Things move fast in the world of commercial print. Trends evolve and technology advances. In order to keep delivering for their customer bases in a competitive market, print service providers (PSPs) must keep cost-effective, efficient production front of mind among myriad external challenges — from supply chain issues to soaring inflation — while keeping a sharp eye on the development of print solutions.
As digital print technology progresses, investment decisions often become more, not less, challenging, as variables increase and opinions diverge. More specifically, the toner versus inkjet discussion rages on, and as the market and machinery changes, the debate intensifies. Not too long ago, the decision was arguably less complex; a nascent inkjet simply didn’t meet quality requirements, while toner made a much more compelling case for a short-run alternative to analog. Cut to 2022, and the meteoric rise of inkjet continues apace. But is it set to render toner obsolete, or will there always be a job-dependent place for both processes?
Tapping Into Evolving Inkjet Printing Technology
For Tonya Spiers, president/owner of Knight-Abbey Printing and Direct Mail in Biloxi, Mississippi, inkjet has never really been an option for her business — until now. “We do a lot of gaming work, and so inkjet has always been challenging for us, because of the substrates,” Spiers explains. “Since there has been a number of changes and enhancements, I’m finding it’s taking significant numbers out of my production, to the point where I’m running three shifts on the toner devices and [with inkjet] I would completely eliminate a shift based on the volume I have right now.”
Cory Sawatzki is VP of purchasing at AlphaGraphics, a franchise with franchisees ranging in size and production setups. Across its locations, there is a substantial fleet of toner-based devices. “Every center starts with at least a 13x19" toner-based, two-sided device, and then they typically go up from there to two or three devices, adding more advanced, faster technology. They’ll also typically add maybe a monotone to run black and white only,” explains Sawatzki. The inkjet tide may be turning, however: “We just put in a high-speed inkjet cut-sheet device in one of our locations,” he continues. “That’s the first big step I’ve seen from our centers into that space.”
Brian White, president of Creative Print Group in Baltimore, Maryland, is also fairly early on in the inkjet journey, recently investing in an inkjet solution to go alongside his five toner presses. “We’re taking a lot of work off the toner boxes that can go to the inkjet box because of the cost savings and the speed,” says White. Like other commercial print providers, Creative Print Group has been watching inkjet’s evolution closely, but for the moment, the plan is to continue to invest in both, as White explains: “We think that there is a need for both types of devices. The toner machines work best on high-quality pieces as well as certain substrates that do not do well on the inkjet boxes. Other than that, the inkjet works really well.”
Graphic Village in Cincinnati operates a number of toner devices, as well as two cut-sheet inkjet machines, and is in the market for a continuous-feed inkjet solution. “The quality of inkjet has changed tremendously over the past few years and has dramatically improved, to the point that it’s almost as good as offset these days,” says Eric Scott Kahn, executive chairman. “The level of consistency is huge, and the cost factor has dramatically dropped as well so that your ultimate price-per-sheet is much more competitive than in previous versions. Toner hasn’t moved a lot in the last few years.”
Weighing the Pros and Cons
Knight-Abbey has been working with toner devices for more than 10 years. With 65% to 70% of its business in the casino market, there have been traditional limitations with inkjet technology that made it unconducive to their production (casinos don’t believe in leaving any white space on a piece of paper, Spiers says). It’s also a demanding sector to serve, with tight turnaround times a must for a space that moves at breakneck speed. The downtime that can be a risk of working with toner technology is a key motivation for Spiers’ inkjet investigation. “I don’t care what toner devices you have, there’s going to be a lot of downtime,” says Spiers. “It’s just the nature of those devices because the paper has to pass through drums and fusers. Especially if you do any kind of volume, it’s just going to go down.”
Inkjet’s straightforward path from printhead to substrate does give it the reliability edge for many PSPs — all commercial print providers are looking to consistently minimize job touch points, after all. “I’m going to eliminate three to four steps right off the bat,” continues Spiers. “There’s going to be a big saving there for me, not only in time, but in consumables, that I can’t do with the toner devices because they’re just not fast enough.”
Sawatzki agrees that the complexity of toner’s path to the substrate can pose a challenge, not just for the downtime, but for speed, too. “It’s having to go through a fuser or process for every single color, so speed is kind of an issue there with toner,” he says. Inkjet’s ease of use has another key benefit when it comes to finding operators, particularly in times of labor challenges: “[Inkjet is] much simpler to operate, and it’s easier to train operators,” White says.
