HP T410 Inkjet Web Press system
Holiday parties are well under way and, like most people, I look forward to the warmth and good cheer that this time of year can bring. It always is fun trying to explain to family and friends about the printing industry and what it is I actually do for a living as a business writer/editor and trade journalist. Even more humorous is describing production inkjet equipment to people, most of whom have maybe seen a towering newspaper web-offset press once or twice in their lives. “They’re like your desktop printers at home on steroids,” I tell them in an attempt to explain the larger scale of these industrial-sized inkjet devices.
While practically meaningless to laypeople, their whizzing fast output speeds can impress print experts in the know. The wider, web-fed inkjet presses now can run up to 1,000 feet per minute (fpm), or 5,000 8.3x11.7-inch A4 pages per minute, at 133 lines per inch (lpi) resolution. Imprint head modules image nearly a mile of paper every 60 seconds (5,000 fpm).
Further penetration of inkjet into truly commercial printing has been expedited this year, as 2012 saw more coated, treated papers come on line suitable for inkjet printing. Commercial printers use more than eight different substrates on a regular basis, pointed out industry consultant David Zwang. Jim Hamilton, group director at InfoTrends, added that “It’s an interesting time [for inkjet]. Fast and cheap inkjet output for low [ink] coverage documents is nothing new.” In fact, Kodak’s Versamark narrow-width, drop-on-demand inkjet technology has been on the market for some four decades. (In the mid-1970s, 400 fpm was considered fast.) But “2008 is when inkjet really took off,” Hamilton noted, “when HP, InfoPrint, Kodak, Océ, and Screen got into the game. After 15 years [of promise], white paper in and full color out has become a reality.”
Especially in the past four years, tremendous inroads have been made, particularly in the transactional print, direct mail, and book publishing segments. Aurelio Maruggi, VP and general manager of HP’s Inkjet High-speed Production Solutions (IHPS) division, added his historical perspective: “Between drupa 2008 and drupa 2012, high-speed production inkjet has shifted from being a promising technology to a market reality, as evidenced by the many players in the market and the exponential growth of the installed base. HP went from a having a production inkjet technology demonstration to a full portfolio of six products, ranging from the HP T200 to HP T410, with an installed base of more than 80 units and more than 20 billion pages printed to date. Every month, this number is growing in excess of 1.3 billion pages.”
Customers used Kodak’s latest Stream inkjet technology to print some 10 billion pages this past year alone, an uptick of nearly 50 percent over 2011, reported marketing director Will Mansfield, who is based in the firm’s Dayton, OH, location—the former home of Scitex Digital, which Kodak sold in mid-1993 and reacquired in 2004. “Four years ago, uncoated media and ‘pleasing color’ were the norm” in the production inkjet space, Mansfield echoed.
Notably, HP shook up the sheetfed/cut-sheet world this spring, when it revealed its plans for the Indigo 10000 Press, the world’s first B2 format (20.5x20.9-inch) digital press. Consolidated Graphics is beta-testing and has signed on for 10 of the new inkjet models, which will become commercially available early next year.
So just how big is inkjet and how big is the technology’s growth potential? The inkjet printing global market was valued at $33.4 billion last year and is forecasted to grow to $67.3 billion by 2017, according to Smithers Pira, an authority on packaging, print, and paper supply chains. Inkjet represents only a sliver-sized portion of print and printed packaging worldwide. In 2011, it accounted for some 4.2 percent of print value and just under 0.5 percent of the volume. Over the next four years, it still will account for less than one percent of print volume, but should be nearly seven percent of market value. To date, there are some 1,000 total inkjet print lines installed with price points ranging from $350,000 to $1.5 million.
Improvements in print quality and media range, particularly matte and glossy media, have opened new opportunities for customers in what HP calls high-volume general commercial printing, Maruggi noted. “The idea is to marry the benefits of digital, in terms of customization and personalization, with the high-volume productivity that was previously only possible with offset technology,” he explained. “The result is the ability to do mass customization. We anticipate this to be a big area of growth for production inkjet,” especially as cost per thousand continues to drop.
Higher print quality levels and a broader range of less-translucent media have enabled new applications, such as personalized advertising for magazines, customized catalogs, and fully personalized coupon booklets, including those that Symeta began producing for the Colruyt grocery store chain in Europe 12 months ago on an HP T400 color inkjet web press. (Samples were distributed at Graph Expo 2012.) Rather than send out a 64-page catalog that included a dizzying number of some 1,000 products, four-page mailers now are distributed every two weeks in Belgium.
