Flexibility. Agility. Power.
In the second in a series of articles we are publishing in the run-up to drupa 2016, Sean Smyth examines the impact inkjet technology is having on commercial printing; what its applications are; and what the printing community can expect to see when it converges on Düsseldorf for drupa 2016.
Parents know this refrain well – “Are we there yet?” – just as they know the answer – “In a little while.” I spend my working life with printing technology and have heard this for many years. In the case of inkjet, this is a recurring theme. And while we are not there yet, we are getting there.
Some print providers have arrived, such as REAL Digital International based in South London. It was established in 2004 in the belief that transactional and direct mail production could be improved using a flexible inkjet solution with powerful workflow and finishing systems to cut, fold, collate and insert almost anything.
REAL Digital invented 650mm wide, high quality, colour duplex web inkjet printing by mounting a pair of singlepass inkjet presses on a flexible transport system. And they developed new paper coatings to achieve the quality demanded by leading brands for personalised carriers, mailers and magazines.
The business, which has since upgraded to a pair of Screen Jet520 duplex lines, has lived up to its promise, winning multiple awards – including the PrintWeek Company of the Year – and continuing to monitor new developments and opportunities.
David Laybourne, REAL Digital International Managing Director, said: “Inkjet technology provided the flexibility for us to deliver solutions that address latent customer demand and to drive new demand in areas where we have seen further opportunities.”
He adds that developments in ink technology are having a big effect. “Inks are more flexible with increased colour gamut, reducing the need for special substrates whilst increasing productivity. As the ink manufacturers accept more viable pricing models, the proportion of the marketplace that inkjet solutions are able to address will only increase,” he said.
Viable ink costs
Laybourne’s comments about ink pricing are instructive. Suppliers want to maximise profit. Yet, the cost of ink makes medium-to-long runs with high ink coverage uneconomic, compared to analogue print.
This disconnect is holding back adoption of inkjet in commercial print, publishing and packaging applications, and turning existing users of analogue presses away from inkjet.
High value recurring consumables and service revenue from ink, cleaning fluids and replacement heads is attractive to suppliers. But print service providers are not used to this model. They are used to buying a litho press and then negotiating for plates, inks and support from the established supply base.
Another historical barrier to wider adoption of inkjet, especially for commercial printing applications, is the need to use specially treated papers and the inability to print effectively on glossy coated stocks. However, as Peter Wolff, Director of Commercial Printing Group for Canon EMEA, points out, the latest generation of production inkjet presses is rapidly eroding these barriers.
“With the latest system introductions of the ImageStream, the reachable range of applications extends even further, due to the printability of offset coated material for matte, silk and glossy applications. With these new capabilities, additional applications like magazine printing, catalogue printing and others are now do-able on inkjet, with all the benefits of individualisation and customer-targeted content and without the additional cost related to special inkjet-treated papers. This offers commercial printers the opportunity to combine a broad range of applications on one digital press with productivity and quality equivalent to offset,” he said.
Books lead the way
The costing of inkjet production is different to that of analogue print. It has lower pre-press and set-up costs, but ink – and until recently, paper – is more expensive, often much more expensive. This means long run, high ink coverage inkjet is not cost-effective, so there is little appetite for printers to change.
However, in book production there are advantages in combining inkjet with in-line finishing, delivering folded, collated and glued blocks ready for a simple cover application and final trim. This is particularly true for monochrome books.
Publishers and book printers have now gone beyond just comparing print costs and are considering the total cost of manufacturing. The flexibility of inkjet allows book production to be re-engineered and book publishers to reduce their stocks and their publishing risk, bringing overall cost and service advantages. Colour books are quickly following the mono lead.
For other products, the benefits of changing manufacturing processes to inkjet are not so clear. Well-established analogue methods are meticulously honed to minimise cost while delivering high quality. This will change as more companies install inkjet equipment, learn its capabilities and exploit new opportunities.
A growth opportunity
Inkjet technology already has many early adopters who are profiting from the technology. For example, HansaPrint in Finland, a €70m turnover fim specialising in retail and publishing, recently installed a high speed Ricoh Pro VC60000 press.
HansaPrint Business Unit Director Jukka Saariluoma said: “Prior to experiencing the Ricoh Pro VC60000, I did not believe that there would be a major shift from offset printing to inkjet. But the new press has changed my mind. Our clients are very excited by the new level in quality and the increased flexibility offered and are moving significant amounts of their work from offset to inkjet.”
