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Digital Printing Paper Use Continues to Expand

By Jeanette Clinkunbroomer

With digital printing here to stay, paper manufacturers are rising to meet the demand. 

 

Like printers, paper manufacturers are facing an increasingly digital and paperless future, both in commercial and corporate markets. The fortunes of commercial printers traditionally have been tied to the economy in general. That is, when the economy is booming, so is printing. However, in a recent report, industry market analyst TrendWatch Graphic Arts predicted that although the economy may return to former levels of activity and growth, commercial printing may never fully recover. Digital technologies, which have fostered several new, completely electronic methods of communication, carry much of the blame for the shift away from print communications. But digital technologies also provide the brightest hope for growth for printers.

Printing can be defined broadly as ink on paper. When printers feel the pinch of reduced advertising budgets, combined with a re-channeling of communications into paperless media, paper manufacturers share the downturn. Many mills also produce other forest-based products, such as packaging materials, consumer goods like tissue and paper towels, and lumber and other construction materials. They can, and in some cases, have changed their focus from producing printing and writing papers to these other product lines. But, they also have a hefty investment in paper mills and distribution networks, and unused capacity there can be recorded only as a loss. Most American paper mills reported a loss on last year’s bottom line.

With slow sales, nearly every grade of paper currently is selling at the lowest price in several decades. In efforts to adjust supply to demand, many manufacturers have closed mills and pulp operations either temporarily or permanently, and as supply balances with demand, prices may begin to creep upward, perhaps in the middle of the year. Energy, transportation, and chemistry costs already have increased for the manufacturers.

In addition, paper makers have had to take a hard look at the markets they serve. Though changing the direction of a paper company might be comparable to changing the course of an ocean liner, paper manufacturers have been steering their activities to meet new demands. As a result of their careful R&D and new production processes, over last year virtually every large and many smaller mills have launched or expanded their digital paper product lines. Though digital printing still represents a very small part of the industry, it’s growing more quickly than traditional offset and gravure. Similarly, digital paper, though still a fraction of the whole market, is the fastest growing category in paper.

No Longer Special

One indication of the paper mills’ commitment to digital printing technologies is the special case of Hewlett Packard’s Indigo presses. Introduced almost ten years ago, the Indigo uses a patented liquid toner called Electroink rather than dry toner. Accordingly, the Indigo press has required the use of paper stocks that were sapphire-treated to make the surface receptive to Electroink. The sapphire treatment adds to the cost of the paper, and tends to yellow over time, limiting the paper’s shelf life. A few suppliers, like the now-defunct Russell Field Paper Company, bet on the Indigo’s success and took up the challenge of providing a wide range of sapphire-treated stocks. But the company apparently was ahead of its time, and in 2001 they shut down operations.

At the end of 2002, Eastern Paper Co. launched its Inspire product line of uncoated papers, which were formulated and carefully tested to run on HP Indigo presses without the sapphire coating.

"We approached the Indigo problem as one unique to itself. We figured if we built an inexpensive solution on the paper machine, it would open the market and help Indigo sell more products," says John McMahon, communications manager of Eastern Paper. "Inspire was developed to be competitive in price with Hammermill’s uncoated Color Copy, which is basically the standard of the toner-based systems."

He notes that currently, "Inspire has 50-lb. text all the way to 12-point cover weights. We can go lower to the 40-lb. text weight. The 12-point is as high as we can go at the mill. It’s all uncoated, but we are talking to some of the coated mills as potential partners for the technology we’ve patented. We’ve put a lot of effort into developing the intellectual property and the chemistry. We’ve developed what can be a platform for a lot of things in the future, including having one sheet with dry-toner compatibility along with the Indigo compatibility, so that Inspire will be marketed to both dry toner machines as well as the Indigo."

Alongside its Inspire paper line, Eastern offers eColor, eCover and Docupaque, developed for use on dry toner equipment, including copiers, laser printers, and digital presses like Xerox’s iGen3 and the NexPress 2100. McMahon says Eastern’s collection of digital papers, with a bit more tweaking, may be merged into one product line to serve all platforms.

"We’re trying to come up with common shades for even traditional offset opaques, so if someone is matching a cover for it, both papers would be the same shade even though they run on different machines," he adds.

"As in everything else, not everybody loves us," says McMahon. "There’s been a lot of learning interaction in the Indigo market. A lot of Indigo users have been using coated papers, and uncoated paper is a little bit different. It’s not as hard a surface, and it can be a little more compressible than coated."

Apart from educating Indigo users in the ways of uncoated paper, Eastern Paper confronted new competition over the last year in this highly specialized market. At New York City’s Print On Demand trade show in April, 2003, Hewlett Packard introduced its own brand of papers for Indigo presses. HP Indigo Printing Papers were launched in three uncoated grades, 70-lb. text, 80-lb. premium, and 80-lb. premium cover. More recently, HP also unveiled a line of coated Indigo Printing Papers, as well as uncoated rolls for the new HP Indigo model W3200.

