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High-Speed Inkjet Presses : Real-World Experiences

March 2012 By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
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The last several years have seen the North American introduction of the first generation of commercially viable, high-speed, full-color, rollfed and sheetfed inkjet presses. Now that some of these early adopters have had a chance to shake out the jitters, where do things stand? What drove these companies to jump in early and what has their experience been?

High-speed inkjet presses are available from GSS, HP, Kodak, Océ, Ricoh (InfoPrint), Screen, Xerox and Fuji (sheetfed). Even Agfa, which is known for its Dotrix inkjet for packaging, has jumped into the commercial market with its sheetfed Transcolor.

Priced in the $1 million to $2 million range, these presses can be a huge capital investment. But, the early adopters can be characterized a bit like cheetahs in the savannah. Most have specific applications or vertical markets that have prompted them to eye the presses for some time, waiting for the right time to leap. The need is so acute, in fact, that most have been prepared to work alongside their vendors to help them work out the bugs once the presses were live in the field.

Mercury: Maxing Out the Press

Mercury Print Productions, a diversified commercial printer in Rochester, NY, is among them. It has three facilities, 228 employees and a fleet of nearly two dozen toner presses, including Xerox iGen3s and iGen4s, HP 7200s and 3250s, and a Nuvera. It installed a 26˝ Kodak Prosper 5000XL in May/June 2011.

Volumes, price pressures and fierce competition in the educational marketplace made Mercury’s rapid investment in inkjet an absolute necessity. “We didn’t have any choice,” explains John Place, president and CEO of Mercury, which rolls out 50 million impressions per month during the peak season. “It wasn’t a matter of whether our competitors were getting into inkjet. It was a matter of when. Making the early investment was a game changer for us.”

Place describes an education market driven by the desire to move to zero inventory, and textbooks customized down to the district and classroom level. Currently, its average run length on the Prosper is 50 to 100 copies (although it regularly goes up to 1,500). Its facility is also producing one-offs for the photo book market.

Initially, Mercury Print Productions is using the press to focus on higher education because of the market’s lower ink coverage requirements, “but, as inkjet develops, we believe that inkjet will be going into the [more graphics-heavy] K-12 marketplace, as well,” Place says.

Mercury chose Kodak’s solution equally for its imaging technology and its proximity. In particular, its team liked the Stream continuous inkjet technology over the spray technology used by other systems. “The result is more of a natural image—closer to the look of an offset press,” he contends. “Kodak is also right here in town, which really helps when new technology is being rolled out.”

Place remains very upbeat and optimistic about Kodak in spite of its recent Chapter 11 filings. “We are very confident about Kodak’s future and are excited about its recent announcement that it considers high-speed commercial inkjet presses to be the core of its future business. Our relationship and partnership with Kodak continues to evolve and will continue to benefit both parties as we move forward.”

Currently, the Kodak Prosper is fed with Mercury’s eMerx XML/JDF-driven front-end workflow for work orders, job prep and imposition. During the peak season, Mercury handles hundreds of jobs simultaneously. It is not unusual to have 30 to 50 jobs on the same roll.

Although Mercury’s volume dictates that it focus the digital press on the educational marketplace, going forward that may change. “We are only just beginning to look into the other markets that we could enter,” says Place. “There are a lot of avenues, such as financial, which we’re not touching right now. Eventually, we will begin tapping into the full-variable capability of the press, but we have to be careful because we’ve already been maxing out its production capacity.”

Already, Mercury is looking to invest in a second inkjet press.

Mail Print: All About the Data

For Mail Print, located in Kansas City, MO, the choice was an HP T200 color inkjet web press installed in January. But, the company’s business model couldn’t be more different from Mercury’s.

Started by siblings Eric and Gina Danner, 90 percent of what the shop produces involves variable data, largely for clients in the gaming and entertainment industries, as well as retail, insurance and others.

Mail Print employs 60 staff members and runs four HP Indigos, three two-color offset presses, and two six- and five-color presses, along with a full suite of binding and mailing equipment. Traditionally, a large run has been 80,000 pieces, but Mail Print also has programs for which it produces one piece at a time, as well as anything in between.

For Mail Print, the purchase of the HP T200, fed by an HP SmartStream Ultra print server, was part of a planned expansion. “Every 18 to 24 months, we do a round of investments,” says Gina Danner, CEO of Mail Print (Eric Danner is president). “Our belief system is: If you aren’t growing, you’re dying.”

Mail Print adopted Indigo presses in 2001, so the move to the T200 was a natural one. “We looked at other equipment, but our relationship with HP has been so strong. The financial stability of the organization was also a key factor,” she adds.

