Parents know this refrain well – “Are we there yet?” – just as they know the answer – “In a little while.” I spend my working life with printing technology and have heard this for many years. In the case of inkjet, this is a recurring theme. And while we are not there yet, we are getting much closer.
Some print providers have arrived. A great example is Real Digital International based in south London. In 2004, the company was founded based on the belief that transactional and direct mail production could be improved using a flexible inkjet solution. It invested heavily in secure premises and a powerful workflow with finishing systems to cut, fold, collate and insert almost anything.
It invented 650mm wide high quality colour duplex web inkjet printing by mounting a pair of single pass inkjet presses on a flexible transport system. Further REAL Digital International developed paper coatings to deliver acceptable quality for leading brands, printing personalised carriers, mailers and magazines. The business proved out the belief, winning multiple awards while inventing new business models as the marketplace matured. The founders identified inkjet’s potential and went for it, making good money in the process.
Real Digital’s journey continues with investment in a pair of Screen Jet TPJ520 duplex lines in 2014, but is not stopping there. It continues to monitor the technology to see what the future holds. David Laybourne, Real Digital International managing director, comments: “Inkjet technology provided the flexibility which enabled us to deliver solutions that address latent customer demand and to drive new demand in areas where we have seen further opportunities. The technology continues to evolve, and inks are more flexible with increased colour gamut, reducing the need for special substrates while increasing productivity.
“As the ink manufacturers accept more viable pricing models, the proportion of the marketplace that inkjet solutions are able to address will only increase.”
Ink manufacturers are investing heavily on developing new inks that perform well in the heads and provide excellent print quality. Such research is not cheap. But the result is that ink properties have improved, with higher density levels that result in more offset-like quality with lower coverage. But, kilo for kilo, inkjet ink will remain expensive.
Laybourne’s opinion about viable ink pricing models is informative. Ink cost makes medium to long runs with high ink coverage uneconomic, as compared to analogue print. Suppliers want to maximise profit and this disconnect is holding back adoption of inkjet in commercial print, publishing and packaging applications. Printers using analogue presses think the ink is too expensive and is turning potential customers away from inkjet, though this is no longer true in all sectors.
In book production, however, there are advantages in combining inkjet with in-line finishing, delivering finished blocks ready for cover application and final trimming. This is particularly true for monochrome books.
Publishers and book printers have gone beyond just comparing print costs to considering the total cost of manufacturing. Inkjet can deliver folded, collated and glued blocks for a simple cover application and final trim for books in any format or pagination with minimal waste and much faster than traditional techniques. The flexibility of inkjet allows book production to be re-engineered with overall cost and service advantages, allowing publishers to reduce their stocks and their publishing risk though the much shorter lead times that inkjet enables. Colour books are quickly following the mono lead.
For other products, the benefits of changing manufacturing processes to inkjet are not so clear yet. Well-established analogue methods are meticulously honed to minimise cost while delivering high quality. This will change as more companies install inkjet equipment, learn the capabilities and exploit new opportunities. New inkjet equipment will provide higher return on investment for many print products.
In 2015, the population of inkjet early adopters and profitable users is growing. Ricoh is at the forefront of quality with its high speed Pro VC60000 press launched in 2014. It has several early adopters, including HansaPrint in Finland, a €70 million turnover business specialising in retail and publishing. Jukka Saariluoma, HansaPrint business unit director, says: “Prior to experiencing the Ricoh Pro VC60000, I did not believe that there would be a major shift from offset printing to inkjet. But the new press has changed my mind.
“Our clients are very excited by the new level in quality and the increased flexibility offered and are moving significant amounts of their work from offset to inkjet.”
Another historical barrier to wider adoption of inkjet, especially for commercial printing applications, has been the need to use specially treated papers and the inability to effectively print on glossy coated stocks. The latest generation of production inkjet presses is rapidly eroding those barriers.
According to Peter Wolff, director of commercial printing group Canon EMEA: “With the latest system introductions of the ImageStream, the reachable range of applications extends even further, due to the printability of offset coated material for matt, silk and glossy applications. With these new capabilities, additional applications like magazine printing, catalogue printing and others are now doable on inkjet with all the benefits in regards of individualisation and customer targeted content without additional cost related to special inkjet treated papers.
This offers commercial printers the opportunity to combine a broad range of applications on one digital press with productivity and quality equivalent to offset.”
From a technical perspective, inkjet has a major advantage over all other print processes because it is the first non-contact, high quality, high performance process. There are rapid advances in new and better control of print heads, better inks and a much wider selection of readily available and more affordable inkjet treated papers.
