Production Inkjet: ‘It’s Not That Big a Risk’
As he wrapped up the 2019 Inkjet Summit, conference chair Marco Boer (I.T. Strategies) had a distinct message: if you want to grow in print, inkjet technology is the clear choice.
“I’m very confident that this is the place to be,” he said of inkjet. “It’s not that big a risk.”
On the other hand, he cautioned, the “risk of not investing [in inkjet] has become too great.” Inkjet is no longer a cutting-edge technology. The second wave of inkjet adopters has already started, and the competition has become more skilled in the use of inkjet.
This was quite a different situation than what Boer faced at the first Inkjet Summit back in 2013, when skepticism about the quality of inkjet printing was a primary obstacle, and continuous-feed inkjet presses were the only show in town. At this year’s Inkjet Summit, attendees learned of more than a dozen cut-sheet inkjet presses on the market and inspected samples of inkjet-printed material that raised many eyebrows.
“Inkjet technology has come a long way in improving the quality of the image since I attended last,” noted two-time attendee Steven Rigby, of Washington State University. “The Inkjet Summit 2019 was a spectacular event, as always, but this year I came away with a deeper understanding of the other solutions that support the inkjet industry, both on the software side and also on the finishing end. I also appreciated having industry experts in attendance to bring it all into perspective.”
“This year’s Inkjet Summit confirmed that the printing equipment is ready, if you have enough volume and the right types of work,” added Chuck Werninger, of the Houston Independent School District, “but it also clarified how important it is to carefully study your workflow and anticipate changes needed in your software and finishing equipment.”
The Inkjet Summit, owned and organized by In-plant Impressions’ parent company NAPCO Media, is an invitation-only, hosted buyer event that seeks to educate attendees on every aspect of production inkjet printing. As in years past, it took place at the elegant Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, near Jacksonville, Fla., in April and drew more than 120 print providers — including nearly two dozen in-plants. They attended keynote presentations, panel discussions and case study sessions and held 1:1 meetings with leading vendors of inkjet solutions. Networking receptions and dinners, including a closing awards banquet, gave attendees ample time to make new contacts and learn from one another.
“I found the Inkjet Summit to be incredibly informative. I liked the format of the sessions,” noted first-time attendee Damien Bernard, with the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services. “It was not just sitting and listening to presentations, it was more interactive — especially the 1:1 meeting times with vendors.”
For many, the Inkjet Summit clarified the status of production inkjet technology and showed them how to begin planning.
“Inkjet was a fuzzy jigsaw puzzle in my head; now the puzzle is a clear picture,” said Julio A. Rosado, of the NYPD Printing Section. “The Inkjet Summit allowed me to create a roadmap to the future by answering many of my questions in cost, utilization and workflow.”
‘Scary’ But Essential
Boer acknowledged that taking the inkjet investment plunge could be “a little bit scary” for printers who haven’t fully grasped inkjet’s potential. Changes in print market demand, however, are making the inkjet investment not only prudent, but necessary, he insisted, and putting it off might be the biggest risk of all.
The “sobering reality,” said Boer, is that page counts are down everywhere and their value is also in decline. Moreover, he said, there is tension between the industry’s “pragmatic need for automation” and customers’ desire for more flexibility in what printers produce for them.
“There is not one single perfect device for doing this,” Boer said. “You need a lot of devices.” Among them, he continued, should be an inkjet press, which is essential for automated production.
Something else that ought to draw printers’ attention to inkjet are demographic trends that are already making it difficult for print providers to find people to run their conventional equipment. Declining birth rates, he said, are shrinking the labor pool to a point where “we are heading to $25 an hour labor” — a situation he predicted will trigger a “tipping point” to inkjet away from offset because operators for the conventional process will have become too scarce and expensive for printers to employ.
“You have a window of about seven years” before that happens, Boer warned. The good news, he said, is that inkjet has proven to be “more reliable than we had ever predicted,” and with diligent research and planning, printers can make profitable investments in it.
“It’s not a risky bet,” he assured the audience. “It is a pretty safe bet from the calculated risk perspective.”
“Not investing in inkjet is the risky decision,” he added.
Boer also emphasized that the profit from inkjet is no longer going to come from the quality of the product, rather it will come from the most timely and relevant use of data.
“Beautiful print quality has now become a given, so the differentiator will be data and how it is used,” he said. However, there is a fine line between being relevant and using too much data: “Don’t be creepy!” he cautioned.
Investing in an inkjet press, he advised, entails much more than just picking a printer.
“It’s a far more complicated decision than it may have appeared originally,” he said. The investment process must also involve investing in workflow software and new pre- and post-processing equipment.
Finishing the Process
That point was driven home in a panel discussion led by Boer that featured Jim Renella of Diamond Communication Solutions in Carol Stream, Ill., and Nico Brusco of Command Companies, in Secaucus, N.J., talking about their experiences on the finishing end of the inkjet process.
While inline finishing on a digital toner device may seem an obvious choice, it may not be such a wise decision on an inkjet press. This became evident as the speakers shared their experiences with in-line, near-line and off-line finishing for their inkjet devices.
