Best Practices Help Inkjet to Soar Higher

While no longer a fledgling technology, inkjet-web printing still is a bit wet under its wings. The liquid pun is totally intended: Water, after all, is the enemy of inkjet. Just ask Paul Gardner, director of innovation at Hudson Printing, Salt Lake City, UT.

“Too much water is bad,” Gardner confirmed. In the fall of 2013, the commercial, web-offset print firm for which he works took delivery of the world’s first (and so far only) HP T330 Color Inkjet Web Press featuring the drying capacity of the T350 model along with remoisturizing technology. Without adding moisture, paper can “bake crispy in non-coverage areas,” he continued.

What is a “330” model? Inkjet’s Age editors are familiar with the HP 300 and 350, but we hadn’t heard of the 330. “It’s a reengineered 350 with the speed slowed down but still featuring the maximum drying capacity and remoisturizing unit,” explained Gardner.

With 200 employees and annual sales of $30 million, the 104-year-old Hudson was in search of a digital press that could handle heavy ink coverage for the catalog and magazine work it prints. “We need to be able to stabilize the media so we can deliver flat sheets and flat book blocks,” Gardner added. What Hudson did not need, however -- and could not afford -- was the 600-fpm (feet per minute) speed of the HP T350.

In the Midwest, 20-year print industry veteran Martin Aalsma agreed with Gardner’s water assessment. “Ninety percent of the issues related to inkjet revolve around water, drying, and density,” said Aalsma, who now is VP and chief operating officer at Documation, Inc., Eau Claire, WI, after cutting his printing teeth at Quad/Graphics, RR Donnelley, and Western States Envelope & Label. A $15-million media and print solutions provider with 130 employees, Documation added its second HP T230 Inkjet Web Press in 2013; the first was installed one year earlier in its 35,000-square-foot facility. “The [paper] bonding agent is more water, which doesn’t help with drying,” Aalsma added.

Users and OEMs agree that media is one of three main considerations when contemplating inkjet efficiency. The other two are workflow and finishing.

Flying Higher

Since first leaving the proverbial nest at drupa 08, inkjet-web presses have taken flight. In early 2011, I wrote an article for MyPRINTResource entitled “Inkjet Rises Higher.” Nearly four years later, the printing technology is soaring like an eagle, at about 10,000 feet, and climbing like a Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet airplane.

“Inkjet’s is an evolving story in terms of its applications and scope,” said David Murphy, worldwide marketing/business development director for Hewlett-Packard’s Inkjet High-speed Production Solutions. The six-year-young technology “is a nascent part of our business,” Murphy added, “yet there also is ambiguity and misunderstanding regarding where inkjet belongs. Image quality, [ink] coverage ratios, and media types used to be stark points of separation, but the gap is narrowing.”

Conventional offset printing holds its own for many applications. “Most direct mail pieces are less than 20 percent variable,” reported Will Mansfield, worldwide marketing director for Eastman Kodak Co.’s Inkjet Printing Solutions. “Offset still is very cost-effective” for such applications, Mansfield admitted. Murphy concurred: “Twenty-thousand run static jobs go offset,” he said, “but any kind of customization, print on demand, or versioning goes digital -- and inkjet for longer runs.”

However, inkjet continues to “eat more into the offset space,” Mansfield noted. In June, Kodak rolled out the latest in its Prosper platform: the 6000 models, which became commercially available this summer. The Prosper 6000C (commercial) Press runs at speeds up to 1,000 fpm, translating to more than 180,000 8½ x 11-inch solicitation letters per hour, “with complete VDP [variable-data printing],” he described. “Productivity has improved dramatically.”

Even on high-end postcards with heavier ink coverage, 60,000 per hour are achievable. “The 6000 is the fastest [inkjet web press] on glossy paper as well,” Mansfield noted, at 656 fpm. With a media range from 42 gsm to 270 gsm (including 12-pt. card stock), the new digital press aims to “expand the reach and applications of commercial inkjet” into more journals, manuals, catalogs, inserts and, of course, direct mail.

Hybrid, imprinting configurations, such as Kodak’s Prosper S-Series, are ideally suited for many applications, he added, including personalized coupons. “In these cases, 50 percent or less of the content may be personalized,” Mansfield said, “and 50 percent is still static.”

In Grand Rapids, MI, Gilson Graphics’ owner Dave Gilson reported that 37 percent of annual sales come from offset print: 10 years ago, that share was approximately 90 percent. “Offset is not growing,” he said matter-of-factly. Still, the 66-year-old firm maintains three 40-inch sheetfed offset presses plus a full bindery and employs some 165 people in total, including a marketing manager and about 20 outside sales representatives. Its digital “weapon” of choice is the Fujifilm J Press 720 sheetfed inkjet device, on which his firm has been printing for three years.

