Toner vs. Ink(jet)

Controlling and cutting costs is a major key to survival in our continually challenged economy, as every print firm manager knows. Printing processes put ink or toner on paper, and therein lay two huge ongoing costs. For digital press owners, consumables are a cost of doing business and a necessary evil at the same time. They hear the ca-ching of the supplies cash register resonate every shift, every day, every week. Monthly click charges can be bad enough, but “that Indigo [press] is like electronic heroin,” jests one industry scrutinizer, who wishes to remain anonymous. “HP gets you hooked on that ElectroInk, and then you need more and more of it.” Hewlett-Packard is not alone, of course.

Raw material supply shortages continue to affect the manufacture of all printing inks, offset and digital alike. Canon, Epson and HP are among those who’ve upped consumables price tags—some by as much as 10 percent—in the past 24 months. To combat the latest round of offset ink price increases, some printers, such as Monroe Litho, have gotten creative and “green” at the same time. Monroe, based in upstate Rochester, NY, is taking its collected, spent ink from the printing press and remanufacturing the leftovers into black ink.

In the toner and inkjet worlds, there’s no longer doubt that “digital is mainstream,” as proclaimed at Graph Expo 2010 by Jim Hamilton, group director at InfoTrends. Within the next 10 years, digital printing should represent nearly 60 percent of the total short-run printing market, industry guru and retired RIT professor Frank Romano forecasts, with conventional offset dropping to about 20 percent. Print runs of 50,000 and even 20,000 “are a memory—they’re nostalgia,” Romano quipped at PrintWorld in Toronto last November. But it’s no joke, according to Sabatier senior technology consultant Bob Atkinson.

“Ninety percent of all North American print jobs are under 5,000 sheets and 75 percent are under 2,000 sheets,” Atkinson told a separate PrintWorld audience. “DI [direct imaging] presses work well for jobs in the 1,000 to 5,000 range …,” he said, adding that “job change/makeready time is half that of traditional presses [but] it’s still 10 to 12 minutes—a long time in the world of short runs.” With the continued growth of truly digitally printed pages, consumables are, well, being heavily consumed. So, which is more cost-effective to run? The more and faster you print, the more ink or toner (and paper) your digital devices pour through.


Chemically Dependent

On the toner side, it is difficult to fathom that Xerox may be exiting the production printing business, as some analysts have speculated. After all, the document company’s sales force makes a very comfortable residual commission selling the firm’s emulsion-aggregate toner, which is stored in six 25,000-gallon tanks in Webster, NY. The standing joke used to be that they’d practically give away the presses to get the ongoing toner business. Toner and inkjet ink, as the case may be, are cash cows for these OEMs. The business model is different in the offset world, of course, with the hypothetical comparison being if Goss, Heidelberg, KBA, Komori, manroland and Mitsubishi sold proprietary ink for their web and sheetfed printing presses. But they don’t, to the collective relief of Flint, Gans, INX, Sun Chemical, Toyo, Van Son and other ink suppliers.

Four years ago, I personally toured one of HP’s two ElectroInk manufacturing plants in Israel (there’s a third in Singapore) and can attest that the operation’s massive scale is impressive. At the time, the firm was implementing a new particle grinding process to reduce energy consumption by up to 40 percent in the manufacture of the liquid toner used in its Indigo digital presses.

Oce, which offers both toner and inkjet devices, says its customers digitally print more than 10 million on-demand books monthly—no wonder manroland wants to partner with them! Set down your Kindle e-reader because alone runs some 90 million pages monthly on 17 VarioPrint 6250 units for its BookSurge operation. The toner-based, cut-sheet devices feature the firm’s Gemini “instant duplexing” dual print engine. Oce’s toner is manufactured in Europe, including at sites in Germany and the company’s headquarters in Venlo, The Netherlands, where a non-toxic, iron-based (not carbon) toner is produced. Even the toner containers are greener—recyclable and made from polyethylene.

