When a technology is as new and groundbreaking as production inkjet printing, it can be tough to imagine its future. Technical innovations and market applications are coming at a fast pace, leaving printers uncertain about their next moves.
The more than 130 printers who attended the fifth annual Inkjet Summit in April left Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., with the bearings and insights they needed to gain a competitive advantage when they invest in production inkjet printing equipment. Most of the owners and senior managers at the invitation-only event have yet to take the plunge, but it’s safe to say that they returned to their businesses with fewer reasons for delaying the decision.
Organized by NAPCO Media (which publishes Printing Impressions and its sister title, In-plant Graphics), and nGage Events, the Inkjet Summit follows a very different business model from traditional industry trade shows and conferences. Top-level executives were flown to a five-star resort outside of Jacksonville, Fla., by Printing Impressions to learn about the business opportunities that high-speed inkjet can offer them and the steps needed for a successful implementation.
Production Inkjet: A ‘Truly Unstoppable’ Technology Poised for Rapid Growth
In his opening keynote, conference chair Marco Boer, VP of IT Strategies, said that although inkjet’s present share of total print volume is small, its piece will get bigger as printers realize how advantageous the process can be for producing the kinds of work their businesses depend on.
He cited NPES data showing a 73% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in page volume for continuous-feed inkjet from 2008 to 2016. Boer noted that this momentum would be sustained by printers now getting ready to join the ranks of existing production inkjet users.
“It’s a market that’s truly unstoppable at this point,” he said.
Boer identified three groups of inkjet adopters, each of which was represented at the Inkjet Summit:
- Those who own fleets of toner-based digital printing devices and want to replace some — or all — of them with faster, more versatile inkjet devices.
- Current users of production inkjet equipment who are looking to add capacity in the process.
- Offset printers on the cusp of a decision about committing to inkjet, but holding back because of concerns about cost, quality or the unfamiliarity of the technology.
He reiterated that production inkjet is still in an early phase and that dynamic growth rates and new business opportunities may take a little while longer to arrive. But by adopting inkjet, Boer assured the conferees, “you grow your business with efficiency gains and net new pages.”
Although entirely sponsored by vendors, the conference is not a series of sales pitches from a podium; instead it provides a chance to hear from industry analysts and experts about the size and scope of the market, where the opportunities lie, what to watch out for, as well as steps to take when integrating this rapidly growing technology into an existing operation.
Sessions included industry expert and keynote presentations, boardroom-style case study discussions and, most importantly, user panels featuring print providers who shared their candid assessments about their investments in high-speed inkjet printing, finishing and workflow software solutions.
The 37 participating sponsors — a sell-out — comprised the major manufacturers of cut-sheet and continuous-feed production inkjet presses; feeding, finishing and postpress equipment; leading inkjet paper/substrate and ink suppliers; and providers of workflow and personalization software.
Among them, Keynote-level sponsors this year were Canon Solutions America, HP, Ricoh and Xerox. Executives representing those four firms also participated in a keynote panel on the opening evening, which was moderated by Boer. Responding to questions from Boer, the executives talked about advances in inkjet technology and its role in multichannel communications.
Eric Wiesner, GM, HP PageWide Industrial, HP Inc., noted that the Internet has largely been a failure as an advertising medium because of its poor click-through rates. This creates opportunity for direct mail and other printed marketing materials, which continue to draw a strong response from consumers.
Printers can seize the opportunity with the help of production inkjet systems that are fast, high in print quality and versatile in terms of the media they can work with, Wiesner said. He counseled printers that when they get into digital inkjet printing, they are actually entering the data business — data management is the key to success in digital print workflows. He also advised them to be clear about the total costs of owning and operating production inkjet equipment.
We are seeing a resurgence of interest in print among consumers in general and millennials in particular, according to Mike Herold, director of global marketing, Inkjet Solutions, at Ricoh. He told the attendees that a key question for inkjet adopters who want to capitalize on it is, “What is your strategy independent of the technology?”
This means temporarily removing technology from the decision-making equation and concentrating on the culture of the business into which the inkjet press will be introduced. Only after intentions and objectives are clear should a choice of platforms be made. There is no advantage for inkjet systems manufacturers, Herold pointed out, in selling production inkjet presses to printing companies that are not ready to be successful with them.
