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The Move to Inkjet

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  • The Move to Inkjet

    By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

    For the past few years one of the questions I’ve gotten from print providers running toner presses is along the lines of, “How much volume should I have before I move to inkjet?” It’s an excellent query and it shows that people are thinking.

    Then there are the ones who call, bemoaning their lack of foresight, saying “I bought this UltraJet C6000 and it’s costing me a fortune. What can I do?”

    To be clear, there are many levels to providing complete responses to either question, but the initial answer to the first caller is relatively easy: “Plan on being able to hit about 50 percent of the new machine’s monthly recommended capacity (as stated by the equipment vendor) the day it is up and running.” This can be existing jobs transferred from toner boxes or new jobs coming in, but either way you are more likely to reach the monthly nut for the new machine and at least cover the costs. This is mission critical, because you have to keep your whole business up and running and not depend on having new technology work flawlessly right off the loading dock. This is not to say that inkjet technology is unreliable. To the contrary, it is generally more reliable and simpler to manage than many electrophotographic (EP) options—the ones that use toner—but inkjet has challenges of its own that you need to factor in when integrating an inkjet press into your operation.

    Answering to the other question is much harder because there are so many variables. I usually start by asking about the mix of jobs, customer expectations, the skills and training of the press operators, and where the costs seem to be accumulating. Sometimes this gets into the details of the deal that was cut for the new press and the expectations or imagination of the business owner. The latter is not a trivial point. I had one guy call me, certain he needed a high-speed digital inkjet press and asking which one to buy. I sensed a need for a foot on the brakes. So I asked about his business. Turned out he was struggling to get 500,000 pages a month out of his high-end EP press. Fortunately, he had not yet taken the plunge, but he’d clearly partaken of some Kool-Aid that convinced him that investing in a machine capable of eight (or more) times his current volume would make his world a better place. I encouraged him to dial back his expectations and provided some guidelines for taking a different look at his business and the needs of his customers. I later learned he had toned down his aspirations and traded his big EP machine for a smaller one.

    Increasing productivity
    When thinking about the move to inkjet it’s important to remember that inkjet versus EP is not a competition. Both have their place. For example, not long ago I was in a big print operation that had offset, EP and inkjet machines running hard, all day long. “I need all three technologies,” the COO told me. “We need the options and the flexibility to help us meet customer needs for turnaround time, quality, volume, personalization and more. We will move the jobs and volume around, even within a single week, but we use all the presses all the time.”

    The machine you invest in has a big part in your success, partly because some are more scalable than others. This is important for print providers looking for a system that can expand with their needs. A few months back I was in a plant that had a Xerox Rialto 900, a compact, narrow-web, full-color inkjet printer that was taking up floor space about 25 feet away from the company’s iGen 150. The Rialto 900 was about 15 feet long and maybe 4 or 5 feet wide, a midget compared to many inkjet systems available today. The compact machine trims web-fed paper to cut sheets to produce transactional, direct marketing, collateral, directories, manuals, newsletters, and the like, all bread-and-butter jobs in many service bureaus I’ve been in. So, I wondered, how did the Rialto fit into this big shop that had everything from letterpress to a couple of giant offset machines.

    The executive vice president told me the Rialto was pulling certain types of jobs from the iGen, producing those jobs at lower costs. I expected that, but this also opened up the company’s iGen to run more jobs that required bigger sheet sizes and higher image quality, giving the company a net gain of iGen throughput. On a more practical level, she explained, the Rialto is easier to operate, so its operators don’t need the same skill levels or experience as the iGen’s operators. This further reduces the operating cost of the inkjet device.

    Scalability matters
    “There’s another level, too,” says Mr. Irick., Worldwide Manager, Entry Production Inkjet at Xerox. “For customers who take advantage of it, an available speed upgrade for the Rialto lets it run about three times faster than the iGen 150, so not only is it less expensive to run, it can be much more productive.” This offers a practical advantage for many Rialto owners, such as those churning out full or highlight color statements and direct mail that is not necessarily color critical. More pages per hour can mean faster time to market and stronger customer communications.

    “In my 27 years [in printing], the Xerox Rialto 900 Inkjet Press is my favorite machine– it's a workhorse, it's easy,” affirms Karl Melzer, Print Services Manager at Hemet Unified School District in Hemet, Calfornia.

