Color the Digital Dots

Not that long ago, digital color copier/printers found in the typical quick or small commercial shop were running less than 10 pages a minute. That wasn’t blazing fast, but it was fast enough to make digital color output a viable profit center. According to copier guru Larry Hunt, “In the late 1990s, the 11 and 12 copy-per-minute models were introduced and the slower models gradually phased out. Now, virtually all of the new models run at over 30 copies per minute.” That said, anybody getting into the production digital color business today would be unlikely to consider anything slower than 65 pages per minute.

Also not that long ago, color copier/printer manufacturers decided they wanted a catchier handle for their top-of-the-line, high-volume, heavy production digital color machines that could run as fast as 100 copies a minute or more. Thus was born the digital production color “press.” That sounded sturdier and more reliable—sort of like an offset press.

As the speed and quality of digital color copier/printers improved, so did their share of quick and small commercial sales. Ten years ago, color copying accounted for 10.1% of total sales among franchise shops and 7.2% among Quick Printing’s Top 100 companies. This year, digital color accounted for 21.3% of sales among franchisees and 16.3% among the Top 100 companies. That translates to $427,818,685 and $98,862,817, respectively. Extrapolate that out to the industry as a whole and it’s easy to see why vendors have targeted the digital production color market for their future growth.

The Players

While there are a significant number of quick and small commercial printers who have migrated upstream to the super-fast digital color presses, others are doing nicely with somewhat slower models. According to Hunt’s latest Color Copier Survey, the three most prevalent models in his survey group were the Xerox DocuColor 240/242, the Xerox DocuColor 250/252/260, and the Konica Minolta Pro C6500. Nonetheless, as their potential monthly volume increases, many printers are eyeing the higher-speed, heavier duty cycle machines.

The Association of Graphics Solutions Provider’s IPA Digital Print Forum recently did a fairly exhaustive examination and comparison of major digital production presses. Those sheet-fed models tested were:

  • Canon imagePRESS C7000VP (70 ppm, 1200 dpi)
  • HP Indigo 7000 (120 ppm, 1200 dpi)
  • Kodak NexPress S3000 (100 ppm, 600 dpi)
  • Océ CS665 Pro (65 ppm, 600 dpi)
  • Screen Truepress 344 (116 ppm, 1200 dpi)
  • Toshiba e-STUDIO6530c (65 ppm, 600 dpi)
  • Xerox iGen4 (120 ppm, 600 dpi)

(Also tested were the roll-fed Xeikon 3300 label press, the Xeikon 8000 roll-fed press, and the Presstek DI offset digital press.)

Results of the tests are available from www.ipa.org. Price for non IPA members is $99, which would be a good deal for anyone looking at any of these models. For the record, the lowest cost among these sheet-fed digital units was $38,000 for the Toshiba e-STUDIO6530C.

More Players

Another source of evaluation can be found in the Better Buys for Business (www.betterbuys.com) Editors Choice Awards for color copier/printers under the category of Color Production Printing. The color production printing report can be found in the annual High-Volume Printer & Digital Duplicator Guide, which can be purchased for $39. The award winners were:

  • Canon imagePRESS c7000VP (70 ppm)
  • Kodak NexPress M700 (70 ppm)
  • Ricoh Pro C900 family (90 ppm)
  • InfoPrint Pro C900 family (90 ppm)
  • Lanier Pro C900 family (90 ppm)
  • Savin Pro C900 family (90 ppm)
  • Kodak NexPress S2500/S3000 (83/100 ppm)
  • Konica Minolta bizhub Pro C6501P (65 ppm)
  • Océ CS665 Pro (65 ppm)
  • Xerox DocuColor 242/252/260 (42/52/60 ppm)
  • Xerox 700 Digital Color Press (700 ppm)

The question arises: Are there really that many different color production machines out there. The answer is no. According to Hunt, the Canon imagePRESS C700VP is also sold as the Kodak NexPress M700. The Ricoh C900 is also sold as the InfoPrint Pro C900, the Lanier Pro C900, and the Savin Pro C900. The Konica Minolta Pro C6501P is also sold as the Océ CS665.

Trends and Totals

In Hunt’s latest Color Copier Survey, one obvious trend is the falling selling prices for color copies. In 1997, the average price of one copy of one original was $1.52. In 2009, it was 84 cents. The trend holds true across the board, with 10 copies of one original ($1.21/75 cents), 100 copies of one original (90 cents/52 cents), and 500 copies of one original (78 cents/41 cents). The average selling price of all copies has dipped from 99 cents in 1997 to 71 cents in 2004, 65 cents in 2006, 57 cents in 2007, 47 cents in 2008, and 43 cents in 2009.

So, does that mean that folks are not making as much money on digital color output? Not necessarily. Back when machines were running at less than 20 ppm, digital color copies commanded a higher price because they were slow to produce. With today’s higher speeds and better capabilities at lower cost, printers can still make money, even if the per copy price is lower than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

So, which vendor has grabbed the biggest market share in digital color copying? In Hunt’s survey, Xerox accounted for 43% of placements, followed by Konica Minolta/IKON at 37%, and Canon at 20%.

That compares to the results of a Quick Printing survey taken a while back that found Xerox with 40% of placements followed by Canon with 34%, and Konica Minolta with 24%. In the time since that survey was taken, Konica Minolta has found significant traction in this market with its C6500 Pro.

Inkjet Yet?

Inkjet printing is well established in the wide-format, transactional, packaging, and label segments of the printing industry, but has been slow to make inroads into the cut-sheet, full-color digital production printing arena. That could soon change as manufacturers eye this segment and the technology becomes more sophisticated, durable, and affordable.

Most recently RISO rolled out its new ComColor Series of full-color inkjet printers/multifunction devices with speeds from 90-150 ppm. Built around RISO’s ForceJet inkjet printing technology, the ComColor units print full-color for a claimed two to three cents a page. With a monthly duty cycle of 500,000 impressions and the ability to print 60,000 letter-sized pages on a single set of ink cartridges, the printers fit well in the medium production space. They also use an oil-based ink formula that is fast drying and fade- and moisture-resistant. RISO also offers the HC5500 digital production inkjet printer.

Print 09 is likely to produce more cut-sheet inkjet competitors, whether in beta or ready for market. That said, it is probably safe to say that toner-based digital production printing will continue to dominate this segment in the short term. Long term it’s anybody’s guess, but it is unlikely that digital toner will fade completely away any more than offset inks will disappear. Each output technology offers particular advantages and drawbacks, but they all are tied together by today’s digital workflow.

Tomorrow

Crystal balls are notoriously fickle, but it is probably safe to predict that digital color production copiers, whether toner or inkjet, will continue to take market share away from offset presses—especially in the shorter-run, fast turnaround world we live in. That trend is likely to accelerate if and when variable data/personalized printing ever takes off as predicted.

It is also a pretty safe bet that digital toner-based color and offset color will continue to co-exist, with each playing to its own strengths. The common denominator will continue to be the digital workflow, which allows each job to be routed to the output/production device it is best suited for.

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