With a 29.5 x 20.8-inch sheets outputting at 2,700 sph, the J Press 720 is “extremely productive” and fetches substantially higher margins, Gilson said, largely because of its unprecedented quality. Now running 2.5 shifts, the J Press produces bleed-free, high-quality images at resolutions up to 1,200 x 1,200 dots per inch (dpi) with four levels of grayscale, achieving unmatched repeatability from sheet to sheet, according to Fuji. A wider gamut than traditional offset allows the J Press to produce 70 percent of Pantone spot colors.

This high level of image fidelity bodes well for the marketing materials that Gilson prints for customers such as the Wolverine footwear brand. Shane Smith, creative director at Wonderland Graphics, particularly likes the stochastic dot pattern of the J Press, adding that durability is a close second to quality. “The ink adheres well to the substrate,” Smith noted, “so [mailing] pieces are able to withstand the beating they take at in the postal stream.” AmericanSeating, another Gilson client, said the inkjet press reproduces its wood-grain imagery more sharply than previous printing methods – either digital or conventional.

With its second-generation J Press rolling out this year, featuring VDP capability that is twice as fast, Fujifilm now counts 21 installations worldwide: four in the US, three in Europe, and 14 in Japan, reported Toshi Okada, manager of strategic product planning in North America. The new F folding carton model is specifically designed for package printing.

The Challenge of Choice Paper

Another reason Gilson likes its Fuji model is paper. While many inkjet presses require uncoated or specialized, pretreated digital papers, the J Press uses standard coated and uncoated stocks. Once imaged, they can be treated like offset stock and simply dropped into existing finishing equipment, Fujifilm said.

“Not all paper behaves the same, especially with regard to drying capacity,” pointed out Documation COO Aalsma. Depending on the color gamut required, much transactional and book production today still is reproduced on non-treated, uncoated paper, upon which inkjet droplets blend together. Documation has had “incredible luck with Finch Paper’s uncoated stock,” said Aalsma, who also is testing an import from overseas. When it comes to coated papers, “90 percent to 95 percent of the time we try to run inkjet-treated stocks,” he explained. “It saves us money, time, and headaches.”

For higher-quality inkjet web printing, the types of media available in the United States have increased substantially over the past 24 months -- and are becoming more affordable, according to HP’s Murphy. Aalsma agreed, saying, “There are more offerings, and we expect to see even more good sheets at reasonable prices this fall.” In September, prior to the GRAPH EXPO 14 show, HP plans to introduce a new priming agent designed to work with standard, coated offset media, he reported.

Applying liquid bonding agents to “off-the-shelf” papers while they are on press is a more cost-effective solution than using pretreated papers. “It is definitely more affordable than buying [paper with] bonding agents,” agreed Gardner of Hudson Printing, which uses HP ColorPRO treated uncoated papers for jobs requiring ink coverage of more than 10 percent to 20 percent. “For [coated] glosses and mattes, especially satins and dulls, we almost have to run optimized papers,” he noted. “Non-optimized paper inevitably hits the first roller, then scuffs from the turn bar mark sheets downstream.”

To date, Hudson has had success with Utopia Inkjet Gloss from Appleton Coated, which has provided a “great level of support,” Gardner praised. Nonetheless, “we test papers every week. We’re still not satisfied. There are issues in everything we run, in one area or another,” he added bluntly.

HP’s ColorPRO technology, available since 2008, features a modified calcium-carbonate, colorless coating that enables paper-makers -- including Appleton Coated, Georgia Pacific, International Paper, and Sappi -- to adapt a wider variety of uncoated grades for the inkjet printing process. It is applied only at the precise locations where ink is to be printed. Without the bonding agent, not all pigments stay near the surface. But with it, colorants react to stay near the surface and bind with the media. ColorPRO papers compatible with the family of HP Inkjet Web Presses use additives that interact with HP pigment inks.

In Rochester, NY, Kodak created its own chemical solution to simulate what the paper mills do: optional Prosper Image Optimizer Station (IOS) and Optimizer Agent. The inline IOS provides users with a high degree of paper flexibility and cost savings by enabling the use of commercially available regular coated, uncoated, and glossy papers between 45 gsm and 300 gsm. The pre-treatment module is built around a roll coating technology that allows the use of a range of water-based pre-treatment fluids, with different chemistries, viscosities, and coat weights.

Kodak’s pretreatment can be applied to a variety of paper surfaces: coated or uncoated, matte, silk, or glossy. The IOS’s water-based pretreatment fluids contain adhesion-promoting additives that can be customized depending on the specific paper stock being treated. Virtually any paper surface can be pretreated, which is a key benefit. “As far as tonnage goes, inkjet papers still represent a small percentage” of what mills are supplying, Kodak’s Mansfield reminded.

