Speeding the Shift to Inkjet from Offset

By Noel Ward

The machine is deep blue, maybe 30 feet long, 10 feet high and deep. The owner calls it a variable offset press. It resides in a climate-controlled room, just outside of which an 8-color Speedmaster churns out work at 18,000 sheets per hour. The big blue inkjet press may be far slower, but it is actively taking work from the company’s two offset presses and a pair of full-color toner presses. The CTO of the operation says there is no reason to ever buy another offset press, and two other toner systems have already left the building. Part of the CTO’s thinking is that the inkjet press can print on a full range of standard offset papers including coated and glossy stocks that previously could only be printed using the big iron on the other side of the wall. He’s not alone in his thinking.

I spent some time in the past few weeks talking with and visiting commercial printers who have added high-end inkjet presses to their inventories and are witnessing first-hand how inkjet is transforming commercial printing. Three points were immediately obvious. First, high-end inkjet machines can provide printing similar to that of offset presses, so print quality is less of an issue than aficionados of offset claim it to be. Second, conventional presses no longer have an advantage when it comes to printing on coated or glossy stocks. In fact, some of the top inkjet machines are running the nicer stocks with no issues at all. And third, the top-level inkjet machines are not only pulling jobs from offset presses but also from toner machines not so long ago were considered to be the standard bearers of digital print quality.

Still, it was those glossy and coated stocks that got me on the phone and on planes and in cars. Printing on these substrates has not been easy with inkjet presses, and press and paper suppliers have been working to up their game. Some papers, most notably Mitsubishi’s SWORD iJET, have the surface chemistry needed to work with inkjet inks. Meanwhile, press makers have developed “priming fluids” intended to provide the requisite ink bonding, color accuracy and faster drying needed on glossy and coated stocks. But what I found was that these efforts don’t necessarily matter to the print providers I contacted. None were using priming fluids and are finding ways to run coated and even glossy stocks in their inkjet presses. All routinely test papers and most will slow their inkjet press down to accommodate the need to dry the inks. Whatever their approach, skill and persistence are required, but the advantage is that they are able to run a range of uncoated, coated and even glossy stocks on their inkjet presses, enabling them to take work off both their offset and toner-based machines.

So OK, a caveat.
Even the best inkjet presses do not necessarily deliver print quality that matches offset. While they may match offset for some applications there are differences, some of which are acceptable to customers, others that are not. Of course this varies by press. I’m not going to delve, even subjectively, into print quality in this story, but after talking with owners of some of the leading inkjet devices available—all people who also have offset presses on their floors—I can affirm that inkjet is satisfying a host of different needs.

These printers all told me their customers often acknowledged the difference in quality between inkjet and offset, but said it mostly didn’t matter. This is important. They said it wasn’t an issue of one type of output being better than the other, but that inkjet (a) satisfied customers’ quality needs and (b) the economics of short runs and limited waste were compelling factors. And some customers, who seem to represent a growing segment, were finding the ability to use variable content especially attractive.

To me, having actively promoted the economics of digital printing and use of variable data for more than a few years, this is satisfying news. And now the relatively low cost of inkjet is making those economics far more practical while helping grow demand for variable content documents. It helps, of course, that companies have come to recognize the total cost of printing (including warehousing, waste, etc.) as well as how to leverage the value of their databases.

Which digital?
One of the things that most struck me in these travels is the shift of work from toner-based presses to inkjet. This is happening in two ways. In one, jobs formerly produced on offset shells and imprinted using monochrome toner machines have in many cases shifted almost entirely to inkjet. No surprises here: this happened when full-color toner presses began appearing well over a decade ago.

More transformative is that many jobs once done using full-color toner presses are now run on inkjet machines. Business owners, production managers, and press operators all told me color and image quality are more than adequate to replace all but the best toner systems, while the operating economics and variable data capabilities make the inkjet presses the best options for many jobs. People at every shop I visited, or interviewed on the phone, said they see inkjet only getting better and more affordable. And much to the chagrin of at least some digital press makers, most of these customers say their existing toner machines will leave when their leases expire.

But don’t get me wrong: toner presses aren’t going away. They still do some things very well, such as when high ink (toner) coverage is required, and when multiple stocks are needed on a job or throughout a shift, but they fall short when it comes to speed and cost per page. This is where inkjet machines have tremendous appeal, along with having the ability to mimic offset printing. One printer described a job that took a couple of shifts to run on a big toner press, but which now runs in a couple of hours on an inkjet machine.

Offset presses aren’t being turned into scrap, either. No one I talked with has any plans to stop using their offset presses, largely because there are still long-run, static content jobs that are perfect fits for those big presses. In fact, one shop I visited is busily installing a Goss Sunday press to handle a growing volume of long run jobs that need the power of that giant machine.

The reality is that the successful printers of the day rely on a mix of machines that are well-matched to the needs of their customers. They offer mid-speed color toner, cut-sheet and web-fed inkjet, and sheet and web offset. Sometimes job specs make it obvious which press to use, but other times the print provider’s team makes the decision. The jobs run, get delivered and the customers come back for more. Because it’s not about the technology (and it never has been): it’s about delivering what the customer needs.
"The CTO of the operation says there is no reason to ever buy another offset press"
"Even the best inkjet presses do not necessarily deliver print quality that matches offset"
"And now the relatively low [when compared to toner] cost of inkjet is making those economics far more practical"

One of these things is not like the others . . .
Nothing inconsistent here.

I'm just reporting what several seasoned print pros told me. The CTO was not the first one to tell me he was done buying offset presses. Heard this last year from IJ press owners. And... that some are dumping their (formerly) high-end toner boxes because they don't need them now that they have high-end inkjet.

Also, IJ press owners agree that for many apps the inkjet press is not as good as offset--but are quick to admit that they have trained eyeballs that see differences their customers do not. (I have maintained this for some time, with some print providers agreeing.) What they all agree on that while IJ is different, in many cases the differences do not matter the the people paying for the job. Some difficulties do arise with respect to some spot colors, in which case an offset press may be used, but inkjet is becoming the go-to choice up to whatever run length a print provider feels is right for his/her operation.

As for costs, the comparison is with toner (as stated) and inkjet simply costs less and is a lot faster. Running a job run in hours instead of days makes a big difference to a print shop and its customers.

None of these may match up with your experiences, but when I hear the same things from multiple places I tend to think it is at least indicative of a broader trend.

What presses do you have and what your experiences with respect to toner, inkjet and offset?
I can understand how some execs hope to never buy another offset press. Problems with the process and problems with the operators. It seems like a good option to go to highly engineered digital machines that are trying to take out the inconsistency and waste in the printing process.

Yes, offset is not dead but the science that should have led to advancements in the process has been dead for more than a half a century. Still today, the industry's technical community is still clueless about how the process works and why they can't get predictable and consistent output. The major advances have been in the marketing departments that over sell the capability of their machines. If modern presses are so good, why do they still need closed loop colour control systems to correct for the faults in the design of these presses that are the causes of variation?

Maybe offset for short runs should be killed off since those who love it so much have had no interest to save it from the advance of digital printing technology.

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