By Olivia Cahoon
High-volume digital print engines handle monthly duty cycles between of one and ten million (M) impressions and are available in both inkjet and electrophotographic (EP)/liquid electrophotographic configurations. As digital technology advances, the high-volume printing market shifts from offset to digital for variable data and cost-effective printing.
Deciding between inkjet and toner isn’t a matter of which technology is best, rather which better suites the print provider’s specific range of applications, targeted consumables, image quality, and price. Inkjet offers higher speeds, while toner provides advanced media flexibility. In the high-volume market, investment is also a considerable matter, including price and click charges.
Above: Canon’s customers in direct mail and commercial markets use inkjet to create full-color and fully personalized pieces in a variety of run lengths.
Using inkjet technology for high-volume production printing enables high speeds, short turnarounds, and mass customization.
In the last three years, inkjet technology advanced to provide improved economics, increased productivity, and enhanced print quality. For example, today’s leading inkjet presses handle more high-volume color applications on coated media, which were once only suitable for offset production, says David Murphy, marketing director, HP PageWide Industrial Division, HP Inc.
Inkjet quality is capable of rivaling offset and toner due to advancements in ink, media, and technology—enabling print providers to compete for more work. “New devices are entering the market that support a broader range of substrates—including standard coated commercial paper grades, thicker paper, as well as higher resolution output that rivals the image quality of toner and offset,” shares Michael Poulin, director of product marketing, Canon Solutions America, PPS.
Depending on the application, production inkjet devices print at lower costs than toner for varying run lengths between one and ten million impressions, comments Poulin. This is a result of high speeds that produce jobs in shorter turnaround times—allowing print providers to stay competitive and maintain tight deadlines.
“Aside from run-length economics familiar in the analog or digital consideration, inkjet enables a world of new opportunities for brands, publishers, and content owners,” comments Murphy. This includes the ability to mass customize runs over 200,000 where every page is different. “Consider the ability to precisely match supply with demand, quickly and efficiently printing only the quantities needed, with no plate costs or labor-intensive setup times.”
High-volume inkjet customers are found in a number of markets including commercial print, direct mail, book printing, and transactional and security.
These print environments look to high-volume inkjet devices to replace conventional printing and the combination of conventional printing shells with variable overprint on toner devices, says Mark Schlimme, VP of marketing, Screen Americas. “In short, high-volume inkjet printing makes white paper factory manufacturing realistic for a variety of print markets.
Production inkjet began in the transactional space for statements and invoices, which doesn’t require much media flexibility. As inkjet technology evolved and ink and media compatibility improved, publishing applications came into the mix. “Some book printers that work in very high volumes and didn’t need a lot of paper flexibility were already invested in inkjet, but with more sophisticated inks and drying technologies, we’re seeing inkjet truly cross that threshold,” says Tim Bolton, senior channel manager, continuous feed inkjet, Commercial & Industrial Printing Group, Ricoh USA, Inc.
Those same changes, which allow printing on gloss-coated media at high quality, bring inkjet further into the commercial space. In fact, Bolton says the market is starting to see more complex and demanding applications run on inkjet.
This ranges from large in-plant printers like universities, financial institutions, and hospitals where branding and corporate colors are top priority, to large commercial print shops looking to match color output to large offset presses, comments Poulin.
Continuous inkjet presses are widely used by mid-size to large book manufacturers, direct mail service providers, transaction service bureaus, and general commercial printers. Murphy says the primary needs of these customers include the ability to print static and variable files with faster turnaround time and cost efficiency.
Limitations for inkjet devices in high-volume production printing are commonly associated with media compatibility but also include high ink prices.
Historically, inkjet was geared toward high-volume customers producing millions of prints per month to justify the cost. It required a high capital investment and was solely a continuous feed, roll-to-roll workflow, which not every shop was ready for, says William Bay, manager, production cut sheet business, Xerox Corporation. “Inkjet has traditionally been limited in image quality and media latitude, but technology advances are changing all of that today.”