Now part of Canon, Océ plays in the inkjet arena, too. As running speeds and image quality have enhanced, “inkjet is finally taking off,” asserted Francis McMahon, the Production Printing Systems’ new marketing VP who migrated from HP about 11 months ago. Top speeds on some inkjet printing machines can rival traditional offset: 216,000 CMYK letter-size impressions per hour (iph) and monthly duty cycles of 120 million, for example, with zero changeover time and virtually no makeready. Plus, these digital devices have fewer than half the moving parts of conventional presses, notes consultant Atkinson. Reproduction quality also is very high—up to a 200-lpi equivalent and six colors plus coating. Oil-based CMYK pigment inks are common in inkjet devices but some offer more color heads for a wider gamut, including Pantone matching. Océ uses Kyocera heads that spray water-based dye ink manufactured by Japanese partner Miyakoshi. A pigment option, with improved light- and water-fastness, is expected by mid-2011, the firm said.

Xeikon, meanwhile, is more focused on the digital label market these days, exhibiting at Labelexpo Americas last fall but not at Graph Expo. Its high-end digital color printing systems are composed of advanced web-fed engines using LED-array-based, dry toner electrophotography and open workflow software. QA-I toner, introduced nearly a year ago (at Ipex 2010), is produced at the Punch Graphix dedicated toner production plant in Belgium. This toner was developed specifically for Xeikon’s family of digital label presses, which include the 3500, 3300 and 3000 models. Last summer, the QA-I toner achieved exceptional light-fastness ratings and met FDA guidelines for indirect and direct food packaging, Xeikon reported.


Cons and Pros

Toner is a more mature process that can print on a higher range of substrates. “Digital toner-based systems are best in the 100 to 1,000 [quantity] range and have quick makeready times,” said Atkinson, “but they’re not litho quality, have limited productivity and a high page cost.” From a physical properties standpoint, toner is denser than inks used for jetting. Entering its third full year production, Xerox’s Ultra Low-Melt EA Toner cuts the overall power consumption of digital printing devices by as much as 30 percent. Emulsion aggregation (EA) is a nanotechnology-based process that yields sharper image quality, higher reliability and reduced toner usage. Pages printed with EA toner use 40 to 50 percent less material than those printed with older style toner, says Xerox. (Until about eight years ago, all Xerox toner was made by grinding plastic pellets into very fine particles—an energy-intensive mechanical process.)

In the wide-format space, Océ’s four-color Var oDot technology reduces ink consumption by 35 percent compared to six-color systems, resulting in less ink sales for the manufacturer. Most inkjet systems now use a clear pre-coat or “bonding agent,” Atkinson noted, which means “the ink does not sink into the paper fibers, so it’s easier for paper companies to de-ink using standard methods.” However, as part of a recycling controversy that has raged for the past four years or so, late last year the international Ingede association said that the mills of its member companies will no longer accept HP Indigo liquid-toner prints for de-inking after more than 100 tons of paper were dumped ( During the repulping process, the water-based inks often bleed through porous stocks, forming a color that darkens the pulp, the association says. Its latest Round Table on the Deinking of Digital Prints met in mid-February in Switzerland

Precoating inkjet stock also better controls dot size/shape and allows for a wider range of paper types. But InfoTrends’ Hamilton contends that the largest barrier for inkjet right now is the inability to print on economical coated papers. Still, the inkjet process can be more cost-effective for large volumes, counters Henry Freedman, a print scientist and inventor who publishes the Technology Watch newsletter. Atkinson concured, touting more jobs per shift as one of the technology’s primary advantages. It also is “cleaner, quieter, [and has] far less waste …,” he added. While Atkinson and many other people in the industry laud inkjet’s environmental benefits, skeptics wonder if the overall energy consumption of the big, new inkjet web presses is excessive.


