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A New Era

Inkjet Enters the Spotlight

By Steve Aranoff and Robert FitzPatrick

Having covered the trends and directions of the printing industry for several decades, it seems to us that an extraordinarily significant industry milestone recently passed that should be acknowledged. It is not just a matter of progression but a movement into a new era.

For over 20 years, we witnessed the proliferation of digital printing, especially as new opportunities for short and intermediate run color evolved. In the professional printing arena we are all familiar with the offerings of major suppliers. Xeikon by Punch Graphix pioneered high-speed dry toner based systems. Indigo—now owned by Hewlett-Packard (HP)—pioneered in high-speed liquid toner based systems. Kodak’s Graphic Communication Group, both individually and through its partnership with Heidelberg, developed toner based systems, and is known for its high-speed NexPress printing technology.

A new digital print technology, inkjet, is moving into the mainstream of traditional commercial color printing. It is capable of challenging offset printing presses in runs of just one copy to thousands of copies. This new role adds to inkjet applications that are already labeled specialty printing, or are utilized for home office and small office applications. Inkjet technology had not truly developed in this area of the market before 2008. The challenge to traditional commercial color printing is that it can provide additional opportunities beyond what toner based products can supply.

Products on the Market
For most analysts, inkjet’s development was not predicted. Some companies were involved with inkjet long before now, for example, Agfa.

Agfa Graphics spent a number of years perfecting technology purchased from Purup. Recently, a major packaging company indicated that its high-speed Agfa :Dotrix press, a successor product from this technology, is producing superior quality prints at high enough speeds, and reasonable enough costs, to become a true solution for shorter run packaging applications as well as for some new print on demand applications, including point of purchase.

The introduction at drupa of Fujifilm Group’s new JetPress 720 can be identified as the tipping point in inkjet’s new power. It is a flatbed printer capable of moving 125 fully registered full bed sheets in an hour.

Also at drupa, HP demonstrated a 36-inch version of the HP Inkjet Web Press, which runs at speeds of up to 400 feet per minute at 600x600 dots per inch output—producing up to 3,200 A4 pages per minute.

Visitors to drupa also had the opportunity to see Kodak Stream Inkjet Technology in a hybrid printing application. The Stream Concept Printhead from Kodak was running inline on a Muller Martini Press. Capable of delivering monochrome offset class variable data applications, the four-inch Stream Concept Printhead was designed to produce black 600 dpi images on glossy substrates. Rather than challenging offset head on, this flexible hybrid printing solution provides a powerful option to add offset friendly variable data print to direct mail, billing statements, and other commercial applications.

The EFI introduction of the Jetrion 4000 Series Inkjet System at the recent LabelExpo in Chicago, IL brought another example in a niche oriented commercial print application. This five-and-a-half-inch narrow web digital inkjet press is suited to economically run lengths of 50,000 labels and beyond. The system is a good fit for secondary label, industrial label, and flexible packaging markets and can be used for many primary label applications.

Not to be outdone, others joined the inkjet market. Also introduced, a seven-color Epson digital label press. This press uses Epson’s micro piezo inkjet printing technology to deliver smooth gradations and exceptional color quality. Combined with a new industrial quality, water-based pigment inkset, this press prints on standard, off-the-shelf roll substrates from four to 13 inches wide. Epson considers the press a complement to conventional printing that enables converters to expand their service offerings and enhance productivity.

Rewriting History
As a test for whether inkjet moved to a new and higher level of power and importance, consider the financial and technological investments and commitments made by major suppliers, the producers of the technology. In the case of inkjet’s ascendancy to this new level of production printing, the major suppliers—Agfa, Fujifilm, and Kodak—each represent a classic archetype.

Agfa, Kodak, and Fuji’s bread and butter were the three ingredients of offset printing supplies—film, plates, and proofing. Their triple threat eventually drove other players into assembling the same full array of products. Film-only companies disappeared. Plate and film merged and various modes of proofing became indispensable elements of the bundled sale. The sales of electronic hardware—proofing devices, film setters, and platesetters—were increasingly financed by long-term supply orders. Only companies with all the parts of the supply bundle could make deals.

The awesome consequences of digital imaging were recognized by large offset companies—3M, Agfa, DuPont, Fuji, Hoechst, Kodak, and Konica Minolta. Adapting successfully was a matter of increased investment but a decision to accept reality and address the fundamental changes that were likely to occur if they didn’t act in a timely manner. The great challenge was to take money from an old and very profitable technology and invest it into new and untested products. Most suppliers took the safe route and chose not to. Extraordinary consolidation then followed, leaving few older players to move forward, but providing opportunity to newcomers.

Agfa, Fuji, and Kodak once again assembled the three main ingredients, this time in inkjet—ink, inkjet printheads, and colorants. But, perhaps learning from the electronics hardware experience, they all intend to drive or at least manage the inkjet supplies business with sales of their own unique printing hardware. The electronic prepress field was a constant tug-of-war between hardware that drove supplies that financed hardware. By offering both hardware and supplies, the three major players left standing may escape that frustration and uncertainty.

Fuji has identified inkjet as the offset of the future. Agfa, EFI, and Screen USA also seem to have made the same decision. Agfa has some of its own unique technology in addition to selling hardware and software and supplies. EFI, although coming at this from the digital world, augmented its in-house RIPs with its own print hardware and ink technology, increasing the push in this direction after buying VUTEk a few years ago.

Inkjet is the New Digital
What does this mean for small, specialty printing companies using inkjet? Perhaps little for now. Higher speeds and a greater capacity for inkjet technology will have a major impact on pricing and even in changing the print pricing models currently used. The offset printing and profit paradigm may intrude into inkjet. As we move into the inkjet age, printers will be able to produce different kinds and more quantities of print for less cost with added flexibility. Now that the comfortable and more proven suppliers have entered the inkjet fray, we believe the time has come for inkjet to make its mark in the arena previously left for older technologies. It is time to look at what digital printing can do for you today.

Nov2008, Digital Output

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