By Cassandra Balentine
The latest introductions and advancements in production inkjet enable higher speeds and longer runs. The technology is often utilized to hit monthly duty cycles well above ten million impressions. With this capacity for speed, it is able to truly fill what was once a gap between traditional offset and cutsheet digital.
Applications like transactional/TransPromo and book blocks are accustom to the technology and have benefited from production inkjet for many years. However, advancements in quality and media compatibility make it more attractive to new targets in commercial print.
Above: The Canon Oce ProStream features piezo drop-on-demand inkjet printheads, which is leveraged with Oce Multilevel technology for sharper details, smoother half tones, and economized ink usage.
High Speeds, Long Runs
Several vendors offer production inkjet technologies that target high-volume environments, supporting those requiring millions of monthly impressions.
For example, Canon Solutions America offers three production inkjet platforms, including the Océ ProStream Series, the Océ ColorStream, and the Océ JetStream Series. Michael Poulin, director of marketing, Canon Solutions America, Production Print Solutions, says the average range of print volumes on these devices really depends on the environment in which they are placed. Each of these platforms are capable of printing more than ten million impressions per month, the Océ ProStream offering up to 35 million, the Océ ColorStream offering up to 59 million, and the Océ JetStream offering up to 90 million impressions.
HP’s PageWide Web portfolio consists of platforms featuring duty cycles ranging from 50 to 200 million pages a month. David Murphy, worldwide marketing director, HP PageWide Industrial division, HP Inc., says HP’s customers tend to buy PageWide Web presses, “not to print a little, but rather to print a lot.”
Kodak’s Stream continuous inkjet technology powers both its PROSPER S-Series Imprinting Systems and the PROSPER 6000 Presses, offering speeds of up to 3,000 and 1,000 feet per minute (fpm), respectively. Will Mansfield, director, worldwide product marketing and category management, Enterprise Inkjet Systems, Eastman Kodak Company, notes that in general, Kodak Prosper owners produce between 25 and 50 million A4 pages per month. However, some print 100 million or more from a single PROSPER press.
Memjet color printheads use waterfall technology to fire millions of ink drops per second. A variety of OEMs employ the technology to support a range of applications and customers. “The point volumes differ by customer. The ten to 15 million impressions per month range seems to be the sweet spot. Presses that produce that many impressions are affordable even for smaller printers,” suggests Gianluigi Rankin, director of product marketing, commercial press, wide format and packaging, Memjet.
Pitney Bowes works with HP to power its IntelliJet 20, 30, and 42 and IntelliJet 20, 30, and 42 HD printing system family. Using thermal inkjet drop on demand technology, the devices offer print speeds up to 1,000 fpm depending on the platform. The Pitney Bowes AcceleJet printing and finishing system features piezo drop on demand technology and hits speeds of up to 328 fpm.
Grant Miller, COO, Pitney Bowes Messaging Technologies, sees its high-volume accounts hitting two basic break points. The first is customers with total volume under ten million impressions per month, which is typically output volumes between two to five million impressions per month per device. The second is those with the total volume over ten million impressions per month, with output volumes between seven and 80 million impressions per month per device. “For many of our customers, redundancy is a critical necessity for their production environment. As such, the total volume tends to be split between multiple devices as opposed to concentrated on a single device.”
Ricoh offers the InfoPrint 5000 GP, InfoPrint 5000 MP, RICOH Pro VC60000, and RICOH Pro VC40000 continuous feed inkjet presses. “Our continuous feed inkjet customers produce a range of monthly print volumes,” says Ed Wong, continuous feed inkjet product marketing, commercial and industrial printing business group, Ricoh USA, Inc. “Our platforms are capable of supporting monthly print volumes of up to 40 million impressions.”
Screen Americas offers the TruePress Jet 520NX, the TruePress Jet 520ZZ, and the TruePress Jet 520HD. Mark Schlimme, director of marketing, Screen Americas, says the Screen TruePress 520 Series print platforms provide a range of speeds and subsequent duty cycles. “A printer can typically cost justify continuous feed inkjet for as little as four million impressions or equivalent 8.5×11-inch surfaces. However, most printers are producing approximately ten million impressions per month and Screen has many customers worldwide printing as many as four million impressions per day.”
