Production Inkjet Printing Adoption Roadmap Revealed at 2017 Inkjet Summit
When a technology is as new and as groundbreaking as production inkjet printing, it can be tough to distinguish what we see as its present from what we imagine to be its future. Technical innovations and market applications are coming at a pace that leaves journalists, analysts and other pundits breathless — and printers uncertain about what their next move in the direction of the opportunity should be.
The more than 130 printers who spent a good part of this week attending the fifth annual Inkjet Summit in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., went home with answers that gave them the bearings they needed and, potentially, insights that will become competitive advantages when they make their own investments in production inkjet 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’ve returned to their companies with fewer reasons for delaying the decision.
This is because much of what they heard 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, user 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.
It’s a narrative that the Inkjet Summit has been shaping with increasing effect for the last five years but, even so, 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 conference chairman Marco Boer, of I.T. Strategies, indicated that by 2020, digital printing technologies of all kinds will still account for less than 5% of pages produced. I.T. Strategies 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 methods presently in use, movement toward it can be disconcertingly rapid.
A case in point is Liturgical Publications, in attendance at the Inkjet Summit and the subject of a case study and other mentions during the program. For years, 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 large 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 production 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. The end-of-week production crunch has become more manageable, paper waste is down and print quality has improved as well.
Stories like Liturgical’s bear out I.T. Strategies’ assertion of a 73% CAGR for continuous-feed inkjet pages from 2008 through last year. Printing Impressions' and In-plant Graphics' editorial team will report more case histories like it in our continuing coverage of the Inkjet Summit event.
We’ll also focus on key takeaways from the sessions: trends that represent planning considerations and action items for printing businesses ready to commit to production inkjet. Here are five of number of concepts to be explored in greater detail in our online and print channels:
- Master the data. Production inkjet presses run on it, and products printed on them have to deliver data to end-users in ways that assure ROI. This is why data management has become a “table stakes” capability for printers who want to succeed with the new process. It also explains why printers with inkjet presses are as eager to hire IT specialists as they are to find qualified press operators.
- Pay careful attention to the paper. It’s referred to as the “fifth color” of conventional printing, but paper is the first color of what takes place on an inkjet press because of the different and sometimes unpredictable ways in which it interacts with water-based inkjet inks. Despite what the OEMs or the mills may say, paper stocks don’t perform identically from press type to press type. Continuous linearization and testing of substrates is a must.
- Get over the cost of the ink. As “engineered” printing fluids, inkjet inks can’t be priced at par with traditional litho inks. Nor should they be. The cost justification is in their value-adding special properties and the highly cost-efficient form of production that printing with them makes possible. In this sense, inkjet ink is an investment, not a cash drain.
- Be prepared to overhaul your business model. As one speaker put it, in embracing production inkjet, “the press is the easy part.” Everything else changes to accommodate the new capability: workflow, internal processes, quality benchmarks, customer relationships and more. The model evolves into one of selling outcomes and ROI instead of price per piece: a shift in thinking that will take patience and determination to accomplish.
- Don’t fear obsolescence. Always high on the list of objections to adopting a new printing technology is the worry that a device purchased today will be uncompetitive with systems coming to market six months or a year from now. A production inkjet press takes that sticking point away by being upgradeable in place with new software and expanded inkjet head arrays. Boer said that the forward compatibility of production inkjet equipment makes it a “relatively risk free” investment in terms of its useful life.
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.