Robert Stabler, senior VP and GM, Continuous Feed Business, Xerox, noted that his company’s commitment to inkjet goes back to early experiments with the technology at its PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) facility. Today, Xerox is focusing on making inkjet more accessible with entry-level platforms and solutions that help inkjet equipment to be better at running standard offset papers.
Stabler said that because there is no shortage of competition among press manufacturers in the inkjet space, printers have a plentiful selection of inkjet equipment to invest in. He predicted that the fast-turnaround production of books printed on inkjet presses will reduce the offshoring of book work by making it more cost-competitive to produce them domestically. He also foresees growth in inkjet-printed catalogs — thanks to the effectiveness of content printed variably for individual recipients based on past buying patterns and demographics.
What today’s print buyers expect from their print service providers, according to Eric Hawkinson, senior director of marketing, Production Print Solutions, Canon Solutions America, are “tactical, relevant marketing metrics” that demonstrate ROI for the print spend. He encouraged printers to “revolutionize” their business by embracing inkjet, which offers their customers precisely this kind of value.
But, Hawkinson urged adopters to be certain that they have enough volume to justify investing in high-capacity inkjet equipment. Another consideration, he said, is finding operators who are qualified to run these sophisticated devices.
Structured Format Perfect for Overall, Specific Application Considerations
The overarching content during the Inkjet Summit was divided into some general presentations that all print providers attended, but the group was also divided into smaller, special interest breakout sessions. The breakout sessions — where much of the real value lies — focused on four key areas of opportunity for production inkjet: publishing (including books, catalogs and magazines); direct mail/marketing; transactional work, such as bills and statements; and general commercial printing. New this year was a separate in-plant breakout track geared toward the unique requirements and cost justification processes faced by in-plant printing operations.
These breakout sessions comprised presentations on the state of the market and market opportunities within each given segment, as well as relevant inkjet user panels.
Breakout session inkjet user panels featured Doug Gasch, Gasch Printing, and Ken Shanovich, Liturgical Publications, for the publishing market segment; Martin Aalsma, Documation, and Peter Barzach, Data-Mail, for direct mail; Fred Van Alstyne, Content Critical Solutions, and Bruce Rashke, Great Lakes Educational Loan Services, for transactional; Steve Henck, OneTouchPoint, and Renee Koonmen, Japs-Olson, for general commercial; and Jason Fonner, HM Health Solutions, and an in-plant manager from a leading insurance company, for the in-plant segment.
Moderated by Barb Pellow, group director, InfoTrends, the direct mail user panel looked at how inkjet production has contributed to the success of mail-based promotional campaigns. At Data-Mail, said Barzach, inkjet is eclipsing electrophotography as the process of choice for direct mail. The company has cut its fleet of toner devices in half and is “not going to stop until we’ve moved most of our toner boxes to inkjet.”
Barzach added that, as a result of installing inkjet equipment, Data-Mail has landed jobs that it would not otherwise have been able to obtain. But, he stressed that embracing inkjet changes more than just the printing: its impact will be felt across the entire operation. Be careful about estimating, he advised, and be strict when it comes to linearizing stocks for optimal results on-press. The process is time-consuming, but essential, according to Barzach.
Formerly an in-plant, Documation is a commercial printing company that serves associations, the automotive segment and other customers with the help of two high-speed color inkjet web presses. Martin Aalsma, president and COO, advised paying as much attention to the finishing as to the printing, because postpress is where most of the value is added.
Aalsma was one of a number of speakers who urged printers to be certain of having enough volume to justify taking the inkjet plunge. He also recommended keeping a close eye on ink consumption. Inkjet ink is expensive, he said, and for that reason, jobs requiring heavy coverage may not be the right ones to run on inkjet equipment.
In a related presentation on best practices for direct mail/marketing, Pellow said that success was all about using data to make receiving printed communications a personal experience.
But, she noted that many marketing organizations can be “blind and deaf” when it comes to translating the data they have gathered into something useful. Printers must help, Pellow added, by becoming proficient in data management either by acquiring the capability themselves or by partnering with providers of data management services.
