Paradigm Shift for Commercial Printers

As traditional print markets erode, commercial printers are seeking new profit centers. Many are embracing color inkjet to supplant the analog printing methods formerly used. Not coincidentally, the use of color inkjet also allows them to meet several other goals, from being more environmentally friendly to generating less waste to speeding turnarounds.

These trends came under the microscope when Weymouth, MA-based InfoTrends released a report called “Inkjet in Commercial Print: A Map for the Coming Decade.” The authors were clear about directions: “Production level color inkjet today is mainly found in forms, books, direct mail, and TransPromo applications, with the most emphasis on variable printing. We believe this will serve as a stepping stone for inkjet to play an even greater role in commercial print, ultimately leading toward offset replacement.”

The conviction that inkjet will grow ever more dominant spurs no discord from LaToya Hodge, Agfa marketing communications manager, North America. Not that many years ago, Hodge said, retailers Sears and J.C. Penney came out with biyearly giant “big book” catalogs jammed with products. But with today’s budgets shrinking and consumers being blasted by choices, marketers must be more strategic in targeting the right messages to the right consumers.

To do that, they need short runs, Hodge says. “Inkjet allows you to do short runs cost effectively. Over the years, the technology has gotten better and better so you’re getting better quality. It’s the reason you’ll see more of it.”

Another issue is that commercial printers recognize they can capture more business from existing customers by expanding their portfolio of services, says EFI’s president Fred Rosenzweig.

Utilizing inkjet technology allows print customers to wait on a job longer, incorporate last minute changes more efficiently, create versions of the campaign and meet increasingly swift turnaround times more expeditiously than they could using offset printing.

He cites a national clothing chain that created 40 to 60-feet wide window banners on cling material that appeared at hundreds of stores. “In the past, they might have used offset equipment, but they wanted to wait on the job as long as possible, and do different versions for varying store regions,” he says.

Another example centers on a sandwich cookie known to anyone who ever craved an after-school snack, Rosenzweig says. Once, that cookie was offered in just one version, but today comes in seven. Thus, shorter press runs for the packaging and labels are needed. Instead of 100,000 of the same package, 15,000 packages of each cookie version are needed. The shorter run is tailor made to color inkjet, he says.

Of the 3 analog forms of printing—offset, flexo, and screen—the last is the one most rapidly being replaced by digital inkjet printing, Rosenzweig says. Within several years, a large portion of what’s traditionally been screen-printed will be digitally printed, he predicts. “In the commercial space, a great portion of the wider-format print output will be captured by digital color inkjet printers,” he says.

But don’t count on offset completely going away, interjects John Kaufman, product marketing manager, Graphic Systems Division, with Fujifilm North America Corporation. “You’ll still see offset for the extremely long runs,” he says. “But there are more jobs going through these print houses. Doing most of them on an offset press is inefficient, based on the time and costs of makereadies—not to mention the environmental aspects.”

Hodge also sees the green movement as spurring the move to inkjet. “What’s happening is we’re having more environmental restrictions, and with UV inkjet you don’t have VOCs,” she notes. “It’s just another reason the growth continues unabated. I think there are still great opportunities in print, but it will be more customized.”


Lines are blurring

Because the litho printing industry is migrating toward short-run jobs, the industry is beginning to better comprehend the benefit of adding wide-format as a revenue source. So says, Mimaki USA marketing director Steve Urmano. “In the past, it was a question of how they would price wide-format,” he notes. “In a volume sheetfed operation, they’re going for high-yield jobs. But in a short-run printing operation, the tendency is to move toward lower-print-count jobs that are highly customized and may have variable data.”

Adds Mimaki’s Urmano, “That’s adding value. The total run may be much lower—in the hundreds rather than thousands or tens of thousands – but the offsetting benefit is it’s a much more customized one-on-one communication with that customer.”

With this trend setting the stage for the addition of banners, backlit posters and the like by commercial print houses, it’s no longer far fetched to think of such places producing wide-format poster work or flatbed work.

“So the lines that were dividing sign shops and commercial printers are blurring,” Urmano says. “And in some cases, they are disappearing.”


Into the future

It’s difficult to say just how far color inkjet printing can go, Urmano says. Some of the paradigm changes will take place in printed electronics like RFID tags, which are destined to proliferate and be found virtually everywhere. These types of printed electronics pieces will be printed by inkjets, Urmano says.

Another trend worth noting is the utilization of new types of inks that themselves will be used as light sources, and with electric stimulus will become signs. “It’s going to be a very cheap source of coating objects,” Urmano says.

“Today, the objects have to be some type of flat media. But in the future, different printing systems will be developed to do three-dimensional printing. We actually showed this type of product a few years ago.”

Once three-dimensional printing is in place, items can be illuminated. A good example would be safety apparel for individuals in high risk jobs. A firefighter’s uniform might also feature some type of identification code.

“Much of this is taking place in label application and printing,” Urmano “For instance, single-pass inkjet technology for coding packages to improve inventory applications has been around for quite a while. But this same kind of single print array is now being used in branding applications in printing four-color labels, for instance. Because they’re starting to migrate toward water-based inks and aqueous coatings, they can be used for high quality food labels and stickers in individual store brands at big retailers like Kroger and Publix.”

The bottom line? “The ecology movement, the desire for less waste, the goal of buying only what’s needed, the appeal of versioning and the need to respond to faster turnaround times is all leading to more digital, and taking away from offset, flexo and screen” printing,” says Rosenzweig.

Just as digital took over some of the shorter run color jobs in commercial space, observes Kaufman, the next step will be inkjet’s evolution into the go-to technology for the high quality, short-run commercial jobs.

“Offset will still be around for those extremely long runs, and toner-based products will still be out there and take up a part of the business,” he says. “But look out, inkjet’s coming.”

Adds Urmano: “I just think we’re going to stay busy.”