Inkjet systems vary from toner-based systems as they can run at much higher speeds with fewer moving parts. There is the downside of needing dryers for water-based inkjet, but dryers for waterless inkjet (solid ink) are not necessary. Toner-based, high-end color sheetfed systems can achieve higher image quality, and usually on a wider variety of stocks, including glossy for direct mail. Waterless inkjet is catching up on image quality, but is still limited to heavier weights.
The economics and speed of inkjet are now enabling more jobs with shorter run lengths to migrate from offset, while gaining the benefits of personalization and reducing waste, set up, and labor.
QP: What is the current difference in quality? Will inkjet quality continue to improve?
HOLDO: Inkjet currently does not compete well from a quality perspective with toner or press devices. However, this is beginning to change at the high end of the market, with 1200 dpi imaging and UV based inks on the horizon. Variable drop size and new alternatives to drop-on-demand (such as the Kodak Prosper heads), will continue to push the quality envelope. The future of inkjet holds higher resolution, instant curing, substrate-agnosticism, and wider pigment gamuts as well as speed enhancements.
FOX: Inkjet quality continues to improve and, in some types of work, is beginning to replace offset, but at this time it is not capable of matching offset. However, the much cheaper price of print is convincing print buyers to accept less quality for large cost savings and faster turnaround time. Also, it virtually eliminates the need for printed inventory sitting around a printer’s warehouse.
WAGNER: Inkjet is improving image quality with every release of new products and software. Offset multi-color presses will always be the best, followed by color sheetfed, followed by waterless and water-based inkjet. The use of inkjet treated papers and multiple drying systems, combined with the need for slower print speeds to increase the duration of the dryers on the paper to remove water, creates challenges with the water load in the paper, increasing area coverage, density, and saturation, which also affects the image quality.
QP: Which is more likely to find a place in the small/medium segment—sheet-fed or roll-fed inkjet?
HOLDO: Sheetfed inkjet is far more suitable in the small/medium segment as the challenge becomes the rather significant finishing infrastructure with roll-fed inkjet. While B2 sheets may prove a challenge to some environments, roll-fed provides the entirely separate lines to unroll, cut/stack, etc. Printer lines that do not go from roll-to-roll risk a finishing device failure halting production.
FOX: Roll-fed, because cost of entry is coming down. Roll-fed is much faster and machines are less complex to run.
WAGNER: This depends on what is classified by small/medium segment. Typically, volumes less than two to four million per month are better completed on cut sheet, and volumes greater than four million on inkjet roll-fed. The tie breaker is the application mix. We have seen low volume jobs that have such a high rate of return or reply with the use of variable data and personalization that it accelerates the ROI dramatically, making the need for high volumes out of the gate less important than the rate of return.
QP: What are the cost advantages and sweet spots in inkjet equipment and consumables?
HOLDO: Aqueous inks are far more cost effective than toner, but less so than offset inks. The sweet spot in the current market is for five percent coverage in transactional and book printing applications. However, as higher resolution heads and UV come on the scene, higher coverage levels will yield benefits. Most experts agree that UV will be closer to toner-based prices as a consumable, due to the limited market demand and availability. Typical transactional pieces can run $17/1,000 for a full cover five percent (per color) coverage piece, whereas toner-based technologies may be closer to $35/1,000.
FOX: In inkjet you have only three costs: ink, paper, and maintenance (mainly head replacement). Right now for an entry level unit from Screen you need to be running, on average, two to three million pages per month to ROI the investment.
WAGNER: We offer multiple models, depending on how the customer likes to run their operation. Customers can enjoy the flexibility with print heads that are operator replaceable and can be kept on the shelf as a consumable, ready at a moment’s notice, or we can replace them as part of a full service maintenance agreement.