The potential applications for inkjet are many. There is coding & marking, addressing, security numbering & coding, photo-printing, wide-format (sheet, roll-fed and hybrid), flatbed imprinting systems, narrow web, tube & irregular shapes, high speed wide web and sheetfed, to name a few. Hence the levels of investment being staked on it.
Outside of traditional printing and graphics, inkjet has revolutionised ceramic tile printing and it is growing very strongly in textiles and other industrial decoration applications – from pens and memory sticks to architectural glass and laminated decor.
Thus, inkjet offers opportunities for expansion into related areas that may not normally be considered by traditional print providers. Paul Adriaensen, Agfa Graphics, says: “Not too long ago, inkjet was praised as an alternative to conventional systems for its ability to offer single-off sheets, short runs and personalised prints. In the meanwhile, the technology is challenged to offer higher speeds and higher volumes to replace some of the conventional systems. But the technology is also introduced in new areas never related to the printing industry before. This creates interesting dynamics in the industry.”
All the key analyst organisations predict very high growth continuing for inkjet print volumes and values. Smithers Pira forecasts that the value of inkjet printing output for graphics and packaging more than trebles over 10 years, from €23 billion in 2010 to more than €70 billion in 2020 (in current values), with CAGR forecast of 12.7% between 2015 to 2020. HP alone reports that its customers have produced more than 100 billion inkjet pages, many in books, since its first installation of a production inkjet press in 2009, a clear indicator of overall market trends, with other inkjet press manufacturers reporting rapidly growing volumes as well.
In some areas inkjet has a firm hold, display printing for example where there are independent third-party ink suppliers competing with the OEM. That is probably the healthiest part of the market for end users, with thousands of machines sold each year consuming millions of litres of inks.
This is not the case for high performance systems, where the equipment supplier typically provides the ink tailored to optimise performance within the overall system. There are indications, however, that this is changing. Collins Inkjet is an independent inkjet ink manufacturer which sells a range of inkjet inks, innovating in many applications including electron beam curing and makes water-based inks for many of the high speed single pass presses. It remains to be seen how effective this company and others will be in establishing itself as a third-party ink provider, in competition – or partnership – with OEMs.
Chris Rogers is vice president of sales & marketing at Collins. He is optimistic, saying: “When customers see competitive pricing for the more efficient inkjet technology, it is easier to switch, and they are more willing to change. Our business model is a traditional ink company; our manufacturing scale allows us to price inks at lower profit margins. This long-term strategy has proven successful over 25 years and it seems that OEMs are now starting to agree. They realise the easiest way to grow market share is to price their consumables fairly and we can help them with that.”
Inkjet has been around for some time. Today a huge amount of money is being spent developing printheads, inks, substrates, control software, transport, drying and turnkey print systems. While these investments have forced changes on the world of print, it is nothing compared to what I expect to occur over the next few years. The inkjet markets today are largely new. As productivity grows, inkjet is becoming greedy, with suppliers now turning toward siphoning volume from analogue print markets for additional growth and offering directly competing solutions. The productivity, quality and economics are pushing inkjet firmly against sheetfed litho and narrow web flexo.
While a few inkjet suppliers may be guilty of hyperbole (sorry, they are very guilty of it in some instances!), it is good to see users and customers voting with their feet and their wallets.
That being said, we will continue to see enhancements to productivity and boosts to the cost performance of inkjet. Some totally new formats and systems are coming to market. At least a couple of these will be on show at Drupa, in new formats and markets. What is also new is that these will be firmly aimed at the heartland of offset and flexo printing.
Choice of printing methods changes because of one or more reasons: to reduce cost, to improve quality, to achieve greater levels of service, or to do new things. Inkjet allows printers to do all four – and no doubt there will be other new reasons going forward.
In addition to graphics and packaging, inkjet is making rapid progress in textile printing, ceramics and industrial/architectural decoration. Then there is the new arena of 3D printing, where inkjet is an important enabler. These have the potential of opening huge new opportunities for companies that are smart enough and brave enough to explore the potential and exploit new markets.
In technology terms, inkjet is state of the art. In business terms, inkjet is being used to re-engineer supply chains, making money. That certainly is not fiction. Go to Drupa to find out what inkjet can do for your business.
Real Digital is using the Screen TruepressJet 520 to deliver new types of print to a wide range of customers. Managing director David Laybourne believes that uptake can only be slowed by the price of inks.
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Ricoh has installed its VC60000 inkjet web press at sites in Holland and Scandinavia where Hansaprint expects jobs to migrate from offset litho to inkjet because there is no loss of quality.
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Canon's ImageStream has been designed to print on conventional offset papers with no special pretreatment to prepare the surface. It will open up new areas for inkjet and help convert commercial printers to the technology says Canon.
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