Fespa in Amsterdam – Look to the East

The Chinese expansion on the sign and display side of Fespa

The Flora X20UV wide format inkjet printer at Fespa in Amsterdam Photo Nessan Cleary
The Flora X20UV wide format inkjet printer at Fespa in Amsterdam Photo Nessan Cleary

To some extent, this year’s main Fespa trade show was always going to be overshadowed by Drupa. That’s one reason why Fespa likes to get out of Germany and visit Amsterdam in Drupa years, plus Northern Europe tends to attract a more sign and display oriented crowd.

However, this year’s event was on a much bigger scale than previous Fespa outings to the Rai centre in Amsterdam, with three main halls – 1,2 and 5 – plus a further three – 10,11 and 12 – off to one side. Even better, the press office was handily located in the walkway between the two halves, complete with coffee, and there was a strong WiFi signal throughout the show.

My impression was that the show was busier than I would have expected, especially on the second day. However, a number of the established exhibitors were missing, including HP, Fujifilm and Canon. In part this was due to the upcoming Drupa but it’s also worth noting that this year’s show is a little earlier than usual, meaning that the vendors have to cover the costs of both last year’s and this year’s Fespa in the same financial year, with the added cost of Drupa just around the corner.

For journalists, this problem is amplified because Fespa took place right at the time that many vendors are starting to announce their Drupa plans in the hope of picking up coverage in the May issues of the trade magazines, which will mostly go to press early to mid-April.

On top of this, we still have the ongoing cost of living crisis/ recession that means that everyone has to be aware of where they are allocating their budgets. The vendors are keenly aware that these costs also impact on visitors, forcing many to choose between which show to attend. For many people, that means Drupa because of the range of print technologies on show, given that most wide format printers have diversified into other market segments.

Visitors stream into Fespa 2024 as the show opens Photo Nessan Cleary
Visitors stream into Fespa 2024 as the show opens Photo Nessan Cleary

And yet there was still plenty to see at Fespa, mostly in terms of how the large format market is evolving rather than any ground breaking new technologies. I was struck by how many vendors are now rounding out their portfolios, introducing mid-range products to fill perceived gaps in their offerings, but with very little that really raises the bar in terms of higher productivity or lower costs. This is a clear sign that the market has matured and that the vendors don’t see any further value in pouring money into R&D other than for incremental improvements. Nor do I have a sense that we are going to see a lot of new large format kit at Drupa; instead the vendors are moving into newer, more lucrative markets, mainly packaging and textiles, albeit building on the IP they have developed in large format.

In recent years Fespa has become a show of two halves, split between the sign and display markets and the textile printing, particularly for the garment sector. If anything, this contrast between the two halves was even more stark at this year’s show. Consequently, for this story I’m going to concentrate on the sign and display side but will follow up with a separate story on the garment solutions.

The other very noticeable trend was for more Chinese manufacturers which now make up a very large percentage of the overall vendors present. In some cases, the Chinese technology appears to be quite rudimentary, but many Chinese companies can now clearly rival their Western counterparts.

In this respect, for me the most significant of the new large format printers that were launched at Fespa was the Ricoh Flora X20UV. The printer itself is a fairly straightforward hybrid device but its real significance lies in Ricoh’s very open partnership with the Chinese manufacturer Shenzhen Runtianzhi Digital Equipment Co, which is better known under its brand name of Flora. Ricoh is certainly not the first company from the developed world to use a Chinese printer, not even the first to use one from Flora, which has been working with many of the better-known manufacturers for several years now, including EFI and Fujifilm. However, these companies prefer to hide their partnership with Flora whereas Ricoh has flaunted it, leaving the Flora badge on the front of the machine.

Angelo Mandelli, Senior Product & Business Development Manager for Ricoh Europe’s large format business Photo Nessan Cleary
Angelo Mandelli, Senior Product & Business Development Manager for Ricoh Europe’s large format business Photo Nessan Cleary

Angelo Mandelli, Senior Product & Business Development manager for Ricoh Europe’s large format business, explains, “We recognised Flora as a good partner. They are already a Ricoh printhead customer. It’s a very stable device because this is the third generation of Flora hybrid solutions.” He adds, “We could change the brand on this product but anyone with experience in this market would recognize this machine.”

Flora were also happy to accommodate Ricoh with a number of changes, including switching from Gen5 to Gen6 printheads which allows Ricoh to work with a smaller native 5pL drop size. Mandelli adds, “We requested to use linear motors instead of stepper motors, which gives us less energy consumption and less maintenance and the carriage moves more smoothly and is quicker so there are a lot of advantages.”

Mandelli notes, “Flora has a lot of mechanical competence with hardware. We can combine this with our skills in software and can create our ICC profiles to create our own Ricoh hybrid proposition and improve our portfolio. And it’s a quicker approach to the market for us. It takes a lot of time to produce stuff today and we already have a lot of good partners.”

