Inkjet Rises Higher

Somewhere, Johannes Gutenberg  is smiling, along with modern engineers from Hewlett-Packard and Eastman Kodak. Granted, printing presses look a lot different today than they did at their dawning 567 years ago, but the bottom line still is putting ink (or toner) on paper, whether it’s analog or digital, offset or jetted. Larger scale inkjet web press platforms featuring 30-inch widths, first introduced by HP at Drupa 2008 nearly three years ago, are shaking up the printing world with breakthrough productivity for mass-market publishing and their ability to meet a range of publishers’ run-length needs—not to mention not-so-short-run, variable print direct mail applications.

Last spring at the Ipex show in the UK, Kodak debuted its slightly narrower (24.5 inches), faster (650 feet per minute) Prosper 5000XL Press, expressing its vision for “books that have never seen the inside of a warehouse” and “catalogs that don’t show every product …,  just the products each customer wants to buy.” When you see the Prosper and HP’s T300 up close, their scale is striking. They’re big and tall, looking nothing like a digital press at all. And rising even higher is their potential.

Bertelsmann sub-unit Offset Paperback Manufacturers (OPM), with annual sales of approximately $350 million, says it is producing between 5,000 and 6,000 mass-market books per shift on a Prosper 1000 black-and-white perfecting inkjet web press. “Kodak Prosper at OPM has set a world record printing 2 million delivered pages in an eight-hour shift on a single digital press,” observed Technology Watch newsletter editor Henry Freedman at a November open house in Pennsylvania. “This qualifies Kodak’s accomplishment as an ‘industry-leading game changer’ … as the digital inkjet press market heats up.” And heat up it has, so much so that mega printer Consolidated Graphics (CGX), with 70 locations, thinks inkjet web supply-and-demand dynamics already are shifting in the book publishing industry. More on that later ….

Meanwhile, the Prosper 5000XL Press offers 4-over-4 perfected output on coated, uncoated or glossy stock. Featuring Kodak Stream printheads, the Prosper 5000XL offers up to a 175-line equivalent, a 54-inch maximum cutoff and a monthly duty cycle of 120 million impressions (216,000 letter iph). The Prosper 1000 is similar but with 133-line equivalent imaging. Freedman heaped praise on the 5000XL, with its 900-x-600-dpi resolution, at GRAPH EXPO 2010, where he encouraged me to check out printed samples and explained the “amazing” physics behind Kodak’s color inkjet web technology. “It runs at 3,600 digital ppm [pages per minute]—all variable,” he said on the show floor in Chicago. “That’s 7 billion droplets per second! You can’t do that with drop-on-demand [DOD] inkjet. You’d have to have many, many heads.” Kodak reports that Prosper inkjet head life is 1,000 hours—typical replacement is every 2.5 to 3 shifts (out of 70 per line) —and is expected to double by the end of this year.

    Although inkjet web technology has been on the industry’s radar for 33 months, customers may need to be brought up to speed. Indeed, market education should be part of your selling strategy when it comes to these presses, advises Steve Wilson, VP of digital sales at CGX, which boasts a large digital footprint nationally and internationally. “There are customers who don’t understand the capabilities—and many who think this technology does not [yet] exist,” says business development director Diann Roffe, Wilson’s colleague at Consolidated Graphics, which installed the world’s second HP T300 some 18 months ago and purchased the unit in mid-2010 for its Frederic Printing facility in Denver. The HP T300 runs up to 156,000 letter-size iph and features 1200x600 dpi, thermal DOD printheads. The T200 model is a single-engine duplexing system with a 20.5-inch wide web, 1200x600 dpi resolution and runs up to 200 fpm in duplex mode. “We tell them they can produce a 250,000 run in five days instead of five weeks, and they look at us like we’re crazy.” A believer in multi-supplier support, CGX also has installed an InfoPrint 5000 web-fed inkjet press producing highly variable mortgage documents in the Frederick facility as well as a Kodak Prosper 5000XL, just last month, at its AGS plant in Maryland.


    Digital Print Commodity?

