This Canon Labelstream LS2000 uses thermal printheads and aqueous ink.

Canon is planning to use its upcoming Canon Expo in Yokohama, Japan in October to show off two new inkjet presses: a new label press, the LabelStream LS2000; and a production printer, the VarioPrint iX1700.

These two presses mark a new chapter for Canon. Its current inkjet production printers as well as the LS4000 inkjet label press all use piezo drop-on-demand printheads, which is by far the dominant head technology in most commercial and industrial print systems. But these new models use thermal printheads. Canon says that this is suited to the target market segments.

But as a professional cynic, it seems to me far more likely that Canon is simply adopting the same approach that HP has already quite openly taken. Both companies own significant core IP around thermal printheads, having each independently designed and patented thermal printhead technology at roughly the same time. And both companies have cross-licensed some of their patents concerning thermal printheads. So there is good commercial sense in using the printhead IP that Canon already owns or has access – to create commercial and industrial print solutions, which should lead to higher profit margins than buying in piezo printheads. Really, the question is, why didn’t Canon do this before?

The challenge of course is to develop the thermal printheads to be robust enough to withstand industrial use. Thermal heads generally have a relatively short life and are regarded as consumable items. However, both HP and Memjet have managed to prolong the working life of their thermal heads in recent years. Jennifer Kolloczek, senior director of marketing for digital production printing, says that it’s too early in the development cycle for Canon to comment on this.

LabelStream LS2000

This brings us to the presses themselves. The LabelStream LS2000 expands Canon’s footprint in this market but whereas the existing LS4000 is a UV hybrid printer, the new machine is a standalone roll-to-roll digital press that uses water-based inks. I believe that a number of vendors are working to develop label presses with water-based inks but Canon is amongst the first to openly say so. (Bobst has previously demonstrated a prototype but is still working on this, and Epson’s L4000 series uses multiple passes and runs at 8 meters per minute, while Memjet was notably absent from this year’s Label Expo.)

Canon says that it has developed a new printhead for this press that’s capable of printing at 2400 x 1200 dpi resolution, which puts it on par with the thermal heads used in Canon’s ProGraf wide format printers. The head features recirculation as Hans Schmidbauer, director of marketing for Canon Europe, explains, “The new printheads feature an ink circulation mechanism that ensures there is a continuous flotation within the ink so the chamber of the ink, that is being heated and the ink droplet is being formulated, is continuously fed with fresh ink in order to keep the viscosity on a constant level and to ensure the lifetime and also the perfect image quality through the same droplet size throughout the production run. So that ink circulation mechanism is unique now to that new printhead.” That should go some way to ensuring a reasonable lifespan for the heads.

Canon’s approach is to first jet a water-based primer, which it calls a conditioning liquid, where the droplets land in the exact spot where the ink will follow. The conditioning liquid helps to hold the pigments onto the different substrates, which Canon says will allow it to reproduce a wide color gamut. That said, Canon has not yet been able to define what the color gamut is.

This is followed by the ink, which is said to be a high-density, water-based polymer ink that has been developed specifically for the new printhead. The ink is said to contain highly saturated pigments. Canon says that the ink forms a very thin layer on the substrate that reduces the scattering of light for better color reproduction.

The press itself takes substrates up to 340 mm wide. The standard model prints five colors – CMYK plus white – though it looks to me as if there is room for more colors to be added later. The white ink is said to be around 70% opacity, which is fairly standard.

The press is not particularly fast, running at 40 meters per minute, and this speed halves when printing white ink. Then again, the first generation of water-based label printers is likely to be slower than current UV label printers because of the additional drying required to remove the water from the ink. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kolloczek declined to reveal details on the drying system at this stage.

Edoardo Cotichini, senior manager for label and packaging for Canon Europe, says that one of the reasons behind choosing water-based inks is to comply with food safety standards, adding, “The inks are designed to be compliant and certifications are pending.”