Rather than on-press applications of bonding agents, some papers are coated at the mills. These stocks are popular for the demanding color of many direct-mail applications. Finch and other paper manufacturers offer pre-treated inkjet substrates that are engineered to provide consistent print quality on a variety of continuous and drop-on-demand inkjet web presses. However, their higher cost is a concern for many print service providers (PSPs). Priced at a premium, such treated papers can be 25 percent to 40 percent more expensive than commodity-grade offset media.

Finishing Inline or Off Line?

As inkjet web speeds continue to accelerate, the ongoing challenge in postpress is keeping up with the printing. “We are anticipating much, much higher output speeds by drupa 16,” said Murphy of HP. “This puts pressure on finishing equipment manufacturers.”

Earlier this year, book and transactional printer O’Neil Data Systems installed its latest finishing solution in its Plano, TX facility. The Sprint Variable Data Book Finishing System from VITS International is a three-web offline configuration delivering directly to a Kolbus perfect binder for the production of intelligently bound, personalized booklets at high speeds. The system, which supports three HP T410 inkjet printing presses into one advanced book finishing line, is highlighted by VITS’s latest cutting and stacking technology and patented Clear-Channel Register Control.

“This is the third jewel of the crown for the Sprint Variable Data Finishing System,” said Nick Gerovac, director of sales and marketing at VITS, which also was an Inkjet Summit sponsor in April. “We now have successful installations in the book, direct mail, and newspaper markets supporting inkjet production in both inline and offline.”

HP’s Murphy added, “This VITS technology offers high-speed book finishing capabilities. It marries multiple webs into a single finishing stream – collating, cutting, and binding.”

Back in Utah, Hudson Printing has been up and running since mid-April with selective binding thanks in part to the world’s first Eurobind PRO adhesive (PUR) perfect binder with sequential feeding from Heidelberg. “Heidelberg didn’t offer sequential feeding. They created an 18-month road map to make this happen for us,” Gardner the innovator explained. The Heidelberg is “doing such a great job” that Hudson took its old perfect binder off line and sold it in June, he reported.

Hudson’s bindery also houses a Standard Horizon StitchLiner saddlestitcher featuring a pair of six-pocket towers and two sequential units for text pages and covers. “Each of its 21 pockets [either] fires – or not,” he concluded. “Mechanically, the machine could handle selective binding, but Standard had to write software for it,” Gardner explained, adding that the system doesn’t care if the printed output is produced offset or digital.

Practice Makes Perfect

“What business are you in today and where do you want to take it?” That is the big question that HP encourages its high-volume inkjet customers and prospects to ponder, according to Murphy. Run lengths and the need for customization are considerations for all of digital printing, he noted. “They are not unique to inkjet.”

Here are seven additional inkjet best-practice tips from the other people IA interviewed for this story:

  • Find Your Sweet Spot: This is a quantity issue – for Hudson Printing, multiple-signature work and relatively short runs of under 5,000 copies are its sweet spot for inkjet web. “Between six and 30 forms is ideal,” said innovation director Gardner. “Sheetfed can’t compete on price because there are too many plates to hang.” The sheetfed Fujifilm J Press 720 inkjet device at Gilson Graphics is limited to 2,000 sheets for non-variable print jobs.
  • Optimize Ink Usage: Hudson is using software to minimize the amount of ink it uses. “Inkjet still is an aqueous-based process, so [using] less ink is better,” Gardner added.
  • Manage Color: Documation uses Alwan Color Expertise for ink levels and also employs GMG software to build profiles, reported VP/COO Aalsma. “We run ‘fingerprints’ and print by the numbers,” he said, adding that “flexo principles apply to inkjet.”
  • Fast RIP Required: “Make your workflow RIP-friendly and portable,” advised Aalsma. Documation runs a PDF workflow “to prevent log-jams,” he said. The goal is to RIP as fast as you print. HP’s SmartStream computer server is the language that seems to “play” best with his firm’s pair of T230 inkjet web presses.
  • Fishing for Data: “Cast a wide net for jobs,” advised Kodak’s Mansfield. That means using an open-architecture workflow for variable data. “We employ controllers that accept data from multiple formats, including AFP [Advanced Function Presentation] and PDF.”
  • Data Integrity: Use a system to validate and verify that every page is printed to the appropriate data, Kodak encouraged.
  • Campaign Management: Offer some level of campaign management and a closed-loop tracking system.

Some tracking systems even can monitor response rates for customers, Mansfield pointed out. “These help to separate and differentiate” PSPs from the herd,” he added, “so that it’s not just a charge-per-piece discussion.”