Data-driven direct mail is critical to driving consumers to the other channels that marketers want to leverage in their campaigns. When done correctly, she indicated, direct mail gets results: two-thirds of it is opened, and more than 80% of it is read for more than a minute. The more personalized a mail piece is, the likelier it is to be opened and read.
“Holistic” print service providers are those whose expertise in data management matches their skill in print production, according to Pellow. Their sales model focuses not on selling print, but on mining data to find new marketing opportunities that they can present to their customers.
Several general sessions also included inkjet adopters, as well as one for non-adopters. A user session moderated by Elizabeth Gooding, president of Insight Forums, addressed the common challenges and opportunities faced by printers using inkjet equipment within three diverse market segments: transaction, direct mail and general commercial printing.
Her panelists included Tim Cooper, enterprise architect at Harland Clarke; Jim Jackson, solutions architect at Quad/Graphics; and Kirk Schlecker, VP of operations at Heeter. Out of their discussion, three takeaways rose to the top as more print providers look to invest and implement new production inkjet workflows and devices within their businesses:
• Realize that technology alone won’t solve your problems. Harland Clarke first acquired inkjet devices in 2012 and five of its locations currently have high-speed production inkjet presses. In Cooper’s view, learning the technology is a very small part of the change that’s required to make inkjet, or any other technology for that matter, in a facility successful. He said shops need to address everything up and down the line — from creative to composition to understanding color itself — in addition to the technology pieces.
“You need to do your homework: not around just owning the technology component, but also all of the other components that are required to make that change successful,” Cooper advised.
• Educate your sales staff on how to have different conversations with clients. Quad/Graphics has been involved with inkjet for the past decade and currently operates both roll-fed and sheetfed inkjet devices across five of its facilities. Jackson pointed out that Quad/Graphics had been successful with only 10% utilization on the inkjet machines, but the company needed to figure out how it was going to fill up the other available time.
This posed a challenge to its sales organization. Jackson said that once the sales staff was able to successfully turn the conversation with their clients into “how can we help you achieve higher ROI?” or “how can we move your information more efficiently?” Quad/Graphics was able to build workflows and programs to fill its hungry inkjet machines.
• Rely on smart people to run the equipment. In 2015, Heeter invested in its first production inkjet press and is still learning how to transition work from its toner and offset presses. One of the things Schlecker has learned is that it’s all about the operator.
It’s up to our operators to really control the level of ink that is put down,” he said. “We’re responsible for paying for the ink, and the operator has to understand that. So it’s really [imperative] how well we can control the cost of the ink — the device is a fixed expense — and the paper.”
“We are fortunate that we’ve got some really strong offset folks who have transitioned over and understand the technology,” Schlecker said.
Inkjet Paper Performance, Selection Are Key Considerations
Paper and its impact on the performance of inkjet printing equipment were constant themes throughout the Inkjet Summit. In the general session titled “Performance Paper Buying,” Gooding asked veteran paper buyers Julie Nook (Merrill Corp.) and Nate Milliken (Epsilon) to talk about how they source paper and what they expect of the mills and the merchants that supply it to them.
“Not all inkjet papers run the same on all inkjet devices,” Gooding cautioned. “There is more variation in the color of the paper than there is in the inkjet process.” Acknowledging this, Nook and Milliken said the best way to maintain consistency is to standardize on a limited number of thoroughly tested house stocks and to run as many jobs as possible on these qualified papers.
They emphasized the importance of testing paper not just for how well it will print, but for how well it will stand up to the finishing techniques that will be applied to it. Each presented a checklist of steps (see sidebar) as a guide to sourcing paper and working with it. They also discussed the physical challenges of handling and storing paper: plant temperature and humidity levels, roll splice issues, problems with shafts and cores, and the hazards of improper roll stacking.
“Paper is a big deal” in inkjet production environments, Gooding commented.
As an independent consultant, Cathy Cartolano helps printers avoid mistakes in sourcing and using the papers they depend on. For most printers, she said, inkjet is unfamiliar territory where the norms of running offset papers don’t apply. In a general session on understanding and measuring the components of print quality, Cartolano recommended a three-stage testing methodology for minimizing difficulties with inkjet stocks:
• Pre-hardware purchase. Have the OEMs test-print samples on their approved stocks using your job files. Make clear how you expect the papers to perform both on-press and on finishing lines. Ask the OEMs for an approximate, but fully loaded cost per page, and compare print results from each. Remember that because testing at OEM sites will take place under ideal conditions, the results may be better than what can be accomplished in real-world production.
