A our readers know, we have been reporting on the success of the non traditional printing tradeshows in the digital printing industry for the past few years. This year, FESPA 2007, the every three year Expo—with FESPA Digital in each of the intervening years—was held the second week of June in Berlin, Germany. This is the European version of SGIA, an expo sponsored by the European Screen Print industry.
Last year, we were quite impressed by the digital format in which one large hall was pretty much filled by the new technology digital printers and supporting products with RIPs, cutters, and new materials for digital print. This year’s expo had all of that, but also the more traditional screen print products in roughly 11 separate exhibition areas. The organizers made an attempt to set up convenient halls for the different technologies being presented. There were separate halls for screen printing, pad printing, and industrial decoration; textile and garment decoration; digital print-sign and graphics; and digital printing, finishing, and print software.
There were many more digital printers and finishing systems being shown than we had ever seen before in one place. And, there seemed to be an interesting cross over from the old to the new technology. Many visitors seemed impressed, not just with the technology, but with the new rigid materials themselves that the printers were able to print on. We saw many people stopping by to touch and feel the boards either at the printer company stands, or at the finishing system stands, even looking at the waste after the cutting/routing process with interest.
We were intrigued by the continuing presence of Chinese printer manufacturers, although many are also selling through name brand OEM partners, trying to drum up additional business through their own presence. These booths were not generally well attended, and they seemed ill prepared to speak with Europeans or Americans as they were usually staffed with mostly Chinese speaking personnel.
A major difference is Teckwin. Teckwin is one of the most respected Chinese digital printing system manufacturers with a history of international OEM development, direct and channel sales. They are based in the hi-tech sector of Shanghai and have over the last five years invested heavily in design, manufacturing, and global support infrastructure—all of which enables them to deliver innovative high performance, high reliability, and excellent value printing systems to partners and customers worldwide. During 2007 Teckwin has established new operations in the U.S. and U.K., staffed by senior industry executives, to directly support their customers and partners. We met with Teckwin’s CEO, Stella Hu, who seems to understand the need for a worldwide printer technology business to survive with respect to all the necessary parameters, including quality and performance, repeatability, reliability, and an organization that can properly represent the interest of their customers wherever they may be, or from whomever they purchased.
We were also intrigued by the products being shown by Israeli company Matan. They have done quite well in recent years as a niche supplier to the screen print world. Their new SprinG, utilizing four-, five-, and six-color thermal transfer printing methodology seemed more attuned to the critical needs of the screen print market than most other digital printers being shown. For those not requiring wide format, SprinG seems to add a well priced, high quality alternative to those doing regulatory signs, product identification, membrane switch overlays, traffic control, and other traditional screen applications. Although most of the industry might not remember, Matan was responsible for the technology behind the early NUR and Scitex wide format printers, having sold that technology to both companies. At FESPA, Matan made a comeback, introducing the Barak wide format UV printer. Printing five meters wide on both rigid and flexible material up to an inch thick, Matan has developed a competitive technology that can print smaller dots than many using hybrid inks that work for both flexible and rigid prints and give exceptional coverage per liter. Although selling into niche markets to date, perhaps that is about to change with Barak?
Another interesting observation is that we have heard many more prospects saying that they were in the market to buy a flatbed printer this year than ever before. It looks as if Europe has caught up with North America and is finally embracing this wide format digital print phenomenon with gusto. While we did not get information from all of the printer vendors, we heard that Agfa sold 32 :Anapurna printer systems off the floor, over 80 percent of which were the new M model at the lower end of their price spectrum.
The buyers’ view of the volume growth for wide format digital print seemed connected both to the continuing drop in printer prices and with the increase in quality throughout the printer price range. For those with existing printers, newer models show such a large improvement in both speed and color quality that they must buy newer machines to protect their business. If they don’t upgrade, somebody new will be able to out perform them and take away business. On the other hand, the new and lower cost machines have almost the same, or even better, characteristics as their more expensive counterparts of a few years ago. So, for a new business, they can get their feet wet with good quality at a very attractive price.
A far higher percentage of those saying they were in the process of buying flatbed digital printers are now saying that they wanted to buy a flatbed finishing system at the same time. Last year, there were only three flatbed finishing systems on the expo floor. This year, there were many more. Where last year, there were only two high end flatbed cutter/routers and one router only being shown, this year, there were many more routers, another cutter or two, and a few laser systems. Interestingly enough, almost all of these systems were being shown with Vision Register systems of varying degrees of performance.
The impressive display of digital printing equipment from around the world reminds us that competition consists of a number of parameters, including price, quality, accuracy, speed, and reliability. As the community of products matures, each of the printers and finishers becomes more and more likely to perform well. Certainly this is true for demonstrations, but not always for the real world of production. We have all heard about some of the nightmares of dealing with Chinese manufacturers and their products remotely. We had the opportunity at FESPA to meet with a European router dealer who had been quite proud to be one of the first to successfully sell Chinese manufactured routers into Europe. He was willing to change spindles and motors to European manufacture, and still have a very competitive price and performance. Today, 18 months after we first talked with him about this, he has now signed up with a Western manufacturer for a higher price. Asked why, he indicated that he was tired of dealing with companies in China who had no support in English, other than from a clerk; had no standard supply of pricing for spare parts—in fact almost every machine came with different parts; and finally, the brains of the machines, the controllers, were now being replaced because they would stop working in the middle of jobs. Unable to get the problems fixed due to lack of replacement parts and lack of communication, he was now giving up.
While we expect that the Chinese will learn to play in the global game over time, as Teckwin seems to have learned, for now, it seems to be buyer beware. But, there is a proliferation of high quality Western manufactured goods available for both digital printing and finishing.
Printers should be able to find a good product that works and at an appropriate price and performance level.