State of Production Inkjet
By Jon Robinson
Four of Canada’s technology leaders discuss the current state of production inkjet technology and what impact it is having in the domestic printing market.
After decades of intense research and development, supported by unprecedented technology partnerships, production-strength inkjet on the cusp of disrupting commercial printing. In mid-June, four of Canada’s technology leaders travelled to Burnaby, BC, to participate in a panel discussion focused on the business strategy of production inkjet at PrintAction’s one-day PrintForum West conference. The panelists included: Alec Couckuyt, Senior Director, Canon Canada, Professional Printing Solutions Group; Brad King, VP, Graphics Communications, Xerox Canada; Ray Fagan, Sheetfed Product Manager, Heidelberg Canada; and Edward Robeznieks, VP of Sales, Ricoh Canada. Below are key excerpts from their hour-long discussion.
Why should printers invest in inkjet today, are we past the bleeding-edge?
Alec Couckuyt: Yes – we are past the bleeding edge. There has been tremendous evolution in the technology with inkjet… The commercial printer right now is really looking at how can I better serve my customer and inkjet technology together with offset, wide format and digital are all services that are being offered. It really has gone from just putting ink on paper to how can I better serve my customer in a total cycle.
Brad King: Cutsheet inkjet is new from a strategic point of view. In Canada, we have one [Xerox Brenva] install that we can talk about and two others we cannot talk about, so it is still fairly new. There is a lot of interest from commercial printers about these products – how it fits, what are the applications, where does it play. More products and applications are coming and the inkjet space is very close to exploding.
Ray Fagan: If you think about cutting-edge or bleeding-edge technology it is still, in my opinion, in its infancy in terms of long-term development. We took the advantage of some existing platforms of the XL 106 sheet transport, feeder, delivery that have been around a long time.. and we partnered with Fuji for the inkjet heads using Samba technology and their expertise to combine both technologies into one machine. We got to market fairly quickly and launched it at drupa.
There are still a lot of learning curves, a lot of consistency challenges… But our first [Primefire 106] press has been installed in Europe with a beta site at a packaging customer and we will do another machine this year. The roll out will continue to be slow… By 2018 we will finish our beta testing and move into serial production.
Ed Robeznieks: Because we migrated to our [Ricoh] 60000 platform we are able to now go to commercial printers and say you can move offset work over. We can run coated stocks, thicker stocks… we are not running 300, 350 gsm, but we are running 250, 260 and that has opened up the door.
Copywell in Toronto put in a VC60000… They took an original application which was sold as an [offset] sheet run and have now billed 2.5 to 3 million feet a month, which are true offset transfer applications.
How does inkjet present new opportunities for printers?
Couckuyt: An example of a new application for one our clients is magazines… They are actually personalizing or regionalizing the advertising in the magazine. Part of the magazine is printed offset and then the variable part is printed on the inkjet web and then they assemble it. That is an advantage they can sell to their client – the ability of having regionalized information for a specific advertiser.
So it is a new way of approaching the market and creating new opportunities. The critical part is that we can now combine variability with static… The question of whether inkjet can replace offset is the wrong question. Offset and inkjet together open more opportunities for clients.
King: When inkjet came out it was roll-to-roll, big machines, two million plus investment in capital. You needed big volumes to justify the roll-to-roll devices and there were not a lot of printers who could participate in the economics of inkjet.
Now the technology is coming down for lower volumes, as an investment with cutsheet devices, so that mid-sized commercial printers can start playing in this game… You can do a short-run campaign with similar economics that the big players are using today. That is where inkjet is really going to open up big opportunities.
These devices are not $100,000 yet – still a pretty good number that you have to spend – but they are not $2.5 million roll-to-roll devices that need to be running 3, 4, 10 million impressions a month to have the economics make sense.
Fagan: Because [Heidelberg’s] Primefire is basically focusing on the packaging market, as we roll out the product, there are a lot of things happening in packaging that are forcing those printers to look at economics a little bit differently. As run lengths decrease in packaging, it is harder to make money because you do not have the pure volumes. The customer demand for individualization is growing and it is really in its infancy.
We have seen jobs where a 100,000 sheet run is broken into batches of 500 cartons… and this is where the digitization of the industry and the industries around us in advertising are driving manufacturers to do something quite a bit different. Major brands are really forcing that upon packaging printers.