He continues, “There are a lot of advantages to the Flora approach. It has a white cleaning system, an anti-crash sensor and an ioniser bar.” He adds, “And we decided to create ICC profiles dedicated to this product. And we have the Ricoh organisation with our services and sales and logistics team.”

He points out that Flora is very flexible and willing to use different printheads and RIPs to suit OEM partners. This flexibility seems to be a hallmark of Chinese manufacturers, with Pooja Rajpal of Zhongke India making exactly the same point to me earlier this year at the Pamex show in India.

The ink comes from a third party supplier based in EMEA but Mandelli won’t say who. There’s a choice of ink configurations, starting with just CMYK, then CMYK plus two white channels, or CMYK plus one white and one clear ink. Naturally Ricoh has created the waveform to drive the printheads. The RIP is Production Server 23 from ColorGate, which is a subsidiary of Ricoh, complete with dedicated device drivers for the X20. It will produce up to 116 square meters an hour in its Express mode but a more realistic production figure is 50 square meters an hour.

Interestingly, this arrangement is with Ricoh Europe rather than Ricoh as a whole, and so Ricoh is only planning on selling the X20UV in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region. Mandelli says that the company has other arrangements in different regions, such as the US where Ricoh cooperates with EFI. That’s not an option in Europe because the market is more fragmented, and more complicated as there are a lot of EFI dealers. He adds, “But Flora is not so present in Europe so we can offer our support to the product with no competition between us.”

He notes, “We have a lot of experience with the Flora system because the EFI machines are based on them.”

This limited sales strategy also means a limited R&D budget to develop a new solution, making a partnership the most practical option. Mandelli says that Ricoh Europe can put other Ricoh entities in touch with Flora if they want to do something similar for other regions. Mandelli also left open the possibility that Ricoh could use additional products to further expand its portfolio. But for now he says that he prefers to take a gradual approach and build confidence with the smaller hybrid before looking into bigger machines.

Mandelli explains that Ricoh wanted to close a gap in its portfolio between the L5100-series latex rollfed, which is an entry level printer costing around €25,000, and its two UV flatbeds, which sell for €130,000 to €150,000. He adds, “This is a price gap but it’s also a technology gap. We received a lot of requests for a compact hybrid device with the possibility to print to rigid and flexible materials.” Only the latex printer has been developed in-house, at Ricoh Asia, with the flatbed being a 50/50 co-development with another OEM. The X20 fits into this portfolio at around €100,000 to €110,000.

Mandelli says the feedback to the X20UV at Fespa was very positive. The machine that was at the show was shipped directly to Ricoh’s UK base in Telford so that Ricoh could complete its ICC profiles. It should be on sale in the next few weeks.

Ricoh had a second stand where it demonstrated several garment printers, which I’ll cover in a follow-up story on textile printing. Ricoh also used a tyre printing machine to showcase its Valvejet printheads, which I’ve already covered in an earlier article.

Flora showed a number of printers, including this one which is aimed at the corrugated market Photo Nessan Cleary
Flora showed a number of printers, including this one which is aimed at the corrugated market Photo Nessan Cleary

Flora also showed off its version of the X20UV. Flora offers customers a choice of Konica Minolta or Ricoh printheads, along with a Flora edition of the PhotoPrint RIP and a one-year warranty, dependent on the local dealer.

Flora showed a number of other printers including its compact J330s inkjet label press, which prints CMYK plus white and can run at 30 mpm at 1200 x 600 dpi. There was also the C25h Pro corrugated printer, which has a maximum media width of 2.5 meters but was paired with a much smaller board feeder. It runs aqueous CMYK inks and can produce around 400 square meters an hour. However, it still appears to be under development.

There were plenty of other Chinese manufactures at the show – around 70 in total – though I didn’t have time to visit them all. But I think that the main takeaway is that the idea that the Chinese only make cheap and cheerful printers is way out of date. There’s very little in the way of technical superiority to distinguish machines made in the US, Europe or Japan, and indeed many of the printers sold by companies in the developed world are actually made in China.

Several people have told me that they believe the Chinese vendors still lack the necessary distribution and support infrastructure to sell into Western countries. Up to now the Chinese vendors have done very well out of OEM partnerships so they didn’t need a sales and support network. But since the pandemic, it appears to me that many of those Chinese vendors are now in the process of setting up distribution through established dealers in Eastern Europe and they already have a strong presence in other regions such as India. Besides, it’s only a matter of time before they start buying those established dealers and owning their own sales and support networks in Europe and the US.

So, for me the rapid expansion of Chinese vendors was one of the most noticeable trends from Fespa, and I would expect that we will see the same at Drupa. However, there were several other themes from Fespa that I will explore in the next part of this story.

First published in the Printing and Industry Journal on 8th April 2024. Reprinted with permission. www.nessancleary.co.uk

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