Why Inkjet?

By Noel Ward

When the first high speed inkjet machines, all roll-to-roll devices, began reaching the market there was a lot of skepticism. Even some of the journalists and analysts with whom I swap perspectives weren’t sure inkjet was going to be a real player. Some thought (or maybe hoped) electrophotographic (EP) systems would go on forever. EP was, after all, their comfort zone. Many remained skeptical about inkjet.

Why would anyone want cutsheet inkjet?
A couple projects got me under the covers of some machines so I could learn what was going on. I didn’t drink the vendor’s KoolAid, listening instead to early adopters who make their living putting ink and toner on a page. It was clear that roll-to-roll wasn’t going to take over the market on its own. There had to be high-speed cutsheet, too. But when I ran this notion past the usual suspects in the analyst community they said I was crazy: “Why would anyone want cutsheet inkjet? It can’t really be done and provide the quality printers need.” Vendors gave evasive answers—which always tells you something. And I learned that cutsheet inkjet is hard to do.

Fast forward a few years. Canon rolls out the VarioPrint i300. Cutsheet. Inkjet. Pretty fast. Decent quality. Soon printers, including a few I know well, started snapping them up. Some began using the big box to replace high-end toner cutsheet machines that were former benchmarks of print quality. So much for the temporary reign of the Genexdigo VPC 8800 and others.

A moving target
The thing with inkjet, no matter which vendor’s name is on the box, is that it is a moving target, undergoing nearly constant reinvention that’s greatly benefited by technologies that could only be dreamed of when inkjet was born over 50 years ago. Heads and nozzles continue to shrink, inks become more exotic, drying technology evolves, paper transports become more automated, substrate selection expands, and print and image quality continue to improve. This curve is likely to move up for a few more years. No, inkjet is not going to replace offset printing, but it is going to become mainstream a lot faster than EP has—largely due to lower costs—and will command a greater share of the market.

So how is this happening? That’s what I was wondering when I sat down with Eric Hawkinson, Vice President of Marketing at Canon Solutions America (CSA), last month in Florida. Canon was holding its annual One Canon event, which expounds on the synergy of Canon as an imaging company with expertise in photography, video, medical, and printing. The event I attended focused on printing side of the company.

Since Canon was the first press maker to roll out a relatively high-speed cutsheet inkjet press—and has now placed many machines around the world—it seemed like a good time to ask Mr. Hawkinson what was going on. One of the leading factors, he noted, is that more and more print providers are coming to understand the value inkjet printing provides. The transition here is interesting.

Most transactional service bureaus—run by people who are toner-heads to the bottom of their socks—have made the leap from EP to inkjet in the interest of containing costs and being more competitive. The people making the presses knew print quality was a concern so that ramped up quickly. At the same time, the transactional bureaus and corporate data centers either found end-customers asking for color, or that competitors were already producing full-color transactional documents. So they had to compete. And even more recently, end-customers (particularly Millennials) are increasingly expecting bills, statements, EOBs, and the like to be presented electronically and in color. A single file that can go to a press or a phone/tablet streamlines the workflow. And inkjet makes the printed version easier to produce.

Meanwhile, direct mailers who do more than print generic third-class opportunities to “resident” or “occupant” have jumped on inkjet because it lets them say ‘yes’ to customers seeking various levels of personalization. At the same time, savvy commercial printers have added inkjet to their inventory and find they need offset, inkjet and toner to remain competitive. “We need all three,” one told me last summer. “That way you have the flexibility to meet all their needs.”

With lowering costs, reasonably fast speeds, and steadily improving quality, inkjet has made printing a more vital media choice. No one is looking back.

Another key factor, says Mr. Hawkinson, is consolidation. Big companies are buying medium-size firms. Medium companies are buying small ones. “Each wants a different bite of the apple,” says Mr. Hawkinson.

These moves change the dynamic of work flowing through print operations. On one hand, smaller and shorter jobs become business critical, while on the other many larger jobs are being enhanced with varying levels of personalization and customization that was unavailable or not cost-effective before production inkjet.

“The result is growth spurts across many types of print provider and these have become a gateway to inkjet,” notes Mr. Hawkinson.

Most importantly, for many printers, inkjet provides new opportunities. Several shops I’ve been in in recent months have made the shift to inkjet and have stated they will never buy another offset press. They plan instead to invest in another inkjet machine. And when these firms are in acquisition mode, one of the first things they look for is an inkjet press, because they see it an engine of opportunity.

Success at CSA
These factors conspire to increase the market acceptance of Canon’s i300 and its sibling the i200. The overall adoption of the technology leaves no doubt that cut-sheet inkjet is a force, and all major competitors either have, or soon will have, their own cut-sheet machines in the market. On Canon’s heels is the Xerox Brenva (built on an iGen frame), followed by roll-to-cut systems like Pitney’s AccleJet or Xerox’s Rialto. HP almost certainly has something in the works, and Ricoh is expected to roll out a cutsheet system within about a year. Keep an eye on Screen, too. And Xerox’s Trivor is ambidextrous, offering both roll-to-roll and roll-to-cut configurations.

Mr. Hawkinson also notes that analysts, journalists and vendors like Canon have helped showcase the advantages inkjet brings to the market. This education has shown the generally favorable economics of high-speed inkjet presses, and how their quality equals that of many offset and digital presses. In fact, print quality is one of the topics I broach when talking with print providers about how inkjet fits their needs and those of their customers. For the most part, they tell me quality is more than adequate or is not a concern at all. What they want to see change, though, is cost (hardly unexpected). For now, I’m hearing that papers and inks are still too expensive, but that this can be managed—at least for now—and does not seem to be holding anyone back.

What is most notable overall is how inkjet, in about a decade, has transformed and rejuvenated the printing industry. From the rollout of the Ricoh IP5000 in 2007 to today’s latest offerings, inkjet is the game changer that full-color toner-based printing sought to be but could never quite pull off.

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