HP ups the ante in printing-press market

The company begins selling a high-end printer model that competes with traditional printing presses as well as laser printers.

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Stephen Shankland
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Hewlett-Packard on Thursday began selling a high-end printer model that competes with traditional printing presses as well as laser printers.

The Digital Press 6600 is six and a half feet long, weighs a ton and a half, requires an operator to run it, costs between $200,000 and $400,000, and can print fancy colors such as "rhodamine red." HP hopes the press will carry it into a new market where the company's experience with the Internet will give it an advantage.

The 6600 is intended for print jobs handled today by offset presses--machines that use a decades-old technology to print everything from magazines to soup-can labels. Offset presses are complicated to operate but offer high print quality that's still unmatched by laser or inkjet printers.

The new machine is designed to be easier to use than a traditional offset press, which requires lots of effort--and thus expense--to set up for each new print job, said Ken Cloud, who manages the 6600 product. But the 6600's per-page cost--three to five times higher than offset--means the traditional method is more economical for larger jobs, those requiring 2,500 or more pages, Cloud said.

HP argues that making smaller high-quality print runs easier will make printing custom brochures or high-quality presentations economically feasible. The system could be used to print documents with a different name on each one, for example. HP also expects the machines to get speedier and less expensive.

The company made its foray into the high-end market a day after announcing a push into the low-end printer market. Although the 6600 is a vastly different product than the $49 inkjets HP has begun pushing, one thing remains the same: The company could make money off the ink as well as the printer.

"The supplies business is certainly important for us as we look at how we bring the product to market," said Ed McCarron, director of sales and business development for HP's commercial-printing group.

But profits from the 6600 are certainly not guaranteed. HP has heavy competition for digital presses. German press manufacturer Heidelberg, for example, had sales of $3.5 billion ($5.3 billion euros) in the year ended March 31, with digital-product sales growing about 16 percent to $649 million.

Gartner analysts Ken Weilerstein and James Lundy say Hewlett-Packard's foray into the high-end, high-speed printing market might leave some questioning the company's commitment.

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Xerox and a Dutch company called Xeikon also are competitors, Cloud said.

The segment of the digital-press market on which HP is focused was about $15 billion last year and is growing about 20 percent per year, McCarron said. HP's goals are modest, though; the company aims to have 2 percent to 3 percent of that segment by 2006.

HP believes its presence in Internet services will give it a leg up on its rivals. The company's software can send print jobs to the 6600 over the Internet, for example, and HP foresees a day when its printers can automatically order new supplies over the Web.

Analysts are skittish about HP's overall printer strategy, though. In a report Thursday, Merrill Lynch's Tom Kraemer expressed concern that weakness in today's printer market means HP's printer-supplies revenue could be hit in the future. And some companies may be wincing at printing costs.

Goldman Sachs' Laura Conigliaro warned that General Electric is trying to cut back by removing printers, copiers and fax machines from its offices so employees will communicate electronically instead.

"In doing so, GE expects to reduce maintenance and consumables costs. Although this is only one company's cost-cutting program, we believe it is noteworthy given the company involved," Conigliaro said.

A newer printing technology
The established companies all use laser-printer technology for their products. The 6600 is built using a newer, higher-resolution technology, called liquid electrophotography, developed by another Dutch company called Indigo. HP invested $100 million in Indigo in September with an option for a further $81 million investment.

Indigo already sells high-end printers using liquid electrophotography, Cloud said, meaning HP and Indigo compete as well as cooperate.

Like the technology found in laser printers, liquid electrophotography uses a laser to map out where ink should be placed. But while a laser printer uses dry ink particles that later get fused to the paper, liquid electrophotography uses liquid ink that's transferred to paper with a miniature offset press built into the 6600, Cloud said. The ink has an electric charge and sticks to a drum in the machine that has been given the opposite electric charge by the laser.

The liquid ink particles are approximately 1 micron across, about a tenth the width of a human hair. Current laser-printer toner particles are about four or five times as large, Cloud said. The difference means the 6600 will be able to print much finer detail. And using as many as six different colors of ink means richer color.

Though the system is slower than a traditional offset press, it's faster than a laser printer. It will print color at 34 pages per minute and black and white at 136 pages per minute, Cloud said. It doesn't slow down even when each page is different.

The system can print on both sides of a page as large as 12 inches by 18 inches--from ordinary printer paper to very thick paper, he said. With color ink covering about 60 percent of the page, each page costs between 3.25 cents and 10 cents to print, depending on how many pages total are printed and other factors, Cloud said.