I Want to Invest in Inkjet, but…


Well-known member
By Noel Ward Editor@Large

Over the past few years I’ve watched a group of transactional and direct mail printers carefully and strategically shift from monochrome toner machines to full-color toner and inkjet presses. Most banished old black-only toner boxes from their operations, but kept their color toner devices around because they anticipated the need to have both color inkjet and toner presses around to meet customer needs. They were right then and continue to be right today. Because toner and inkjet can be better together.

Some printers I’ve talked with or visited have been less decisive about making the move to inkjet. Their quickdraw comment is, “I want to invest in inkjet but [fill in the excuse].” Justifications range from the size of the investment, fear that customers may not like the look and feel of inkjet printing, perceptions about why inkjet may not right for them, that toner is great and how they love click charges, uncertainties about the technology, and even resistance from press operators and other staff.

Meanwhile, the market speaks, proving all these concerns unfounded. Moreover, not only is inkjet a proven choice for applications ranging from bills and statements to direct mail to books to marketing collateral, it simply makes sense financially. Cutting to the chase, printers who have adopted the technology attest that inkjet is less expensive than toner and provides more flexibility than offset. With few exceptions, shops using both inkjet and toner say the value of combining the technologies helps keep customers coming back.

I got to thinking about this after wandering through a bunch of shops and talking with business owners who have both toner and inkjet presses from various suppliers. To peel back a layer and get what I hoped might provide the clearest picture, I reached out to shops that run toner and inkjet presses from the same vendor. In this story I use Xerox as the example because its cut-sheet inkjet and toner machines share a frame and are often found in the same shops (with the same owner), making comparison of the technologies easier. What I learned was interesting.

Picking the application
“If the Baltoro is right for the application we use it!” affirms John Hume, president and founder of Hume Media, a commercial printer in Toronto. “It’s our first choice if the size and substrate for a file we need to run are right for the machine.” The company presently prints more than 1.5 million inkjet pages on its Xerox Baltoro every month. It is especially telling that Hume’s customers commonly leave the choice of print engine up to Hume and his team. They know the quality they need is available on either press.

This is echoed by Jesse James, president of AdamsDMS in East Hanover, New Jersey, where two of the company’s go-to machines are Xerox iGens and a Baltoro. “The Baltoro is fine for 
seventy-five percent of what we do,” says James. Like many other direct mail shops AdamsDMS once relied on preprinted shells. “Now we’re adding value for our customers with white paper in, and we’re doing cost analyses to show them the difference.”

Following the footprints
An inveterate early-adopter, Hume Media had the first iGen in the wild, then the first Xerox Brenva, which was replaced with the planet’s first Xerox Baltoro. Driving the inkjet adoption was the need for lower-cost long runs than the iGen could provide. Hume initially met this demand by outsourcing jobs to offset shops, but brought the work back in-house when he added the cut-sheet Brenva inkjet press, which was replaced with the Baltoro. The inkjet comfort-level his team gained on Brenva translated quickly to the Baltoro, which satisfied a customer-driven need to print on silk and matte stocks.

Another important advantage for both companies has been the Baltoro’s footprint. Both Baltoro (and the Brenva before it) are based on the same frame as the iGen. The presses also shared similar overall dimensions and comparable HVAC and electrical requirements. This helped the inkjet machines fit easily into the companies’ respective facilities, streamlining the installation process. In contrast, some available cut-sheet devices are so large that customers have had to enlarge their buildings to accommodate the new press.

Using the same frame as the iGen also simplifies paper ordering because one size of paper (14.33 x 20.5-inches) can be used in both the iGen and the Baltoro. The iGen can draw on a larger media library, which is important for some types of jobs, but at both Hume and James say the Baltoro is the choice for jobs not requiring the best possible image quality.

But is inkjet a replacement for toner? Not yet anyway.

“When image quality or high coverage is the concern the iGen is usually the default,” says Hume, “but it’s not a given. Sometimes Baltoro can produce better color images on matte coated stocks, so we always test to make sure.”

“One of the reasons we chose the Baltoro is the 1200 x 1200 HD heads, and High Fusion inks,” says James. “That provides more quality, which our customers notice.” He says the iGen is still necessary, and the blend of technologies is right for his shop and customers.

There are a host of inkjet presses available, many aimed at the high-volume end of the market where offset replacement is an overarching goal. The makers of those inkjet machines rightly claim these as impressive leaps for digital technology and they make for a good story about industrialized inkjet printing (I’ve written some of them), but it’s really only a fragment of the market. Trust me on this: despite the claims of some inkjet advocates, The New York Times, Washington Post, or USA Today are not going to stream off inkjet presses anytime soon.

