drying to drive off water. While the UV inks are more expensive, there is no cost to drying nor any concern about the stability of a sheet that has been subject to a sudden shower of water based ink. Nor are there limitations in terms of substrates used.

One customer asked whether the press can print on canvas materials, the sort used to carry photographs mounted on a wall. It provided a few boxes of the material. Sheets were loaded into the feeder taking advantage of the ability to make rapid changes to the format and thickness, and the button pressed.

The immediate result was highly acceptable prints even without the fine tuning on colour curves that is now underway. For a company offering online photo printing this is going to be an interesting consideration.

It is an application that hits the sweet spot for the KM-1. Mark Hinder, head of market development for the Konica Minolta Europe, says that is ideal for niches that other digital presses cannot attack. “That it was able to print on a canvas material straight from the pack shows just how stable this machine is,” he says.

The current version is designed for double sided printing, using a new way of reversing the sheet developed by Komori for this press, but with niche areas in packaging, plastics and point of sale to the fore, a simpler single-sided-only option has to be under consideration.

The ink is key to the approach. The heads are Konica Minolta’s own and built on four decades of experience in inkjet development. The ink is also Konica Minolta’s but developed for this project. “It is a very special ink,” says Hinder. “It is heated to an unspecified temperature, but greater than UV inks have been heated to before. This means that as the droplets are fired they cool and begin to solidify immediately on hitting the substrate. It means that we can position the droplets with great accuracy and without fear that droplets will run together and create unwanted artefacts.”

The press as expected includes the sensors to prevent twin sheets being fed and Konica Minolta’s own colour measurement devices to measure and control colour. Combined the ink technology and colour control devices add up to a very stable print platform, albeit one that because of the additional cost of UV ink is not likely to be competitive in commercial printing on paper.

It will print packaging, up to 550 micron boards and offers a very wide colour gamut thanks to being designed with the J-Color standard in mind. “This means almost fluorescent colours,” says Hinder.

The press has been designed with inline finishing in mind. This is why sheets can be directed to an inspection tray on top of the machine, but as yet there are no announcements in this direction. There are interfaces to Kodak’s Prinergy workflow and Tharstern MIS however.

To date there are six announced customers and eight machines sold through Konica Minolta. There are other machines on order or installed at undeclared locations. The ability to print on canvas will open other opportunities in the photo gifts sector. And, says Hinder, there are close discussions with the innovations team at Charterhouse.

And so the jigsaw comes together. The combination of toner, of inkjet, of special presses and print purchasing will produce a different picture to those provided by other suppliers in these sectors. Printers will have to decide how appealing that picture is.

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Inside the KM-1

Inside the KM-1

The KM-1 is the B2 machine developed with Komori. Konica Minolta aims to be a big player in large commercial printers.

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