This is the latest in our series of nondrupa reports. Some clear themes are already emerging for 2020: automation of mechanical tasks to cut the need for human resources; remote working as a viable option for printing and publishing companies; and workflow systems are extending way beyond prepress.
All of these are arguments for unified and standardised operations in printing and publishing companies.
Agfa’s latest news is probably overshadowed in my head by the stunning presentation format, dubbed 4D48 after Agfa’s stand number at the postponed drupa 2020. Like Xeikon, Agfa went for a television studio presentation style, but with a bit more informality. Like Xeikon, Agfa used the dialogue approach with people doing live question and answer sessions, including questions submitted via chat as the presentations unfolded. Like Xeikon, the Agfa presentations were very effective. Must be a Belgian thing. All technologies are commercially available all except Apogee V12, now in beta testing and available in September.
In lieu of the show Agfa is broadcasting two sessions daily to present its six new products. Agfa is focusing on its plates business with a couple of introductions. It also presented the robotic platehandler developed by a Turkish partner and introduced a few months ago. Updates to Apogee and Arkitex were announced, and the company confirmed its security cooperation with HP Indigo whereby Agfa’s Arziro security design software is used for variable design images on packaging and other secure documents, which is an Agfa target market.
Automation for computer-to-plate (CTP) production isn’t about software, but rather about the latest aspect of graphics production to be automated: manual processes. In collaboration with a partner Agfa is selling a robotic plate and interleave picker for its Avalon platesetter line.
Custom built the robot replaces Agfa’s combiloader which the new solution combines for a 20% to 30% footprint reduction. It now handles up to eight plate sizes and up to 80 plates per hour. It is fully integrated with Agfa’s Apogee workflow system and claims it delivers higher volume output with fewer people, so can save costs. The arm picks up a plate then flips over to pick up the interleaf which it places into the interleaf box before loading the plate. The first installation is in Denmark at a company with two platelines working with five plate sizes.
Spiral screening software is a new addition to Agfa’s AM and FM screening tools. It, as with all other Agfa products, is part of the company’s evolving ECO3 strategy to reduce environmental impact within its customer base. The technology reduces ink usage and improves output quality by replacing round dots with more efficient spiral shapes. The result is improved highlight and shadow details, greater contrast and less moiré.
The savings can be as high as 18% for heatset and coldset commercial users, newspaper and packaging applications but Agfa has seen a 9% average in ink savings, depending on the printed content and colours. Spiral works on top of Grey Component Replacement (GCR) technologies such as Agfa’s InTune, and with other types of ink saving and workflow software via Spiraliser a software link. Spiral is currently validated for offset printing, but Agfa is working on its gravure version.
Eclipse and Adamas are Agfa’s latest offset printing plates. Eclipse is process free and Adamas is chemistry free. Both deliver the usual benefits of nonprocessed platesetting: less chemistry and cost, less floorspace, less people time. Eclipse delivers a superior and more stable image than its competitors according to Agfa. The company claims that the plate maintains contrast up to seven days after imaging and that it is good for 24 hours in an office light environment, rather than the usual two. It has high scratch resistance and the transfer of the coating postimaging is direct to substrate during makeready rather than to the fount solution.
Adamas is a chemistry-free alternative and claimed to be the most durable plate of its kind on the market. Except that it is the only chemistry-free plate available. The closest equivalent is the Fujifilm Superia LH-S2 which is billed as “low chemistry”. Adamas requires no preheat or water and cuts waste by 75% “compared to similar products” according to Iris Bogunovic Agfa’s product manager for plates and (CTP) systems. The plate is suitable for UV inks up to 75,000 impressions and Agfa claim to have solved the contrast problem common with process free and chemistry-free plates. This area of development is becoming livelier in the wake of new UV inks and ink chemistries so Agfa is keeping both plate types to serve different market sectors and customer types.
