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31 december, 2018, 12:19 pm | -

Past Print Future: 25 jaar digitaal drukken

25 Jaar geleden maakte ‘digitaal drukken’ zijn entree als volwaardige grafische techniek. Tijdens Ipex 1993 presenteerden Indigo en Xeikon – beiden tot enkele maanden voor de beurs in de veronderstelling de wereldprimeur in handen te hebben – hun technisch vernuft. Over de aanloop naar dat moment,  ontwikkelingen in de markt sindsdien en verwachtingen voor de toekomst schreef ik, samen met mijn Britse collega Laurel Brunner, het afgelopen jaar een serie artikelen voor het blog ‘Past Print Future‘ en het gelijknamige boek.

We deden dit op initiatief van Xeikon (dat ons inhoudelijk alle vrijheid gaf) vanwege haar 30-jarig bestaan. Ik sprak onder andere met Steven en Lieven De Schamphelaere, zonen van de in 2017 overleden Xeikon-oprichter Lucien De Schamphelaere. Ik interviewde professor emeritus Frank Romano per e-mail en sprak Gareth Ward (hoofdredacteur Print Business), terwijl Laurel de verhalen van branche-veteranen Andy Tribute en Kurt Wolf noteerde. Ik haalde met Alain Vermeire (hoofdredacteur Grafisch Nieuws) herinneringen op aan de POD Awards en vroeg printpioniers Per Larsson (ParaJett) en Marc Reyners (Reynders Labels) naar hun ervaringen en toekomstplannen. Laurel interviewde onder meer ook Alon Bar-Shany (general manager HP Indigo) en sprak pioniers als Doug Smith (Merlin) en Steve Winn (Black Dog Digital Printing).

We gebruikten onze blog-artikelen als basis voor het boek ‘Past Print Future’, dat in november verscheen bij de viering van het Xeikon-jubileum. De artikelen blijven allemaal na te lezen op het blog Past Print Future. Het (digitaal gedrukte) boek is in een beperkte oplage verschenen, maar voor de liefhebbers publiceer ik hieronder het eerste hoofdstuk: ‘Welcome to the era of short run colour printing‘.

Dreamer. Darer. Doer. These three words are on the cover of the liber amicorum that was presented to Lucien De Schamphelaere for his 75th birthday in 2006. They perfectly sum up the man who set out to develop ‘a full-fledged full colour digital printing press’ – and succeeded.

 “I’m happiest at the start of it, when I can develop what doesn’t yet exist”, Lucien De Schamphelaere once told Belgian newspaper De Tijd, admitting: “Once a project gets rolling, I tend to lose interest somewhat.” The project he started in 1988 however, kept him going for pretty much the rest of his life. Today, Xeikon – the company he had founded – celebrates 30 years and the graphic arts industry can look back on 25 years of digital printing. Impressive milestones, for an entrepreneur “who, at the start of the project, had nothing to offer but a rather vague and incomplete picture of a new market, a new product and some new technologies”.

New challenge

“Always a searcher” is the title for the article that journalist and biographer Jan Scheidtweiler wrote for the commemorative liber amicorum book. It describes how Lucien De Schamphelaere, after his graduation, joins ‘Gevaert Foto Producten’ in 1952 and ends up developing the first monochrome digital printing press for Agfa starting in 1979. After this P400 press is presented at the Hannover Messe in 1982, De Schampehelaere sets out to find a new challenge. Scheidtweiler writes: “The project for the digital black and white printing press had gotten Lucien to start dreaming about a fully-fledged full colour digital printing press as an alternative for the classic offset press. This machine was to become his challenge.”

To make his dream come true, De Schamphelaere in 1988 founded the company ‘Ellith’ – short for ‘Electronic Lithography’. However, he found out that the name was not really recognised on the international stage as connecting to innovation. And so the name was changed to Xeikon – a combination of two Greek words: ‘xeros’ for dry, and ‘eikon’ for image. “Put together, it spells ‘dry image’.”