The press is targeted at the mid-volume label converting market, which Cotichini defines as 100 to 200,000 linear meters a month, noting, “This is the sweet spot where we plan to position it.” He continues, “We see that the volumes in the label industry keep growing but the actual lengths of these volumes are becoming smaller which is driving digitalization.” He adds that there is a general lack of skills and that digital presses can help with this, pointing out that Canon has automated the maintenance and quality control as well as the color management. He says, “We have automated systems that not only allow you to do a linearization and calibration automatically but we will also be able to generate color profiles with a simple click so that without any great expertise operators can also handle this aspect.”

Canon will continue to sell its existing LS4000, which is based on the Graphium UV inkjet press developed by FFEI and Edale, and is targeted at higher volumes. Kolloczek says that Canon has successfully installed several LS4000 presses in Western Europe but won’t say how many, which of course most journalists will assume to mean not very many.

Strangely enough, Kolloczek says that Canon has not used any input from Edale, the British label press manufacturer that it acquired last year. The transport system in a label press is crucial to handle the web tension for the wide variety of label stocks that are commonly used. However, the image of the LS2000 looks much more as if it’s primarily been designed to have a long drying tunnel, following Canon’s experience of using water-based inks with its ProStream series of single-pass web-fed presses.

VarioPrint ix1700

The second of these new presses is the VarioPrint iX1700, a sheetfed B3 inkjet production press that builds on Canon’s existing portfolio of such devices. This also uses a newly designed thermal head producing the same 2400 x 1200 dpi resolution though in this case the head spans the full width of the B3 sheet. Naturally, it uses the same approach of first jetting the conditioning liquid, followed by the colors, which in this case are CMYK.

This Canon VarioPrint ix1700 is the company’s first production printer to use thermal printheads.

This Canon VarioPrint ix1700 is the company’s first production printer to use thermal printheads.

The press is targeted at commercial print and in-house print segments and will work with standard uncoated and offset-coated paper. It produces 73 B3 images per minute or around 170 A4 ppm. The press does auto-duplexing at the same speed. As such it’s being positioned as a crossover device, between the ImagePress toner presses and the faster inkjets, which use Kyocera piezo heads and can produce up to 320 A4 ppm. It’s slightly smaller than the existing VarioPrint presses at around 8.5 meters long and will come with Canon’s PrismaSync DFE. Kollocek says that there is demand for a press that is cheaper or more compact than the existing VarioPrint models.

The obvious question is whether or not Canon is also planning to replace the faster inkjet presses with new models with thermal heads. Kollocek says, “At this point in time, we strongly feel that the newly developed printhead is the best fit for the environment that the ix1700 is going to play in, whereas the current piezo heads fulfill the needs of the higher volume commercial environments.” However, HP has already proven that thermal printheads can handle the demands of high-speed presses.

Kolloceck says that Canon will continue to develop toner presses, noting, “It is fully clear to us that electrophotographic and toner volumes are relatively stable and they do have a place in the market and we see that also in the demand for our current ImagePress lines. And very often you see double installations with a sheetfed inkjet press and a toner sheetfed press next to them to cover the whole breadth of applications that someone may need to print because a toner press may still have an advantage over inkjet in certain specialty media.”

In conclusion, although these two presses are both interesting in their own way, it does seem to me that there’s more to this story than just two new presses. I think that what we’re actually seeing here is Canon reasserting itself over its European acquisition Océ. Foreign acquisitions are notoriously difficult to manage and it’s always seemed to me that Canon struggled to really bring Océ fully to heel. This is largely down to Océ having a strong R&D team and the experience needed to develop a range of production printers, which is of course what made Océ so attractive to Canon in the first place.

But Canon has a strong culture of managing from the center, with the center being firmly located in Tokyo, Japan. Switching to Canon’s own thermal head technology puts the Tokyo R&D center firmly back in the driving seat. So, no surprise that Canon chose to show off its new prototypes at its own expo in Yokohama rather than on the international stage, such as the recent Label Expo or the upcoming Printing United shows.

For now, both presses are being shown as technology previews so there are very few technical details. Kolloczek says that both presses should be in Europe for next year’s Drupa though they won’t be commercially available until 2025. In the meantime, Japanese readers can see these presses at next week’s Canon expo in Yokohama from 19 to 20 October.

First published in the Print and Graphics Journal on 12 October 2023 –

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