By Lisa Guerriero
Quality and versatility have long been the hallmarks of electrophotographic (EP)/toner-based devices. These benefits make it a popular choice for everything from direct mail to the photo market.
Advancements in inkjet cast a long shadow, but EP still has plenty of light. According to a market study from Smithers Pira released earlier this year, EP/toner is the dominant contributor of value and volume to the global digital printing market. It’s expected to remain that way until sometime after 2019, when the study predicts inkjet will begin to pull ahead. The report forecasts that both printing approaches will continue to see growth through 2024, at which time EP/toner will retain a high percentage of the market’s value and volume.
Fred DeBolt, VP, cut sheet line of business, graphic communications business group, Xerox Corporation, points out that EP/toner offers a combination of efficiency, quality, and the opportunity to customize applications.
In addition to advancements in automation and integration tools, hardware improvements lead to greater application versatility and wider substrate compatibility. These new capabilities contribute to the continued appeal of EP/toner.
Capitalizing on these advances represents a challenge as well as an opportunity. Manufacturers recognize the need to educate EP/toner users and potential buyers about their options—from print-to-Web quick response (QR) codes to internal cloud-based systems.
“Technology is no longer a limitation for digitally printed applications, but awareness of the possibilities of digital print is a key challenge hindering its adoption,” observes Avi Basu, director of market and business development, Graphics Solutions Business, Hewlett-Packard (HP). “There is a critical industry-wide need for education on the limitless possibilities with digital printing to help brands identify, develop, and execute campaigns and projects involving digital print.”
Automation and Integration
While some technology advancements in EP/toner pertain to hardware, many are designed to improve the way printing services operate. “Many organizations have been expanding their digital printing business over the past few years. Their digital printing fleet, applications, and jobs have grown during this period. So a priority for many of these organizations is to further streamline and integrate internal capabilities as well as better job submission and integration with their clients,” says Brian Dollard, director, product marketing, production solutions division, Business Imaging Solutions Group (BISG), Canon U.S.A., Inc.
Print providers are compelled to make production more efficient, and job submission is one area that’s ripe for greater automation, suggests Dollard. “The majority of jobs are still being submitted by clients via email or FTP. Further streamlining of this process will allow for more efficient processing and increase the capabilities to take a greater number of orders. Web to print (W2P) and job submission solutions help automate the submission and pre-flighting of jobs, communication with clients, and can be integrated with management information systems and production platforms,” he says.
Staff training is critical to adjusting to the new internal systems, as well as getting clients up to speed on any changes that affect them. Those who produce the equipment are focused to make the processes more user friendly. “At Xeikon, we invest a lot of R&D effort in workflow automation and tools to lower the complexity for short-run personalization. For example, our digital front end gives customers the ability to add personalization and other variable elements to documents after the RIP, before the press prints the job,” says Danny Mertens, director, segment marketing document printing, Xeikon.
Despite growing pains in some instances, print professionals see the value of the technology and incorporate it into their business. “The barriers to adoption are reduced as clients become more comfortable in submitting orders electronically. The new cloud-based offerings are helping with some of the IT challenges and costs associated with self hosting,” says Dollard.
Promoting new capabilities to customers is part of the challenge for printers, says HP’s Basu, but so is “integration with internal systems, including relevant training, new process development, and change management for people assets.”
That’s one of the reasons many EP/toner producers offer extensive support to go with their digital systems. At HP, a key part of that support is Dscoop, a user community for graphics professionals to share best practices and get advice. Dscoop is offered in addition to a range of HP training programs for related technical, operational, and business topics.
The fundamental benefits of EP/toner—such as comparatively low up-front costs and job versatility—are well established within the industry. EP quality has come so far that many buyers comparing digital to offset “cannot tell the difference between the two technologies if asked,” notes Kevin Abergel, VP of sales and marketing, MGI USA.
Manufacturers have worked to improve those fundamentals in several ways. Inkjet may have enjoyed an “explosion” of technology advancements in recent years, as one executive described it, but that doesn’t mean EP/toner has been standing still.
The latest digital presses “show that innovation is still alive,” says DeBolt. “For example, the newest addition to the Xerox production portfolio, the Xerox Versant 2100 Press, provides more image quality through expanded capabilities. The press produces smooth sweeps and gradients and sharp images, graphics, and text with new Ultra HD Resolution. Applications are rendered at 1,200×1,200 dpi at up to ten bits—that’s 300 percent more pixels and color precision rendered than the 600×600 dpi standard.”
Image quality is an important part of what makes print providers choose HP Indigo, comments Basu, for those looking to “match or surpass conventional printing,” the HP Indigo offers application flexibility as well as “substrate versatility including synthetic, metallic, or dark materials; spot colors; and special effect inks like white ink, UV red, light cyan, light magenta, and light black.”
Developing color and finishing options is a focus area for many. Diversity is part of what makes NexPress successful, according to Kodak. “Offering new applications and capabilities is often a key driver, especially with a NexPress, because of the format sizes supported as well as the fifth station and specialty finishes available,” says Len Christopher, NexPress business manager, digital printing and enterprise, Kodak.