“In early 1989, a small group of technologists and scientists started the development of a product that would make quality colour printing economically feasible, also for short runs,” De Schamphelaere stated in October 1993. He was explaining the technological challenges he and his team at Xeikon had had to overcome to the audience at the Society for Imaging Science and Technology (IS&T) Technical Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago.

Yet some four months earlier, the world had yet to discover the existence of Xeikon as a company let alone its plans to launch a digital colour press at the upcoming IPEX trade show. On 23 June 1993, De Schamphelaere had proudly climbed the stage of the historic Elzenveld venue in Antwerp to reveal what he and his team had been up to – and to announce the DCP-1: “Welcome to the era of short run colour printing”.

Focus on a Digital Future

The IS&T organisation could not have picked a better motto for its third IS&T Technical Symposium on Prepress, Proofing & Printing in 1993: “Focus on a Digital Future”. It offered a broad programme that perfectly captured the rise of digital technology across every aspect of the graphic arts industry. Accompanying the symposium was a book reflecting the programme, containing technical papers from its presenters. Subjects varied from A colour to colourant transformation for a seven ink process and Photo CD applications in professional prepress to Large format imagesetters: issues, problems and solutions also Filmless Rotogravure.

Rolf Demmerle from Heidelberger Druckmaschinen can be found describing how Direct Imaging technology is blending the old and the new – “connecting print to the information age”. The GTO-DI, developed by Heidelberg and Presstek in 1991, “is the logical connection between electronic prepress and the printed sheet”.

A little further in the book, Yehuda Niv from Indigo explains “Indigo’s digital offset colour: How it works”. “The heart of the press is an ElectroInk based liquid electrophotographic offset engine,” Niv writes. The article is accompanied by a schematic diagram of the recently announced E-Print 1000 and pictures to show ElectroInk producing superior halftone dots and line-work compared to offset and ‘powder toner’.

From scratch

Inserted right between the articles from Heidelberg and Indigo is a 12-page segment, printed “on an industrial prototype of the Xeikon DCP-1”. It has Lucien De Schamphelaere explaining the workings of the press and its capability of “single pass digital colour printing in duplex”. But what is even more interesting is how he first describes in much detail the process of developing this press from scratch and the choices of the basic technology that were made in the first few months after the start of the project.

Xeikon’s engineers considered various image recording technologies, writes De Schamphelaere. “Inkjet with a moving head” was deemed “too slow” and “inkjet with a static array” had not proven its reliability yet. “Laser addressed sublimation transfer” needed consumables that were “too expensive”. Electrophotography was selected as “best fit”, but only after the team “very seriously” considered ion deposition: “We even developed a lab model of a four-colour press based on a proprietary ion deposition array. We were able to print very pleasing tone images, but we could not meet the standards for text quality in the graphic arts industry.”

Next came the choice of “electro-optic light pattern generators.” Xeikon opted for LED arrays, after finding laser beams and light valves based on deformable mirror devices were not suitable for obtaining the required high positional accuracy.

For its electrostatic ink, Xeikon decided for dry toner as “the best choice to base the further development of our machine on” – but only after closely considering the use of liquid toners, according to De Schamphelaere. Not only did Xeikon’s “outside partner” [De Schamphelaere does not name Agfa as such in the article] at that time “divide its R&D efforts between liquid toners and bi-component dry toner”, but the Xeikon technologists “were also watching with great interest the results of development work on liquid toner at Coulter, Stork, Research Labs of Australia, Eastman Kodak, Indigo, AM Graphics and DX-Imaging”.

For the configuration of the actual machine, Xeikon looked at four options: single station – multiple pass or multiple station – single pass, and between sheet fed or reel fed. “We have chosen a multiple station, reel fed configuration,” explains De Schamphelaere. “The most important advantage of the multiple station concept is that, given a certain process speed, the speed of a four-colour press based on this concept is at least four times the speed of a multiple pass machine.” Reel feeding offers various advantages over a sheet fed press: it guarantees better registration, permits non-contact fusing, allows printing of images with a bleed, and opens up the use of lighter paper.