A Giant Responds

Unlike its smaller competitors, International Paper has taken a somewhat more cautious approach to the digital paper market. Its Memphis-based Hammermill brand has long been a leader in uncoated paper for copiers and other dry toner devices, but its new Color Copy Gloss was introduced only this year.

"We don’t have a specific type of paper for certain types of equipment," says Ned Spangler, brand manager for Hammermill’s imaging papers. "Most of our paper works on multiple applications and on most equipment."

Dry toner printers generally require sheets that can tolerate the heat of the toner fusing process and offer appropriate electrical properties. A very smooth surface accepts toner better, and a bright white shade shows off color images well.

"Coating is probably one of the most demanding characteristics for xerographic papers," Spangler says. "You can’t take standard coated paper for offset and run it through an electrophotographic printing system. The coating could melt and stick to the drum. The coating is slippery, so depending on the paper path in the equipment, you could have jamming issues. If you take a coating and put it under intense heat, odor can be an issue. It can crack with folding. It’s a complicated process, and it took Hammermill several years to develop Color Copy Gloss."

"Five years ago there were a lot of coated papers out there that people were selling for digital applications, and the papers just didn’t run very well," he continued. "We’ve invested the technology dollars in developing a coated product that we believe has superior performance."

Hammermill Color Copy Gloss joins the comprehensive range of Hammermill products for all types of digital printing, and is available in cut sheets sized 8.5"x11" and 17"x11", 32-lb. weight, with a 90 brightness.

Another relatively new supplier of digital papers is Smart Papers. The company’s mills once belonged to Champion International and have a long history of producing primarily coated stocks.

"The digital market is a lot like the switch from letterpress to lithography," notes Tim Needham, president and CEO of Smart Papers. "It took a long time to happen. As digital gets better and better, the costs will keep coming down, and you’ll see more and more growth."

This promise of growth in the digital print market has prompted Smart Papers to develop an extensive line of digital coated papers as part of its existing brands—Kromekote, Knightkote, and Carnival.

"Our Kromekote and Knightkote products have surfaces that can accept toners and stand up to the fusion of dry toner applications. For inkjet, we’ve added microporous surfaces that will perform better with inkjet printers. We make both sapphire coated paper for the HP Indigo, and we make uncoated papers that are not sapphire coated for that press. They work well for operators who know how to handle them and the presses," he adds.

Though Needham says he believes the market for sapphire treated papers will dwindle over the next 18 months or so, he calls the papers bullet-proof because they accept the HP Indigo’s Electroink without press adjustments.

"And, of course, digital printing equipment has improved dramatically," he notes. "The Xerox iGen3, NexPress 2100, HP Indigo, the DocuColors have all improved not only their quality, but the stability of their running environment. There aren’t as many jams. They don’t take paper through extreme paper paths. Everyone wants to find something new, but the truth is, in the paper world, digital paper has been out there a long time—it’s called copier paper. The new equipment can use better papers and can get better performance."

Digital papers are improving too, suitable for the full range of technologies and as many applications as designers can imagine.

"We have a very high-end inkjet paper we’ve been working on that will compete with the new Kodak and HP papers," says Needham. "That will be coming out shortly in 8.5"x11" and other cut sheet sizes, not large format. We’re also going to introduce Kromekote with 30-percent postconsumer content for digital. We introduced coated textured papers last year and will continue to introduce more interesting surfaces in the future."

He concludes, "We’re expecting double or triple-digit growth in the digital market. I’m extremely optimistic compared to where I was six months ago. Print run lengths are still going to be short, but people are going to look more and more at color printing. Direct marketers will start asking how to get better responses, and there are two ways—more color on the sheet, and start personalizing. And those are very important things for the digital world."

Old-Timers

Mohawk Paper was among the first U.S. mills to make a serious commitment to the digital paper marketplace, and the company is currently a leading supplier in the field. "We sold more digital paper in 2003 than we have since we introduced our digital products in 1998," says Chris Harrold, Mohawk’s manager of digital papers. "This was our fifth year, and it was a year of more growth and continued growth in digital papers."

At the end of 2003, Mohawk unveiled Mohawk Color Copy paper. "What we’re all about in 2004 is addressing two sides of the dry toner printing world," he says. "There is digital color production, which is the faster, more expensive equipment, like the iGen3 and the HP Indigo. Products for those are already in the Mohawk digital paper portfolio. Now we’re going after the very large installed based of color copiers."

"We’re committed to our traditional core products—premium offset printing grades—and are equally committed to the position we’ve gained in the digital world," Harrold says. "We’re committed to having a paper for every kind of imaging our customers do."

Printers today can find a paper stock to run on any type of digital device, including those that use dry toner, liquid toner, ink jet, or offset inks. As printers migrate in growing numbers to digital technologies, they’ll find an appropriate paper for every application.

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