• Implementation. After the device is installed, budget sufficient time for paper testing in spite of pressure to get the press into full production. Evaluate all inkjet house stocks using the same test file. Profile and linearize each paper tested, track the results, and run the papers through relevant finishing equipment.
• Post-purchase. After six months to a year, use what you have learned about paper performance to fine-tune your testing routines. Do colors shift from side to side or print to print? Do they pop, wash out or show through? Do they match color from other devices, or from proofs? Are you seeing defects such as mottling, cockling and scuffing? And, what about drying? “You spend a lot of money running a press at half speed so that the paper can dry,” Cartolano said.
Other tips for testing and working with inkjet papers: first acclimatize the stocks, and never rush a test; inspect rolls for crushed cores and other kinds of damage; save mill labels; check for dust and other factors that might affect finishing; and don’t forget proper roll handling and transport.
Panel Perspective of Those Investigating, But Who Are Still Holding Back for Now
To offer a different perspective, a panel of non-adopters who were still in the decision-making and justification stages consisted of Paul Braverman, KP LLC; Jeff Davidson, Modern Litho; and Tom Dyson, Fry Direct division of Fry Communications. Among the various reasons they cited for holding off on an investment in inkjet equipment were the following:
- We are operating at 100%-plus capacity with our conventional production equipment and have even had to turn work away. Now is not the time to change platforms. We can outsource inkjet production if necessary.
- We don’t have the volume to support an inkjet press. We can’t economically justify switching our catalog and publication work to inkjet. Direct mail may be a different story. It is a tough decision.
- Inkjet quality is harder to get right than we anticipated. With inkjet, there is just as much work to do as there is with offset.
- There is also the challenge of having to rebuild our workflow and business model around inkjet production, especially with respect to finishing.
- We expect to be operating our offset presses for a long time to come, so we can’t just throw out our conventional finishing equipment. Neither can we afford to have dedicated finishing equipment for inkjet. Ideally, we’d need a hybrid solution that can handle both kinds of output.
- We see a lot of uncertainty about papers and ink. The question marks are availability and price, as well as performance.
- Total cost of ownership is at the top of the list of our concerns. We also need to be sure of accountability from all of the OEMs, including finishing equipment suppliers.
- It isn’t just about buying an inkjet press. We want to invest in a total solution that takes the workflow all the way from file acquisition to mailing.
During a series of boardroom-style case study meetings, equipment, paper and software vendors introduced customers who provided real-world examples of how inkjet technology has worked to meet end-customer needs within their businesses and then answered questions about how they have handled the integration.
These were not lightweight sessions, and some of the questions and answers got quite detailed and fostered additional one-on-one discussions elsewhere during the conference. The learning and peer-to-peer networking, during the program each day and at the social receptions and dinners held each night, were non-stop throughout the event.
As a result, much of what the printer attendees learned about production inkjet at the Inkjet Summit came from their peers: printers who have reinvented not just their production routines, but their entire business models by installing high-volume color inkjet presses.
These success stories, delivered in case-study workshops, panel discussions and one-on-one meetings with systems vendors during two-and-a-half days of intensive learning, confirmed production inkjet’s status as a transformative and disruptive technology — in the most encouraging sense of those words.
One such success story came from Robin Welch, chairman and group board director of GI Solutions Group, Britain’s seventh-largest printing business. Welch has been pushing the limits of what production inkjet can do since 1992, and today, his company relies on high-volume inkjet equipment to print and mail 500 million postal pieces per year — about 5% of all the addressed mail sent annually in the U.K. During his keynote address, he admitted that gaining mastery of the process came with some challenging and even “scary” moments.
“Getting customers to change their behavior is massive,” he said, alluding to the resistance some of his clients initially had to the idea of switching to inkjet. His most important takeaway for first-time production inkjet adopters was to be realistic about what to expect: “Double the time and half the revenue forecasts in your first 18 months!”