According to Deana Conyard, worldwide product marketing manager, production inkjet, Xerox, the limitations are now significantly less than what they were a couple of years ago. This is in part due to an expansive inkjet portfolio and newer systems that offer accessibility in volume and cost.
However, inkjet is still limited in terms of compatible media. Because inkjet inks are primarily water, most high-volume production devices require uncoated papers or treated coated papers that carry a pricing premium. Until the last several years, Schlimme says the image quality of high-volume production inkjet limited the technology to applications such as direct mail letters, transactional printing, and book publishing.
Significant advancements in printhead technology introduced high-definition printing with two picoliter ink droplets—the type of image quality required for replacing offset printing, says Schlimme. Further, some manufacturers introduced proprietary inks that support printing to standard coated offset stocks.
“Newer technologies do a better job at addressing a broader array of media,” agrees Bolton. However, he warns that this new media flexibility also comes with added steps, but streamlining those steps pushes inkjet forward. “Inkjet users and manufacturers bring more paper into the inkjet fold either by applying a primer treatment to the paper ahead of time, so you have better adhesion between the ink and the paper, or in the case of some of the newest technology on the market, you use intense drying technologies that help the ink bond more efficiently, effectively, and precisely to the paper.”
While a variety of the printing technologies continue to advance in terms of quality, reliability, and application range, toner-based devices make strides due to its media versatility, high image quality, and lower investment costs.
“The latest toner-based devices have leap frogged prior generations in offering all of these traits at half or less of the acquisition cost of what was available eight to ten years ago,” says Dan Maurer, VP, digital print Americas, Heidelberg USA, Inc. Today’s toner devices offer low acquisition costs and have an advantage for collated output or inline finishing that lower overall production costs.
Toner advantages extend into both color and monochrome devices. According to Mauer, color toner presses are capable of printing to a wider variety of substrates than aqueous inkjet, including synthetics, digital and offset grades, and textured media. In monochrome cutsheet, flexibility and production cost is the advantage, while also having the application ability to print variable on offset printed shells. “These engines most often require less operator labor and less training than offset, further improving cost savings,” he adds.
The majority of toner-based devices are sheetfed—providing a broad application offering and a full range of inline finishing options that help reduce touches and improve production efficiency. “Thanks to the high-color quality of digital toner devices, the applications typically printed on sheetfed toner presses are high-quality/high-margin applications such as marketing and branding collateral and direct mail pieces,” says Anthony Agliata, director of marketing, Canon USA, Inc.
Toner devices are commonly used by commercial printers, quick printers, and in plants such as universities, banks, and hospitals. These devices complement offset and inkjet printers, especially in applications where corporate colors and color output is integral, says Agliata.
Low acquisition costs allow print manufacturers to use high-volume toner-based devices scalable with their business growth. “With advancements in high-resolution lasers, small toner particle size, control advancements, and reliable machine designs, toner-based presses continue to push upwards to higher volume, high-quality applications,” says Maurer.
Due to these advancements, he believes toner’s applicable substrate range, including thick materials and synthetics, wider color gamut utilizing multicolor beyond CMYK, and improved registration, allows toner-based devices to produce work matching offset quality—for example, high-volume photobook production and mailing.
While toner has a general advantage in terms of media flexibility, it’s limited in print width and maintenance requirements.
As a result, inkjet has the advantage when it comes to printing wider widths. “We have inkjet systems that are running much larger formats today than we do with toner systems,” comments Bolton. Toner systems are also more mechanically complex than inkjet—requiring more moving parts and adding complexity for use and maintenance.
According to Maurer, the toner printing process is inherently unstable requiring closed loop controls to maintain image quality. It’s also relatively sensitive to changes in process parameters requiring maintenance. Though advancements in control systems and longer life components improve toner stability, he says they require relatively higher levels of maintenance impacting up time in high-volume printing.
