Nano breakthrough re-invents printing

Drupa 2012 is being touted as Benny Landa’s Drupa. PrintWeek’s deputy editor, Jo Francis speaks to Benny Landa about his eureka moment of transforming print through nanography

26 Apr 2013 | By

Benny Landa was the founder of Indigo and began the digital printing revolution in 1993. One of the biggest draws at this Drupa is nano printing developed by Landa Corporation. It was officially unveiled to visitors as Drupa opened its doors.

We spoke with you at Ipex 2010, where you received a Champions in Print award, and it felt as though you’d stepped back from your print involvement. Not in a million years would we have imagined seeing you with a new technology at Drupa 2012.

Welcome back – how does it feel?

Fantastic! I’m more energised and excited than I’ve ever been.

At the time you told us you were working on a new venture in nanotechnology in the field of energy. At what point did it become something that had a print application?

Years ago, at Landa Labs, we needed to develop super small particles for our energy work. Nobody had a way of doing that so we had to develop our own method for producing these tiny nano particles. We had a breakthrough in making them, and I guess, because I’ve spent my whole life in printing, the moment I saw it I thought “Hey, maybe this will work for pigments too”. That’s when suddenly the bell went off and the light bulb lit, and we realised we had the answer for print.

Why are the nano pigments so special?

Many materials dramatically change their properties when you make them as nanomaterials – metals, for example, dramatically drop in their melting temperature. And all sorts of optical properties appear. Organic materials also change their properties and become much more efficient absorbers of light, so you need a lot less pigment if it’s a nano pigment. And almost as important, nano pigments only absorb light, they don’t scatter it, so you get pure colours.

How big are your nano particles?

Our pigments are a few tens of nanometres in size. They are small and have different properties from regular pigments. They are light absorbers on steroids – and amazing particles.

You say Nanography uses ‘ink ejectors’ rather than ‘inkjet’. What’s the difference – how does Nanography work?

Basically our process works like this: with inkjet you eject drops directly on to the paper. We don’t do that. We use very similar printheads, but they eject droplets on to a heated blanket conveyor belt. We have had to do some special modifications to the printheads to make them work well with our process, but they are very similar to inkjet heads.

So we eject the drops of ink on to the heated blanket, then we dry the ink image completely by driving the water out of the image with hot air. All you have left is the pigment and the polymer. It’s an ultra-thin layer of polymeric film. Then, you just laminate that film on to the paper by pressing it on to the paper. It transfers with 100% efficiency.

You just press it? It doesn’t need any heat or anything else to make it transfer?

That’s right, it’s just using contact. So the image is on the surface of the substrate, but it’s ultra thin. And when it’s transferred it’s not a liquid, it’s a plastic film, it sticks to the paper. The moment it touches the paper it’s bonded to it and perfectly dry. All the moisture has been driven off before you touch the paper.

It sounds a bit like a temporary tattoo, or a decal. Is it something like that?

Yes, you could link it to a decal. But because it’s so very thin, it follows the contours of the paper, so it hardly changes the gloss levels, which is what you want. And it sticks tremendously whether it’s paper or any plastic packaging film, including polyethylene. It’s super simple, and the results are unbelievable.

What about the quality?

There is no printing process that produces these kinds of results. None. We talk about print qualities, and not print quality because the combination of qualities is so fantastic. The dots have outstanding sharpness, gloss, uniformity and scratch resistance. I mentioned the unusual properties of nano materials and one of them is abrasion resistance. And because of the very high optical density of the pigments we can print high coverage without any issues.

What have been the main technical challenges in developing it? We’ve seen some inkjet presses have problems with issues like ink drying and the requirement for pre-treated stocks. What was your eureka moment?

One was the breakthrough in producing nano pigments. The second was the realisation that we could do this with aqueous inks, which are preferable both from an economic and from an environmental point of view. There’s nothing like nature’s own pure, clean solvent – water.

What do you say to people who find nano- technology worrying, in that they fear the particles could go out of control or leach into the environment in unexpected ways?

Nature is full of nanotechnology. We eat it every day, we drink it. The ones that are dangerous either float through the air or are poisonous and can penetrate the skin. Our inks are innocuous. We use food grade materials that are compatible for packaging.

When you launched the Indigo in 1993 you had one model. Today at Drupa you have six; including B3, B2 and B1 sheetfed models and two web presses. That’s ambitious. Tell us about the thinking behind this portfolio of products.

You can do a lot when you take years to do it! We designed these different models to cover the key commercial segments.

Are there other print-related areas where your nanotechnology could be relevant? What about other sizes, such as wide-format display printing?

Very-wide-format is not immediately going to go to nanography because our process requires the blanket. Every technology has its sweet spots and inkjet does a great job for outdoor signage and will do so for a long time. Just like xerography has its place and a sweet spot. But for mainstream commercial packaging and publishing – that’s ours.

What’s your sweet spot on run lengths?