    Kodak says one reason for the growth in digital printing is profit margin: 20 to 40 percent compared with one to four percent for offset. Large inventories of unsold books no longer are viable. Worldwide, more than 25 percent of all books produced are never sold, reports HP; they are returned to publishers for pulping. Book publishers face some daunting challenges, including economic mandates to prevent excessively large runs, reduce forecasting risks and better manage inventories. Many are complementing their traditional offset operations with high-speed, digital capabilities because it is more efficient to print shorter runs, more repeatedly, than one initial long run. And high-speed inkjet web printing and corresponding finishing technologies make this a production reality today.

    The size, speed and resolution combination of the T300, for instance, is capable of creating 500 200-page books per hour with image quality that meets or exceeds book trade standards. For printers, the challenge of reducing costs of short-run book products can be met by adopting a highly efficient, digital manufacturing platform including workflow, printing and finishing components. HP’s color inkjet web presses offers attractive capital acquisition and operating costs, including the ability to purchase consumables as needed without click charges.

    For example, book manufacturer Webcom says inventory, distribution and production costs all are reduced with its Book FWD program. Mike Collinge, CEO of the Toronto-based firm, is banking that its proprietary model will curb flat to declining sales by helping to transform the way its publishing customers print and manage distribution. In 2010, Collinge invested $12 million in workflow enhancements, digital print additions including the first HP T300 inkjet web press in Canada, and state-of-the-art digital finishing technologies. “We need to become an efficient [print] survivor” for publisher/customers in the educational, reference, higher ed and trade book market segments, Collinge recently told Graphic Monthly (Canada) magazine. Webcom exports one-third of its print/bind work across the US border. “Of the billions of book pages printed annually in North America,” said Collinge, “less than six percent are printed digitally,” leaving plenty of room for growth. In the US, only about 130 billion pages are printed annually on production color digital presses. As inkjet costs drop, the number of pages printed digitally worldwide could approach five trillion by 2015, Kodak projects. The global printed book market has a total print value of about $24.5 trillion, according to HP, yet only one percent is digitally printed.

    But the US digital book market already is showing signs of maturation. Like many early adopters of inkjet web technology, Consolidated Graphics’ initial interest was in the publishing industry. It created a new division, called CGX Publishing Solutions, and has an impressive client list that includes Pearson. “You need to have the volume to justify these presses,” Wilson of CGX says, which can yield up to 70 million single-sided images per month. “The upside is that the tonnage is there.”

    The downside: Wilson says pricing pressures already are mounting. “It seems like every new [inkjet web] installation is going after publishing,” he observes. To date, HP has more than 20 worldwide installations of full-color inkjet webs (a total of 42 engines), including beta sites, such as the T200 and T350 at O’Neil Data Systems in Los Angeles, and from Pitney Bowes, which resells HP inkjet web presses as part of its IntelliJet solution for the high-volume transaction market. A total of 13 installations were designed for book printing, including the pair of presses now at Courier Corp., while most of the remainder involve direct mail applications, such as the one installed mid-2010 at Tabs Direct outside of Dallas. The production volume of these devices amounted to one billion pages in 2010, reports InfoTrends.


    “Short” Runs are Relative

    Hence, the commoditization of digital book pricing is under way. Consolidated Graphics’ response? “We believe variable-data print (VDP) is where the true higher-margin pieces will be,” notes Wilson. As with any solid business model, CGX is making money by having the base volume to support its investments. While plastic, large-scale inkjet web equipment isn’t as heavy as iron-clad offset presses, one can cost up to seven times more than competing digital devices. Add perhaps an additional $1 million for infrastructure, and the overall digital investment can be substantial. So about a year ago, CGX started to branch out into VDP and direct mail.

    Previously, variable technology had been limited to small digital runs, while large volumes require extended time to market for offset reproduction and often are cost-prohibitive. But the HP T300 Digital Inkjet web press features print speeds up to 400 fpm, or more than three million images daily. These images are data driven, and all three million can carry a different message. While heralding significantly higher volumes than sheetfed digital, there is direct marketing value in a quick time to market and a previously unattainable price point, says CGX. The press offers significant advantages with regard to both speed and size, notes Wilson. “The print image area is larger and there’s no real cutoff. You can go to 40 inches, and the web width is 30 inches versus 11-x-17 [sheetfed],” requiring a different pricing model, too, he adds.