We also see a lot of legislation for packaging with batching and traceability of the package through UPC codes. It could be in the European market in the near future where every single box has an individual identification marker on it so that we can trace it back to its origins. And this is due to the amount of piracy.
Robeznieks: As the price goes down for devices inkjet will become more attractive. It is good for us in a way as manufacturers. Because there is so much downward pressure on operating costs right now, it is becoming difficult for us to make a profit because of servicing the equipment and toner-based technology requires a lot more service than inkjet-based technology.
So it is better for us in the long run, from our perspective, to move toward inkjet. Your gain [as a printer] is operating costs and flexibility where you can do variable, but you are going to be able to take advantage of significant cost savings with inkjet versus toner.
How do you describe total cost of ownership for inkjet to printers?
Couckuyt: Inkjet uptime is a really critical issue. If you are used to a digital press, uptime is in the 60, 70 percent range. If you look at [Canon’s] i300, for example, it has a minimum uptime of 95 percent. When we start talking about total cost of ownership, for a commercial printer and a specific job, that could mean dedicating three shifts [on a toner device] or doing it with inkjet in two shifts… when you look at the evolution of inkjet devices a lot of R&D effort went into building those machines so that they really look after themselves.
King: Inkjet is new technology, that over the next 15 to 20 years, I feel is going to change the printing industry. It allows variable print onto all substrates… It is going to allow us to offer our customers, and printers’ customers, some pretty impressive product solutions to help keep print alive… having strong economics to keep print relevant for people who use marketing communications.
This is really where inkjet TCO will help keep print alive, because it is variable and it will have something valuable to sell to the people who want to use print as a marketing vehicle versus just going digital.
Fagan: We do not see inkjet supplanting offset in a large way for quite some time. We think they are going to run in harmony based on what is being produced. And if you follow that philosophy, the total cost of ownership for the offset printing press can also be improved… because you have another alternative which improves the total cost of ownership on your other equipment.
You are also reducing costs in prepress and you are reducing costs in other areas of building. You do not have to warehouse products. There are a lot of other costs that inkjet lends itself to… that lends itself to a facility’s overall production cost.
Robeznieks: There are still heavy users of offset technology that are going to be difficult for us to strip away… it really comes down to a manufacturer partner who understands a certain vertical really well and who can help you understand your client base and then figure out where the footprint fits.
Why will variable be more impactful for inkjet than it was for toner?
Robeznieks: I’m going to give the non-politically correct answer but it is not. If you have a good working relationship with your client and can help them with variable campaigns, it doesn’t matter what you use – inkjet, toner, there are lots of ways to interact with the client.
What is very interesting is the next phase of inkjet which will be direct to shape… That is a whole different ball game, because now you are going to have things done on the manufacturing line. All of a sudden our devices are no longer creating labels, they are going directly to their object. And all of us are looking at how to get into that space.
Fagan: Big Data has been slow in being understood by a lot of people… in terms of managing the data and properly executing it into a portfolio of products. I really think Big Data in general, Industry 4.0, all of that growth we are seeing right now is accelerating at a very high pace and it is going to become much more manageable to do large variable data programs, computing that information, managing it and getting it where it needs to go. I see growth in that area with inkjet.
King: There is a [Xerox] customer in Toronto who has figured a bit of this out. When you go onto a Webpage and click on a couple of items you thought of buying – and then forget about it or leave to go somewhere else – they are actually grabbing that data. That night, they run a batch file with those three items you looked at, print it the next day on a direct-mail piece and it gets mailed out to that customer within 24 hours. That is where I see some of this very interesting data management… You can do a great direct-mail campaign on a very cost effective platform like inkjet.
Couckuyt: As a printer, you have to be involved in a lot more than just putting ink on paper… you have to be able to handle data, make sure it is being utilized and sent out to the client in record time to have relevance. This is where we as an industry have to be able to take in that data, configure the data properly, and get it out as fast as possible.
We are under pressure to really understand what it is that our clients are communicating, what they need. Inkjet technology and the combination of different technologies, where you go inline or near-line, whichever way you set it up, is an answer to producing relevant communications tools for your client.