Wider, Faster, Better...HP Rolls Out New Inkjet Domination Tool
I was leading a breakout session at a conference a few years back, talking about ways to improve throughput on digital presses. I asked which was more valuable—speed or print width. The participants, who were print business owners, nearly all agreed that wide is more important as more multi-up is a good thing.
Equipment vendors are quick to agree, but rush to point out the technical and manufacturing limitations of making electrophotographic (EP) print engines wider, and how there is ultimately a real limit to how fast toner can be stuck to a page. As it happens, we’re hitting those limits in both cut sheet and continuous feed devices which is why the fastest EP presses are now giving up ground to inkjet systems that offer not only speed and full color, but do so at a lower cost per page.
At O’Neil Data Systems (ODS) in Los Angeles this week, HP rolled out the T400, the newest member of its growing family of high-speed inkjet presses. With a 42" print width and 600 fpm throughput, it delivers width, speed, MICR capability and a generous helping of print quality that targets the needs of numerous transactional, direct mail and publishing apps.
The big machine is ensconced in what ODS staffers call “the HP building,” a substantial structure also containing a T200, T350 (an upgraded T300) and the blade-filled server room that provides these and other presses at the site with full-color, often variable content as fast as the presses can print. The T400 stretches over 80 feet from unwinder to rewinder and runs with a steady whirring hum as paper streams through it at almost 7 mph, devouring a 50" web of paper in about 45 minutes. [There is another HP web, a T300 model, in the main plant on the property.]
So this is cool, I’m thinking, but why 42" and what does that mean? What does this prodigious width—40 percent wider than HP’s own T300 and T350 machines or the widest offerings from its competitors, and twice the width of most other inkjet and EP systems on the market—mean in terms of productivity?
The 42" width equals 10 of HP’s 4.25" print heads per print bar, opening up a lot of real estate for high-volume print runs such as book publishing, one of the prime markets HP sees for its inkjet technology. A 42" web, for example, can spew out 5,000 6x9" book blocks per hour. It can print all the pages of two different titles simultaneously, dramatically shortening production times. Publishers (and the printers they contract with) see this as a huge advantage in terms of productivity. It also equates to 5,200 full-color letter-size pages per minute.
Still, it’s really wide. So one of first things I thought of was finishing. It turns out that it’s really a non-issue because typical T-series customers have offline finishing or bindery operations. Moreover, there is a fairly wide range of offline finishing systems from HP partners—such as CMC, MBO, Muller Martini and others—that can accommodate 21" rolls, which is what you have when a 42" roll is slit at the rewinder. Mount the printed roll on one of the systems from these companies, set up the job and hit the start button. A few minutes later books, booklets and other materials are coming out the other end. So those two book titles that were printed at the same time can go to two separate bindery lines, accelerating overall throughput.
Or, in the case of an innovative system from Italian finishing company CMC, a printed roll can be turned into a fully personalized self-mailer ready to enter the mailstream.
O’Neil on the technology curve
O’Neil Data Systems publishes a wide range of financial information as well as a host of member support materials for health insurers and other organizations. Jim Lucanish, president, sees the new machines as almost tailor-made for the volume of print the company sees. A few years ago, as he tells it, this work was done on a farm of 34 cut-sheet EP printers. They gave way to continuous-feed EP systems, which still had trouble keeping up with the burgeoning demand for printed pages from ODS’ customers. Enter inkjet.
Lucanish is a visionary who sees ink jet technology as the key to his company’s future success and growth. His vision has led to a unique partnership with HP in which O’Neil works with HP on the development of inkjet presses. This gives HP day-to-day, real-world experience with live jobs on the T-series machines while giving ODS an advantage in the market with better access to emerging technologies.
Something over two years into the relationship, Lucanish sees a day when inkjet will be how most documents his company produces are printed. In fact, the company is opening a new, entirely digital facility in Plano, TX. The flagship presses there will be HP T400s to meet the high-volume demands of ODS’ customers.
This relationship has given both HP and O’Neil deep experience with the technology. One of the big questions with high-speed inkjet performance is print head life. Even HP admits having some uncertainty about how well its thermal heads would hold up in the production environment of real jobs, SLAs and narrow print windows.
It turns out, the heads do just fine. Of the 140 heads on the first T300 press installed at ODS in mid-2009, half the heads were still working a year later. Eighteen months out, 44 heads were still going and now—some two years out—41 of the original heads are still firing. In practical terms, according to ODS press operators, it works out to about one head being replaced each day in O’Neil’s three-shift operation. Replacement takes less than five minutes and the head is automatically calibrated to ensure proper alignment. Heads it seems, have turned out to be a non-issue.
I’ve been looking at all the vendors’ inkjet print samples fairly often over the past few years. Some keep getting better, others seem to have hit a wall. HP is among the ones that keep getting better. There’s no doubt that squirting water-based ink onto an absorbent surface presents all kinds of challenges. “Spraying water onto a sponge,” is how some at HP describe the process.
HP uses a “bonding agent” that is applied to wherever ink will hit the page, a process that limits the effects of dot gain as ink droplets spread on the paper surface. According to ODS, the bonding agent lets it use regular offset papers on the inkjet presses, which helps control print costs and simplifies inventory supply management. Some pre-treated papers are also available for T-series presses, including coated stocks that are in regular use by textbook publishers.
Image quality on the T-series presses is not offset or photo quality, but there’s still not much to complain about. Text is sufficiently sharp, photos generally look good and illustrations seem fine. Comparing offset and inkjet versions of a textbook or cookbook printed on a T-series press show differences, but as a practical matter they don’t seem to be of significance for the present mix of applications.
It’s a matter of the quality being acceptable or “good enough.” HP has enough experience printing images and text to figure out how to do that and the T-series does fine. And somehow it will probably keep improving. There’s demand, money to be made, other players with their own toys, and drupa is just 15 months away, so the bar will keep getting higher.
To see the T400 in action and view highlights from the event, check out this video featuring commentary by Jim Hamilton, group director at InfoTrends, on his trip to O’Neil Data Systems for the inkjet press introduction.