Production Inkjet Printing: Ready for Prime-Time for Commercial, Package Printers?
The current prevailing theory is that direct mail, books and transactional work are the holy trinity of the production inkjet digital printing church, and you won't get any arguments. Those three sectors have been transformed by production inkjet technology. But there are murmurs, rumblings of a fertile ground beyond the big three that will open the door for commercial printing, package printing and beyond.
Some observers believe that time is near, others are a bit more conservative in waving the production inkjet flag for commercial and packaging applications. But, unlike the onset of the digital printing revolution of the mid-1990s, when the market for such machines was undeveloped, this current trend toward continuous-feed and cutsheet inkjet press adoption is unmistakable. And, depending on your vantage point, production inkjet has yet to peak; were it a winter nor'easter, many would say the eye of the storm has not yet arrived.
The production inkjet movement in commercial printing may be closer than you think, notes InfoTrends Founder Charlie Pesko. He has heard from general commercial printers who have found applications outside of the book/direct mail/transactional range of items, while other areas such as newspapers and packaging have also reported some success.
The beauty of production inkjet in comparison to its toner-based digital printing cousin is that it operates at much higher speeds, notes Pesko. The upshot of this, though, is the resulting printed output in need of finishing. Setting up in-line or near-line tools—cutters, folders, stitchers, etc.—in a configuration that keeps operator intervention to a minimum, can enhance productivity and, thus, shorten turnaround time and yield the lowest operating costs, especially when compared to traditional offset printing.
"The feeding and finishing aspects cannot be overlooked," Pesko stresses.
The greatest change has come with the expansion of inkjet paper weights and sizes, according to Pesko, which has really enhanced the number of products and applications available in the production inkjet environment. This, coupled with more automated online or near-line output, is going to tremendously improve the print provider's return on investment.
"With the sheetfed products, they can start to handle the heavy weights and some of the packaging elements," Pesko adds. "We can start to seriously look at packaging applications that exist now. With the cutsheet ability, you're going to be able to run much heavier substrates and be able to start displacing some of the traditional products in the packaging area, as well."
As to how inkjet digital printing will impact the commercial printing marketplace, Jim Hamilton—who as group director for InfoTrends, is responsible for production consulting—feels that inkjet technology really stepped out into the spotlight during 2013. All the major worldwide shows—PRINT 13, FESPA, PrintPack India, China Print, Labelexpo, Pack Expo and SGIA—boasted a prominent inkjet flavor.
Beyond the World of Documents
"The range of jetted materials and substrates is staggering," Hamilton notes. "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."
Hamilton also points out that inkjet printing has made "huge inroads" in indoor and outdoor wide-format graphics, label printing and color document printing. He is especially excited about wide-format inkjet, which offers commercial printers the chance to capture more of the client's marketing budget with numerous applications and a range of different product capabilities.
On the package printing end, Hamilton sees potential in up-and-coming B2-format cutsheet inkjet solutions, though other technologies (such as liquid toner) could also challenge inkjet for high coverage work.
While there are challenges to consider on the road to widespread production inkjet adoption, a large percentage of capital imvestments during the last year to 18 months have centered around digital devices, and inkjet in particular. Noel Ward, managing director of Brimstone Hill Associates and newly named editor-in-chief of Package Printing magazine, feels there are a few measures that must be met in order to justify purchasing a high-speed inkjet system: Being able to fill at least 50 percent of the machine's monthly duty cycle on day one, paired with the ability to reach 75 percent capacity within six to nine months.
"Given the monthly nut attached to the investment a big inkjet press requires, the jobs have to be lined up ahead of time, ready to go or the press can become an enormous drag on cash flow," he says.
Uncertainty also plays a role in keeping some printers from taking the leap into production inkjet—concerns about areas such as image quality, operating costs, inkjet head replacements and paper, Ward remarks. These are valid issues that any printer should be asking about during the due diligence process. Ward makes the following observations:
- Image quality is at least adequate for most applications that will run on an inkjet press.
- Operating costs can vary widely. Rather than relying on vendors' claims, he recommends talking with other printers who have machines similar to the one you're considering in order to learn about true operating costs.
- The technology is generally solid, works well and is reliable. But, as with any press, thorough training and ongoing learning is required to get the best results.
- Head replacement is usually a top-of-mind concern, but in fact heads seem to be outlasting even vendor expectations. Again, tap other printers to get a real-world read on head life. And don't be afraid to see what kind of agreement can be crafted with the vendor. Heads aren't cheap, so you must have a clear understanding of costs and service requirements.
- Paper is abolutely critical with inkjet presses (more on that shortly). Testing is urgently required here.
But while the current print markets that are favorable to production inkjet press output represent a critical consideration in the "why to" decision making process, the bread-and-butter of production considerations, namely paper, ink, feeding and finishing, represent a lion's share of the questions that beginner entrants into the space are (or should be) asking. Many improvements in the inks and papers used, in fact, have driven the quality improvements and made it possible for production inkjet to make serious inroads into commercial work.
Mary Schilling, vice president of technical operations at Schilling InkJet Consulting, sees a number of paper-related issues that should be analyzed in the production inkjet arena. They include:
- Whiteness and brightness. Aqueous fluid dries by absorption, so the colorant, pigment or dye—whether using a coated or uncoated sheet—is entering the paper fibers and taking on the paper color. A whiter, brighter sheet is going to make the colors pop and look clean when the ink is introduced. A paper with a more yellow tint, then, will impact the inkjet colorant. On untreated paper it will become magnified, as there's nothing to keep the colorant on the surface.
- Paper porosity. Paper porosity is a concern in the offset process, but is a larger, critical factor in inkjet printing. Excess porosity in a sheet will cause the ink to dive down and through the paper, thus allowing the print to "show through" the paper.
