2013: A Turning Point for Inkjet in Production

Though inkjet has been a hot topic since 2008 (remember the ‘inkjet’ drupa?), it is hard to underestimate the continuing impact inkjet is having across all areas of the graphic arts. I think 2013 marks an interesting turning point. Inkjet is everywhere from document printing to labels & packaging to decorative to functional and 3D printing.

3D printing had to be one of the most talked about topics of 2013 and jetting technologies are the key behind many 3D printing implementations (though in this case they are jetting materials rather than inks). That being said, in my opinion 3D printing has reached what Gartner likes to call the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ and others have described as ‘Irrational Exuberance.’ The way some people talk about 3D printing you’d think that before long you’ll be 3D printing your beer complete with the bottle (with a label on the outside and a cap on top).

Still, the impact of inkjet was definitely striking throughout the year at shows like FESPA, PrintPack India, China Print, PRINT 13, drinktec, Labelexpo, Pack Expo, and SGIA. The range of jetted materials and substrates is staggering. Digital print technologies are commonly used on paper and to some extent plastics, but the use of inkjet for printing on foil, metal, ceramics, textiles, wood, and glass are all on the rise. It’s no surprise then that many of the production digital print announcements of 2013 focused on non-document applications like ceramics, labels, flexible packaging, folding cartons, and corrugated boxes. In fact, one of the most exciting 3D print applications is in creating prototypes for use in package design. This helps manufacturers get products to market sooner and drives economic opportunity. One final example of the interest in 3D printing was Konica Minolta’s announcement at its recent dealer meeting that it was about to sign a distribution partnership with 3D Systems.

The impact of inkjet continues as we look toward 2014. The ability of high-speed inkjet systems to encroach on territory held by other technologies is very significant. One high-volume print service provider recently noted that he thinks his company has bought its last offset press. Not only that, he thinks the company may have bought its last electrophotographic printer as well. Inkjet has made huge inroads in indoor and outdoor wide format graphics, label printing, and color document printing (for applications like books, direct mail, and transactional documents) but it still has a lot yet to prove in package, publication, catalog, newspaper, and general commercial printing. In high coverage document printing, the economic feasibility of inkjet printing is still an issue because of the consumable and substrate costs. In package printing, the requirement to print on glossy, non-porous, or clear substrates raises some potential cost and workflow obstacles.

Yet cost, while important, is not the only factor. The true value of high-volume production digital printing is its ability to leverage factors such as process automation, just-in-time manufacturing, and personalization. There may also be environmental benefits such as less waste and greener processes. For document printing, this translates to applications such as on-demand production of books, marketing materials, and photo merchandise. These are all examples of the movement from mass production to mass customization, and these same benefits can be applied in other areas. The potential for this type of business transformation is what separates digital printing from other print technologies. It’s also a good reason to keep an eye on the growth path of inkjet through 2014 and beyond.

Note: A slightly different version of this commentary appeared recently in DPS magazine.

For more on InfoTrends activities in production inkjet, please feel free to contact me directly.

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