High-volume printing is also difficult for toner due to its flat click charge model, which creates challenges like equipment reliability, performance, throughput speeds, and longer turnaround times, says Murphy. “For these reasons and more, when digital volumes increase, many of these jobs are transferred to inkjet.”
Continuous & Cutsheet
In high-volume markets, both continuous and cutsheet devices are available and excel in different ways. Each offers its own advantages and limitations for quality and cost.
Deciding which feed is more efficient comes down to the print provider’s offering. For example, Bolton says continuous feed systems are preferred for high-volume printers that produce a lot of one thing, like books, statements, or letters. On the other hand, cutsheet devices tend to be more ideal for printers that produce a variety of different applications.
“Sheetfed devices let you effectively and efficiently change paper from one job to the next. In fact, I can stack different types of paper in different trays in the printer and change the paper on the fly,” explains Bolton. In continuous feed, changing the paper requires print providers to shut down the machine and re-thread the web in an entire process.
Continuous inkjet presses cannot accommodate multiple paper stocks that may be required within one print run and therefore, are usually not suited for short runs or the lower end of the one million impression spectrum. “Typically, a continuous feed system is better for longer runs because of the engine speed and use of one stock for a single job,” says John Dembia, manager, product marketing—production print products, Konica Minolta. He says as the overall quality of inkjet continues to improve, it allows customers to deliver color more affordably than traditional cutsheet.
In the lower range of one to ten million duty cycle environments, cutsheet inkjet printers are gaining market adoption. According to Murphy, cutsheet printers are typically reliable for the two million pages per month range, with the ability to produce short bursts of high volume from time to time. “On the high er range of this space, continuous feed inkjet presses dominate the market landscape and consistently handle volumes of ten million or more.”
Additionally, printers utilizing offset presses may have difficulty in their finishing workflows when switching to cutsheet inkjet. Because inkjet is a contactless printing process, it’s important to protect the expensive printheads from contacting the paper. Therefore, Schlimme says there is a high level of difficulty involved in moving cutsheet paper at high rated speeds in single-pass inkjet printing. “As a result, high-volume production printing with inkjet requires continuous feed or roll-fed printers and this means printers with offset presses must adopt finishing workflows to accommodate printed rolls.”
A variety of vendors offer both inkjet and toner-based high-volume production print devices. In this scenario, vendors use marketing strategies that help customers pinpoint the exact technology suited for their business.
Every print manufacturing environment requires a customized mixture of output devices to produce applications in the most cost-efficient manner with the highest quality. Because of this, Maurer suggests print providers seek an agnostic technology provider. “Technology has enabled both toner and inkjet to produce very high-quality output in reliable equipment so the return on investment is now the driving factor in the purchase.”
As customers observe industry changes and wonder how their business will transition, they try to figure out what technology to invest in. According to Bolton, it’s important that they talk to someone who can provide an unbiased view and discuss what’s best for the company and prescribe and implement the appropriate solution.
“We market our portfolio with the intention of finding the exact right fit for our customers,” agrees Poulin. This includes analyzing the customer’s business, pain points, and opportunities and evaluating print volume, required color saturation, and vibrancy to help determine whether inkjet or toner provides the most opportunity.
By thoroughly analyzing the customer’s business and output, vendors provide solutions that drive the most profit into their customer’s business, also offering the best return on investment. “Vendors, as part of their relationship with print manufacturers, are accountable for their customers’ financial success with the equipment they purchase,” comments Maurer.
The difference between inkjet and toner-based devices also extends into investment, including pricing, consumables, and click charges.
For both inkjet and toner-based devices, this ranges significantly. Toner device acquisition costs in terms of quality, reliability, and application range continue to decrease as the technology improves. “Previously, to get a 13×19-inch toner-based device that produced offset-quality work with reasonable reliability required a half million dollar investment,” says Maurer. Today’s acquisition cost is roughly $70,000 to $150,000. But with the expansion of these devices to B2 size, he says pricing can reach up to $2M.