- Paper weight. This correlates with the graphics being printed. When printing heavy coverage (30 percent and up for inkjet), a thin sheet is not going to accommodate as much ink. The ink will dive and the user will fail to garner the necessary build required for image and color quality.
"It boggles my mind that people invest $2 million to $6 million on a piece of high-speed aqueous inkjet equipment, and then choose the cheapest paper they can find," Schilling observes. "It's like using low-grade gasoline in a Lamborghini; you're not going to get the performance you're looking for. In aqueous inkjet, a poor, uncoated, opaque or offset paper will not provide the surface required for good image and color quality.
"That's why offset printers are still hesitant with aqueous inkjet. Traditional offset is accustomed to the paper costs and print quality that they currently have today. They wish to use the offset paper currently on of the floor in their shop. High-speed aqueous inkjet requires a paper designed for the inkjet fluid, which is a higher cost sheet than they currently use. Using regular offset paper does not produce the image quality needed to compete with offset. But it can be if they use the proper paper."
- Color profile. Schilling sees the most important factor being ink/fluid control. Use a thin paper with poor porosity, and the ink will dive in and saturate the paper. Then, when it's dried quickly, it will resemble "a sweater that came out of the dryer," riddled with paper cockle, show through and possibly some offsetting if the paper is not drying.
Among other considerations, Schilling sees the importance of designing the artwork to the type of ink and paper that's being used. Often times, she notes, the designer will develop a project without having any input into what type of paper is used. A modified paper profile may be necessary for jobs requiring higher coverage and large image areas and color blocks used for full bleeds.
"Designers need to fully understand the high-speed inkjet process, the impact of ink and paper, as well as how it is being finished before the creative process starts. If designers understand the process, they will be able to manipulate the elements to achieve the creative look required. The designers have to be involved in the whole process."
The world of color inks can be a daunting one for those printers whose experience in this area is scant, which can be especially true for transactional printers. Much of their experience is traced to continuous-feed, black-and-white toner machines. It can be an education for these printers to capitalize on the operational opportunities offered by inkjet color, notes Elizabeth Gooding, president of Gooding Communications Group.
"They have to become part of a color culture and that means not only understanding the technical and operational aspects of color—the color management, the color workflow, understanding the impact of paper—but also dealing with people other than those they've traditionally dealt with," Gooding says. "With transactional printing, they're mostly dealing with IT and data folks.
"You're going to start working with the creative world when working in a dynamic, full-color environment with marketing statement messaging in full-color. You'll need to give them parameters; they can't have real high TAC (total area coverage) on the page. They can't change paper stock each run. Designers who have been working on marketing brochures, etc., have to be welcomed to the world of transaction printing and educated accordingly."
Transactional color printing virgins definitely require hand-holding for the color indoctrination, Gooding says. Defining the workflow, testing papers and optimizing the environment requires a degree of hand-holding. While it won't take long to get operators up to speed once the press is up and running, setting the standards is critical.
Also, Gooding cautions, color management expertise with a Xerox iGen, for example, is not the same beast as an inkjet device. "It really is so different that it needs to be handled as its own species," she adds. "For an ongoing basis, the internal staff can definitely be trained to take it forward."
Among the primary tripping points for transactional (and other types of) printers using inkjet:
- Inexperienced color users need to understand ink/paper interaction.
- Understand the difference between other types of digital color and inkjet color.
- Pricing for inkjet. It's not just about cutting prices. Understand the value-adds that inkjet brings to the client, then price appropriately.
Similar to the transpromo space, the direct mail sector is still embarking upon an ongoing quest to better leverage data and craft content that is more relevant to the recipient of the piece, notes Marco Boer, vice president of I.T. Strategies, and conference chair of the 2014 Inkjet Summit (see sidebar on page 34). Much success is being realized in areas including retail-related accounts via customer loyalty cards and the finance industry with credit cards.
After a printer has expended $2 million on an inkjet press, the investments are only just the beginning, according to Boer. "You probably have to sink another million or two into setting up a good workflow/software system, to be able to harness that nicely relevant data," he says. "Then, you have to change the sales process; gain more trust from your customers because you're handling their most sensitive data. It's really a journey where all the players in the ecosystem, ranging from the printer vendor to the guy that supplies relevant data, have to become more trusting with each other and experiment on some things."
Production inkjet has fast become the book printing sector's best friend. The popular notion, a misconception, is that the printing of books is attritioning due to the emergence of e-books, when in reality the electronic tome only accounts for 20 percent to 30 percent of publisher revenue. It is the long-run offset jobs that are actually taking a beating. Many of the larger U.S. book printers have invested heavily in high-speed inkjet presses.
Self-publishing is a driver of the short-run market, fueled by the retiring baby boomer generation, Boer says. Their hard copy run lengths number in the 200 to 300 range, which is in the production inkjet wheelhouse. It has also spawned a small group of non-traditional book manufacturers addressing the short-run needs of self-publishers. Sheetfed inkjet is the prime candidate to take care of a print run of a scant few copies.
Volume is the name of the game, and I.T. Strategies' research indicates that five million pages per month is the tipping point for production inkjet justification. From the book perspective, filling capacity can be hit and miss for seasonal work like educational printing, which goes dry during the first quarter of the calendar year.
What about quality? Well, a coffee-table book may require offset printing but, on the whole, Boer notes there is a greater level of acceptance than we might have witnessed 10, 20 years ago.
"The delta between having the best in class and the average...that gap is really not as big as it used to be," he contends. "I'm not saying that the quality of printing will go down, but we don't need it to be at the highest levels that we've always assumed we had to be at, either." PI