Inkjet Insights: To Go Big, Think Small (Format)

It’s no secret that quick and small commercial printers are looking for new ways to expand their offerings from just ink and toner on paper. Some of the most common areas of expansion have been mailing and fulfillment, wide-format, and marketing services. However, another new opportunity for expansion has been quietly making inroads—small-format inkjet.

Until recently, with the exception of envelopes, inkjet technology was pretty much confined to wide-format and transactional applications. Today, increased reliability and quality, higher speeds, and lower prices are making small-format inkjet an attractive option for other applications.

One of the newer drivers of this increased interest was the introduction of Memjet’s inkjet technology, which claims much higher speeds than traditional inkjet technologies, and has attracted more than 14 OEM companies for both wide- and narrow-format applications. One of these companies is Xanté, which now offers the wide-format Excelagraphix 4200 and the narrow-format Excelagraphix L850. Xanté bills the L850 as a “narrow web/label solution that allows you to go digital and meet the demand for fast full color labels, tags, decals, tickets, and much more.” These are all products that most quick and small commercial printers traditionally have outsourced.


New Markets

“There are many good reasons for quick printers to add a small-format inkjet printer to their production environment, especially an eco-solvent printer, which can greatly expand their product portfolio and market reach,” according to Roland DGA product manager Daniel Valade. “First, these devices allow the shop to leverage their expertise in digital design and printing. Also, many customers ordering business cards, brochures, flyers, and comps also have a need for the kind of output a small-format eco-solvent printer delivers, from signs, banners, and labels to posters and heat transfers for apparel. Becoming a one-stop shop for these customers increases your value proposition and gives you an important competitive advantage.”

Mimaki marketing and promotions manager Paul McGovern sees some interest in small-format inkjet, but not an overwhelming flood. “We actually have seen some interest from companies like FastSigns and other sign and graphics organizations for these tabletop UV-cure LED printers,” he says. “The commercial print folks have not really adapted this type of digital inkjet printing to their particular applications because of the dependence on a lot of previous paper and cardboard printing clients. Most are not currently associated with non-porous media products such as promotional products, metal substrate printing, and other plastic items used in the decorative color marketplace.”

That said, McGovern does note that there are opportunities for those who want to explore small-format inkjet. “There are many applications for package prototyping, sampling, and creating mock-ups of smaller items for marketing approvals before going to the presses,” he explains. “Clients sometimes need to see their products in a finished format before printing thousands of a particular product using offset, gravure, or flexo printing techniques. We also offer small-format ‘print & cut’ units for producing many labels, stickers, and vinyl prints of signage in high-resolution colors using eco-solvent pigmented inks—including metallic colors—for durability and light fastness in industrial environments.”

According to Rich Egert, general manager of the Strategic Technology Provider Business Group for OKI Data Americas, there is increasing interest in both full color inkjet envelope and label printing among small commercial printers. “As a result, we are continuing to expand our line of envelope printers,” he says. “This line now includes three different options, including the new pro910MP color envelope press for dedicated envelope or postcard printing.”

In the label arena, Egert says OKI offers the pro511 DW digital label printer which can handle variable data and variable graphics.


More than Just CMYK

Small-format inkjet can be more than just CMYK. Two of the most interesting applications involve metallic inks and white ink. According to McGovern, “White ink is becoming important for inkjet printing in these commercial print shops where screen printing set up times, labor, and costs are becoming too expensive and slow for fast turnaround production projects.”

“A business tight on space that is looking to add short-run decals and T-shirt heat transfers would benefit by adding a compact desktop print device such as our 20-inch VersaStudio BN-20,” says Valade. “This device prints full-color CMYK durable graphics and has options for either white or metallic ink.”

Valade notes that metallic graphics are extremely popular and easy to produce, and they sell at a premium—at price points that are 30 to 40 percent higher than traditional CMYK output. White ink allows printing on clear media, commonly used for labeling, packaging, and window graphics.

“White toner printing technology can be used in a variety of applications,” says OKI’s Egert. “That includes printing on clear or dark colored media for signage, packaging, and invitations, as well as transfer media as an alternative to screen printing for imprinting on a variety of substrates such as textiles, including leather and hard surfaces”


Getting Started

Roland’s Valade recommends that printers interested in getting into small-format inkjet take inventory of their existing business to determine who their customers are and what they need in the way of graphics, and then look at the types of products they could sell, as well as their budget for the equipment.

Once an investment has been made in a small-format device, printers should create samples to show off their new capabilities. “A great portfolio of samples will help your customers visualize your new capabilities and see how the technology can be applied to their own business and marketing needs,” says Valade. “Remember, versatility is a key factor in growing your business, and the more products and creative options you can provide your customers, the more value you bring to them. In the end, the most successful shops are those that continue to both extend their market reach and exceed their customers’ expectations.”

While small-format inkjet is making early inroads into the quick and small commercial market, it seems only a matter of time before it really catches on as printers seek to become one-stop providers for their customers. Granted, most of the new products that can be produced with this technology can be outsourced, but as prices drop and the devices become more sophisticated and automated, a good case can be made for bringing this type of work in-house.