Renella related a story of how his company’s efforts to do in-line perfing required operators to slow down the inkjet press so the perforating unit could keep up. He did not realize they would have to do this when he got the press, he said, and, in fact, he didn’t even think about the finishing process until after the press was installed.
Brusco said that while his company has in-line, near-line and off-line finishing, “we have mostly offline.” Printed rolls are moved to the finishing devices. Renella agreed that more complex applications must be finished offline so the inkjet press can run at its rated speed.
Boer said new inkjet users should keep in mind that they have no idea what new applications may come along in a year or two that will require a new type of finishing.
“You’re going to need flexibility as you make these investments,” he said.
Renella advised his peers to plan for a larger footprint than just the press, as you’ll need to move lots of paper around and store printed rolls until they can be finished. Brusco recommended that print providers “include everyone in the process” as they plan for inkjet and finishing systems, especially the operators. “They’re the ones who are going to see the issues,” he said.
Perhaps the best way to demonstrate that investing in an inkjet press makes sense is to install it, turn it on and just let it run. For three panelists at the Inkjet Summit, it wasn’t quite that simple, but all agreed that they didn’t fully appreciate what inkjet was capable of until after they’d gained some practical experience with it.
In a panel discussion titled, “The Business Justification Process for Inkjet,” moderator Mark Michelson, editor-in-chief of Printing Impressions, asked three executives to talk about what had moved them in the direction of inkjet in the first place.
For Thomas Markman, operations manager of the in-plant printing division of Wolters Kluwer, a provider of professional services, the move to inkjet came after the in-plant scrapped its entire complement of web and sheetfed offset presses. He said “a lot of non-believers” initially questioned the transition until they saw how the performance of the inkjet press — a continuous-feed Xerox Trivor supported by a Hunkeler finishing line — compared with what they were used to from the litho equipment.
For its initial run, the in-plant tested the inkjet press on a job that normally needed five days to complete in the offset department. Produced on the Trivor and its finishing line, the job took just “14 minutes from PDF to the box,” Markman said.
Trisha Thomas, director of engineering strategy development at Valassis, described the implementation of inkjet for check printing by Harland Clarke, parent company of Valassis. Harland Clarke, she said, viewed inkjet as a way to trim costs in a declining market for printed checks, which it had been producing with more than 70 toner devices.
Harland Clarke’s inkjet fleet now consists of Océ JetStream and ColorStream continuous-feed color presses as well as five Canon VarioPrint i300 presses for sheetfed work. Valassis also is looking at inkjet for its portfolio of print advertising products, Thomas said.
One objective of installing an HP T230 inkjet web press and a Hunkeler cut-and-stack finishing line at UniGraphic Inc., was to end reliance on overprinting offset shells, said Jim Jackson, a solutions architect for Quad/Graphics, which acquired the Woburn, Mass., commercial printer in 2014. He said the learning curve included discovering that total cost of ownership (TCO) “was lower than we anticipated” and that the inkjet equipment thrived on heavy-duty use.
“These machines run — they don’t go down,” Jackson observed, adding that the company needed to bring in additional finishing systems to handle the nonstop output.
Thomas said that Harland Clarke calculated inkjet TCO by crunching OEM-supplied numbers with its own estimates of ink coverage and the labor savings to be gained through inline finishing. The conclusion was that inkjet “totally made sense” for what the company wanted to accomplish. Although the cost of acquiring an inkjet press can be high, Thomas commented, the TCO advantages are what validate the investment.
She noted, however, that an inkjet press can be “very finicky” about the types of paper it runs and that stocks must be selected with care. Something else to be aware of, added Markman, are the costs associated with the downtime that occurs during roll changes on continuous-feed equipment. He said that the Wolters Kluwer in-plant does everything it can to minimize roll-change stoppages and other preventable interruptions to production.
Jackson declared that what the OEM vendors say is true: inkjet presses don’t stop. What UniGraphic found out, however, was that its existing digital workflow wasn’t up to the task of managing that level of productivity. It took a year, he said, to get the workflow into sync with the high capacity of its inkjet equipment.
Asked by Michelson for their advice to prospective inkjet adopters, all three panelists recommended attending the Inkjet Summit and making the most of its networking opportunities.
“Don’t be afraid to talk to other users,” Jackson counseled. Thomas concurred, noting that inkjet technology is moving fast and that much about it has changed.
“Ask those questions,” she urged the audience.
Boer closed the Inkjet Summit with an enticement to attendees to move ahead with inkjet so they do not get left behind. The investment will be worth the time it takes to learn the technology.
“If you want to be on the growth curve of things,” he concluded, “inkjet is it.”
Related story: In-plant User Panel Discusses Inkjet Benefits
Bob has served as editor of In-plant Impressions since October of 1994. Prior to that he served for three years as managing editor of Printing Impressions, a commercial printing publication. Mr. Neubauer is very active in the U.S. in-plant industry. He attends all the major in-plant conferences and has visited nearly 170 in-plant operations around the world. He has given presentations to numerous in-plant groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including the Association of College and University Printers and the In-plant Printing and Mailing Association. He also coordinates the annual In-Print contest, cosponsored by IPMA and In-plant Impressions.