Beyond books, the inkjet migration into the color publication market has begun. While “dye inks are okay for transactional printing, pigment-based inks offer more permanency and better color resolution,” Hamilton said. Kodak’s Mansfield explained that an ink formulation containing less glycerin and less water is one of the secrets to Stream’s ability to jet ink onto glossy, coated media. So, look for magazine-catalog hybrids to grow as well, predicted Hamilton of InfoTrends.
A magalog is a promotional copy of a magazine, usually in a 12-page catalog format. They already are popular among automotive industry marketers for both educational and entertainment purposes. “Car companies are using the magalog format to communicate with owners and leasees,” said Mansfield. Content changes are based on demographic and sociographic information, such as age, geographic location, and interests—outdoor enthusiasts may use their vehicles differently than family minivans, for example.
Despite ink prices coming down, when more ink gets laid down on pages, consumables costs can add up, warned Hamilton. “That’s why you need jobs with high volumes,” he said. “These inkjet webs are paper eaters.” Nonetheless, he sees magalogs as a sweet spot for inkjet, noting that the toner-based, electrophotographic printing process involves more overhead with fuser and developers, and also has speed limitations “of about 200 ppm.”
Mansfield concurred, adding that the same is true for computer-to-plate in Kodak’s offset print niche with its plates, platesetters, and Prinergy workflow products. “CTP hit a threshold, too,” he said, which is why the firm decided to make commercial inkjet moves six years ago and develop its proprietary, “always firing” Stream inkjet writing system beginning in 2009. Jetting ink at speeds of more than 400 kilohertz (kHz), “Stream can keep up with offset press speeds,” Mansfield stressed, while drop-on-demand systems are slower, more akin to squirt guns where the trigger needs to be pulled, he said.
Print Heads, Ink, and Paper
“Traditional continuous inkjet breaks up the flow of ink using a vibrating crystal in the nozzle to form droplets,” Eric Owen, worldwide VP of customer development for Kodak Digital Printing Solutions, explained in a blog. “It’s like tapping the end of a garden hose to break the flow. Unwanted droplets get an electrostatic charge and the charged droplets are steered away by a deflection bib and collected for recycling.
“Stream technology uses solid state heaters that flick on and off instantly, changing the surface tension of the high-pressure ink stream and introducing ‘kinks’ that make it break into droplets of different sizes,” Owen continued. “Big drops land on the paper, exactly where they are aimed, while the smaller drops, where no ink is wanted on the paper, get blown aside by a continuous airflow system. This is really fast stuff. Stream technology can already form droplets 400 kHz 2.5 times as fast as regular continuous inkjet systems and 10 times as fast as the theoretical maximum for drop-on-demand.”
On the paper side, Hewlett-Packard has been investing in media technologies, “with solutions both on press, such as the bonding agent, and off press, like ColorPRO [licensing],” Maruggi said. “We work closely with major paper suppliers to drive new solutions that are developed to address the needs of papers that are optimized for use on inkjet, while delivering productivity and economics compatible with high-volume production.” HP also has started to qualify third-party media for its products that will be soon formalized as part of the HP media program, he added.
Take, for example, SWORD iJET 4.3 Gloss from Mitsubishi Paper Mills (MPM) Limited. It is a premium, glossy media designed to run on today’s high-speed continuous feed inkjet presses. In many applications, SWORD iJET Media does not require post printing lamination or liquid UV. It also is FSC-certified. In late October, Kodak awarded SWORD iJET Gloss with the highest, 5 Diamond rating on its Paper Rating Program for Prosper presses.
Launched this past March, the Paper Rating Program relies on the collection and analysis of quantifiable data to determine the performance characteristics of any substrate. Kodak said it developed the program to help printers and publishers make more informed decisions about the right combination of quality and price when evaluating substrates for each of their print jobs. Image quality is measured using a variety of factors; the substrate then is identified using a rating system that ranges from one diamond to five diamonds. The 5 Diamond rating is awarded to a media that equates to “offset quality.”
Hundreds of papers are being evaluated, and paper manufacturers continue to improve surface quality and economics through what they learn. The program will be ISO-certified, Kodak said.
Production Can Wait; Education Can’t
“It has been the perfect storm,” noted HP’s Maruggi. “New technology and products becoming available, bringing digital to the level of quality and productivity suitable for mainstream applications, combined with market trends, such as electronic distribution of content, multichannel marketing communication, and individualization driven by social media. All of these factors contributed to a tectonic shift in the printing industry, forcing companies to adopt technologies that allow a faster turnaround, customization, and personalization.”