You would think that workflow technologies are as fully functional as they need to be in this age of data driven print production. However every twist and turn in press development creates new requirements for workflow systems. Apogee Version 12 is due in the fourth quarter 2020 with extended functionality. Apogee V12 now supports cut and assemble for different folding schemes on a single imposition for instance, to help cut plate waste and production time and so costs.
Apogee V12 is Agfa’s workflow system, the first on the market to be based on Adobe PDF, is now based on PDF 2.0. According to Eric Peeters Agfa’s market manager for the commercial sector, “buying software is a thing of the past” and since 2016 Apogee Cloud has supported all aspects of software and hardware management as well as workflow. Agfa uses a private cloud infrastructure in Europe and the US, codeveloped with Agfa Health. Agfa Graphics chose this model early recognising that there are not enough people in the graphics industry with sound IT knowledge and interest and that number continues to decline making cloud services more relevant. Interest in Apogee Cloud has gone up due to the Covid crisis as customers look at new models for remote working.
Apogee now includes InTune GCR software and PressTune for automatic updating of calibration curves in Apogee for quality maintenance. Both softwares are still available standalone. In Tune works with all types of Agfa devices, as long as there is a direct connection.
The system has a new browser based interface and is “becoming an integrated production hub” for cost and quality control across the whole business. The company is also reviewing its subscription model which will be based on data volumes. Subscription models mess about with how revenue streams work for a manufacturing company. Agfa has seen an initial drop in revenue when customers shift to the subscription model with payments spread out over longer periods. But after three to four years things start to improve and for the longer term Agfa believes this model will be better for the company. Pricing models are being looked at, in order to set up suitable subscription price points.
Energy Verve is a negative working thermal photopolymer plate good for up to one million impressions. It needs a prebake but less energy is needed for this than for postbake and without post-baking the risk of waviness or cracking is reduced. Energy Verve uses up to 50% less energy than a baked plate, and Agfa has seen a drop of 65% in service calls for some customers using it. It is based on nonablative technology and has been seen to cut the risk of web breaks, the causes of which vary with substrate characteristics and application. Around four to five web breaks typically happen each day in a typical web printer, however in some production environments they can occur more frequently. They generally take 20-40 minutes to fix, leaving the press idle. They can sometimes take several hours which is very costly indeed. This is why web breaks are a cost driver for heatset printers so a plate that reduces this risk is attractive. For shorter runs up to 350,000 Agfa recommends Adamas.
Newspapers have long been a major part of Agfa’s business. It has announced that its workflow system, Arkitex 4.0, is more tightly integrated with press management and multitenant capabilities, allowing different plants to be centrally supported. The new version replaces Arkitex Director because it includes much more press management, and is available as a local tool as well as in the cloud.
PrintSphere Disaster Recovery for Arkitex users stores all of a newspaper’s data in the Agfa cloud for fully mirrored backups. In newspapers too Covid has stimulated the security conversation. According to Rainer Kirshke market manager for newspapers “definitely [it] has given increased discussion about security”. He also said that following Covid “there are titles that will never come back to print”. Amongst customers and manufacturing the industry faces continued consolidation and “we see this for all continents”, however Agfa recognises that the company’s future is based on customer loyalty and according to Erik Peeters “establishing a longterm relationship with the customer”.
Agfa has seen uptick in interest in automation tools because of Covid in newspapers and commercial sectors. Interest in robotics “actually high” per Peeters. In fact in newspapers integrated press management and cloud computing uptake were rising amongst Agfa’s customer based, even preCovid, due to the need to cut people in newspaper production. As expected Covid’s affect on packaging production has been minimal, so Agfa’s business at packaging companies has flourished as consumption rose. In the commercial market it is variable, depending on the sector served, but in web-to-print customers, many of whom use lots of plates, business is “at a standstill”. Newspapers are reducing run lengths, but so far Agfa hasn’t suffered too much. But overall “the impact is substantial… going to be a difficult year”. In line with declining volumes and margins in the graphics industry, Agfa is closing plate plants in the UK and France in the face of declining demand for offset plates, particularly Thermofuse.