Making it happen

The final problem that needed to be solved was the configuration of the duplex printing. Simply connecting two identical simplex presses with a web turning mechanism in between them, has two disadvantages – “its length, and the fact that two fusing systems are needed”. Also, the web needs to be conditioned again before it enters the second press segment to avoid registration problems owing to the loss of moisture in the first segment. De Schamphelaere also shows a scheme that solves the footprint problem and takes out the web turning mechanism, by stacking two simplex presses on top of each other. It does, however, still need two fusing units and “the paper supply or the paper output may be at an inconvenient height”.

It is only when the engineers come up with the idea of an integrated vertical configuration, that the distinctive Xeikon tower design is able to meet the challenges. It is compact with a minimal web length inside the press and it has only one (double-sided) fusing system – together also improving registration. The vertical structure also gives improved access for servicing.

Lucien De Schamphelaere concludes his article for IS&T by thanking investors in Xeikon and the Flemish Government for their trust. “My special gratitude goes to the Xeikon team, to the hard working people who made it happen. Without their professional skills and their extreme dedication, the project would have been impossible. It was and still is a great pleasure to work with them.”

Talk about digital printing

Frank Romano, today Professor Emeritus at the US Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), started his career at the Mergenthaler Linotype Company in 1959. At the age of 30, he became one of the first consultants in the printing industry and helped hundreds of companies convert from hot metal to phototypesetting and from letterpress to offset lithography. He would go on to also author some 60 books, including, with David Broudy, “Personalised & Database Printing – The Complete Guide” from 1999. And, according to a Wikipedia entry, “the origin of the term ‘variable data printing’ is widely credited to Frank Romano”.

He witnessed the work of De Schamphelaere from up close – not least through their personal friendship: “I first met Lucien when I became a user of the 400 dpi Agfa P400 digital monochrome printer. Later there was a tabletop version, the P3400. We talked at length about digital printing and how it would evolve into colour.”

Romano, who was a full-time professor at RIT in 1988, recalls how De Schamphelaere assembled “a small group of talented engineers, all about 30 years old”, and created a development centre around them: “He told me later that at one point they were demoralised. They wanted to print on both sides of the web at virtually the same time and were stymied. There was a Belgian holiday and they decided to take the time off. When they returned, one of the engineers came up with the solution.”

Single pass duplex

It was Bart Van Dessel, a mechanical engineer, who came up with the vertical design. It enabled the single pass duplex technology that Xeikon was looking for and it still is the basis of the design today. Van Dessel had started his career at Agfa, working on the P400 press, before deciding to join Xeikon to work with De Schamphelaere on his new machine. Van Dessel, who became employee number 10 and today is still a member of the Xeikon family, remembers the typical start-up mentality that surrounded the project: “Xeikon was hiring a lot of young people and we would work long hours – start early and go on until late, get some pizzas and work some more.” They would often also work the weekends, because board meetings would take place on Mondays and they needed to show what progress had been made. “Lucien would be there too during the weekends, often bringing cake or pancakes for everybody.”

Having found a way to do single pass duplex printing, Xeikon geared up for the launch at IPEX in 1993. “This is a great story,” recalls Romano: “Prior to IPEX 1993 in September, I was under non-disclosure from Indigo. When the Xeikon press release arrived in June announcing a press conference about digital colour printing, Indigo retained a major PR firm. All their booth and promotion was based on ‘first digital colour printing system.’ I got a call from the Wall Street Journal and was interviewed. I told the reporter about Xeikon. The article came out on June 20, my birthday, and it called Indigo the first digital colour system. When I saw Lucien at IPEX, I asked what happened. He said: ‘Oh Frank, we were very arrogant. We told the reporter he would have to come to the press conference [in Antwerp].’ And thus Xeikon lost the PR battle for being first, even though both systems were introduced at the same time at IPEX.”

