Will Inkjet Be the Future King of Print?
Electrophotography might share its crown
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Inkjet has been getting a lot of attention over the last decade due to great productivity and low running costs; but only the recent enhancements in print quality of some presses, which can now be compared to electrophotography and offset output, have started to drive larger sales.
One of the most important objectives of digital printing vendors is to shift more offset pages to digital to grow their annuity business—and therefore their companies—as offset is still the biggest market, offering the lowest-hanging fruit for digital.
These days, the offset-to-digital transition seems to be moving faster as raw material costs and disruptions increase (e.g., aluminum/plates and paper), as well as skilled offset operators becoming harder to find despite many print service providers (PSPs) increasing hourly rates as much as 30%. Another big issue for offset is the large amount of energy that is required to produce plates—we’re in a world where energy is a very sensitive topic.
So, which technologies and vendors will be king in the printing market?
Breaking Up Inkjet: Drop-on-Demand (DOD) vs. Continuous Inkjet (CIJ)
The fight within inkjet technologies is happening mainly with drop-on-demand vendors (e.g., Canon/Océ, Ricoh, Screen, or HP) and continuous inkjet, such as Kodak. Like many other technologies and products in the market, DOD and CIJ have their advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the customer type, one technology/product will be more suitable than the other. DOD claims to have a larger variety of drop sizes and more quality control, while CIJ claims less variety of sizes but a more rounded dot, which can be very small (i.e., via Kodak UltraStream 520).
When it comes to productivity (and in applications with larger ink coverage), CIJ seems to be faster; with fewer wetting agents in their inks, it’s expected to dry quicker than DOD. However, there is a DOD press that could compete with CIJ presses on a width of 42" and speeds up to 1,000 feet per minute: the HP PageWide T-4 series. This device is DOD and manages to achieve great usage rates due to having the largest width in the market.
When it comes to consumables and supplies, while the liter cost per ink of CIJ seems to be lower than DOD, their printheads are more expensive. The cost differences in these two main components of print could economically favor CIJ over DOD that has a <24" width roll in some scenarios of very large average monthly print volumes. Besides inkjet printheads, paper roll width (which drives productivity, as mentioned before) has become a defining factor. HP’s 42" press was traditionally slow to sell in the market, but offset labor disruptions are making some larger offset PSPs transition to a larger production roll-fed device.
Here are two videos from two DOD vendors: Canon and Ricoh. Ricoh and Screen also produce the same type of press, but with different inks and color management.
The HP PageWide is also DOD and the company recently introduced its new press, the Advantage 2200, which HP claims to be 33% faster than the T250.
Kodak recently introduced the fastest inkjet press in the market: the Kodak PROSPER 7000 Turbo Press. But as we know with inkjet, speed could compromise quality. This new press provides PSPs with the opportunity to choose based on the application: Do they need speed or do they need commercial print quality?
|Kodak PROSPER 7000 Turbo Press|
The Unexpected Challenge from Electrophotography
We’ve been talking about inkjet for a while and we are seeing great growth, especially after the enhancements in printing quality, but there is a group who do not seem ready to give up on the relevance and value of electrophotography in large production (including roll-fed). Since the announcement of the HP Indigo V12 (a label press), we have not had any reason to think that a press like this could not be outputting commercial print work in the future. If that were the case, they could be aggressively competing with inkjet roll-fed.
This electrophotography roll-fed press has similar speeds to many inkjet roll-fed devices in the market today at 400 feet per minute. Most importantly, electrophotography does not have the same challenges that inkjet faces when dealing with large ink coverages and dryers. The V12 builds the image onto a heated blanket for drying and is not expected to slow the press while producing large ink coverage applications. At the same time, it is also true that (in terms of productivity) the simplicity of inkjet is widely known to be more reliable than electrophotography.
The perception that inkjet running costs are lower than electrophotography seems to ring true, mainly around lower ink coverage jobs. But when it comes to higher ink coverage, electrophotography large production presses (such as the B2 series from HP Indigo) compete well against inkjet cut-sheet. This fuels the idea that, based on the application, an electrophotography press such as the V12 could be competing well on running costs against roll-fed inkjet.
Finally, the V12 comes with up to seven colors. (Inkjet presses for commercial and publishing applications don't print beyond CMYK.) While the demand for color embellishments in the label and packaging market is higher, we are still hearing a lot about CMYK+ in commercial printing environments (even though implementation is slow).
|HP Indigo V12|
Keypoint Intelligence Opinion
While we feel closer to a larger transition from offset to digital, we can’t forget that offset inks could be as much as four times cheaper than inkjet and some very large production electrophotography devices—and that might never change. Meaning we will still have to fish for shorter runs and variable data printing unless the plate market collapses or offset PSPs can’t find any skill labor to run their presses, which is a very valid concern.
We will have to wait and see, but printing technologies definitely keep us on our toes. And when we think we’re sure about what the future will bring, something or someone will challenge that.
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