Inkjet on the horizon

Just about every printing segment will feel the impact of this technology. Here’s an update on what to expect

Wikipedia defines inkjet printing as “…a type of computer printing that recreates a digital image by propelling droplets of ink onto paper, plastic, or other substrates.”  Unlike many technologies that began as expensive items and evolved into broad consumer products (think pocket calculators), inkjet printers found their stride as inexpensive consumer products and are just now evolving into quality, high-volume production printing machines.

In broad terms, inkjet printers use either continuous (CIJ) or drop-on-demand (DoD) techniques to propel ink droplets onto the substrate. In the CIJ process, a continuous flow of droplets is expelled from the inkjet nozzle, and if no ink is required at a given location on the substrate, the droplet is diverted and the ink recycled for use again. With DoD, droplets are expelled only when required. Because the inkjet nozzles from which ink is ejected are very small, clogging is always a potential issue. Thus factors such as ink attributes and likely time between jobs often influence the type of head chosen by the printer manufacturer.

The various ink formulations generally used in printing—aqueous, solvent, UV-curable, and dye sublimation—are available in inkjet printers, but different inks work differently in the various head types. Even so, printers purchasing new equipment can be confident that their basic imaging needs can be met if they elect to implement inkjet. In nearly every case, the equipment manufacturer has made the optimum head selection and printers need not concern themselves with which is better.

Beginning in the late 1970s, inkjet printers that could reproduce digital images were developed mainly by EpsonHewlett-Packard (HP), and Canon. In the worldwide consumer market, four manufacturers (Canon, HP, Epson, and Brother) today account for the majority of inkjet printer sales, primarily consumer printers connected to personal computers. But most of these companies also now offer machines for high-volume, print-for-pay use, and they have been joined by a number of firms with extensive experience producing commercial printing equipment.

Many equipment suppliers familiar to printers, and with specific commercial print market expertise, now offer inkjet machines so that printers often can rely on their traditional suppliers for counsel when an inkjet equipment purchase is being considered. And a newcomer in the inkjet space, Memjet, has emerged as a major supplier of inkjet assemblies to manufacturers wishing to integrate inkjet technology into their conventional substrate handling devices.

One interesting recent development in the inkjet world is the emergence of so-called hybrid machines on the market. Manufacturers of traditional printing equipment (Mark Andy in the label space comes to mind) are now integrating inkjet with their usual processes to take advantage of characteristics of both. One Mark Andy offering, for example, marries up to eight 1200 dpi UV inkjet digital stations with flexo stations for top coating, metallics, cold foil and other enhancements.

The Market for Inkjet

Entrepreneurs on Shark Tank often face questions from the sharks regarding the ‘scalability’ of their market concepts—a test of their ability to grow the business viably. Inkjet printing meets that test in many ways. One may move the substrate past a stationary nozzle, move the nozzle across a stationary substrate, or move both—thus influencing and enabling trade-offs among quality, speed, and cost. Inkjet printing, being continuous in nature, is perfect for applications requiring different sheet sizes, or for printing on irregular objects. In fact, among the first practical commercial inkjet applications was printing the ‘use by…’ date on food and pharmaceutical packages. Today, inkjet printing is finding broad use in virtually every print market, often displacing more familiar lithographic, flexographic, screen, and fabric printing processes.

According to a recent Smithers-Pira report, inkjet printing is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of nearly 10 percent from 2018 to 2023, approaching US$110 billion worldwide by the end of the period. Inkjet is predicted in the report to see particularly rapid adoption in packaging, driven by high-performance, single-pass presses being used to print corrugated. The report goes on to say that printers will be attracted to inkjet by customer desire for increased speeds and reduced time-to-market demands.

Here are some ways inkjet may affect your business:

General lithography Printers with an established heritage in offset printing have long regarded inkjet printing as inferior in quality and disruptive to the existing workflow. But the improvement in inkjet has been steady and it now compares very favorably to offset, except in the cost of longer-run jobs. The fact that inkjet printing is digital makes it a natural fit for printers doing personalization or inline addressing. Because most inkjet jobs are done with just one pass through the press, registration is generally not a issue. And as print workflows become increasingly digital and reliant on databases, inkjet printing often reduces workflow steps appreciably.

The latest inkjet presses are now available with white ink, a necessity for printers who print on metallic substrate or lay down metallic inks for overprinting with CMYK. If metallic substrates are in your future, look for presses that can put white ink down first; otherwise a second pass through the press may be necessary and registration can be a problem.

Labels Until recently, inkjet was seen as too slow to compete favourably with the narrow-web flexographic presses so popular with label converters. But inkjet has advanced in this market on two fronts. Roll-to-roll label printers such as the Jetrion (commercialized by EFI; now sold and serviced by Xeikon), the Durst Tau 330 RSC, and the Screen Truepress Jet L350UV offer inkjet systems specifically tailored to the label space. In addition, inkjet units such as the Durst are being integrated with flexo units to create hybrid label production installations with most of the process features typically available on flexographic machines.

Folding cartons The extremely long runs generally associated with folding cartons probably mean that inkjet penetration of this market will be slow. But as markets change, inkjet could come into favour quickly. Product variations, which result in multiple SKUs, make for shorter runs. Hybrid presses, with inkjet heads used to apply variable data like multiple languages and different UPC codes, could well mean that inkjet will come into the fore even more quickly than expected. A corollary might be the adoption of inkjet for folding cartons of low-volume products, where labels were previously used.

Flexible packaging Inkjet has been slow to develop in the flexible packaging area because of concerns about potential migration of ink component chemicals through the film to packaged food. But recent advances in electron beam curing show promise and were exhibited at the last Labelexpo show in Brussels. As ink component migration is fully addressed, flexible packaging can be expected to be a major beneficiary of inkjet technology.