It depends how you define it, by A4 pages or B1 sheets. For B1 sheets it’s in the thousands, which is a breakthrough in terms of crossover. We’re talking about significant run lengths.

What about using Nanography for coatings and laminating?

We expect that some of our heads will be used for lacquers, special colours and protective coatings.

Could there be a stand-alone coating machine?


Who have you partnered with on the press chassis?

All the web machines, from bottom to top are done in-house. The sheetfed machines, because of the crucial nature of grippers and sheetfeeding, we buy from a vendor.

Who is it?

Komori did the engineering and manufacturing to the design.

Are you manufacturing the NanoInk yourself?

Yes, absolutely. And the blankets. We also ship the NanoInk as a concentrate and it’s then diluted in the press using the customer’s tap water. The machine deals with filtering and de-ionising it. This means a smaller carbon footprint and it reduces cost. The containers collapse to have almost no volume and almost no ink left in them, and you can dispose of them along with plastic beverage bottles. So, environmentally, the new technology is completely innocuous, it’s recyclable – just a totally green product.

What front-end software will be driving the presses? Or is it in-house?

There are two answers to that. The first answer is that we are working with leading front-end companies for front-end capability. We’re not going to develop our own, we develop only those things that we have to develop that you can’t buy elsewhere, and in this case you can buy it.

The entry-level configuration of each of these products doesn’t have a fancy RIP. It behaves like a printing press. Instead of sending plates to the press you send a job.

But I could do variable information if I wanted to?

Yes. They are specified to be digital presses in all respects.

How much server power is it going to take to drive one of these presses doing variable data at max speed?

For most of the customers in this market I don’t think that’s where they initially want to go. It’ll be an option they can add. For the most part, high-speed variable information isn’t where the mainstream customers need to be initially.

How do you plan to go to market?

We believe Nanography will become an industry-wide standard. In my experience of this and other industries, no standard became universally accepted when it was offered as a monopoly by one company. Xerox invented xerography, and it was alone for 15 years until Canon, Ricoh and others came into the marketplace. We plan to offer Nanography to a broad range of partners.

We’ve had news of your first licensing deals with Komori and Manroland Sheetfed. Can we expect more?

Yes. You can expect others to be in the market with Nanographic products. We think the important thing is not the competition, the important thing is giving the customers the ability to succeed. And customers like a choice. We have the greatest technology in the world. For it really to become a standard – and to do so quickly – we need to open it up. The fact is, customers today are sitting on their hands. They’re not buying offset presses. They see a decline in print, the emergence of digital media, so they think “I’ll wait and see what happens”. We don’t want them to wait too long, so in our view the best thing is for multiple vendors to offer Nanography. We think this can have a profound impact on the industry.

Are you already talking to other potential partners, or is this Drupa going to be the starting line?

We’re already talking to people who are very interested in pursuing this strategy. You might have thought that multiple press vendors wouldn’t want to be in the market if they don’t have sole rights to a product. That was the thinking years ago. That’s not the problem today. Their customers would love to buy from them, but they aren’t buying. And that’s the problem everyone needs to solve: how do I get customers to buy? So I think we have a compelling value proposition and expect others will join us as partners. We plan for this to be embraced pretty broadly. Look at how many companies offer offset printing, or inkjet.

When will the presses be commercially available?

We’ll be placing presses in customers’ premises some time in the latter part of 2013. At Drupa, we’ll be taking letters of intent with deposits. We’ve already been deluged by customers who want the first machines, and this is a way for customers to secure their place and we’ll know who’s really serious. We can’t promise them a specific date, but we will give them preference.

What do you need to work on between now and then?

We want to get rid of the bugs we have, and that’s just a matter of time, say six-to-eight months. Secondly, production engineering and value engineering. And thirdly, testing. We want to put a lot of miles into these machines before we put them into customers’ hands. I learned a few lessons at Indigo and I absolutely don’t want machines in customers’ hands until the customers are prepared and the machines are ready. All that takes time. But I’m patient.

What sort of thing is a bug at the moment?

Defects and flaws. But I’m an expert at flaws! The end-product last time [Indigo] is now the industry standard for high quality output. Quality is something we understand. It’s not an added feature, it’s absolutely essential.

You say Nanography has “unmatched” cost-per-page. Can you give us some details about the pricing model for the equipment, the ink, etc. Will there be a click charge?

It will depend. In our case we will most likely offer equipment and clicks. Customers like to have a choice.

Do you think inkjet – in some form – will become the dominant digital print technology in general?

First of all I think Nanography is different from inkjet. You really can’t squirt water on to paper and expect it to be the solution for commercial print.

Your new presses will be competing with some of the models made by your old company. Does that feel a bit strange?

The market is so vast, and the playing field so huge, I don’t think people will be wringing their hands saying “Oh, do I buy a Landa or do I buy an Indigo?” because we play in totally different parts of the space. Every technology has its sweet spot, and no digital technology has yet been able to enter the sweet spot we’re talking about.