Inkjet’s offset upset

Move over offset. Mid-size commercial printers have been hearing the catch cry for the past decade, as digital gains a corner of the pressroom floor and a slice of the revenue. Digital print has been redefining how printers view their business and has been driving new market approaches such as micro-runs and variable-data printing, but what’s driving digital?

Half a decade ago, thermal inkjet was seen as a primarily a wide-format player, but as of last Drupa and this Ipex, it appears to have vaulted the fence into the commercial domain. Inkjet’s star is rising as the technological edge of toner-driven devices softens. Print businesses are demanding offset lookalike output from their digital machines, a quality they can’t quite wring out of electrophotography.

Some years ago, when the idea of inkjet as an offset supplement was little more than a twinkle in a manufacturer’s eye, industry doyen and former general manager of Screen Australia Gary Seidl reflected that because print-on-demand was developed to emulate lithography, it made sense to go with a technology that uses liquid inks rather than toner.

Four major new contenders for the offset heartland were vying for attention at Ipex. Each comes from a well-known vendor, and each has been built to handle duplex, single-pass perfecting.

In the lead-up to Drupa 2008, HP announced it was investing $US1.4bn in a scalable web inkjet platform, then dubbed its Inkjet High-Speed Production Solution. This project since crystallised into the HP Inkjet Web Press T300, a production press that requires no special stocks and will work on uncoated roll media, offset stock, even newsprint, using HP’s Edgeline ink bonding and thermal printheads. It prints CMYK at 600dpi at 122m per minute.

Shane Lucas, director, HP graphic arts, South Pacific, says the T300, which is now available in the US and Europe, has eight new customers using the press for book publishing, DM and transactional market segments. As he puts it, there’s “a new installation happening most every month”. It will be available in Australia next year. HP also showed its faith in the technology with the launch of the T200 at Ipex. This smaller version is aimed at the 2-up monochrome toner replacement market.

Joining the inkjet web battle is Kodak’s much-hyped Prosper press. It has been developing the Prosper platform alongside a number of finishing vendors such as Hunkeler, Muller Martini and Lasermax Roll Systems. The Prosper 5000XL was a major drawcard at its Ipex stand.

At the show, Eric Owen, Kodak’s vice-president of worldwide customer development in digital printing solutions, revealed to ProPrint that Australia was “absolutely positively” on the list for the first round of Prosper installs, which will number in the dozens worldwide.

Fujifilm has its sights set on traditional sheetfed B2 printers. The Jet Press 720 is aimed at those looking to up their game in short-run work (nominally under 2,000 impressions) which it says the press can handle far quicker than an offset press. Fuji is also looking at digital printers that want to broaden their services. The Jet Press produces a 1,200dpi image with four levels of greyscale, a spec the vendor claims sets an industry precedent. It also finishes output like an offset press.

Fujifilm Australia’s Steve Collyer sums up what he sees as the 720’s edge over its competitors – printheads, inks and registration. The 720 uses the Samba printhead, developed by Fujifilm Dimatix, for single-pass inkjet. Fujifilm has developed water-based inks that it claims enable bleed-free, high-quality images. The 720 offers repeatable quality, says Collyer, because it makes use of the registration accuracy of an offset press and combines it with the stability inkjet.

Screen came to Ipex with its TruePress JetSX, a 720dpi B2 device it says is ideal for hybrid printing systems, overprinting variable data on offset-produced material. The press is due for release here next year.

Scott says it will suit litho printers that are comfortable with B2 but want more cost-effective short-runs. It will also be aimed at digital printers that want to move up from their B3 roots and enter the lucrative short-run B2 market.

Both the Fujifilm and Screen devices are sheetfed presses offering what is basically an offset press platform with an inkjet superstructure. Both have a coating module that prepares standard offset stock for the inkjet process and prevents undue ink absorption.

Canprint Communications managing director David Daniel says production inkjet is “an emerging technology”, with the focus on speed. He says toner imaging, the platform underpinning Canprint’s fleet of Océ document production lines, is a proven technology that has stood the test of time, while inkjet is migrating gradually from its origins as a wide-format signage and display technology.

Speaking to ProPrint in the lead-up to Ipex, Daniel said he would be checking out the new crop of inkjet production presses at the expo, because Canprint is always on the lookout for the latest in digital colour, but he has no plans to invest in one.

Stock problems
Substrate issues are a setback, says Daniel. Light-fastness, which was a problem with earlier generations of inkjet in the display market, needs to be addressed, as does the range and availability of stocks, he explains. “If you go into a commercial market, where there will be demand for printing on all types of stocks, you could find that there isn’t as wide a range that’s commercially available.” Another issue might be durability of inkjet heads, and how often they need replacing, he says. “But it’s an emerging technology, and no doubt they will be working on those things. The great point about them is that they run on liquid ink and they run at incredible speed,” says Daniel.

Speed is key, says Daniel, as is the fact that some of the new commercial crop are web presses. He believes any hybrid litho-digital print house dipping its toes into the production inkjet waters between Ipex and the next Drupa will not be buying one of these new-wave presses to replace its existing digital machines, such as Xerox or similar presses. Instead, they’ll be looking at expanding into higher volumes, notably in DM, transactional or transpromo printing. He sees commercial inkjet as a technology that will be tested in the market and that will gradually make a niche for itself, as consumables suppliers develop new substrates in conjunction with the kit’s developers.

Salmat general manager, marketing, Pat O’Sullivan sees the new breed of inkjet presses as a transition from the rudimentary production-level inkjet of some years ago. Back then, the technology couldn’t exceed 300dpi, which limited it to data and spot applications on litho overprints. Salmat operations manager Chris Miller is heading up an evaluation by the company on its transpromo production. It has put out tenders for technologies to succeed its present toner solutions. The objective is to find higher quality and lower cost-per-page.

Without reflecting on the evaluation process, O’Sullivan sees constant improvements in inkjet as the key to the future. He has viewed Kodak’s Prosper press in action – an early version at the last Drupa and the current 1000/5000 configurations at Kodak in Dayton, Ohio, and says he is impressed with its performance. While Salmat is not looking for an offset-replacement solution, O’Sullivan ventures that the new inkjets might well offer that. “In defining ‘offset-replacement’, you have to ask whether you’re talking about letterheads or similar, which is not what you’d call Vogue centre-spread quality. In terms of letterheads and forms, if you ask whether inkjet can already replace offset on these, the answer is probably yes. That wasn’t the case a couple of years ago, but now it’s gone past 600dpi, that’s more than a match for most offset replacement solutions for those documents,” says O’Sullivan.

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