It’s Complicated

In the real world, “run lengths are getting shorter,” observed David Allan, president/CEO of Rhino Print Solutions. With operations in Calgary and Vancouver, Rhino is getting web-offset work that now runs sheetfed, Allan recently told Graphic Monthly (Canada) magazine, “and a lot of sheetfed work is going digital. There are changes in the way print is being used.” That’s why “minimum turnaround, makeready time and waste are more important than ever for productivity, competitiveness and profitability,” added Atkinson.

Rhino Pronto, the firm’s 120-day-new dedicated digital division, uses a five-color NexPress 2100 and a six-color HP Indigo 5500 digital press in different ways. The Indigo is targeted to a slightly different market, explains Allan, who has been a Kodak customer for five years. He notes his firm is leveraging the HP inkjet technology on projects thought of as traditionally offset.

Like most things in the printing business, picking inkjet over toner, or vice versa, from a cost standpoint can be complex. Is one type of technology inherently better than the other? How do they stack up, side by side?  Should you use both? Your answer, as you may guess, depends on some variables. How important is output quality for transpromo print applications, for example? In the direct-mail world, turnaround is only half as important as print quality, according to recent research. Is it any surprise that two-thirds of survey respondents rank printing costs as the most important criteria, after response rate?

“Inkjet has allowed us to print full color in a very inexpensive way,” said Waleed Ashoo, president of LithExcel, a $6 million variable-data print firm in Albuquerque, NM. “These are applications where the color requirements are not as stringent as they sometimes are in the marketing area, where you’re working with designers and ad agencies.”

To determine total cost of ownership, OEMs point out that printers need to compare not only equipment running costs but also response rates (customer ROI). “Per-sheet cost for inkjet typically is one-third less than toner-based printing,” Atkinson said. Tom Mason is the business development VP for One2One Communications, a high-volume billing statement and transactional printer in Wheeling, IL, near Chicago. “Inkjet technology can be maintained at a lower cost and the inkjet consumables are much less expensive [than toner],” said Mason, whose shop installed an InfoPrint 5000 system two years ago.

Last year, research consultancy Interquest conducted a study commissioned by Riso, whose 150-ppm ComColor 9050 sheetfed inkjet printer has the compact footprint of an office machine. (Freedman noted that Memjet’s 60-ppm color device fits on a desktop.) Riso’s piezoelectric, drop-on-demand (DOD), duplexing system employs proprietary ForceJet print technology that yields up to 300-x-600-dpi fine resolution. For the test, half of the 5.5-x-8.5-inch postcards in a 10,585-piece mailing were printed two-up inkjet (sheetfed) and the other half were reproduced on a toner-based, electrophotographic printer/copier. Based on the running cost of the equipment, the $2.47 cost per response for postcards produced inkjet was 62 percent less than that of full-color laser equipment ($6.45) (Per-impression printing cost per card was $.018 inkjet vs. $.049 toner for supplies and maintenance, not including paper, labor, amortization and overhead.) Of larger-scale inkjet, Atkinson added, “Given virtually no startup waste or plate costs, the net per-sheet costs are quite close to standard litho printing.” But remember that your numbers may add up differently, depending on what you typically print on your digital devices.

At the end of the shift, it comes down to best meeting customer needs given all the variables. Continuous-feed toner can be ideally suited for transpromo, short- to medium-length runs for books, newspapers and newsletters, but inkjet has carved its own niche in full-speed variable data/variable imaging for one-to-one direct mail and transpromo work. “The ‘sweet spot’ run length for sheetfed inkjet presses starts at about 200 sheets and extends up to about 2,500,” said Atkinson. “Web inkjets can go over 100,000.” But to prevent inkjet pitfalls, “your people will need to acquire a few new skills,” he advised. “Regular maintenance and cleaning of printheads is crucial,” he noted, adding that many products automate this task.

Ask yourself, Freedman concluded, “What is [the] appropriate technology for the work being reproduced? It’s not about ink or toner. It’s a function of run length, the type of work and paper requirements.” We warned you this wasn’t going to be easy. Nobody ever said printing was easy. As Tom Hanks’ character says in “A League of Their Own,” “ It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”