Since the installation, HP’s technicians have been working alongside the shop’s press operators as the kinks in the workflow are being ironed out. “To be on the leading edge, you have to be flexible and understand that sometimes we’re still creating the solutions,” according to Danner. “The papers aren’t perfected and our bindery configuration still isn’t fully installed. It requires a certain amount of patience as you work through everything.”

The end result, she feels, is worth it. What the Mail Print execs were taking into consideration was “the time value of money,” along with the speed of production. “We have one job in our shop that we do every month that would take about 80 labor hours,” Gina Danner says.

“When we looked at inkjet web, it was down to about 15 hours. It is a multi-page, personalized book with both static and variable content. With the T200, we can produce the same book in a single pass through the press and another pass through the bindery line. It’s so much more efficient.”

The 20-1⁄2˝ press width also opens opportunities for new applications. Previously, Mail Print could not run the 8-1⁄2x14˝ format efficiently with its configuration. “Today, we can do 8-1⁄2x14˝ with ease and create more interesting configurations for our clients,” Danner concludes.

SourceLink: Making a Statement

For Chicago-based SourceLink, high-speed inkjet is firmly in the blood. The high-volume statement and transactional shop is already on its second Océ press installation.

“From the outset, we knew we needed multiple presses in order to have sufficient capacity and scheduling flexibility,” notes Pat O’Brien, vice president and chief marketing officer for SourceLink. “At the same time, we knew the ramp-up time wouldn’t be overnight. Fortunately, we were able to build demand quickly.”

Both O’Brien and Don McKenzie, SourceLink CEO, have worked with Océ machines in the past, so when they came on board with SourceLink in 2011, the selection of Océ as its high-speed inkjet partner was a natural fit. Both understood the technology and tremendous benefit inkjet affords their clients. They also had experience selling it.

In August 2011, SourceLink installed an Océ Jetstream 2200, a full-color, 1,000 fpm machine designed for longer production runs. In December, it installed a ColorStream 3500, which has a smaller footprint and runs at slower speeds, but is better suited for quick-turn, recurring projects with multiple makereadies that fill the void between cutsheet and continuous presses.

“The ColorStream 3500 is a true workhorse that gives us incredible flexibility and production output,” says O’Brien. “Having the ability to produce multiple projects on any given day gives our clients the ability to leverage their customers’ data much more effectively.”

This production flexibility is critical for SourceLink, whose business is geared around targeted direct mail, as well as statement and transactional work. Many of its jobs are complex programs that require managing hundreds of different mail cells. Now, instead of laser printing black-and-white onto pre-printed rolls, clients can streamline hundreds of variable offers into one production cell using full-color, variable inkjet technology.

“With our new production capabilities, we can handle a job of 5 million pieces that used to contain 160 cells, and all of that pre-printed stock goes away,” adds O’Brien. “All that variable copy that was traditionally black laser is now 100 percent personalized in color. Unique offers, images, signatures, logos and PURLs can be in highlight color. This can mean huge savings on pre-print, postage, and it allows us to mail a campaign in days instead of weeks.”

Another benefit of working with Océ is having two different presses geared toward different types of production runs. Although the JetStream 2200 is a dye-based machine and the ColorStream 3500 is pigment-based, the right front-end workflow enables SourceLink to match color targets precisely. “Many times we need to switch from one production environment to another, one paper to another, and our job is to make it seamless to our clients,” O’Brien reports. “It’s an interactive process, involving a great deal of testing of stocks and unique color targets.”

Gilson Graphics: Speed to Market

Gilson Graphics went a different route from many of its competitors. The Grand Rapids, MI-based operation installed a Fuji J Press 720, a high-speed, 20x29˝ sheetfed inkjet press. The press went into production in December.

Because of its focus on high-quality graphics, Gilson had been watching sheetfed technology for several years. Although rollfed inkjet devices had been available, the quality wasn’t sufficient for its demanding clients. “Rollfed devices are geared toward a different clientele than our typical commercial customer at Gilson,” explains Dave Oswald, vice president of operations. “We were convinced that inkjet was going to become a real player in the market. Fuji was the first viable press on the market.”

The J Press 720 was introduced at Graph Expo in 2010. The quality, Gilson Graphics felt, was superb. The press achieves resolutions of 1,200x1,200 dpi with four levels of grayscale, a specification Fuji claims is unobtainable from any other digital printing system. Its VersaDrop grayscale technology allows three different drop sizes to land in the same place on a substrate. This, along with Fuji’s SAMBA print heads (used for single-pass inkjet printing), allows the press to create high-quality graphics and to hit brand colors consistently.

