Taming the Inkjet Processing Tiger

The future of inkjet processing is sustainable. And, that’s extremely important in a mature business where market segments (newspapers and magazines) are declining and product quality and service differentiation (not price) are key success factors. For the past three years, a number of industry whitepapers published from competing manufacturers and graphic arts ‘think tanks’ confirmed the sustainability of inkjet printing by identifying it as a primary driver of new growth in the commercial print industry for the foreseeable future.

Canon’s August 2018 Inkjet Printing Tipping Point White Paper concluded that inkjet printing has matured and is a viable, cost-effective print alternative to offset printing. Running costs are lower at varying run lengths. Turnaround times are shorter, making it easier to meet tight deadlines. Plus, the image quality is indistinguishable from other print options. Inkjet’s siren call of a sustainable and upwardly spiraling growth curve continues to entice committed offset and toner printers to show a keen interest in investing in inkjet processing. Investing in inkjet printing is like having a tiger in your tank. There’s lots of potential for enormous profit, but this tiger’s energy needs to be tamed and its habitat made ready before its potential can be harnessed.New and sustainable growth

NAPCO Research’s 2017 report, Production Inkjet Printing: Considerations, deployment and end results, indicated that of the 709 respondents surveyed, 43% owned at least one inkjet printer, and 40% said they were likely or somewhat likely to acquire an inkjet printer in the following year. Mark Michelson (2019), Editor-in-Chief of Printing Impressions, noted that, at the time of the survey, the dominant inkjet press was continuous-feed. Michelson hypothesized that, if the survey was re-done today, there would be a higher percentage of cut-sheet presses.

In February 2019, Tony Curcio, Editor of Graphic Arts Magazine, reported digital inkjet printing on textiles as being one of the fastest-growing industry segments. The global market for printed signage will rise to $46.7 billion by 2022. The worldwide label printing market will be worth $45.22 billion by then, and printed packaging will grow to $22.4 billion in that same year. Furthermore, as inkjet technology becomes standardized and with equipment manufacturers selling similar, if not the same, installations to multiple print shops, machine up-time and manufacturer service/maintenance response times are metrics investors need to scrutinize.

Print cannibalization 

In 2017, Alec Couckuyt (then Senior Director of the Professional Printing Solutions Group at Canon Canada and now a regular Graphic Arts Magazine contributor) pointed out that there has been tremendous evolution in technology because of inkjet. He added that the commercial printer is really looking at how he or she can better serve customers by utilizing inkjet technology in combination with offset, wide-format and digital. “These are all services that are being offered,” he said. “It really has gone from just putting ink on paper to ‘how can I better serve my customer in a total cycle.’ ” No printer wants to ‘cannibalize’ one print process for another. The optimal solution is the convergence of different print processes to produce the best quality product at the best price, in the least amount of time. Printers who continue to play the ‘short game’ of being a ‘low-cost producer,’ are normally late adopters of innovation and miss out on obvious early-adopter advantages.

Inkjet technology innovations continue

Printex Times (2019) reported that manufacturers’ investments in inkjet R&D are huge. Contrasting 2017 articles on the state of inkjet production to Curcio’s reported 2019 overview of printing trends, one quickly sees just how much inkjet printing has matured over a mere two years. In 2017, the buzz was about cut-feed inkjets. Cut-feed allowed for smaller runs to be cost-effective compared to roll-to-roll feed machines that required large runs to achieve economies of scale. It’s become apparent that printers need to see themselves beyond putting ink on paper. For tomorrow’s print shop to be productive, owners need to be able to acquire the equipment and the staff that can handle different types of data directly from customers databases, configure the data properly, and get it out as fast as possible. In 2017, long-term inkjet R&D was in its infancy and partnerships between different players, paper/ink producers and press manufacturers, were being formed. Lots of R&D dollars were being spent on making the equipment less ‘troublesome’.