Above all, Welch advised, learn to sell outcomes for clients and to live and breathe ROI: the benefit that conveys inkjet’s value proposition most effectively. To sell ROI-producing outcomes, it’s necessary to get closer to what drives customers’ revenues and costs. Understanding their data is the key to making inkjet work for them, according to Welch.
‘Speed Dating’ 1:1 Sessions: Beneficial for Attendees and for the Vendor Sponsors
Three hours were also set aside each afternoon for attendees to meet with vendors individually, for 25 minutes at a time, to talk about the challenges they face and how they think inkjet might help them address those challenges. The vendors then explained how their equipment, software or consumables might be a fit for that operation.
Rotating from one vendor to another every 25 minutes in such a “speed dating format” provided attendees focused exposure to a variety of technologies in a compact time frame and paved the way to future, more detailed discussions, if suitable. For vendors, it not only generated solid leads, but helped them better understand the issues being experienced by many print providers to help guide their R&D efforts and future product offerings.
Although the Inkjet Summit has been shaping the inkjet narrative with increasing effect for the past five years, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the extent to which production inkjet has taken hold in the industry. Data presented at the event by Boer indicated that, by 2020, digital printing technologies of all kinds will still account for less than 5% of pages produced. Boer reckons the installed base of production inkjet presses in North America to be about 600 devices at 250 locations.
That’s a small base to build upon, but if the history of graphic communications technologies teaches anything, it’s that when an emerging solution truly improves upon those methods presently in use, movement toward it can be disconcertingly rapid.
A case in point is Liturgical Publications, which was highlighted in the user panel breakout session for the publishing market segment. For years, said Ken Shanovich, director of operations, the company printed Sunday church bulletins for about 4,100 congregations in a conventional production workflow that can only be described as frenetic: 28 million pages per week on 27 narrow web offset presses in four-color runs averaging 12 to 13 minutes each. This involved burning 23,000 polyester plates per month and throwing away vast quantities of paper in the endless makereadies.
Liturgical Publications built a $65 million business on this model and probably could have gone on in the same way — until it realized that there was an irresistible time- and cost-saving alternative in inkjet printing.
Today production is almost 100% digital, with five inkjet web presses shouldering most of the workload. At one plant, two of these presses have replaced the output of seven offset machines, with capacity to spare. A single operator can run two digital presses, eliminating the need for 16 offset positions, he said. The end-of-week production crunch has become more manageable, paper waste is down and print quality has improved, as well.
Speaking in the same panel session, an in-plant manager described how his company’s decision to consolidate its two in-plants led to the replacement of seven continuous-feed toner digital printers with two continuous-feed monochrome inkjet presses. The in-plant was able to continue using its existing finishing equipment, which was a major cost savings. Paper expenses also dropped between 4-10%.
The third panelist, Don McKenzie, is president and chief growth officer for a marketing agency called Innovairre, which helps nonprofits raise money. He discussed in detail the crucial role that data plays in creating relevant, targeted direct mail campaigns to potential donors. Inkjet printing has enabled the company to use that data more effectively.
Benefits of Personalization Outweigh Comparing Inkjet/Offset Quality
The biggest struggle, McKenzie admitted, was convincing clients to stop obsessing over the differences between offset and inkjet quality, and understand how inkjet allows them to target their communications better. Instead of sending all donors the same form, for example, with donation options of $10, $20 or $50, “the $50 donor should be communicated to differently,” he said, with options of $50, $100 and $150. Inkjet allows these targeted versions to be created easily.
Boer wrapped up the Inkjet Summit by thanking the sponsors who made it possible: “It takes an industry to make this happen,” he said.
He also reminded the attendees that although production inkjet is still in an early stage of overall industry adoption, no other printing technology has advanced as far in as short a period of time.
That spells opportunity for printers that are ready to adapt their production routines and business models to the new capabilities that inkjet will bring, according to Boer.
“Inkjet just runs,” he said, noting that the success stories told at the Inkjet Summit demonstrate that printers are making money with it. “The ROI of inkjet is extremely convincing.”
Production inkjet won’t make offset litho presses disappear (or digital toner boxes, either). But, if what was learned at the fifth Annual Inkjet Summit is a reliable guide, the technology may finally be ready for a very fast break from the gate. Our advice: stay interested, and stay tuned.
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