    “The idea is that any key operator should be able to run a Rialto,” says Mr. Irick, “That’s one thing. The other is that it is ultimately a cut-sheet device, and cut-sheet makes it easier to get to a desired color. Color management software helps, too, and can optimize the color before it is printed. A conventional continuous feed inkjet machine—much like a continuous feed offset press—has more of a lag between adjustments to color and seeing the results on the output roll.”

    Another Xerox cut-sheet option is Brenva. Based on the popular Xerox iGen frame, Brenva is a high-performance cut-sheet inkjet press intended for demanding print shops that need to produce up to 3,000,000 A4 inkjet pages per month. The narrow-web roll-fed to cut-sheet Rialto 900 can run up to 5,000,000 pages per month.

    Mr. Irick notes that both Rialto and Brenva inkjet press users have used the machines to transition their customers from pre-printed shells to plain paper. “This has been especially important for companies in both transactional and direct mail markets,” he says. “These machines make it more and more affordable for a company to forego pre-printed shells. This is a compelling solution for many end-customers.”

    All Aboard!
    Onboarding is a widely used term in the print business that has a variety of meanings. With respect to getting a new press fully operational, there are two phases of onboarding: getting a new press installed and running properly; then making sure each customer application will also run correctly and deliver the print quality required.

    The first phase of bringing any new press online is always challenging and inkjet is no exception. Part of the strategy behind both Rialto and Brenva is simplifying this process by requiring less training and having it all done onsite, often in as little as a week, notes Mr. Irick,

    “Rialto’s simplicity and Brenva’s familiar flexibility are key enablers for customers making the transition,” says Mr. Irick. “It is vital that customers be productive and profitable as quickly as possible.”

    While the Rialto and Brenva serve different business and market requirements, Mr. Irick says both are engineered to provide what he terms ‘Powerful Productivity with Familiar Flexibility.’ This is an important concept for customers making the transition from Xerox cut-sheet toner devices to inkjet machines.

    With respect to Brenva, for instance, it relates to several features found that are borrowed from iGen. These are founded on nearly two decades of customer feedback and engineering innovation, such as automated color profiling using an inline spectrophotometer and advanced spot color editing, including Pantone® lookups. In contrast, some competing presses limit customer control of color—an oversimplification of a highly complex process.

    “Customers using smaller production inkjet systems tell us over and over that they want the same level of autonomy with inkjet that they had with iGen and other toner technology,” says Mr. Irick.

    To help ensure customer success, operator inkjet training encompasses the common issues of file types, machine operation, basic color management, and dives into the nuances of paper selection, which still remains a challenge on many EP and inkjet digital presses.

    Most customers and their clients have agreed to use just one or two types of paper,” explains Mr. Irick. “This simplifies the process and sets expectations for how a job will look, with the best results coming from papers that have been thoroughly tested.”

    That testing takes place in Xerox’s paper testing lab, where a variety of terrible things are done to paper. The result is that a qualified paper is more likely to run correctly on a press than one that has not been evaluated and approved in the paper lab.

    “There are always print providers who buy a couple of truck loads of paper because the price is so attractive,” relates Mr. Irick. “And that can work. But other times the stock doesn’t work so well and the printer winds up with 100 rolls of paper he can’t use. What makes this difficult is that the difference doesn’t necessarily show up in the first few hundred pages of a print run. But a few hours and 20,000 sheets later the colors may not be right or the ink adhesion is poor and end-customer rejects the job.”

    “Selecting paper is a bit like test driving a car,” says Mr. Irick. “You probably aren’t going to buy a car without a good test drive. Likewise, you shouldn’t buy paper that isn’t qualified or that hasn’t been tested on the kind of press you plan to use. Work with your equipment vendor. Let their paper experts do an evaluation. They may, for example, tell you the paper you like is fine, and may suggest some guidelines for getting the best results. Pay attention!”

    Setting expectations
    The second part of onboarding is setting customer expectations. Be sure your customers know there will be a difference in appearance of their documents and that they are on board with those. Test applications to avoid surprises in live production.

    Internally, be realistic about the changes you are making. Most print providers switch to, or add, inkjet for an uptick in productivity and a decline in costs. These can both happen, but there is still a learning curve and a transition period for your staff and your customers.

    At the same time, your sales team also needs to understand the differences in the appearance as well as the cost and productivity advantages of inkjet. They need to see and understand the differences, identify the right applications for inkjet and how the savings can work for customers and your business.

    When you do all this you can have a successful and profitable transition to inkjet, while maintaining the productivity you’ve become accustomed to with EP and offset printing. Inkjet is just another tool in the box that helps you keep customers satisfied and your business profitable. Use it wisely.
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