Gilson Graphics installed the J Press in November 2011 and brought it into production one month later. The press uses Fuji’s XMF front end (built on JDF and the Adobe PDF print engine) and joined Gilson’s existing family of Indigo 5500 and 7500 digital presses, and manroland and Heidelberg offset presses.

Today, Gilson uses the 2,700 sph-rated press to fulfill demanding, short-run orders for large-volume kitting and fulfillment projects every day. The J Press has also opened new opportunities based on its 20x29˝ format, including the ability to produce short-run pocket folders and multi-page documents that were not practical on an offset press or that were too large for a typical digital press.

Despite the critical nature of its workflow, Gilson Graphics was realistic about the fact that the technology would require tweaking. “You need to have a good partnership if you are planning to go into something like this,” says Oswald. “It’s brand new. How do you predict what will happen on a day-to-day basis? Having the right partner to work with through the development is critical.” Gilson Graphics has found Fuji to be a great partner, providing technicians to support its own press operators at all times.

BR Printers: All About the Volume

BR Printers is another printer using inkjet to radically change its business model. It operates three locations—Windsor, NJ; Independence, KY; and San Jose, CA—focused on the book market.

Founded on the pure print-on-demand, digital-only model, BR Printers has never put ink on paper. It offers end-to-end services for books and, before the installation of its Ricoh InfoPrint 5000, relied on two Xerox iGen3s and 14 DocuTechs. During its slow season, BR has 70 full-time employees. During its peak season, when it is running about 20 million 81⁄2x11˝ impressions per month, BR’s staff grows to 120 employees.

The company’s decision to invest in the InfoPrint came when it took a serious look at new monochrome cutsheet devices based on its current spend rate. After some analysis, the printer came to the conclusion that, for a marginally larger amount of money, it could have full-color. The InfoPrint 5000 was installed in June 2011.

“Our customers were asking more and more for full-color so, when we did the numbers, it made sense to scale back on the monochrome and move the volume to the inkjet,” says Hugh Loveless, sales manager for BR Printers. “We shut down four of our DocuTechs, transferred that volume to the InfoPrint, and grew our color business at the same time.” The press prints at 722 fpm and has an effective resolution of 720 dpi.

BR Printers’ color volume, while small, has been growing steadily since the installation. “We started out at about 2 percent. Now we’re growing 8 percent and targeting 20 percent (color),” adds Loveless. “The publishers all have a big initiative to grow their custom content to make more viable instructor-specific documents. That is the fastest growing segment.”

Because of the relative maturity of the technology compared to some of Ricoh’s competitors, BR Printers hoped to be able to run “full bore” out of the gate. BR did have to make some adjustments based on retraining operators, especially to handle the paper. “Instead of handling reams, we’re now handling rolls,” he says. “We had to learn how to get the rolls off the truck, how to store them and how to move that paper.”

BR Printers also had to make some adjustments necessary to climatize the paper to minimize curl.

But the biggest slowdown was getting its pre- and post-press equipment up to speed. “When we first installed the press, it was the very beginning of our busy season,” recalls Loveless. “We were running it as fast as we could and getting the jobs out of the door.”

BR Printers also needed to learn the limitations, particularly in terms of substrates and imaging technology. “Visually, imaging is just different than it is on a Xerox device,” he concludes. “Depending on what is being depicted, images using a finer grayscale will look better on a cutsheet device, where line art photos look better on the inkjet device. Clients have to look and see and test it.”

Entering the Age of Inkjet

The number of installations of these full-color inkjet presses is mounting. While the early adopters are hitting a few bumps, their investments are being driven by specific, well-defined market or workflow needs that make the investment a strategic one worth a few bumps and bruises along the way.

Previously sheetfed-only shops, in particular, are on a learning curve related to substrates, especially handling rolls rather than reams of paper, issues related to climatizing (due to the higher liquid content of inkjet inks), and getting pre- and post-press operations up to speed. All are facing unknowns related to high-speed, full-color inkjet heads and other technologies under the pressures of full commercial production.

As one press owner stated, “These presses have been running great in a test environment. What will happen when they’re running at 2,000 fpm on the shop floor?”

Certainly, the bumps and bruises felt by these early adopters benefit those who will follow in their stead. But these early adopters do get one significant benefit for the cost of blazing the trail—early market penetration and the development of relationships which they hope will hedge them against the competition that is soon to follow. PI



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