    In the direct mail industry, one strategy has remained constant: Frequency rocks the bottom line. Research supports that mailing one time to 100,000 prospects does not have the impact of mailing, say, four times to 25,000 prospects. Maintaining contact with customers and prospects also is why integrated marketing communications is so big. Whether the medium is email, online, mobile or in print, contact needs to be often without becoming a nuisance. To this end, CGX’s new T300 press in Colorado is taking personalization to the next level. As part of a grocery store chain’s loyalty program, it is producing full-color, 100 percent variable coupon booklet direct mailers in 32- and 16-page formats.

    Efficiently produced during a single press run, every finished 4.5-by-6-inch piece is individualized with a different message, version, design and promotion based on a shopper’s purchasing behavior and known customer data to target each with highly relevant offers. The response rates versus static mailings have been “fantastic,” says Roffe, over 15 percent. There also has been a 30 to 70 percent increase in revenue, and coupon redemption rates have doubled.” And the print runs are not necessarily short. “Volumes of a million and up are a good number for us,” adds Wilson.

    Continued investments in software and finishing capabilities have primed CGX Publishing to be the leading provider for retail direct mail loyalty campaigns, says the firm. After all, for variable programs of that scale, processing such high volumes of scanner data and matching up corresponding signatures is no small feat. Behind the scenes, helping the complex production operation to run smoothly, “is a strong data matrix logic,” Wilson explains. “The postal information and sorts are pre-established,” he says, adding that the quality control procedures are quite stringent.”Integrating all the software is a technical challenge,” admits Wilson, giving credit to CGX’s internal “midware” platforms that bridge the gap between incoming data and the print engine/MIS. There also are the logic pieces of the equation, which are vertical-specific.

    When it comes to the inkjet webs’ direct mail potential, CGX is not alone. At GRAPH EXPO last October, Tribune Co. subsidiary Tribune Direct, Northlake, IL, became the first direct marketing firm to buy the Kodak PROSPER 5000XL. “We researched available technologies and were drawn to the Prosper because it runs multiple substrates,” president/GM Lou Tazioli told the Show Daily tabloid, which is published by Cygnus Graphics Media (Printing News). “We are going to offer its speed [650 linear fpm] to marketers who have an interest in self-mailers and postcards.”

    Tribune Direct installed a NexPress in the fall of 2009, “and our net volume is up 100 percent now,” noted operations director Tim Street. “It runs 20 hours a day, seven days a week.” The company may use the new press to support short-run, niche publications with larger signatures. “It moves a lot of paper,” Tazioli added. “We’re looking at the economics and timing of our TribLocal product’s custom advertising, for example.” Their projections show Prosper producing at 50 to 60 percent capacity within five years. “Utilization depends on managing schedules and customer turnaround requirements,” said sales/client relations VP Tim Klunder.

    “Printed books will continue to be popular and as long a customers buy printed books, publishers will still print them,” writes industry guru Frank Romano in The Future of Print in the 21st Century, a 2010 book commissioned and produced by Kodak. “Publishers will also move to print on-demand to reduce the cost of printing and storage. The future of books looks quite good,” Romano contends, “and digital production technology will continue to evolve and improve efficiency. Digital printing—inkjet in particular—will increase steadily,” Romano concludes.

    HP also offers the T200 Color Inkjet Web Press at a more affordable entry point for the high-volume market. Its latest T350 model features 50 percent faster print speed (3,900 ipm in three-up duplex mode), but has the same mechanical set-up as a T300. A new reelstand option allows an automated pasting of a new web to the end of an old roll, which can reduce the time for a reel change by up to 80 percent. For a T300-to-T350 upgrade, the old printheads are replaced with next-generation ones, which have a higher firing frequency. A new set of inks that is adapted to the higher speed also isused. Depending on the application spectrum and the original setup of the site, the digital front end (DFE) and driers also may need to be upgraded. In addition, the finishing line must be able to support the increased speed. Bindery challenges abound in the inkjet web world, but that subject requires a whole separate story. Stay tuned in to your Printing News channels for more on that topic.