Just Comparing Inkjet to Offset or Toner Is Missing the (Key) Point!
I have been submerged in the commercialization of inkjet print production technology since its very beginning (around 2006/2007) when inkjet quality was initially labeled as “good enough” for transactional printing. Fast forward to today and inkjet printing has evolved to be at least as good as lithographic offset quality. Some market segments have fully embraced inkjet technology while others are still reluctant or unsure. Inkjet web presses have seen a much faster adoption rate than sheetfed inkjet presses. Why is that?
Inkjet Web Presses
Inkjet web presses quickly found a fertile ground with transaction printers when initially the substantial productivity gains (printing on blank paper rolls vs. printing on preprinted shells, the so called “white paper factory” solution) outweighed the demand for high quality. Océ (now Canon), Ricoh, HP, Screen, and Xerox started to replace the vast installed base of continuous-feed B&W toner printers which, until then, dominated this space. With quality steadily improving over the years and the range of inkjet printable substrates expanding, inkjet web presses gradually found their way into the direct marketing and book printing segments as well. Productivity gains were the driving factor behind the adoption process of inkjet web presses.
Inkjet Sheetfed Presses
The adoption rate of inkjet sheetfed presses did not follow the same pattern, although I consider its potential multiple times that of inkjet web presses. Why the slower uptake? The major reason lies in the maze of multiple variables and options one needs to consider before deciding on a sheetfed inkjet press. In contrast, inkjet web presses have a lot fewer variables and options to consider. If you wanted to take advantage of the substantial “white paper factory” productivity gains, inkjet web presses were the way to go. There were no alternatives. Not so with inkjet sheetfed presses.
The due diligence process for the acquisition of an inkjet sheetfed press is a more complex, two-dimensional process. Most of us manage to work through the first dimension: the technical comparison of the inkjet sheetfed press to a lithographic offset press or to a digital toner printer. And for some that might be enough to correctly validate their “go / no-go” decision. For others however, it might turn into inadvertently neglecting the evaluation of the second, much more important dimension: the business strategic value to their enterprise and hence missing the key point. Let us explore these two dimensions.
The First Dimension: The Technical Comparison
This is clearly the more obvious dimension where one can really compare “features and benefits”, “speeds and feeds” and “dollars and cents." There are two viewpoints to compare an inkjet sheetfed press: one is comparing it to a lithographic offset press, the other one is comparing it to a toner printer. The fact that most commercial printers have both, makes it that much more difficult to make a clear-cut case. When comparing a sheetfed inkjet press to an offset press, here are the most common comments: "the quality is great but compared to offset the ink is way too expensive," "when are they coming out with a 40-inch press?", "I will wait until the next, faster generation, this is too slow" … and so the commercial printer kicks the inkjet-decision can down the road.
On the other hand, when comparing the inkjet sheetfed press to a toner printer the most common comments are: "It doesn’t work with drawers", "only CMYK? no fifth or sixth color?", "I have a fixed click charge, regardless of coverage", etc. Add to this that the cutsheet toner printers are ubiquitous and it is easy to understand how one might feel more comfortable with toner printers and forego engaging with inkjet technology. These are obviously all valid points, but they might be obscuring the more important second dimension of the evaluation process.
The Second Dimension: The Business Strategic Value
The second dimension of the evaluation process is the real differentiator: the business strategic value of such a decision to your enterprise. The printing industry does not operate in a vacuum; it is part of the broader communications universe. The internet has created multiple, faster communication means to reach targeted audiences which has turned parts of the printing industry upside down. These alternative digital communication means are having a dramatic negative impact on the demand for time-sensitive, long-run printing jobs (newspapers are quasi gone, magazines volumes are decreasing and so are collateral materials, etc.).
To compete in this communications universe printed products need to have relevancy, which in turn dictates shorter run lengths (targeted, variable, personalized, versioning) and faster turnaround times (campaign periods are shorter and occur more often). Once you have made the decision to embrace this reality and made it a key point of your business strategy, then you are ready to circle back to your first dimension, with one caveat: focus on productivity!