Producing such highly relevant, customized, “intelligent” publications requires high-quality data. And an additional challenge is the availability of adequate IT (information technology) infrastructure and tools for data management, analysis, and personalization that allow print customers to take full advantage of the robust capabilities of production inkjet technologies, Maruggi added. He cited an example of work that HP did with Hearst publications to pilot a new way to use magazines as vehicles for personalized marketing communication. That pilot, which launched in the November 2011 issue of Popular Mechanics, is opening new ways for Hearst magazines and their advertisers to communicate with end customers in a meaningful way.
Mansfield of Kodak added, “Printers can give time back to clients. Production can wait until the last minute, to keep data fresh” and facilitate greater response rates and return on investment (ROI). “They don’t have to plan multiple weeks out,” he noted. Today’s pieces can be inkjet printed days before the mail drops.
Among other challenges facing printers as they relate to these new business opportunities, customer education may be the biggest, said Maruggi. “The primary challenge for printing service providers, as well as vendors, is educating the market about these new technologies. This applies to publishers, brand owners, and business in general,” the HP exec pointed out. “While the early adopters rapidly embraced these technologies and are capitalizing on the benefits they bring in terms of supply chain efficiency, target market communication, short-run and quick turnaround, there is still a lot to do to create awareness at all levels.”
Mansfield concluded, “We are still taking steps out of the [inkjet] process. Costs will continue to come down. There will be further reductions in waste and cycle time. We need to drive out ‘printing to inventory’ as an industry.”
Hybrid Press Configurations
There also is the hybrid solution of putting inkjet print heads on offset printing presses to consider. This option is proving popular for direct mail applications. “Imprinting modules allow for variable-data printing, on the fly, on top of litho,” Hal Hinderliter, program coordinator for the Graph Expo Must See 'Ems product recognition awards, told MyPrintResource in April.
For example, the Kodak Prosper S10 System is designed to enable part-page and full-page variable print inline at full speeds with a web offset press or web finishing line. With process-color capability, print and marketing service providers can leverage the specialty printing capabilities of offset—including metallics, heavy color saturation, scratch-off coatings, and other specialty inks—to create a high-value product that can be customized with process color imaging inline at high production speeds. This is ideal for direct mail pieces, catalogs, and other custom publishing solutions, Kodak contends. Its faster cousin, 3,000 fpm Prosper S30 Imprinting System, boasts one of the highest speeds in the industry for “hybrid” offset-digital printing applications.
Likewise, HP’s Print Module Solutions provide an economical, module-based system for web-offset printers to add color images, graphics, and variable data to preprinted pages. Available in color and monochrome, they can print up to 800 fpm and include complete workflow solutions for easy integration with existing equipment. A stitching feature now extends the printing area for additional flexibility and scalability.
These types of units also are a viable option for offset printers with full- and half-size webs standing idle, Hinderliter noted. In this scenario, “the press can be used as a roll stand for paper transport—and not do any lithography,” he explained.
Even with lighter ink coverage on uncoated bond paper, InfoTrends’ Hamilton questions whether inkjet web printing speeds ever will be fast enough for true, mainstream newspaper applications. That is why we are seeing hybrid configurations in this segment, too, such as KBA’s 30.7-inch RotaJET 76. The high-volume, 500 fpm digital web press, developed in collaboration with mega print firm RR Donnelley, can output up to 3,000 four-color A4 pages per minute (that’s 85 million per month!) at 600-dpi resolution. According to Oliver Baar, project manager for KBA digital printing systems, it unites innovative precision engineering, high-powered hardware and software, and cutting-edge piezo inkjet technology to create an industrial-scale production tool for short runs and personalized prints.
The RotaJET initially is targeting the book, brochure, commercial, direct mail, and magazine sectors, with packaging and newspapers to follow, said KBA. The two arrays of 56 printing heads that arch over the two large central impression cylinders can be moved aside for cleaning and maintenance purposes. The print heads are automatically aligned (or “stitched” because the configuration resembles back-stitching) and cleaned. Internal systems communications and the integration of third-party systems are JDF-enabled.
Visitors to drupa saw demonstrations of variable production based on the popular APPE (Adobe PDF Print Engine) workflow. With its powerful front-end kit, the RotaJET can handle large volumes of data at maximum speed in full-color production. The digital press also pumped out gang-stitched magazines and promotional brochures via a SigmaLine inline finishing system from Muller Martini.