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Color Inkjet Printing : Inkjet’s Web Paper Pursuit

September 2010 By Jack Miller
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For more than a decade, industry observers have been anticipating the explosion of digital printing. One by one, the barriers have been overcome: speed, quality, cost, the ability to design for variable data, and the availability of databases with information rich enough to allow targeted and personalized communications.

Digital comes in many flavors, but this article will focus on the new color inkjet web presses and the papers they print on. Some of the presses that made news at Drupa in 2008, PRINT 09 last year and Ipex in May of this year include: the Océ JetStream, the HP T300 and the Kodak Prosper—presses that are capable of commercial production output volumes with variable data.

Eric Armour, president of the Graphic Communications Business Group for Xerox Corp., advises that Xerox also introduced a new production inkjet technology at Ipex. Armour adds that the technology uses a polymeric resin ink that is fed in granular form, melted in the piezo head and hardens almost instantly, providing vivid, durable quality. It will also print on plain, untreated, uncoated papers, which are less expensive than treated or coated papers. While this technology is not yet commercial, it is very promising.

Earlier systems from Screen, InfoPrint and Versamark led the way with high-volume production and color imprinting, but the new generation combines high speed with high resolution and low cost, taking us beyond those earlier offerings (see Table 1).

These presses, in my view, also take us beyond Indigo and Nexpress, and beyond transactional and transpromo printing to direct mail and books, with other applications to follow. Newspapers, catalogs and magazines are likely to be the next generation and, longer term, packaging has exciting potential.

The Challenge Is Paper

The "holy grail" is a digital press that is capable of producing offset quality at a competitive cost on the same papers that printers use on their offset presses. For the most part, coated and uncoated offset papers run reasonably well on toner-based digital systems but, with inkjet, it's a whole different ball game. Inkjet inks have a high water content, and tend to soak into uncoated papers or sit up on coated papers where they may smear.

For uncoated papers, HP and International Paper introduced ColorLok technology for desktop printers. The technology involves a calcium chloride-based chemical that is added in the paper mill. Glen Hopkins, vice president and general manager, printing technology platforms for HP, advises that ColorLok adds "a minimal cost to the overall cost of paper." The precise cost will vary, depending on the efficiency of the mill, and he thinks it is likely that the cost will come down with experience.

With the introduction of the T300 color inkjet web press, HP followed up with ColorPRO, a similar technology for inkjet presses. Abitibi Bowater, Georgia-Pacific and Stora Enso all produce ColorPRO qualified papers. The program provides "a recognizable trademark to communicate value, quality and advanced performance," and requires that mills meet quality standards audited by HP. The HP T300 can also apply a "bonding agent" that enables printing on ordinary uncoated paper.

Hopkins notes that "customers, therefore, have the choice of printing with the bonding agent on uncoated offset papers that they may already have in their warehouse, or without the bonding agent on uncoated ColorPRO papers.

Coated papers, however, remain a challenge. HP's ColorPRO technology is not designed for coated papers, nor is the bonding agent, although some coated papers do work better with the bonding agent. HP, Kodak and Océ are all working with the leading coated paper manufacturers.

Guy Broadhurst, Océ vice president of new technologies and client development, says that the JetStream can run some standard commercial grades, and adds that Océ does have a list of certified papers, though the list is not public. The list includes a range of standard and specially treated papers, including papers ranging from uncoated to coated #3 to premium papers.

Kodak also does paper qualification, and Kodak announced a Paper Certification program at Ipex. Don Burns, business development director–media, explains that Kodak is working with a focused list of select partners. Some paper partners are identified on the Kodak Website.But, since the Prosper press was only launched in May at Ipex, the list of qualified papers for the Prosper is still under development.

Burns advises that Prosper generally requires a treated paper, and, while ColorPro papers are likely to work on the Prosper, other papers may work better, and adds that a bonding system to include treatment of coated papers will be available in 2011.

For coated papers, Paul Bradshaw, senior vice president at Appleton Coated, notes that his company is "jointly developing high-speed inkjet coated media with HP, the first product being the Utopia Book Inkjet 45-lb. Matte Text." Bradshaw says that the Utopia Inkjet family, including Utopia Book Inkjet, does not require the use of the bonding agent, and that this can be a "significant cost reduction." He adds that Appleton Coated has also worked with Kodak to qualify this grade on the Prosper press.