Once you have made that strategic decision that short-run/fast-turnaround jobs, combined with personalization, versioning and variable imaging capabilities, will be part of your product portfolio, you now have to consider which digital technology to embrace. Your assessment might differ if you approach it from a lithographic offset angle or from a toner angle. Here are some of the criteria to consider:
Understand uptime. Inkjet technology is a far “simpler” process (jetting ink directly onto a substrate) than toner (imaging on a belt/roller and then transfer onto a substrate) which requires higher maintenance on a lot more moving parts. Differences can vary from 90-95% uptime for inkjet to a max. of 60-70% uptime for toner. And note that uptime, the time the press is producing, is different from rated speed. Inkjet presses are real “workhorses”, built on solid offset frames (for example: Fujifilm’s JPress 750S is built on a Ryobi offset frame).
2. Size and Substrate
It is equally critical to define the “real estate”, or printable area of the maximum sheet you can print on. Translate that maximum size into the common denominator of 8½x11˝ n-up. Toner-based printers handle up to 4-up. The higher end inkjet presses handle up to 6-up. Big difference.
Inkjet lets you use your regular coated and uncoated offset stock, eliminating having to buy more expensive treated papers.
Take into account the combination of uptime with n-up to calculate your real productivity, which is obviously essential in your ROI calculations. It will also give you a good indication of output per shift. It is fair to state that a B+ inkjet press (23x29½˝) has twice the high-quality print output capacity compared to a similarly priced B toner press (20.8x29½˝). Just to put that somewhat into perspective, the Fujifilm JPress 750S, which I am most familiar with, can surpass a monthly (22 working days) output of 3.4 million 8½x11˝ impressions in High-Quality mode, with a single 8-hr. shift per day. In High-Speed mode that output reaches approx. 5 million impressions per month in a one 8-hr. shift per day. Interesting to note, too, is that the amount of ink coverage does not impact the speed of the inkjet press, keeping productivity constant.
That ship (argument) has sailed. “Good-enough” quality is a distant memory. Inkjet reaches 90% of the Pantone library with a Delta E of 2 or less, using only CMYK. The simplicity of the technology eliminates banding, unevenness, or gradual quality degradation, etc. Inkjet head technology has evolved to the point where “white lines” throughout an image are no longer occurring. In the case of the JPress 750 the machine learning capabilities constantly scan and adjust nozzle output, eliminating white lines. This inkjet technology simplicity also ensures consistency within a sheet, within a job, from job to job, time and again.
5. Ease of use
The high level of the inkjet press' self-maintenance functionality substantially reduces operator interventions and limits it to just loading the paper, call up the job, and take off the printed sheets at the other end, and if required adding ink on-the-fly. Built for production.
Inkjet Sheetfed Press ROI Considerations
Clearly, productivity defined as rated speed times uptime times number of shifts times working days in the month, will give you your monthly output. Selling price of all output minus all related costs will give you the ROI on the press. However, there are other inherent savings in this inkjet equation. One such savings involves the transfer of short run jobs from the offset press to the inkjet press (saving plate imaging, plate processing, plates, plate loading, makeready and paper waste).
Calculate for example the total savings for 5 short-run, 4-color jobs per day from offset press to a digital inkjet press. Compare not only the avoided costs as indicated above (plates etc.) but also measure the freed-up time on your offset press, which you now can allocate to produce more profitable longer runs, a double win. The other savings involves the ability to take on more short-run jobs from clients, which in the past you might not have been able to run profitably or which you had to outsource.
The Graphic arts industry has proven once again its ability to adapt to accelerating changes in both technology and market conditions. The key point is that the acquisition of an inkjet sheetfed press is a critical strategic business decision. It broadens the printer's profitable product offerings and creates a competitive advantage in the ever-evolving communications landscape.
Alec G. Couckuyt is an experienced graphic arts business executive. With assignments in Belgium, Canada, Germany, and the USA, he led several successful turnarounds, transforming underperforming organizations into market leaders. During his 25+ years as a hands-on operational executive with Agfa, Transcontinental, Océ (now Canon) and more recently Fujifilm, he understands how to selectively leverage leading technologies to strengthen an organization’s core competencies, creating competitive advantages. Alec holds a BASc, Economics from the University of Antwerp. He can be reached at email@example.com