Welcome to the era of short run colour printing

Ed Boogaard's picture
Ed Boogaard

Five years ago, Lucien De Schamphelaere – the founder of Xeikon – vividly remembered the euphoria of installing the very first Xeikon presses in 1993. He was also proud that, 20 years after its official introduction, the very same digital printing technology still maintained a prominent place in the graphic industry, under its own name: “That means a lot to me. And it says a lot about the technology too.”

Lucien De Schamphelaere passed away in January last year, at the age of 85. In 2013, I interviewed him by mail for an article commemorating two decades of digital printing since IPEX 1993. He happily answered my questions, aided by his son Steven, and appreciated the interest for those ‘pretty revolutionary years’. Here are some highlights from that conversation, as we are now celebrating print’s digital journey since 1988.

You founded Xeikon in 1988. But at first it was named ‘Ellith’?

“That’s right. Ellith was actually the most logical name, as it stands for ‘Electronic Lithography’. However, the name was not really recognized as relating to innovation on an international scale. That’s why we decided for a new name [in 1992], Xeikon. It is a combination of two Greek words: ‘xeros’ for dry, and ‘eikon’ for image. So, put together, this spells ‘dry image’.”

“Right from the start, there was really one clear mission the shareholders had signed up for: bringing to market a digitally controlled press for color printing. We aimed for a broad field of applications in what can best be described as the “print-on-demand” market. By eliminating typical time-consuming steps in the printing process – such as film- and platemaking, and press make ready – production of both very small and also larger runs could be done much faster and more flexible.”

“In monochrome, these solutions already existed. The highly successful Xerox Docutech and some other solutions such as Agfa’s P400 [note: which had been developed under supervision of Lucien De Schamphelaere during his career at Agfa] were hurting the printing industry, as the vast majority of black and white documents moved from conventional to digital print. It is probably fair to say that the first Xeikon-presses were to be positioned in the market pretty much the same way as the Docutechs of that time had been, but now for color printing.”

Why didn’t big companies like Agfa, or Xerox, take the lead in this development of digital printing in color? Instead, it took a couple of much smaller pioneers to come up with new solutions.

“In larger companies, the development of new technologies and innovations often does not get the amount of attention that is needed to lead to concrete solutions. The existing portfolio of products and services always comes first. This was also the case at Agfa, where (under shareholding of Bayer) the main focus was on chemistry. It takes a small, open-minded group of people to really break free and be truly innovative.”

Were you, in the run up to announcing the Xeikon digital press in 1993, 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 is 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 June 23, 1993, Xeikon had invited the trade press to witness the unveiling and a live demonstration of its DCP-1 digital printing press under the motto: ‘Welcome to the era of short run color printing’. De Tijd, Belgium’s leading financial newspaper, ran an article that morning, stating that Benny Landa has spoiled the Flemish world premiere by announcing his digital press the day before in various American, 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 this: “We will be first to go to market and to demonstrate it.”

In September 1993, Indigo showed its E-Print 1000 at IPEX in Birmingham. Agfa (as an OEM) had two ‘Chromapress’-versions of the DCP-1 running live at it its booth, handing out print samples to the audience. What was the response like?

“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 short of superlatives and both the DCP-1/Chromapress and the E-Print 1000 solution 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.”

Looking back now at the initial expectations for digital printing in 1993, would you agree that ‘it hasn’t really happened yet’?

“It looked like the scenario we had seen happening for monochrome in the printing industry would be repeated for color. That is why there were extremely high expectations. But the revolution became more of an evolution. Offset printing adapted very fast in a short period of time: direct-to-plate, direct-to-press, new screening technology, press automation, waterless offset, larger presses. One invention after another enabled innovative printers to reduce production costs, pushing the break-even point between digital print and traditional print further down to very small run lengths. That trend is still going on, as traditional printing houses replace their existing machinery with new offset presses.”

“Next to that, it has been – and still is – difficult for many digital press users to perfectly execute those applications that make optimal use of digital print’s unique capabilities. Printing variable data, for example, really demands at least some basic skills in database management.”

In 2012, Xeikon and Landa were again competing in announcing the next big thing in printing: liquid toner printing and nanography, respectively. What is your opinion on the possibilities and opportunities?

“Liquid toner offers many advantages and it maybe the most successful way forward in electro photographic printing processes. It is not an easy technology, but Xeikon seems to be able to apply it successfully. This will be an important step forward in the evolution of digital printing.” [Note: in 2017, Xeikon abandoned the further development of its ‘Quantum’ liquid toner printing technology]

“Benny Landa is causing new waves, with another big product launch. Although we don’t know all the details yet, it looks like an interesting development because he manages to combine certain elements into nanography in a very innovative way. It could possibly have great potential.”

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