Inkjet and Paper: An Improving Relationship
Prior to its grand coming out party in 2015, the Océ VarioPrint i300 sheetfed production inkjet press was known as “project Niagara.” Which makes one think of Niagara Falls. Which makes one think about water. Call it a trickle-down effect.
The relationship between production inkjet ink and paper is less than symbiotic; like star-crossed lovers, they need to be together but, by their very nature, they cannot coexist. Inkjet ink is mostly water. Add that to paper. It has all the makings of a Greek tragedy.
The happily-ever-after saga will have to wait. As for the time being, the relationship between inkjet ink and substrate is less than perfect, but is constantly evolving and improving. The market for inkjet paper is not where it needs to be, but has made significant strides in the last year alone. With that said, the 2020 market will undoubtedly make us take pause, mouths agape, as it should. After all, relatively speaking, production inkjet still has that new-car smell.
To ensure that you know what you’re putting in the gas tank, so to speak, we’ve assembled a cracker jack panel of inkjet cognoscenti to provide some perspective: a paper expert, a paper mill and an OEM. There are more than two sides to a piece of paper, and these noted industry mavens have their finger on the industry’s pulse.
Balancing Quality and Cost
The head of Schilling Inkjet Consulting isn’t all about the paper; Mary Schilling is intimately involved with conventional and inkjet technologies, inks and substrates, and also provides technical support to print providers on optimizing print quality while lowering total print cost.
The treated paper field, Schilling notes, is lush and green with many options of grades for various quality and cost levels. The papers with low and high holdout provide a fit for all budgets and discerning eyes. The coated side is a bit of another story, she says, with fewer mills in the trenches making the needed chemistry changes and figuring out ways to make it cheaper.
Schilling recently proctored an engagement for Ricoh, where nearly 99% of the attendees were offset printers interested in finding out how far production inkjet technology has come. In other words, how much closing of the quality gap between offset and inkjet had occurred, from the coated paper perspective.
“Everybody kept saying, ‘This isn’t ready,’” she observes. “It’s all in the print quality and it’s all based around the paper. Offset coated paper is made and designed to repel water. We’re still using such a high content of water in inkjet ink; it’s the same issue. We need to start focusing on how we change the ink. It’s not just the paper. It’s the market, machine, ink, everything.”
Specialized paper, since it is more difficult for the mills to manufacture, becomes even more cost-prohibitive in a limited inkjet market. “Printers are used to offset prices, used to $62 to $72 for 100 lb., but this stuff is mid $80s to $100,” according to Schilling. And while she works closely with mills on coated and uncoated papers, Schilling points out that many trials lose steam because the mills cannot make the papers for the price point that printers need.
The critical aspect of paper shopping is to strike the balance between print quality and paper cost. In this respect, it’s vital for printers to decide what is important to them among the criteria of paper choices. It’s like deciding what options you need on a riding lawnmower, and which ones are merely window dressing and not vital to getting the job done.
“Printers ask for five things: a low-cost sheet, high density, good color gamut, low show-through and no curl,” she says. “I tell them: ‘Pick three, you can’t get five.’ It really depends on their market and what’s important to them.
“For book printers, it’s small text clarity, density, low show-through and no curl. Transactional printers want density, low show-through and small text clarity. On the commercial side, they want everything — density, gamut, clarity, smooth solids, no mottling and no coalescence.
“But it always comes down to the cost of paper. Good enough is kind of relative, as it works on the paper cost side. But commercial printers want it all, and that’s why the inkjet printing market has moved more quickly for books, transactional and direct mail, and not so much for commercial applications.”
Qualifying Papers: A Never-Ending Task
We turned to noted inkjet paper guru John Crumbaugh, the product manager, ink and media, for Canon Solutions America. Qualifying papers is an ongoing focus for the company, though the abundance of rollfed papers already green-lighted has slowed that pace to one or two per month.
“The ones we are qualifying now are definitely different than the herd we’ve done in the past,” he reveals. “It’s getting much more specialized. They’re products that are a little more difficult to make for the mills. They’re trying to get into the direct mail market, the commercial market … even the products coming out now that focus on the traditional transpromo/statement market are much more refined.”
The days of the “me, too” continuous-feed papers are over, according to Crumbaugh. Now everyone’s trying to differentiate their papers, getting closer to what people are used to in the commercial printing industry.
He adds that the paper situation is vastly different on the cut-sheet paper end, where five to six new papers are being qualified each week for the VarioPrint i300 — roughly where the ColorStream was three or four years ago. Firms are falling over one another trying to come up with new and innovative sheetfed papers to take advantage of different markets.
“What we are seeing is not so much innovation in new paper as much as inkjet customers who are now looking at things like mechanical or groundwood papers, which everyone thought was pretty much off limits,” Crumbaugh says. “But a lot of them print really nice on inkjet. It’s more cost effective.
“Inkjet is broadening out into the greater world of paper. At the same time, the paper world is getting a little more focused on inkjet. Instead of going after the low-hanging fruit of early adopters, mills are trying to get ahead of it to where they have the paper for the next generation of inkjet customers. It’s almost as if the arms race has started all over again.”
By the same token, Crumbaugh feels there is a lack of understanding surrounding the benefits of treated paper, and he feels the mills have not done an adequate job of explaining the merits of using an inkjet treated stock. The VarioPrint i300, for example, now features ColorGrip technology, which spot treats a standard digital sheet to make it accept inkjet like a treated sheet. But while low-end papers can be used on the VarioPrint i300 courtesy of ColorGrip, users are still at the mercy of the variations of paper.
“If you are buying a treated inkjet paper, you are paying a bit of a premium over digital paper, but it’s also rock solid as far as stability goes because it was made specifically for the inkjet technology,” he says. “That’s in contrast to digital toner and offset paper that is being modified in some way to allow it to work with the technology. It’s a subtle difference, but one that I think — as people adopt inkjet and take advantage of it — they can see those differences. There’s still a real value for treated papers in the market.”
As the inkjet movement rolls forward, Crumbaugh hopes to see a wider range of coated media, as well as coatings that are less expensive for inkjet. A small core of paper mills dominates the landscape in this regard, so he would like to see some of the larger paper concerns throw their hats in the ring.
For the time being, Crumbaugh points out, there just aren’t as many coated materials for inkjet as there are for digital toner or offset, which places somewhat of a drag on product potential. The mills, as much as the OEMs, will dictate the growth rate of production inkjet printing beyond books, direct mail and transactional applications.
“As great as inkjet is, they can only go where the paper is,” he adds. “If the paper is not there for a specific market’s wants, it has to wait on the technology. The mills are seeing this as an opportunity, the place to be first, to create a niche they can grow from.
“So we’re seeing mills that never participated in inkjet joining the fray. It tends to be coated mills; they’re seeing opportunities to grow their inkjet business more on the higher end with specialty media. That’s a development that’s almost exclusively taken place in 2016. Prior to that, it was really looking at how to build the next version of the commodity paper and how to lower the paper price.
“Mills are a lot more savvy in their technology capabilities,” Crumbaugh concludes. “They’re chasing opportunities, which is very good for the inkjet industry at large.”
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