Corrugated Long the virtually exclusive domain of flexo, corrugated may move rapidly to inkjet. The new EFI Nozomi inkjet press, for example, delivers single-pass print capability that includes cyan, magenta, yellow, black, orange, violet, and white LED-cured inks – a game-changer that is attracting other companies to the corrugated market. With stores like Costco using bulk packaging as an integral element in merchandise display, inkjet printing is a natural part of an evolving packaging strategy. And industry experience with the large formats and varying substrates of corrugated bodes well for inkjet technology transfer into other market areas.

Direct mail The variability required for direct mail resulted in early adoption of inkjet by direct mail printers. Those early applications, however, were focused primarily on addressing. Now, as agencies and corporate marketers become more proficient database curators, inkjet has become attractive for major printing duty. The ability to personalize and deliver variable messages to prospects throughout a cruise or resort brochure, for example, is easily delivered by inkjet printers.

Screen printing The strength of screen printing has always been the economic viability of short runs and quick turnaround. Now, inkjet offers sign and banner makers the same advantages plus the ability to print directly from designers’ digital files. For volume work that might have been screen printed in the past, some vendors are moving to inkjet-enhanced machines like the Zund G3 cutter with an integrated Leibinger Jet 3 Up inkjet adapter kit. The Zund/Leibinger combination enables simultaneous marking and cutting of both board and flexible substrates and provides customers with substrate and shape options generally otherwise unavailable.

Envelopes Inkjet has even moved into specialty areas such as envelope printing. At Print 17 in Chicago, the Printware iJetColor Pro press won a coveted MustSee’Em award. It can print filled or unfilled envelopes in full colour as well as address them on the fly, at rates as high as 7,500 envelopes per hour. With machines like these, printers can both address and decorate envelopes at production speeds.

Signs and banners Banner producers, particularly, will find roll-to-roll inkjet printers such as the Xeikon PX3000 with Panther technology attractive because of their ability to produce banners of any desired length. And variability opens up new markets for large signage orders across large regional and national chains requiring different prices and languages in various markets.

Industrial Because the inkjet process can be tailored to accommodate a wide variety of substrates and inks, printers who produce industrial labels and signage for use in harsh environments now have another option. UV inks and the ability to work with unusual substrates make inkjet attractive for these rigorous print applications.

Textiles One of the fastest growing areas of print today involves printing directly on soft substrates. The textile markets opened up by inkjet include fashion design clothing, furniture, and wallpaper, in addition to conventional soft signage. Inkjet printers can now personalize home décor on a quick-turnaround basis, working with designers to produce varying samples from which the consumer can make a final selection. The EFI line of Reggiani inkjet textile printers offers examples of how inkjet and textile make a good partnership. Because inkjet images can be applied without actually pressing on the textile, the technology is being used in textile applications to open entirely new markets for printed fabric.

Glass and ceramics As with textiles, inkjet is already revolutionizing the world of ceramic tile, flooring, and other architectural materials. At the recent Xeikon Café in Chicago, one vendor demonstrated how inkjet printing on transfer paper could produce economical personalized drink cups. Decoration and personalization are now limited only by the imagination of the designer.

Special effects The digital files used to drive inkjet printers are essentially the same files used to create related special effects. In fact, the Scodix process uses inkjet assemblies to lay down plastic in patterns that produce ridges and information such as Braille dots. A similar process is used by MGI to lay down glue to which foil is adhered, thus enabling foiling at press speeds and eliminating expensive postpress processing.  Highcon uses lasers rather than inkjet nozzles to cut patterns in paper and to create creases automatically. All of these processes and more to come are the result of using digital files in formats that use a map of the substrate area to define actions to occur at each point on the map.

Weird stuff  Recently, Graphics Arts Magazine announced that inkjet technology was being used to print ‘use by’ dates on individual eggs – just one example of how inkjet technology is moving into industries well beyond conventional printing. Using food-safe inks, could fruit and vegetable labeling be far behind? And who better to develop and profit from such technology transfer than companies in the printing industry?

Implications for printers

Some years ago, Benny Landa, the inventor of the Indigo press, said, “Everything that can become digital, will become digital.” Recent market statistics and projections by respected market researchers all indicate that inkjet printing will grow significantly in the next few years, consummating the market shift of new printing equipment to inkjet technology and representing still another step in the complete digitization of print. In the postpress area, digitization is only partially complete, but inroads are rapidly being made by companies like Highcon, Scodix, and MGI, with others sure to follow soon.

For the printer in business today, inkjet is a technology that holds much promise and that deserves to be carefully investigated as part of the due diligence performed before a major capital commitment is made. That’s not to say that any transition from analog to digital in the pressroom will be all rainbows and unicorns. Change is always difficult and adapting to inevitable change is often as difficult for print business management and owners as it is for employees and clients.

Early inkjet technology adopters will, of course, find the new machines and workflows disruptive and uncomfortable for both employees and management. And success, if it is to come, will necessitate both internal and external changes. Those accustomed to being the low bidder on print jobs may find that adapting acceptable analog files to the new digital environment is both tedious and expensive. Thus a necessary but predictable expense in moving to inkjet involves first training a competent staff of digital designers, and then imparting their digital knowledge to outside graphic designers who typically feed work to the shop.

Early inkjet press adopters likely will not find specifications being written with inkjet in mind, nor will they find designers creating files that necessarily are readily useful with anything but offset. Thus careful training of outside graphic designers is advisable, and skilled design and file correction capability will be required within the printer’s organization. Still, inkjet is on its way, and the rewards look very promising for the printer who does a careful evaluation of the marketplace and their own capability.