Xerox offers several ultra-high volume inkjet presses. Its Trivor family includes the 2400 HD Inkjet Press and the Trivor 2400 High Fusion Ink Press; the Impika family includes the Xerox Impika Evolution and Xerox Impika Reference; and the Xerox CiPress 325/500 Production Inkjet Systems make up the portfolio for this segment.
Deana Conyard, worldwide marketing manager, production inkjet products, Xerox, notes that while impressions vary greatly depending on monthly workload and the customer’s business model, there is typically a stage in which providers ramp up, increasing their impressions drastically as their experience with the device improves and they add business through the extended capabilities inkjet offers.
Transactional/TransPromo, direct mail, and book and manual applications utilize this technology for its speed capabilities and have been for several years. However, commercial applications are also tapping into the potential.
While production class inkjet continues to thrive for the same applications that launched the category, such as transactional, publishing, and direct mail, the technology’s latest advancements enable more opportunity. “Image quality and resolution continues to improve and for many applications is comparable or even advantageous to toner technology. Therefore, as all of these applications continue to grow we also see higher end postcards, self-mailers, and coffee table quality books being added to the mix,” explains Schlimme.
Digital has always been required for transactional printing, since each page is different. However, Rankin says that in the past customers printed shells with static content on analog equipment, and those shells were then loaded into a toner-based printer for monochrome, variable printing. Short runs of books were also printed on toner-based equipment in monochrome. “High-speed inkjet printing has changed these markets. It is now possible to economically print full-color transactional prints on white paper, eliminating the need for pre-printed shells, as well as full-color, short-run books.”
Conyard sees inkjet thriving in service bureaus; in plants—primary for but not limited to the financial services and insurance industries, direct mail, and publishing. “High-speed inkjet production is ideal for these areas because it provides a more streamlined approach to printing transaction and variable data on white paper, eliminates preprinted forms, incorporates more personalization into communications, and optimizes print run lengths.”
“Transactional printers were among the first to recognize the benefits of high-speed production inkjet and were willing to accept the initial print quality,” says Wong. “We’re seeing continued growth in these applications as their customers are driving for higher print speeds and increased print quality.”
Miller suggests that high and ultra high-volume inkjet presses offer new opportunities for transactional mailings, most notably around physical and digital message integration. “By adding a digital component to a physical mailpiece, such as mobile, web, or video-based communication, vendors create additional opportunities for meaningful customer engagement.”
Direct mail is also affected by inkjet. More variable content is used to improve response rates. “Magazines and catalogues are starting to be produced partially or entirely digital as print runs decline and content is personalized,” says Rankin.
“Ultra high-volume production printers are thriving in the direct mail segment,” agrees Miller. He says the equipment allows marketers to create targeted, personalized mail pieces that are driven by marketing messages and brand content.
It is also becoming more cost effective for direct mail as new technologies in the space lead to automatic inserters and faster drying ink, says Miller. “As many in the direct mail segment know, there are numerous ways to drive message reception and retention through mail pieces such as customized content, color-printed, and the use of cross-platform, omni-channel marketing. Innovations in production print equipment and data analytics are making it easier to create dynamic, personalized mailpieces that are tied to digital channels.”
The latest advancements in inkjet appeal to commercial print environments, which require high quality for applications like marketing collateral.
From a commercial print perspective, Wong says changing market dynamics are driving those customers to consider alternatives to better support the shifting requirements in shorter runs, greater customization, and tighter SLAs—all at lower costs.
Advantages for the Print Provider
Many production print environments have invested in inkjet and can speak to the advantages, including more options, equipment consolidation, and a better operational workflow.
Conyard says customers that have embraced high-speed digital production inkjet technology are now experiencing the benefits of consolidated equipment. “Instead of having fleets of devices, providers can streamline to just one or two. These customers are also able to make major improvements in efficiency by eliminating the need for preprinted forms and giving more flexibility in where content is placed.”
“Customers making the investment in production inkjet find they have an alternative to offset printing that allows them to cost-effectively support shorter print runs, turn jobs around with greater immediacy, and help customers create printed pieces that induce increased response and engagement with customized and targeted campaigns,” agrees Wong.
“These machines are highly flexible and capable of producing extremely high monthly volumes for both color and monochrome applications. When volumes are high, these devices efficiently and cost effectively meet company and customers’ demands, all while incorporating variable data and color without preprinted forms,” says Poulin.
