Production Inkjet: Coexist vs Stand Alone

It wasn’t that long ago that inkjet technology was limited to consumer desktop devices. However, manufacturers dreamed of bigger things as they pushed the technology into the graphic communications industry—first in the wide-format arena and later into production color inkjet for the commercial printing and transactional segments. I recall sitting through a series 2008 drupa presentations by inkjet developers where the operational word seemed to be “robust”, as if to reassure everyone that the inkjet heads wouldn’t wimp out on you in a production environment.

Since the “robust” drupa experience, production inkjet has become a real competitor to toner based and offset output devices. While there is no doubt of the impact inkjet has had on production printing, some questions remain. What are the ideal applications? Can inkjet stand on its own as the sole production output device? Where could it fit in with offset or digital toner equipment?

“It is probably important todissectproduction inkjet into two categories,” said Todd L. Smith, manager, product marketing for Wide Format and Inkjet Products, Konica Minolta Business Solutions. “You have continuous-feed inkjet and cut-sheet inkjet and each has unique benefits, specific workflows, and advantages over the other.”

Smith said that continuous-feed inkjet offers “amazing” production speeds and production volumes, but not the best image quality compared to toner-based or offset technologies. He noted that continuous-feed inkjet came to market around seven years ago primarily in transactional, book, and direct mail applications. He noted that HP, Kodak, Screen, Ricoh, and Canon Solutions America all have continuous feed production inkjet systems. Continuous-feed can be from roll-to-roll, roll-to-folder, roll-to-cutter, or roll-to in-line finishing.

Cut-sheet is a newer category for production inkjet, according to Smith. He said it is still coming to market with a few players in the market with products from HP, Screen, and Fujifilm focused around B2 format paper size. KM also partnered with Komori to co-develop the 29-inch KM-1 cut-sheet production inkjet printer.

“The outlook is that general commercialprint, direct mail, and some book applications willgravitate towards the cut-sheet production inkjet market with a focus on high image quality like offset,” says to Smith.

According to Mike Herold, director, CF Inkjet Technologies for Ricoh, production inkjet in general offers several advantages, among them higher speed, ink efficiency, cost effectiveness, flexibility, and waste reduction. “The concerns are much fewer than in the past due to the advancement in inkjet over the last few years,” he said. “Earlier concerns of not having much paper choice, ink, or finishing options are quickly disappearing as companies such as Ricoh have improved the hardware and software technology to enhance the range of media options, ink options, and color process options.”

Noting that inkjet technology is projected to account for a third of all digital printing by 2016, Michael Poulin, director of marketing, Canon Solutions America Production Print Systems said that inkjet solutions can apply to virtually every production print market—book production, direct mail, transactional, commercial, and promotional.

“Inkjet technology has accelerated the printing industry’s transition from offset to high-volume digital,” said Poulin. “The technology is now better developed than it was a decade ago and development will likely accelerate in the coming years.”


Co-Exist or Stand Alone?

Can production inkjet be the sole output technology?

“In a word, yes,” said Ricoh’s Herold. “Per the benefits listed above, inkjet technology has come a long way in terms of quality of the printing, media and paper options, ink options and more—allowing most print shops to use it for all their transactional and commercial jobs. The book publishing area specifically is depending on inkjet more. For now, inkjet is a perfect complement and fast becoming a necessity to have alongside offset in any print shop.”

“It could be, depending on the print requirements, but most likely there will be other print technologies present for the immediate future,” said Konica Minolta’s Smith. “There is a place for toner-based and offset technologies alongside production inkjet. I don’t expect inkjet is going to kill off the other technologies, but there is certainly a revolution underway. We have seen a large increase in pages being run on production inkjet now. It expected to surpass toner-based page volume on a world-wide level within the next couple of years.”

“Each type of printing technology (offset, toner, inkjet) offers its own set of benefits depending on volume, image quality, cost, and application needs—and these advantages can change in an instant when new innovative technology is introduced,” according to Dustin Graupman, vice president and general manager, Inkjet Business, Xerox. “But fundamentally, inkjet is a simpler technology because it has fewer moving parts. With inkjet, turnaround time is reduced, as well as work in progress, waste, and labor.”

However, added Graupman, “Inkjet technology can and does coexist with toner-based devices (like the iGen family of devices) or offset technology. In fact, in about every operation we have inkjet placements that are complemented by other print technologies. Again, it’s all about application needs and fit. Extremely high-volume jobs lend themselves to inkjet for variable information and short run or offset for static output; high-definition color quality and personalized jobs lend themselves more to toner-based devices.”


Sweet Spots

What applications are particularly well-suited to production inkjet?

“A wide range of print applications can be run on production inkjet,” said Smith. “They range from transactional, publications, books on demand, direct mail, to generalcommercialprint. The lion’s share of production work is done withcontinuousfeed inkjet with transactional and publishing.”

According to Ricoh’s Herold, “There are many jobs across transactional printing where inkjet is just simply the more cost effective, easier solution. But the area where inkjet is quickly gaining market share over toner-based or offset printing is in book printing. As publishers and book printers look to find ways to deal with the decreased demand for printed books, they have leaned towards shorter runs of titles and printing that offers variable data and multi-channel options. The total volume of impressions printed on digital equipment for book production is expected to grow from about 49 billion in 2012 to 117 billion in 2017. Offset printing is much more labor intensive than inkjet printing—requiring more people, more set-ups and more touches of the printing web, along with handling conveyers, collators and bindery—which adds time and cost to short runs of multiple titles, making short runs not as cost effective.”

Canon’s Poulin sees two very attractive applications for production inkjet. “Direct Mail is an excellent application for inkjet presses,” he said. ”For this market, the opportunity really lies in what inkjet allows direct mail printers to do for their clients. Clients want personalization and inkjet delivers full color personalization at a reasonable price. Toner presses with similar quality can’t meet the cost or time-to-market constraints of major mailers. Web presses offer volume and quality but can’t meet personalization or time to market demands.”

The other area Poulin sees as a good fit for inkjet is book printing. “For the past few years, the book printing industry has been talking about a shift in digital book manufacturing, driven by changing balance sheets and publishers’ needs to better manage inventories. While publishers’ needs have existed for quite some time, the challenge has always been developing digital printing technology capable of achieving the quality, speed, flexibility, and affordability of offset printing. Inkjet technology can do just this.”

“Inkjet is ideal for transactional,transpromo, direct mail applications and books and manuals that use uncoated paper stocks, including bills, statements, invoices, and customized direct mail,” said Xerox’ Graupman. “Xerox also anticipates high-speed inkjet printing to grow in new markets such as newspapers, packaging, and labels as well.”