All key analyst organisations predict very high growth for inkjet print volumes and values. Smithers Pira expects the value of inkjet printing output for graphics and packaging to more than treble between 2010 and 2020, from €23 billion to more than €70 billion (in current values), with a forecast CAGR of 12.7% from 2015 to 2020. HP reports that its customers alone have produced more than 100 billion inkjet pages since 2009 when it installed its fist production inkjet press.
Beyond traditional print
Inkjet printing applications include coding & marking, addressing, security numbering & coding, photo-printing, wide-format (sheet, roll-fed and hybrid), flatbed imprinting systems, narrow web, tube & irregular shapes, high speed wide web and sheetfed – to name a few. Outside traditional printing and graphics applications, inkjet has revolutionised ceramic tile printing and it is growing very strongly in textiles and other industrial decoration applications, from pens and memory sticks to architectural glass and laminated decor.
Thus, inkjet offers opportunities for expansion into areas that may not have been considered by traditional print providers. Paul Adriaensen, Agfa Graphics PR Manager, said: “Not too long ago, inkjet was praised as an alternative to conventional systems for its ability to offer single-off sheets, short runs and personalised prints. But the technology has also been introduced to new areas. This creates interesting dynamics in the industry.”
For example, Mimaki and other manufacturers are introducing innovative digital inkjet solutions with higher speeds and productivity to meet the demands of the booming textile market where inkjet has a major advantage over other print processes, as it is the only non-contact, high quality, high performance process.
Technical advances are primarily in new and better control of print heads, better inks and a much wider selection of readily available and more affordable inkjet-treated papers.
Ink manufacturers spend a great deal of money on developing new inks that perform well in the heads and provide excellent print quality. This has produced ink with higher density levels offering offset-like quality at lower coverage. There are also now more substrates that perform well with inkjet, aided by colour management improvements.
There are many routes to market for inkjet inks. Some equipment manufacturers formulate and manufacture their inks; others sell ink that is made under license by ink specialists. In low-end wide-format inkjet, there are independent third-party ink suppliers competing with the OEM. This is probably the healthiest part of the market for end users, with thousands of machines sold each year consuming millions of litres of ink.
This is not the case with high performance systems, where the equipment supplier typically provides ink tailored for optimal performance within the overall system. However, there are indications that this is changing.
Collins Inkjet is an independent inkjet ink manufacturer that makes water-based inks for many of the high speed single pass presses. Chris Rogers, Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Collins, is optimistic that it will be able to establish itself as a third-party ink provider, whether in competition – or partnership – with OEMs.
“Low consumables costs promote growth and easier adoption. When customers see competitive pricing for the more efficient inkjet technology, it is easier to switch, and they are more willing to change. Our business model is a traditional ink company; our manufacturing scale allows us to price inks at lower profit margins. This long-term strategy has proven successful over 25 years and it seems that OEMs are now starting to agree. They realise the easiest way to grow market share is to price their consumables fairly and we can help them with that,” he said.
Today, a huge amount of money is being spent developing inks, printheads, substrates, control software, transport, drying and turnkey print systems. These investments have foisted big changes on the world of print, but nothing compared to what is likely to occur over the next few years.
As productivity increases, inkjet suppliers are looking to siphon ever more volume from the analogue print market by offering directly competing solutions. Productivity, quality and economics are pushing inkjet technology firmly against sheetfed litho and narrow web flexo, and larger format flexo and web offset are also in its sights.
While a few inkjet suppliers might be guilty of hyperbole (very guilty in some instances!), it is good to see users and customers voting with their feet and their wallets. For the foreseeable future, we will continue to see inkjet productivity enhancements and improvements in cost-performance, plus some totally new formats and systems, at least a couple of which will be on show at drupa.
In addition to graphics and packaging, inkjet is making rapid progress in textile printing, ceramics and industrial/ architectural decoration. Plus the new area of 3D printing, where inkjet is an important enabler. For companies that are smart enough and brave enough to explore new markets, inkjet presents huge opportunities.
Printers change their choice of printing method for several reasons: to reduce cost, to improve quality, to achieve greater levels of service, or to do new things. Inkjet lets them do all four. Go to drupa to find out what inkjet can do for your business.