Schlimme suggests that printers using high-quality, high-capacity inkjet printers are implementing white paper factory production workflows, eliminating the need to print, store, and manage offset shells—as well as eliminating the significant material waste associated with aging designs and expired content. “Inkjet is enabling printers to blur the lines between traditional definitions of long and short runs and offer their customers new capabilities, such as variable or personalized content at costs, run lengths, and turn times comparable to offset.”
Murphy adds that in high-volume direct mail applications, the legacy process of imprinting variable text on pre-printed offset shells has been largely replaced with single-pass mass customization. “With HP’s high-powered SmartStream Production Pro digital front end, Every Page Is Different is possible with vibrant, variable photo images and customized text. The key is to have quality data to customize for each recipient with relevant offers.”
For affordability, a lower total cost of production helps to speed up the migration of print work for incumbent processes—including offset, gravure, and flexography—to digital. It also improves the profitability of digital print service providers, according to Mansfield.
“High-volume printing production that uses inkjet technology increases speed and reduces downtime,” adds Miller. “In an industry where enterprise mailing or production printing is a large part of a business, ultra-high volume production can save tenths of pennies and fractions of seconds per piece of mail, leading to potentially surprising—and significant—cost and time savings.”
Since ultra high-volume printers are created for mass production, Miller points out that they are equipped with technologies that create quality issues such as paper curl or smudging. For example, the Pitney Bowes inkjet printers use technology to ensure no static or paper curl through the production process and utilize specially formulated oil-based ink prints, which dry faster, are fade resistant, and produce higher quality deliverables, according to Miller.
Improved quality enables a wider application range, which increases the revenue and profit for digital print providers and the technology vendors who serve them, adds Mansfield.
Technology limitations are depleted as technology improves. For example, media versatility was a bigger challenge in the past. However, these challenges exist and should be considered when discussing the technology.
Rankin says inkjet ink requires a porous surface to print on. “While uncoated offset papers are generally printable with inkjet inks, offset coated papers with their closed surfaces have been a challenge.”
Coated paper suppliers have reacted and many offer inkjet coated papers. “However, the premium over offset coated papers can be quite steep,” he comments. “With time, as volumes of inkjet coated papers grow, the premium is expected to shrink as the economies of scale kick in.”
Mansfield suggests selecting the right substrate is key to successfully harnessing the power and promise of today’s high-speed inkjet printing systems. “While many papers may look alike, printers know the different properties—pulp, additives, smoothness, and surface chemistry—are specially formulated to support different applications. Inkjet papers have unique advantages for image quality. They are optimized for optical density and color gamut, and are formulated to reduce color-to-color bleed, show through, and ink mottle,” he points out.
Mansfield admits that looking ahead, there is an issue with the availability of coated glossy papers for inkjet. “Although there are a few select paper companies offering inkjet-treated papers, the market needs more. For our part, Kodak is enabling printers to use traditional glossy papers, which today can be found at a relatively low price, in their Prosper inkjet printing systems, by applying an inexpensive pretreatment developed by Kodak.”
Schlimme argues that the costs associated with inkjet-treated papers as well as managing separate and multiple paper lines for conventional offset printing and digital printing can be significant. “Typically, paper costs account for 30 to 40 percent of a job’s total cost. When premium inkjet treated papers carry a 30 percent pricing premium compared to standard coated lithography stocks, that percentage of total costs can be prohibitive at worst and low margin at best. Researching the ink solutions that expand paper choice is a very important part of the inkjet evaluation process,” he says.
Color management is another issue. “Spot colors can be tricky, unless a system has excellent color management and expanded color gamut capabilities,” admits Schlimme.
“Precise color matching of some corporate brand colors, especially reds, can be challenging with CMYK inkjet,” offers Murphy. However, HP has achieved improvements with its profiling capabilities and ColorGATE color management software. “Servicing time-critical 24/7 production environments has been a challenge for some, but we have introduced the HP Visual Remove Guidance service to facilitate faster issue resolution. With this service, operators enjoy collaboration with HP expert engineers worldwide and share live information. The remote customer engineer can see what the operator sees and does and provide real-time guidance via a wearable computing display and text chat with real-time language translation. This seamless experience expands operators’ skills and simplifies the resolution process.”