Being first

In an interview for trade magazines Grafisch Nieuws / Nouvelles Graphiques (Belgium) and Graficus (The Netherlands) in 2013, Lucien De Schamphelaere was asked whether he was, in the run up to announcing the Xeikon digital press, actually aware of what was going on at Indigo. “We did not know anything more or less than what was being published in the press and the rumours going round. But there was already some public knowledge about the ElectroInk technology, the initial invention by Benny Landa that was being used in Indigo presses, because Benny Landa was already licensing this technology before Indigo was even founded.” And did Indigo know anything about Xeikon? “I guess you really would have to ask them. But they probably have a pretty similar answer…”

On the morning of the unveiling and live demonstration of Xeikon’s DCP-1 digital printing press, De Tijd, Belgium’s leading financial newspaper, ran an article stating that Benny Landa had spoiled the Flemish world premiere by announcing his digital press earlier in various US, British and French newspapers. Lucien De Schamphelaere commented in the same article: “We had a good laugh when we read those articles. Benny Landa knew about our invitation and has tried to bring the news first.” De Schamphelaere didn’t think his premiere had been overshadowed by it: “We will be first to go to market and to demonstrate it.”

That day, before an audience representing some 10 countries, Xeikon conducted its press conference in four languages: Dutch, French, German and English. De Schamphelaere kicked off the event: “This is a great day for a young company like Xeikon.” There was a twinkle in his eye when he continued: “The somewhat nervous reaction by the company Indigo in the international press will of course not spoil the joy and pride of Xeikon on this great day. Why not? Well, the articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times of yesterday and Monday bring not much new information about Indigo. Indeed, what they wrote was announced already and written about in the trade press more than a year ago – including the name of their machine. So everybody knew that Indigo was developing a digital colour press and that it would be available in the near future. We at Xeikon, on the contrary, we did not announce anything before today. We have kept a very low profile. Now, after four and a half years of hard work – keeping secret not only the object of our zeal and determination, but even the existence of the company – now the day is here that we come out of the dark into the light and announce, not without pride, our first product.” Xeikon had put in place not one but two DCP-1 machines for the live demonstration, later that afternoon at the event: “Just to be safe, in case one might fail. But both machines performed fine and passed the test.”

IPEX 1993

Only a few months later, in September 1993, Indigo showed its E-Print 1000 at IPEX in Birmingham and Agfa (as an OEM) had two Chromapress versions of the DCP-1 running live at its booth, handing out print samples to the audience – as De Schampheleare pointed out in the 2013 interview: “Indeed, Xeikon and Agfa have always been very open about print results during product launches. Anything being printed was available to the audience to see. The response was very positive. It came as a surprise to many people to see two new companies steal the spotlight with revolutionary technology. Comments ran out of superlatives and both the DCP-1/Chromapress and the E-Print 1000 solutions were eagerly played off against each other in all trade magazines and at seminars. I remember one particular strange and sarcastic article in Seybold Report describing the ’10 best applications for erasable ink’; in these early days, the adhesion of the ink on some paper substrates sometimes proved a problem for Indigo. The small team at Xeikon thought it hilarious.”

Romano witnessed the unveiling at IPEX in Birmingham: “I spoke at the Indigo press conference. Agfa was somewhat subdued. Later, they became more aggressive. An Agfa manager, Paul (Willems), did a great job putting the Agfa Chromapress on the map.”

After the Xeikon was introduced as the Agfa Chromapress, Romano went to visit De Schamphelaere at Xeikon’s original headquarters in Mortsel. “By that time he had OEM deals with AM and IBM. In the plant the guts of each machine were assembled and the different coloured side skins were applied at the end. It was then that we discussed having RIT do the paper qualification for the machine. We had two machines eventually, the 12-inch and the 20-inch, doing all paper qualification for Xeikon for over a decade. We qualified over 1,500 substrates. Our students worked on these machines and on graduation went to work for many of the early US Xeikon users. In 1994, RIT presented De Schamphelaere with the prestigious Cary Award. All of the graphics and signage were produced on the Xeikons we had.”

