Inkjet Inroads

Every drupa gets a nickname and drupa 2008 was dubbed “the inkjet drupa”. That title seems to have been prescient because ever since the show inkjet has been gobbling up black-and-white pages that used to run on offset or toner devices. And lately it is taking a bigger bite out of the digital color pie, too. Infotrends predicts that color inkjet will account for one-third of all digital color pages by 2015.

Where will that growth take place? In general, in the transactional, book production, direct mail, short-run catalog, marketing material, signage, and light packaging areas. This predicted growth has attracted the attention of a lot of major players, many of which are already in the game and are looking to raise the stakes.

Xerox has two CiPress models and recently purchased Impika, a French inkjet printer manufacturer, to increase its reach into the market. Ricoh Production Print Solutions now has full possession of the InfoPrint line. Screen (USA) has seen its TruPress Jet series take flight. Canon Solutions America offers the Océ JetStream and ColorStream series. Kodak has the Versamark and Prosper lines. HP has the T series of inkjet web presses. Fujifilm’s J Press 720 won an Intertech Technology award at Graph Expo 2012, and Riso is in the game with its sheet-fed ComColor line.

Where to from here? We asked three major players in the inkjet arena for their thoughts on the development of inkjet:

Michael E. Fox, president, Screen (USA) which sells the TruPress Jet series;

Erik Holdo, senior vice president, Production Print Solutions, Konica Minolta Business Solutions, which has entered into a joint venture with offset press manufacturer Komori to produce the KM-1 inkjet press due out next year;

E. Scott Wagner, manager, Worldwide Marketing, Xerox Corporation which has the waterless CiPress 325 and 500 lines and just bought Impika, a European maker of water-based inkjet presses.

QP: What are the major advantages of inkjet compared with toner and offset?

HOLDO: Up until now the advantage of inkjet over toner-based products has principally been speed, configurability (as it relates to hybrid installations), and to a lesser extent, substrate flexibility. As to speed, quality has typically suffered, but with linear speeds approaching 1,000 feet per minute, the payoff may override the quality differential. A challenge to this has been in the drying/fixing of aqueous inks. However, at its best speeds, toner devices are challenged with competing, due to the inherent restriction of dwell time, heat, and pressure required. Some would say that we are at the physics-limited edges of the toner market as far as speed, due to these restrictions.

 As for offset, while it certainly has the edge on quality and speed, makeready and waste are dramatically reduced with inkjet. While press manufacturers continue to refine their press environments to reduce up-to-color waste to as little as 20 sheets, inkjet is ready at sheet one. The main advantage however comes, of course, in the form of micro-versioning, or variable data. Therefore, the approach of adding inkjet heads to a press has continued to gain popularity.

FOX: Compared to toner, the uptime for inkjet is much greater and maintenance is much cheaper. Compared to offset, the uptime is much greater, there is little to no makeready time; no plates, blankets, rollers, fountain solution, etc.; and labor costs are much lower. Uptime is higher and maintenance costs overall are much lower. Turnaround time is faster.

WAGNER: Digital inkjet is closer to digital toner devices since both can eliminate platemaking and automate for quick set up compared to offset. WIP (Work in Process) is reduced and full versioning can be achieved with the added value of full variable and personalization.

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.

With ink, we think the best economics are achieved with an “ink out” model where customers buy it by the pallet at the deepest discounts. Then there are metered plans where some customers like being billed different rates for black-only and another rate for color, process black, or light color. But if they like the offset press model, we offer a plan without any metered rate and you just have the cost of heads and ink plus a base maintenance charge.

QP: What do you see as the growth areas of inkjet in the graphic communications industry as a whole?

HOLDO: The standard growth areas of book publishing, transactional/transpromotional, and direct mail will continue their increases in market share, while new inks and technologies such as marketing collateral, light packaging, and short-run catalogs/newsprint will also benefit.

FOX: Growth is in transactional, transpromotional, trans-informational, direct mail, business forms, books, and some specialized general commercial applications.

WAGNER: We see growth in customers moving from being printers to becoming full marketing services providers. That means knowing how to manage and mine data, assuming you own or have access to the data. This means unprecedented levels of personalization are possible on all kinds of printed substrates. So we see marketing evolving from the basic pre-printed forms to white paper, along with personalized retail catalogs and up to sophisticated multi-channel marketing campaigns with multiple versions and touch points where the printed piece is just a part of the total strategy.

The challenge for print manufacturers is to offer turnkey workflow systems and solutions that can complement, enable, and drive the printed pieces. Also needed are solid business development tools to help the customers make the journey from printer to market services provider and train and educate their sales forces along the way.

QP: Any comments on Landa’s Nanography, which, in effect, is really a modified inkjet process?

HOLDO: Nanography is essentially a revamped electro-ink approach and is more marketing than innovation. A liquid-based application to paper fibers, which does not require water, will always yield promise over the existing technologies. However, the current examples that I have seen show this to be in its infancy. I would expect UV inks and Nanography will both become the future high-quality/substrate independent approach for inkjet in the future.

FOX: It’s a modified inkjet process and not capable of reaching the full potential advantages of pure inkjet technology. By the time it ever reaches the market—if it ever does—pure inkjet technology will have already surpassed it.

WAGNER: Part of the value we see in Nanography is the elimination or reduction of water in the ink and the print process. This is partly why we developed waterless inkjet with the CiPress 500 Production Inkjet System.