Miller adds that production printers face ever-changing customer needs and expectations. While vendors understand the importance of making deliverables consistently more eye catching and personalized, the technology must continue evolving in a timely manner as well to keep up with new demands.
“While gaps in print quality are closing, there are still some print applications that can be challenging and not necessarily cost effective to print on inkjet,” says Wong. “It comes down to the amount of ink coverage, achievable print speed, or a combination of those. But inkjet technologies show great promise as significant investments continue to be made in terms of printheads, inks, and media to overcome current limitations and expand the range of potential applications.”
Print buyer expectations are also changing and the increased quality of inkjet brings more likely acceptance of the technology for more applications, as the advantages of digital and variable print are fully realized. “This is especially important where customer data can be exploited such as purchase histories, etc. to make messaging more relevant,” says Schlimme.
USPS rate changes also affect customer demands, as there is a growing need for vendors and print providers to quickly adapt to new postal stream discounts and adjust business operations efficiently, says Miller.
Compared to the more mature technologies inkjet competes with, the segment has undergone significant change in the past decade. However, it continues to improve and attract new potential.
Poulin suggests this segment is constantly evolving as manufacturers race to evolve their current technology offerings and bring new innovative products to market. “The largest area of advancement seems to be in inks and media,” he offers. Adding that Canon Solutions America is constantly working to improve its inks—both pigment and dye—and couple them with technologies like ColorGrip, enabling printing on a wider range of media.
Similarly, Murphy says HP introduced inline priming solutions to enable nearly any offset coated media.
“Looking at the supply side, advances in high-speed color inkjet systems are extending the application of printing from monochrome and transaction applications to color-critical books, direct mail, catalogues, and magazines,” says Mansfield. “Our mantra for the near future is faster, better, cheaper. At Kodak we’ve set our sights on converting the traditional analog printing process to inkjet. To accomplish this we will continue to drive for faster production, better quality, and lower total cost of production,” he continues.
Hardware manufacturers continue to push multiple vectors. “We will see increases in productivity and print quality. At 1,600 dpi, Memjet printheads meet the demands of many customers and applications,” says Rankin.
Conyard says customers can expect gains in image quality, expansion of substrate latitude, and improvements in accessibility. “These devices are also coming down market to accommodate lower volumes and acquisition points.”
Miller agrees that inkjet technology is becoming more accessible to a larger segment of the market. “For example, the Pitney Bowes AcceleJet printing and finishing system offers a lower entry point to production inkjet printing.”
The device features flexible printing modes and finishing options designed to deliver high-quality output at low capital and run costs. It offers a duty cycle of up to 21 million impressions per month and according to the company, it can help more print and mail operations processing letter-based applications realize the operational performance and business improvements that come with upgrading to color inkjet.
“We should expect inkjet to continue advancing in speed, image quality, and ink technologies. As high-end inkjet printheads deliver smaller drops and finer detail, image quality will equal offset and in turn, printers will demand larger gamut and support for specialty inks including spot colors and gamut expanding colors but also inks that deliver unique value to the printed page such as invisible ink and secure ink technologies,” says Schlimme.
As technologies rapidly change and become somewhat more affordable, pieces are produced in higher quality. “In addition to quality printing, people are inclined to print on glossier stocks, which tend to stand out more, and embracing embossment and unique finishing. The consumer-driven need for more enticing and engaging products continues to drive additional advancements for production inkjet, beginning with color printing many years ago to today’s fade resistant and quick drying inks and quick-response (QR) code integration,” says Miller.
In the near future, Murphy expects to see increased adoption of digital watermarking integration into the printed page. “With HP’s Link Technology, more applications will be enabled to bridge print to the internet via covert of overt marks. With the use of a free application and a mobile device, the user can unlock dynamic and serialized content behind photos and text without the intrusion of a QR code,” he explains. The technology enables track and trace authentication in books and packaging to percent gray market and fraudulent reproduction and it also creates a unique user experience with the ability to access customized, web-based video content.
High-speed production inkjet has transformed transactional, book printing, and direct mail environments. With its sights set on commercial applications, we continue to see improvements in speed, quality, and media compatibility.
October 2017, DPS Magazine