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Chasing the Holy Grail of Inkjet Printing * Third of 3 Parts

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  • Chasing the Holy Grail of Inkjet Printing * Third of 3 Parts

    Episode 3: Ink and Substrates Matter

    by Noel Ward, Editor@Large

    So you know inkjet is the game changer and has a lot of room to grow and change, and that an inkjet press running coated or glossy paper offers more paths to profitability. Priming fluids may have helped, but are not necessarily essential. So it sill comes down to putting the ink on the page, which is why Ink and Substrates Matter.

    Inks and Substrates Matter
    On any flavor of press, substrates have always been a key part print quality. All the print providers I spoke with described Mitsubishi’s SWORD iJET as the go-to choice when a glossy stock was needed, although each winced slightly when noting that SWORD can be nearly twice as expensive as uncoated papers. The price, they say, is limiting wider adoption, but they appreciate the paper’s advantages: a wide color gamut, quick drying, and the ink adhesion high-speed inkjet printing requires.

    Other coated and glossy stocks are gaining ground. All the companies I spoke routinely test substrates and look closely at a wide range of issues. At the moment, heavy coverage remains an Achilles Heel for inkjet presses, a concern voiced by all inkjet press owners I spoke with. It comes down to a key difference between inkjet and conventional inks: offset inks are pressed into the paper while inkjet inks are sprayed onto a fast-moving substrate that must be quickly dried before being rewound (in the case of roll-to-roll presses) or stacked prior to finishing on a cut-sheet device. Drying remains a problem on coated and glossy stocks, but is one that is being solved. Watch for more innovations in this space, from equipment and paper suppliers alike.

    Transitional thinking
    Right now, even as demand increases for coated and glossy stocks, the combination of ink cost and the narrow range of substrates available limits the transition of jobs from offset to inkjet presses. The irony of the moment is not lost on any of the print execs. As you would expect, all say lower ink and substrate prices will help grow volume and broaden the range of applications.

    Their anticipation is not misplaced. High-speed inkjet is becoming an alternative to both offset and high-end toner. In one facility I visited, the climate-controlled print room once housed several high-end toner presses. The plan there is to move out the last one when its lease expires, and the firm is evaluating other high-speed inkjet options to compliment the one presently in use.

    “We have an Indigo for shorter runs where we need better quality than the inkjet press can provide, but we think a cut-sheet inkjet device is the best complement to our continuous feed system,” the operations exec told me. I couldn’t help but notice that a sales rep from an inkjet press maker was on-site the day I was there.

    Another company, home to two eight-color offset presses, two toner machines and an inkjet press, calls the latter his “variable offset press.” Over the past few months two monochrome toner presses have left the air conditioned room where the digital presses reside. The exec there envisions an additional inkjet press to handle volume being shed by the offset and toner systems. “I don’t see ever needing to invest in an offset press again.”

    One described a recurring job that previously took about three days to run on the company’s cut-sheet toner system that was now completed in a single shift on an inkjet device. “Print quality is certainly part of it,” said that exec. “But we’re also finding that customers using variable data like being able to hold onto their data for an extra day or two to help refine their database. Others just want to run the job and get it to market sooner. Speed matters and the inkjet delivers that no matter what substrates we use.”

    Pent-up demand
    So suppose the costs of ink and glossy/coated stocks do come down. If that occurs, most current and prospective adopters of high-speed inkjet presses can probably anticipate a surge in customer demand. Just how much costs would drop, however, would be predicated on economies of scale: There have to be sufficient inkjet press installations with big enough volumes to help lower ink costs and enough page volume to drive down substrate costs. Or at least that’s the wish of the print providers. And will there be variable pricing based on print volumes? Of course.

    If the guys I spoke with are any indication—and I suspect they are—high-speed inkjet printing at the point where many, perhaps even most, end-customers are willing to accept it as an alternative to offset printing. They all said print quality is largely a non-issue and that variable data use is increasing. The effect here is three-fold: First, longer jobs once run on offset presses are landing on inkjet machines as multiple shorter runs using a lot of variable data. That adds value to the content, which can increase revenue. Second, toner machines are being used less for adding variable content to offset shells and more for very short-run variable print runs. Finally, shorter jobs once produced on toner-based presses are being ganged together as longer runs on inkjet systems. Additionally, the excs all noted that many customers are either indifferent to or unaware of the type of press used, and that it is often the print provider who decides which press is used for a given job.

    More change ahead
    The economics of ink and substrate costs will become less of an issue as inkjet print volumes rise, although the broader issues of digital versus offset are likely to make inkjet the preferred press for tens of thousands of impressions, versus hundreds of thousands on offset presses. But in a world of shrinking print volumes inkjet will inevitably become more attractive.

    Over the past decade I’ve watched the members of a direct mail and transactional print trade association I work with make the transition from toner to inkjet. One direct mail guy said he’d never move from offset to inkjet. But he has one inkjet press now, with another on order. And, over the calls and site visits that fed into this report I see the shift from offset to inkjet becoming nothing less than the way business is done. It is clear we have entered the Age of Inkjet.
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