“It’s a lot easier to run as well, which is great as time goes on and we have difficulty finding employees,” Spiers explains. “Especially the ones I’m looking at — you can be at home and get the machine turned on and it can start calibrating. Calibrations can take half an hour to 45 minutes on a toner device, so that’s a big deal to have that machine up and running as soon as your operator walks in the door.”
There are, of course, areas in which toner has the edge over inkjet for many commercial print jobs, and views differ on whether this will continue to be the case, and for how long. For jobs using a mix of papers where every page can be different, toner has the upper hand, according to Sawatzki: “We’re a commercial printer and we run a lot on coated papers. People want glossy papers for brochures, for example. Where I see inkjet coming in is in the transactional space.”
For White, inkjet has some catching up to do in the quality stakes. “The quality is not nearly as good as toner yet,” he explains. “It’s about 25% less, in my opinion. If colors are crucial, if dot saturation or the clarity is crucial, then the inkjet can’t compare to the toner devices.”
While Spiers is willing to go “all in” on inkjet in the coming years, she concedes that it will be an ongoing process, as there is still some development needed in some areas. “Some of the inkjet black-and-white devices still have some catching up to do on the thickness of paper,” she adds. “I envision us moving into a cut-sheet color device first, getting used to it and then start growing from there. I would say within two to three years we won’t have any toner devices here, and we’ll be all inkjet.”
As inkjet continues to develop, costs, both of initial capital investment and running expenses, may serve as a barrier to inkjet entry. “The difference is, you can buy a toner box for $50,000 to $150,000, while your entry-level inkjet boxes are probably in the half-million range and upward,” points out Kahn.
Sawatzki adds, “You have to consider the affordability of toner versus ink. Ink is expensive typically, so a good total cost of ownership has to be there as well. Cost to entry for a toner-based machine is very low, so why move from that to inkjet? How much more expensive is it? What’s the quality like? Those factors will come into play.”
While inkjet may be pricier to run, a holistic approach to the numbers is key. For Spiers, her inkjet research and budgeting considered downtime and other challenges. “I thought that my rate on an inkjet machine would be significantly higher, but when you start looking at how much faster it is, and uptime, you actually have more hours that you can get throughput,” she explains. “What I found is, when my toner devices are down or running slow, or we’re having quality issues, when I started factoring all that in the budget, I was surprised. I wasn’t going to have to charge a higher hourly rate just because the machine costs more, because it’s a more productive machine.”
In the cut-sheet inkjet space, the fact is for many PSPs, the technology is not quite at a level where it is leading to a significant scaling back of toner equipment in favor of inkjet devices. Business goals will play a significant role in those decisions, says Sawatzki. “A lot of it will come down to your customer,” he says. “What are your customer demands and what do you want to be as a company — do you want to be higher-end, or are you more focused on manufacturing speed?”
Though White sees much more toner investment in his space than inkjet, and will be purchasing another toner box “for now,” he does believe that as inkjet advances, it will become on par with toner and eventually eliminate the need for toner technology. “Inkjet is our first choice, but unfortunately, it’s not the main choice every day,” he explains. “Our first choice with every project is to start with inkjet and then we default back to the toner boxes. We’d rather run inkjet all day, but we just can’t because of the restrictions right now. It’s just not there yet.”
Kahn agrees that for the foreseeable future, toner has a key place in commercial print, “certainly for smaller, fast turnaround jobs,” he says. “Inkjet probably isn’t there, given the size of the machines and the capital investment required right now. You’re still going to want some toner boxes to satisfy orders. We have a broad mix of products, so I don’t see us getting rid of toner altogether. I think we will diminish our use, but it will still be a part of the equation.”
Though views and investment plans may differ in terms of the inkjet-toner debate, there is no doubt that PSPs are more enthusiastic about the progression and future possibilities of inkjet, while toner — though still crucial to commercial print operations — is the more mature solution with less scope for disruptive developments. “I’m really excited about inkjet,” says Sawatzki. “I don’t want to say it’s an emerging technology because it’s been here for a while, but it’s still growing in the cut-sheet space. It’s very exciting stuff.”
So, the toner versus inkjet discussion continues — for now.
Karis Copp is a U.K.-based journalist and communications specialist. With a background as a writer and editor in the print industry, she writes about print and technology news and trends, reports on industry events, and works with businesses to help them tell their stories and connect with their customers. Follow her on Twitter @KarisCoppMedia.