Let’s be clear: The driver behind inkjet printing is fluid dynamics and bright researchers. Researchers whose innovations motivate manufacturers with the competitive spirit are continuously improving the mechanics and technology of their equipment to accommodate end-customer needs. Researchers continue to see opportunities to commercialize the properties of liquids being shot through pinhead jets onto surfaces to produce images. A better understanding of liquids and how they behave in different situations, along with increasing processor speed and data capabilities, coupled with mechanical advancements, have worked symbiotically to make inkjet printing more versatile, more cost-effective and more efficient. The collaborative research conducted amongst inkjet manufacturers, ink producers and university researchers has pushed and pulled inkjet to the forefront of the printing industry today.

Also, the capability of inkjets to print on corrugated, folding cartons, flexible, rigid plastics and a host of other substrates, has allowed many printers to enter new label and packaging markets and capture market share. Inkjet innovations also continue to increase the ability to print on differently sized surfaces, and the flexibility to produce images on non-conventional substrates such as glass, wood and metal. Researchers are testing droplets of molten metal that can be used with conductive material that creates opportunities for inkjet printing on jewellery, electronics and engine parts. Improvements in single-pass technology also allow printers to work faster – with the end result that ‘super-fast inkjet presses’ can produce high print quality work on just about any material in different dimensions. And, driving cost down further is the integration of inkjet digital printing with value-added post-press finishing systems. Advances in computer processing power now allow for the handling of large volumes of organized data from various sources at unprecedented speeds in variable formats. Be the data structured, numeric data in traditional databases, unstructured text documents, email, video or audio, processing innovations are making variable-data printing (VDP) much easier.

Why invest?

If the ultimate reason for any printer to adopt different printing methods is to shift work away from high-cost traditional printing presses, to lower-cost, more easily scalable equipment, then, according to Marcel Slot, Senior Print System Architect and Lead Technologist for Inkjet at Océ: “Inkjet can compete with offset printing. Moreover, it offers faster turnaround times for flexible production and, being a digital technology, is able to provide personalization and customization. That’s where scalability, price and speed will be the decisive factors.”

Convincing seasoned ‘iron’ press operators that inkjet printing is efficient is a hard sell. Past experiences with an inkjet printing process (compared to offset printing with respect to downtime and ink costs) didn’t favour inkjet. While these metrics have drastically improved in inkjet’s favour recently, manufacturers must be at the ready to provide prospective purchasers with reliable cost-per-sheet information and identify ‘crossover points’ where one system begins to be more costly to operate than the other.

Inkjet processing when done properly is expensive in terms of building or buying software, designing and creating equipment space and training employees. And, because it takes significant time to recoup this up-front investment, one needs to take the long view. Building a sustainable inkjet business doesn’t simply start with the purchase of an inkjet press. Success begins with leaders who invest professional development dollars in their most valued resource…their employees. There’s lots of preparation that needs to be done to keep the presses running smoothly, at top efficiency and with minimal downtime. A wise man (my father) once reminded me that you have to spend money to make money. For printers to earn sustainable revenue from inkjet printing, they need to be reinvesting its returns back into their employees as well as their equipment.

Taming the tiger’s habitat

Inkjet processing when done properly is expensive in terms of building or buying software, designing and creating equipment space and training employees. And, because it takes significant time to recoup this up-front investment, one needs to take the long view. Building a sustainable inkjet business doesn’t simply start with the purchase of an inkjet press. Success begins with leaders who invest professional development dollars in their most valued resource…their employees. There’s lots of preparation that needs to be done to keep the presses running smoothly, at top efficiency and with minimal downtime. A wise man (my father) once reminded me that you have to spend money to make money. For printers to earn sustainable revenue from inkjet printing, they need to be reinvesting its returns back into their employees as well as their equipment.

 


Caterina Valentino, PhD, is an Instructor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University and the Faculty of Health Disciplines, Athabasca University. She can be reached at caterina.l.valentino@gmail.com

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