Bradshaw explains that this is a book publishing grade, but points out that 60-lb. to 100-lb. text were introduced at Ipex in dull and matte finishes, and that gloss finishes and cover weights are "currently in development." He agrees that inkjet papers carry higher costs, and explains that the chemical additives add to the cost.

Even more important, these unique materials mean separate runs and, since volumes are still low, runs are short and costly.

An Eye on Costs

Bradshaw declined to comment more precisely on paper costs, but points out that as volumes grow, costs will come down and, even with higher paper prices, total economics are still favorable.

NewPage is working on glossy papers, and Dennis Essary, NewPage director of digital papers, showed me some beautiful books printed on NewPage 80-lb. Gloss InkJet with the HP T300. Essary notes that this sheet is specially formulated for the HP T300 and is available on an inquiry basis, adding that NewPage will look at other weights and finishes as market demand increases. He also declined to comment on prices for these papers.

As noted, the two areas that are finding the most immediate traction are books and direct mail. For books, waste factors are high, logistics are expensive and returns remain a major factor. Digital solves these problems and, even though paper costs may be a bit higher, the economics remain favorable. Bradshaw notes that this is not about going into a bookstore or ordering online and getting a copy printed on the spot. Rather, these presses can efficiently produce medium-length runs, keeping the cost low, while slashing inventory and logistics costs.

For direct mail, the economics are equally compelling. John Busch, director of print services at the Direct Group, explains that it is much better to print 500,000 copies of personalized, targeted direct mail and get a response rate of 8 to 10 percent than to print a million copies and get a 2 percent return.

Busch explains that Direct Group profiles all of its papers. Most of its work is done on treated uncoated papers, which only cost a few percent more than untreated papers. For some applications, untreated uncoated papers are also satisfactory, according to Busch. For coated papers, Direct Group's best results have been on a Mitsubishi specially coated inkjet sheet that can cost twice as much as standard coated papers.

Kodak's Burns explains that some of the best results are obtained on expensive photographic inkjet papers, adding that the Kodak Prosper has interstation dryers that permit it to work well with a broader range of coated papers. Appleton Coated's Bradshaw agrees, pointing out that the HP T300 also has a drying unit that permits it to handle a broader range of coated papers.

For books, Courier Corp.—North America's third-largest book manufacturer—has installed an HP T300 press to expand its service offerings to include digital printing. And last year, Consolidated Graphics (CGX), one of North America's largest commercial printing companies, installed the HP T300 at its Denver-based Frederic Printing operation.

Not Just for Short Runs

Frederic Printing President Chris Greene advises that it was the second installation of an HP T300 in the world. He explains that the initial application is for short runs of textbooks, i.e., runs of 1 to 1,500. Although Frederic generally wouldn't run just one book, it might run a thousand, each different. But even for a run of a single book, the economics are potentially better than with earlier technologies.

Frederic is working directly with some mills (Appleton for 45-lb. matte and NewPage for 80-lb. gloss) to optimize the paper and print performance. Greene confirms that these are specially treated papers, but declined to comment on price. Other applications include maps, engineering drawings and saddlestitched books.

For now, there are only a handful of the new generation presses, but clearly, digital is no longer just about short run print-on-demand or desktop printing. As Table 1 shows, a single new generation press can consume three to five tons of paper per shift. Consultant Merilyn Dunn observes, "Nine installations of HP's T300, as of May 2010, use more than 33 tons of paper per shift. By comparison, the average paper use of these printers in one shift is more than 600 desktop inkjet printers use in a year!

"As this market expands, increased speed, various widths, differing core diameters and wide ranges of media weights will require a close collaboration between paper and press manufacturers, converters, paper merchants and printers to ensure that sufficient supply is available at reasonable prices," Dunn notes.

As the installed base grows, run lengths at the mills will lengthen and costs will come down, providing a stimulus to demand for digital printing for an increasing range of applications. Offset will still have a place in long-run, static printing and specialized work such as metallic inks, but digital will result in further erosion of offset printing.

Bradshaw summarizes the consensus view: "We believe it will be the breakthrough that changes the landscape." PI

About the Author
Jack Miller is founder and principal consultant at Market-Intell LLC, offering market intelligence in paper, print and packaging. Most recently, he was senior consultant, North America, with Pira International. Miller was also the former director of market intelligence with Domtar, among other positions. Contact jack.miller@market-intell.com.


 

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