The Paper Chase: Finding More Good Substrate Options for Your Inkjet Presses
Printing technologies mature in a good way when they outgrow their finicky special needs. Offset presses used to bedevil operators with their unstable ink-water balances. The wild card for digital toner presses was controlling the heat of fusing. In the early days of production inkjet printing, the head-scratcher was getting the droplets to behave properly on the surface of the substrate — a difficulty that initially held adoption of the process back.
Those obstacles have mostly vanished, and in inkjet’s case, the greatly improved compatibility with paper has moved the technology well into the mainstream of print production. Printers running late-model inkjet devices find that, for the most part, they no longer have to use the specially pre-treated papers to which first-generation inkjet presses were limited. House stocks, including offset grades, work fine, saving printers money and letting them and their customers continue to play by familiar rules of paper specification.
Some new inkjet equipment eliminates the need for pre-treated papers with the help of in-line dispensing units that apply conditioning fluids to the substrate before the laydown of the ink. The fluids control ink absorption on uncoated stocks, and provide adhesion and holdout when coated stocks are being used. The technique accomplishes the same thing as pre-treatment at a mill, but on whatever existing paper the shop wants to run.
A Stock Answer
The result is an advance for the inkjet process and the printing businesses that have adopted it. This is what Laura d’All, VP and GM of Copy General in Sterling, Va., has been after with the Canon VarioPrint i300 that her shop operated for four years, and the VarioPrint iX that replaced it this February.
“We don’t use treated inkjet paper; we just use regular paper,” she says. “That was a goal of mine — rather than having to utilize the treated stock, we wanted to be able to use the same stocks for that device as we did for every other device in the plant.”
d’All achieved it on both of Copy General’s sheetfed inkjet presses, which use a Canon ink-optimizing technology called ColorGrip. She says that in terms of print quality, the VarioPrint i300 “was a phenomenal machine.” And its 1,200 dpi successor, the VarioPrint iX, “is just taking it to the next level,” according to d’All.
Another Canon customer, Dean Hart, president of MWI Direct, in Lincoln, Neb., says that not having to run pre-treated papers is “a pretty big deal, because inkjet treated stock can be expensive and hard to get.” His Canon device is a continuous-feed ProStream 1800, an in-place upgrade of an earlier ProStream 1000 press, with a 66% gain in running speed.
At American Litho, in Carol Stream, Ill., production inkjet takes the form of a newly installed HP PageWide Web Press T250 HD and an HP PageWide T240 HD upgraded to T250 capability. Thanks to the way they’re engineered, notes Frank Arostegui, executive VP of sales, neither press needs paper prepped for inkjet at the mill.
“Based on the capabilities of the T250 with the Brilliant Inks, that wouldn’t apply to us,” he says, referring to an HP ink formulation that can print directly on coated and uncoated media without an additional step. A head running in-line with the T250’s printing units optimizes contact between the ink and the substrate. On the T240, a built-in unit puts down a primer for coated stocks and a bonding agent for uncoated grades.
Any and Every Grade With LED-UV
Another way to make inkjet broadly compatible with commonly used papers is to print with UV-curable inks, as the Konica Minolta AccurioJet KM-1 sheetfed inkjet press is designed to do. GHP Media, of West Haven, Conn., installed one of the LED-UV devices in 2019 specifically because “you can run any paper on it,” according to John Vesia, VP of operations. He says that includes house stocks, customers’ special requests, and “every offset sheet that comes out.”
Nevertheless, inkjet hasn’t left its need for pre-treated papers entirely behind. Even with Yurchak Printing’s cross-section of inkjet presses — a Ricoh Pro VC60000, a Konica Minolta AccurioJet KM-1, and a monochrome Ricoh InfoPrint 5000 MP — the Landisville, Pa.-based book and commercial printer still has to rely on pre-
treated papers at the mill for lighter weights, says Randy Boyer, VP of business development.
At basis weights of 40 lbs. and lighter, he explains, “they must be treated, simply because of the way the ink is sprayed onto the sheet. With the lighter-weight substrates, if there’s no coating, it’s see-through. If it’s not treated, you’d be reading both sides of the sheet on each and every page.”
Lightweight papers must be pre-treated for inkjet, “or we would not stand a chance that we would produce anything of quality,” Boyer emphasizes.
The inkjet press OEMs have made selection easier by compiling long lists of papers certified to run on their equipment. d’All points out, for example, that Canon endorses more than 250 sheets for use with Copy General’s VarioPrint iX. But she and every other printer quoted here still stress the need for in-house testing to get the right match of paper to job requirements.
This can be done in partnership with the OEM, notes d’All. “We went through all of our stocks in-house, and we were able to work with Boca (Canon Solutions America’s headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla.) on the various settings on the machine for the speed and the temperature, and the percentage of ColorGrip to put on the sheets. A customer would send their stocks to Boca, and they would certify the stocks and provide the profile to be used for the [VarioPrint] iX.”
Key Metric: Ink Yield
Hart also works with the ICC profiles Canon provides for papers running in combination with its printers. But when it comes to selecting papers for specific jobs, he says “the majority of it is paper that we are going to qualify here.” MWI Direct does that by running multiple stocks of the same weight grade to identify which ones demonstrate the best ink yield (the number of impressions a given quantity of ink will produce).
