In the early days of digital printing there were plenty of people who understood the potential of the technology to reshape established expectations. But less well appreciated was the influence that data processing and networking technologies had on performance.
In today’s digitally savvy world it makes perfect sense that processor and network speeds are key to any system’s overall performance. Today the power of the Digital Front End (DFE) for graphics applications is recognised as fundamental to digital press performance, especially for variable data print applications. But when Xeikon and Indigo introduced their respective machines, the focus was primarily on the quality of the output, consistency and uptime. Their designs were completely different, so investment decisions were quite complicated. Buyers had many decisions to make. Did they want an A4 or an A3 machine? Should it be simplex or duplex? Should they go with dry or liquid toner? Adding an IT dimension to the mix was just beyond most peoples’ bandwidth. And too often it still is, but that’s another story.
Back in 1993 the focus for Xeikon and Indigo was to get the press and the inks producing acceptable, even superior output quality. Achieving high quality prints was no mean feat, but it demanded control over data management, imaging and print mechanics, as well as dedication from the engineers. Eric Bollansé, today Xeikon’s R&D software discipline leader, joined the company in 1989 as an engineer straight from school. He was employee ten or eleven and “looking back to the kind of people they were hiring it was mostly young people, enthusiastic people … people started early and stayed late, focused on the work … at the time I was software and hardware because we were not enough people”. Founder Lucien De Schamphelaere was ever present Eric remembers, “he was always there. No matter how late the hour or day of the week he never managed to take a distance from it – he was always involved”. Although software not his thing “he knew it was required”.
The original Xeikon DCH-1 raster mage processor (RIP) was based on the Harlequin Level 2 PostScript interpreter, running under Windows on a 66-MHz Intel 80486 processor. The RIP had an additional EISA-bus screening card which Xeikon had itself developed. Output was buffered to disc, separating data rasterising and printing. The engine could print 70 A4 colour pages per minute, but the RIP and network could not process and deliver the data at that rate. Instead of buffering data from the RIP, Xeikon added 54MB of image buffer memory to each colour unit in the press. A dedicated Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) fed data from this memory to each unit’s imaging system. Indigo’s E-Print 1000 processed 67 A4 colour pages per minute at 800 dpi which required a data rate of 200 megabits per second, far beyond the capacity of networks at the time. The engine’s RIP was based on a Sun Sparc Unix workstation processing Scitex’s internal data format and PostScript to a 640MB raster image buffer.
For both output systems, the speed of the digital data processing governed the speed of output. But for buyers there were enough decisions to untangle already, without considerations for the front end controller. Still today for many printing company owners such considerations remain secondary, even though DFE performance and features play a vital role in overall productivity.
Fortunately for the industry, manufacturers have always been totally aware of the interrelationship between data management and press performance. They soon developed faster front end technologies to process data at the rated speeds of the engines. In 2005 Xeikon introduced the X800 Digital Front End (DFE) for all Xeikon presses, processing one million bits per second. The X800 is a foundation for full process automation across applications, because today’s graphics industry is all about how we handle data.