Ready for Prime Time?: A Primer on Inkjet Presses

If you believe the hopeful hype of equipment vendors and the prognostications of pundits, you might be inclined to think that high-speed inkjet presses are poised to irrevocably transform the printing industry and hasten most offset and digital presses to their next life as boat anchors. Hopefully, though, you’ve done a reality check and recognize that high-speed inkjet is simply the latest in a long stream of technological innovation in print.

But, there is no question that the inkjet technologies being offered or demonstrated by HP, Kodak, Océ, Ricoh/InfoPrint, Fujifilm, Screen and Xerox will reshape the printing industry. Just like toner before it, spraying liquid ink onto a page is a disruptive technology. The disruption begins with speed.

While still relatively slow compared to many offset presses, the fastest inkjet systems run as fast as 650 fpm and offer print widths up to 30˝, far faster than any toner-based systems. These interlopers are clearly intended to encroach on the turf of half-web presses that produce a range of commercial print jobs. But, can they deliver on the promises being made?

That’s hard to say, because the answer depends on the application and how well some obstacles can be overcome. It also depends on how customers can adapt to the new business models that the presses enable. If direct marketers and publishers, for example, see high-speed inkjet presses as new ways to stretch their dollars and get a better ROI, then inkjet will begin taking share from offset systems. The jury will be out for a while on this, so let’s look at the technologies involved and how they fit.

The key point to remember is that even the slowest systems require minimum monthly volumes of at least 10 million impressions before the economics begin to work, so they are not for everybody. And, with one or two exceptions, there are no cutsheet production inkjet systems available. Such devices are about a system generation away from commercial availability—some two to three years from now.

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