“What you look for when qualifying paper is to maximize your ink efficiency,” he explains. “A sheet that has a tighter surface uses less ink than another one that’s more of a buff or a toothy surface that increases your ink consumption. We try to qualify at least two stocks on most of our grades,” Hart points out.
If that involves playing a bit fast and loose with an OEM’s parameters, so be it. “Obviously, we take the advice of Ricoh or Konica Minolta,” when it comes to qualifying papers, says Jason Yurchak, VP of operations at Yurchak Printing. “But sometimes, some merchants don’t carry it or it’s not readily available. So, we’ve got to [be flexible] to save as much as we can from a cost standpoint.
“We explore different opportunities with their guidance,” Yurchak continues. “We do our own testing in-house. We qualify a paper, and we try and push the envelope a little bit. We say, ‘Hey, you can only run the 50-lb.,’ and we try to push it to 40-lb.” But, the pushing is done methodically. According to Yurchak, testing rolls of paper on its Ricoh Pro VC60000 continuous-feed press at different speeds and dot gain percentages can take up to four hours to complete. “It’s a pretty extensive process,” he observes.
As they always do, customers’ likes and dislikes carry a good deal of weight in inkjet stock selection. At American Litho, Arostegui says, “we’re going through that now with a large financial organization. They have a preference for offset stocks, so we’re testing three different stocks with their new branding colors and design. Then we’ll make recommendations and suggestions that we feel will meet the need and the requirement.”
Hold the Gloss, Thanks
“It really comes down to the marketer,” Arostegui continues. The marketer representing the financial organization was clear about what wouldn’t suit the customer’s fiscally conservative public image. High quality was expected, “but at the same time, he wants a piece based on this industry — a piece that doesn’t look like they put a lot of money into it.” That meant the stock couldn’t be glossy, “like a retail piece you might see,” Arostegui says.
Over time, the more latitude inkjet press adopters got with respect to stock selection, the less beholden they were to the high prices they once had to pay for the small assortment of specialty papers known to run on their equipment. Today, they have many more options, but no one is taking supply or pricing for granted.
With one exception, the printers cited in this story buy their inkjet papers from at least two different sources to be certain of obtaining the quantities they need. What this means in practice, with inkjet papers subject to the same market forces as other grades, is that availability can be tricky to predict.
“If we run seven or eight different papers, I can probably get five of them readily,” says Yurchak. “Three or four always seem to be somewhat of a problem. When we order it, they change the dates on us a little bit. It pushes out a little further on us; it does get a little stressful.”
Yurchak ascribes the uncertainty to the mills’ habit of waiting to accumulate a certain volume of orders before starting up the papermaking machines. But the bigger issue, according to Hart, is the fact “the paper mills have taken so many tons of what I would call printing papers out of production.”
This has happened because mills have closed, and because some of those that remain open have shifted to manufacturing packaging substrates and other non-print grades. The result over the last four to five months, observes Hart, is that “the market has definitely tightened, to where I would say lead times have gotten longer. Certain stocks have increased minimum buys from the mill. Before it was a buy of 10,000 pounds. Now it’s 20,000 and, in some cases, truckload quantities.”
The New One-Two Punch of Price Increases
Hart notes that volatility in pulp prices and rising transportation costs are other factors behind announcements of across-the-board paper price increases in both February and March of this year, equivalent to “a 12% to 16% swing in 30 days.” That’s unprecedented in his experience: “I’ve been involved in buying paper for maybe 35 years, and I can’t recall two increases in a month,” he says.
Other printers have been feeling the same squeeze, including Vesia, who says his company has seen increases ranging from 4% to 10% in all grades since March because of dwindling supply. (“COVID didn’t help, either,” he comments.)
At Yurchak Printing, the price rise has amounted to an additional $3 to $4 per hundredweight, according to Yurchak.
Printers can’t control what inkjet papers cost, but they can align papers with the inkjet printing process in ways that help them get the best return on what they have to spend. As d’All observes, “it’s always best to test, to select the best sheet for the application and the coverage. Nine times out of 10, if the machine isn’t producing superb quality, it’s because of the sheets.”
“Initially, we did go through a lot of trial and error,” she acknowledges. “But now, it’s really just a case of we can look at ink coverage on something, and know which sheet will be best on it.”
“The better the paper, the better the result,” concurs Boyer, who urges inkjet printers to “find something that is within your sweet spot:” a consistent and stable paper the shop can run without issues every day. He also counsels those operating roll-fed presses to avoid brands whose rolls contain internal splices, which he says can damage delicate inkjet heads as they pass through the tight spaces underneath them.
This kind of awareness on the part of printers is what underlines the growing harmony between production inkjet presses and the papers they print, whether the papers are specific to the process or not.
“The only thing I probably didn’t fully grasp at the beginning was how important qualifying and running the right stocks are,” Hart recalls. “I can line up four 80-lb. gloss stocks, and the qualifications for each one of them would be dramatically different. I didn’t expect to see that big of a range, but there it was. So getting the right stock for that press and that application is pretty important.”