Mertens says Xeikon also sees printers recognizing the greater efficiency EP/toner now offers. “By working on the cost and increasing the speed of these devices, we see more traditional volume migrate to digital print and traditional printers looking for digital presses.”
Equipment providers predict that print professionals will turn more often to EP/toner-based solutions for their inherent versatility. “Image quality and media-handling flexibility are two of the key drivers that steer users toward EP technology,” notes Mike Fego, manager, product marketing – production print, Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A., Inc.
EP/toner-based equipment has long been a popular choice for variable data, so utilizing it for customized print jobs is a logical fit. “Commercial printers, in-plants, service bureaus, and data centers all use NexPress, often for multiple types of applications. It’s that flexibility and robustness that customers are looking for, producing their everyday jobs,” explains Kodak’s Christopher. Print providers are increasingly drawn to EP/toner because of those qualities, “flexibility and robustness,” and how they can be focused on providing the desired level of specialization for the job.
Versatility is also a telling word for Xeikon when it comes to the future. “All applications requiring a combination of high and constant image quality with the capability to print on a variety of substrates are opportunities. At Xeikon, we foresee strong growth in the direct marketing, publishing, label, and packaging production markets. We are adopting specific solutions to address these market needs,” says Mertens.
There is great potential in the options available to help printers grow their business and boost profits.
“End-to-end solutions for printing applications that help print providers expand their client base and increase loyalty from existing customers with new offerings—including photo keepsake printing, folding carton printing, just-in-time production of short-run digital books, transactional print jobs with integrated marketing messages, cross-media direct mail campaigns, and personalized collateral made possible with W2P functionality,” explains Xerox’s DeBolt.
He suggests that EP reproduction is becoming a mainstream technology within the book industry. “As the mix and distribution of books changes, publishers focus more on getting to a just-in-time state of inventory after the initial launch of a title.”
Distributed print for reprints using toner-based digital print platforms will enable publishers to achieve the long-held dream of no inventory waste, says DeBolt. “These savings will create excellent growth opportunities for providers of digital book printing solutions in both centralized and distributed platforms,” he predicts.
Cross-media applications are increasingly popular. Any print provider—especially those implementing digital—must have a strong online presence to stay competitive, suggests MGI’s Abergel. “Whether it is W2P with an investment in SEO to push high-margin niche applications, or print-to-Web applications such as augmented reality content or QR codes, the ability to combine the impact associated with print with the information associated to the Web is a potent mix.”
HP Indigo Digital Presses, as well as HP Inkjet Web Presses, are the primary platforms used for a variety of applications, and HP predicts even more in the future. “HP customers are growing in a range of markets with a variety of applications, including commercial print, labels, flexible packaging, folding cartons, photo specialty, direct mail, books, and publishing,” notes Basu.
User educating is critical. “In addition, many print providers are still developing their skills and offerings around data management and mining, variable data print (VDP), and cross-media campaigns. We continue to see great advancements in both of these areas, but it is taking time,” observes Canon’s Dollard.
For substrates, manufacturers focus on overcoming previous limitations. “Digital presses that use new low-melt toner—such as Konica Minolta’s bizhub PRESS series—can reliably handle a wider variety of substrates than inkjet technology,” says Fego.
Kodak’s NexPress is suited to run offset substrates. “For a NexPress, the image quality and durability of a print are rarely a limitation, given the presence of a trained operator. Also, paper costs are not an issue for a NexPress, as it was designed to run offset substrates,” explains Christopher. “Interestingly, we see customers interested in a larger sheet size, such as B2, but once they look at their end products, and what it takes to produce them as efficiently as possible, they choose NexPress due to the flexibility it offers. Larger sheets are generally necessary on an offset press for productivity due to the limitations of the cylinder size and the makeready process, but that isn’t an EP limitation, at least for a NexPress.”
Customers that may have opted for inkjet or offset in the past due to speed concerns may now have their needs met with EP/toner-based solutions. There are new opportunities for printers because “some of the current EP product offerings—100 ppm Konica Minolta bizhub PRESS C1100 being one example—can deliver offset quality output at high speeds without slowing down on thick stocks, which make them ideal for short-run static jobs as well as high-value variable work,” says Fego.
There are still certain limitations in substrates that EP/toner technology needs to overcome, believes MGI’s Abergel. “So while the commercial print industry has largely embraced EP, the next big thing for digital print manufacturers to tackle is the digital packaging segment. Today, EP is limited in the packaging segment by format, thickness, substrates, and for a large part the inability to print white toner, opening the door for inkjet-based print technologies to move in,” he says.
Communicating the Changes
The benefits of digital printing channel more users toward EP/toner devices—a trend that’s expected to continue thriving with the rise of print on demand and short-run jobs.
“EP/toner digital presses’ growth continues to be fueled by the advancements in digital communication and digital infrastructure. These trends drive timely, relevant, and integrated print communications—all of which play to the strengths of digital print such as print on demand, highly automated production, VDP, and short-run color,” notes Dollard.
Communication is the key. However, it’s up to manufacturers to explain the benefits of the latest advancements in printing and workflow technologies. Additionally, it is important that print providers educate their own clients on how the technology can be put to work for them. dps
Nov2014, DPS Magazine