Toner-based devices almost exclusively operate on click models, including both service and consumables. There is also a range of click models that can confuse customers. Some click models include all four colors, are based on separation, have a base monthly service plan, or have a base monthly volume required to hit price points, explains Maurer.
Similarly, inkjet devices range in size, speed, and complexity from under $100,000 up to $4M. According to Maurer, most are based on a traditional consumable purchasing model combined with a service plan.
As a general rule, Schlimme says capital costs for inkjet presses are initially high but running costs—including service and ink—are significantly lower than high-volume toner-based devices. “Some manufacturers charge click fees for high-volume inkjet presses but that model is becoming increasingly rare.”
“In general, production inkjet presses have a higher acquisition cost but lower running costs and toner devices have lower acquisition prices but higher running costs,” agrees Agliata. Customers should consider the total cost of ownership, including their anticipated monthly volumes, application types, consumables, and click charges.
The market is shifting towards digital solutions—both inkjet and toner—for its ability to offer full variable data and personalization as well as cost-effective printing at any run length.
“Keypoint Intelligence expects that the adoption of high-speed roll-fed color inkjet devices will continue into the near future,” says Poulin. He points out that in its 2017 to 2022 On Demand Printing and Copying Forecast, Keypoint Intelligence predicts that unit shipments will grow from 231 in 2017 to 272 in 2022 and page volumes will grow from 111.7B impressions in 2017 to 181.6B impressions in 2022 at a compound annual growth rate of 10.2 percent.
While color inkjet is projected to grow at a steep pace, Poulin says it is mostly based on offset pages transferring to digital. “These pages are also moving to toner-based printing as run lengths continue to decline and personalization continues to grow, so EP pages will continue to grow as well.”
According to Sebastian Stabel, sales & business development, Xeikon, there is a broader market momentum towards inkjet, although toner still remains the most cost-effective option for the production printing market.
Supporting solutions like workflow and finishing help further drive the adoption of digital technologies.
Printing is often the easy part in high-volume production printing environments. Supporting solutions including workflow and finishing help streamline production both before and after printing. For example, in transactional environments workflow takes a data stream off a mainframe and merges it with a document—producing it at hundreds of feet per minute and then finishing inline. “The result is white paper in, finished product out, more quickly and easily than at any previous point in history. That only happens with sophisticated front-end workflows and back-end finishing technologies,” says Bolton.
Utilizing efficient workflow and finishing solutions is also integral for the print provider’s business. “The print providers’ goal is to provide a cost-effective, quality product to the print buyer in the shortest time possible,” comments Agliata. Efficiency is key to productivity and cost reduction, with workflow solutions automating the print process from job submittal to moving it around the shop effectively and into shipping and billing. “Inline finishing or JDF-driven nearline finishing help further this automation—limiting touches, helping to reduce errors and waste, and speeding turnaround time.”
All shops require a customized mixture of printing technologies to manufacture print in the most cost-effective manner, but to match in quality and color requires emphasis on integrated workflow solutions. According to Maurer, workflow is a key component in maximizing print manufacturing efficiencies and reducing waste and reprints while assuring quality matches across the printing platforms.
However, finishing poses a challenge due to its many mechanical aspects. Thankfully, there are advancements in finishing equipment for makeready times and integration with digital printing, whether offline, nearline, or inline. Examples include automated cutting and folding equipment, fast makeready stitchers and binders, new laser die cutters, and faster makeready traditional die cutters. “The use of servo motors and controls to automate makeready in finishing equipment allows customers to produce jobs at a variety of run lengths at lower costs,” offers Maurer.
Both inkjet and toner devices are ideal for high-volume printing environments, depending on the application, consumables, and the print provider’s targeted investment costs. As the market shifts in favor of high-volume digital printing, workflow and finishing solutions are important to consider. dps
Jan2019, DPS Magazine