De Schamphelaere was in Rochester a few times to visit one of his most innovative users and he and Romano would meet: “I was also with him in Rochester the night before he was visiting Xerox, which was forcing him to the negotiating table. They wanted a machine to bridge the gap between what they had and the iGen, which would not be out until 2001. We discussed it at a fish restaurant and the next day there was a deal.”

Start anew

After taking Xeikon to the Nasdaq stock exchange in 1996, where the company received a valuation of 1 billion Euro, De Schamphelaere seemed ready to look for new things to explore, according to journalist Jan Scheidtweiler: “Now that Xeikon was becoming more of an established company, he would rather let others take charge of managing it.” In 1997, Xeikon introduced the DCP/50D – the first digital colour press capable of printing B2 formats. Now with 340 employees, the company also moved to larger premises in Antwerp. 1998 saw the sale of its 1,000th digital colour press and a fifth colour unit was introduced to its presses. At IPEX 1998, Xeikon had a grand total of 12 engines running: at its own “One Step Ahead’-themed booth, but also at those of partners like Xerox, IBM and Nilpeter.

By that time, Lucien De Schamphelaere had left the company – due to differences of opinion concerning the best way forward, as he later explained in an interview on VRT radio: “I wanted to continue with the technology that we had developed and further build on that success. But there were other plans to rather accelerate growth quickly by acquisitions, new business and so on.” Aged 67, he might have retired already, but he preferred to start anew. Together with his son Wim – and eventually also joined by his other sons Steven and Lieven – he founded his own digital printing company, Triakon. It was, and still is, located at the former Xeikon premises in Mortsel – the very place where the first prototypes for the DCP-1 had been built and where, in the years that followed, some 2,000 Xeikon presses would be manufactured.

De Schamphelaere set out to show the world what could be achieved using a digital printing press. Lieven De Schamphelaere recalls: “Triakon enabled him to further push the limits of the Xeikon machines, using different materials and trying out new applications. He would prepare a pack of print samples and go out visiting agencies to explain them all about what he had on offer.” At the same time, Triakon also allowed him to return to some early research that had never reached a satisfying conclusion. De Schamphelaere was still convinced that ion deposition was the holy grail for digital printing. Although the team eventually did indeed manage to prove the technology could work, the project eventually had to be abandoned.

Four years after his leaving the company, Xeikon ran into financial trouble. On March 6, 2002, VRT radio asked De Schamphelaere to comment on the bankruptcy. “I wish I had not have been proven right in the end, but I still think that if the company had indeed stayed focussed on what it does best, things could have been very different now.” Nevertheless, he remained optimistic: “There is no doubt in my mind about its future. The incredible amount of knowledge that the people at Xeikon have just can’t be matched anywhere in the world.” A month later Xeikon was acquired by Punch International. De Schamphelaere even returned to the company temporarily as its chairman of the board, as Xeikon continued its digital journey.

‘You’re the top’

For Lucien De Schamphelaere’s 75th birthday in 2006, his family asked friends and colleagues to contribute to the commemorative book that would be produced for this special occasion. Frank Romano wrote a version of Cole Porter’s ‘You’re the Top’:

(…)

You’re the top; you’re a man who shows his mettle

You’re the top; you’re a man who never used hot metal

You’re an Agfa man from way back when, without the hype

You’re technologies advancing and print enhancing

You’re digital type!

You’re the very best; you’re a terabyte drive

You’re Lucien and a happy 75

(…)

In 2017, Lucien De Schamphelaere passed away at the age of 85. Romano remembers: “I loved talking to Lucien because he was what we would call today, a total geek. I would see him at the IPEX and drupa trade shows and we would often walk the shows and look at what exhibitors were doing. I often visited Triakon. He was in his element when complex jobs came into the plant. He loved to talk about technology. He was the very definition of engineer. He solved complex problems. His mind was inquisitive and analytical. Small talk was not something he did. Having a meal with Lucien was always interesting. He took notes and had many questions. I truly miss him.”

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