I’ve been in many established print shops where a couple of big 8- or 10-color offset presses are busy two or three days a week while the moderate volume inkjet and toner units in the climate-controlled room next door are turning out dozens of jobs a day, accounting for a growing share of the shops’ throughput, much of it adding value with variable content and special finishing options. Some shops are adding more inkjet, while keeping offset and toner presses on the floor. Owners all tell me they need the mix to satisfy customer needs.

While slower than other presses, what makes most digital devices successful is that they are “right-sized” for the shop they are in and the print volumes they handle. For instance, the inkjet presses that can produce tens of millions of pages month are great for a handful of companies (such as high volume publishers), but in an age of declining print volumes, most markets and applications don’t require such capacity to be profitable, keep the wolves from the door, and the lease payments up to date. Right-sized inkjet systems are intended for volumes that align with the needs of their respective markets and, when partnered with toner-based devices, offer solutions that simply cannot be met practically or economically on high-volume inkjet or offset presses. These are important factors in an age when new headwinds (and pandemics) can put unexpected and unprecedented pressures on all types of print providers. Being able to invest in right-sized technologies that are designed to work together and can be integrated into existing operations is, and will continue to be, integral to success.

There is no “Best”
While I can see the differences between the output of the iGen and the Baltoro, I think it is hard to argue that one is definitively better than the other because print quality alone is only one part of the comparison. The more pragmatic question is, which provides the most cost-effective solution and the right print quality for the application? The answer is they both do when used in ways that help print providers minimize risk and make the most out of their equipment investment. This is why I noted earlier that inkjet and toner are better together.

And now for a little Mythbusting…
Still, uncertainty is not new with any emerging technology. One of the leading perceptions is that inkjet will be able to do it all, hastening the demise of offset and toner presses. Well, maybe eventually, but not quite yet. The need for high-quality toner printing is not going away, and for many applications toner is simply a light year ahead of inkjet. Inkjet is still a four-color process with CMYK the palette of choice. It is presently not possible or practical to add additional colors, particularly special hues like fluorescent yellows or pinks, or clear coating. For that you still need toner. So, enamored as a customer may be with your inkjet press, if he/she wants more color, a toner press is probably better for the job. And you get to keep the customer happy. Probably not a bad thing.

Or consider specialized needs like MICR. There are MICR inkjet inks available but the cost of these (as well as the need for purging for the heads and ink lines) tend to make MICR inkjet uncompetitive with the same job run on a toner press. The service bureau owners I talk with all have inkjet presses but do their MICR work on toner machines, such as a Xerox Nuvera. 

Other pervasive myths are that inkjet is too complex and requires skilled labor. I’ve been way under the covers of most of the major inkjet machines and while there’s a lot going on, I can understand all of it, and I’m no engineer or press operator. Running most of these machines is much easier than using some of the cloud-based “productivity” tools available to hopeful users. There are also readily available software tools from equipment and software vendors that enable highly automated operation.

Making it easier
From what I’ve seen and been told, having presses from the same vendor simplifies onboarding, training, and further reduces the need for skilled labor. For instance, both iGen and Baltoro use Xerox FreeFlow software that works pretty much the same way on both presses. Standard hardware such as inline spectrophotometers make sure colors render as closely as possible on either device. Interestingly, some inkjet owners have told me the people installing the press were able to tell inquisitive operators much of what they needed to know to run the press. I recommend getting the more formalized training anyway!

Another myth is how long it may take to get an inkjet press up and running. All right, an inkjet productions press is not quite as easy to connect and set up as the MFP next to your desk, but it’s not a lot harder. I haven’t heard from anyone who said they weren’t running real jobs in a matter of days. This is an important point, because although inkjet is still an emerging technology, it is based on extensive amount experience in digital imaging, software programs and data handling. For example, James found his operators had a short learning curve when bringing the Baltoro online. “It is like an iGen but with inkjet heads. The workflow was familiar and there was not a lot to do on the machine,” he notes. “We were up and running very quickly.”

John Hume likens his Baltoro press to the taxi industry. “Just like Uber disrupted the taxi industry, digital inkjet is disrupting the print market today.”

Hume is not wrong, but he’s not entirely right, either. Inkjet and toner have their place on many shop floors, with the smartest owners leveraging the advantages of powerful toner presses and high-resolution inkjet devices to provide a printing solution that is better together.


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