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Inkjet & toner

Mar 1, 2009 12:00 AM


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Non-contact imaging with jetted droplets of ink isn't new. The process has been used for decades in monochrome addressing and imprinting. The first continuous inkjet (CIJ) presses were seen in the 1970s, and today, the process is universally used for wide-format graphics and offset proofing. However, the technical breakthroughs that make inkjet feasible for commercial and industrial applications in color are developments of the last few years. At Drupa 2008, some of the industry's best-known technology providers unveiled next-generation inkjet platforms.

“All areas of inkjet have changed,” says RIT's Frank Romano. “The fundamental principles [haven't], but there have been significant developments that make it a more viable process.”

Romano says inkjet's next generation will have image quality comparable to offset printing, compatibility with coated and uncoated papers, higher speeds, larger sheet sizes and no drying time or makeready.

But where are we now? For this article, we spoke to some leading vendors representing inkjet, electophotographic (EP) and offset technologies.

The need for speed and quality

Comparisons between inkjet and EP generally start with output speed and image quality. Conventional wisdom holds that EP presses offer superior print quality, but at slower production speeds vs. inkjet presses.

Although both methods have made significant gains in printing speed, Scott Schiller, director of marketing for HP's inkjet high-speed production solutions, says that dry-toner EP inevitably will trail spray-on systems. “As you look at dry-toner EP, you start losing productivity pretty quickly as you add color.” (HP Indigo presses incorporate liquid ink technology.)

George Promis cites toner fixing and fusing speeds as a potential hindrance to faster EP running speeds. Promis, vice president of production color for InfoPrint Solutions, says EP probably has reached its speed limit.

The speed barrier poses some fundamental questions for EP equipment manufacturers. Guy Broadhurst, vice president of new technology for Océ, says that as dry-toner EP approaches its apparent mechanical speed limit, pushing Océ's continuous-feed printers to the 1,000-fpm mark is an uncertain proposition.

Océ's alternative approaches may include liquid-toner printing or a combination of dry and liquid technologies. A wide-format device that debuted in 2008, the ColorWave 600, features Océ's Crystal Point, a technology said to combine solid toner's speed and productivity with inkjet's accuracy and flexibility. Gumball-like spheres of solid colored toner are heated to a gel then jetted and crystallized onto any type of paper.

EP fights back with fast flash fusing

Kodak reports its NexPress platforms have achieved significant advances in EP technology to print at higher speeds while attaining higher quality levels. “We have created a fusing system that enables the press to run at full speed regardless of paper weight,” explains Paula Bialik, Kodak GCG's director of EP marketing communications.

Xeikon says it has moved the output speed bar without sacrificing quality on its 244-ppm 8000 web press. According to Michael V. Ring, vice president of sales and chief marketing officer for Xeikon North America, the Xeikon 8000 uses “productivity adapted” dry toner in a dual development system to achieve precise and uniform distribution at higher printing speeds.

Xerox uses non-contact flash fusing on continuous-feed, color EP devices such as its 650/1300 and 490/980. A high-intensity xenon light flashing more than 2,000 times per second gets the job done. Because no heat or pressure makes contact with the paper, the devices can print on a wider array of substrates.

Inkjet marches on

Kristof Dekeukelaere, sales manager for Agfa's :Dotrix inkjet presses in North America says improvements in head technology will drive further resolution and speed gains. Dekeukelaere says an inkjet press has better dot placement control vs. an EP press because the printing process is direct — images aren't offset from a belt or a drum.

Bill Brunone, Screen USA's vice president for targeted inkjet systems, cites multiple-drop-size and denser printheads, sophisticated screening techniques matching screening technology to the output of the head, precision paper transportation, and paper development as key advancements.

Such capabilities enable Screen's Truepress Jet 520 color web press to produce 100,000 8½ × 11-inch pph with litho-like quality. The printer features Seiko Epson piezo drop-on-demand heads and water-based pigment inks.

Fujifilm's 2005 Sericol (ink) and 2006 Dimatix (printheads) acquisitions advanced its inkjet progress. Phil Kane, vice president of national digital sales for Fujifilm Graphic Systems U.S.A., says that the acquisitions led to the Fujifilm JetPress 720 (its temporary name) prototype shown at Drupa 2008. The cut-sheet device could vie with offset presses on the short-run spectrum. Dimatix printheads can produce variable dots with smaller-sized droplets, resulting in offset-like quality with no sacrifice in speed.

Can you teach an old dog a new click?

Output cost arguably is the chief differentiator between inkjet and EP. But you can't compare them strictly on a cost-per-page basis. Each process is assessed differently: a click charge for EP vs. a consumables-only basis for inkjet.

In most cases, the imaging of a page with each click of an EP press incurs a charge that includes the cost of the toner. Because the click charge applies to EP output regardless of the toner amount actually used, inkjet proponents score this as an advantage for their side. “[With inkjet], you never pay for white space,” asserts Sean Skelley, director of marketing and service for EFI's Jetrion Industrial Inkjet Systems.

As a label market supplier, Jetrion doesn't express print cost in terms of 8½ × 11-inch or A4 pages. Skelley says with label metrics, inkjet can be 50 percent less expensive than EP at low to medium coverage.

Agfa's Dekeukelaere concurs that with no click charges, inkjet users pay for what their machines actually consume. But he further observes that the EP deal gets better as the percentage of page coverage increases, since everything is absorbed by the all-inclusive cost of the click.

As for inkjet on its own terms, Broadhurst says that Océ and its rivals are all fairly close when it comes to cost per page. He estimates that the cost of an inkjet page is about one-third of an EP printed page.

Schiller says that HP uses a pricing scheme that helps its inkjet customers predict and analyze their ink consumption, adding that because this model doesn't include a mileage charge in the form of clicks, it results in a smaller total cost of ownership (TCO).

InfoPrint Solutions' Promis says both technologies' costs are tied to total coverage and many other variables. In general, says Promis, inkjet is less expensive on a per-page basis in longer runs, while EP has the edge in start-and-stop shorter runs.

Tom Leibrandt, product manager for POD solutions at Screen, maintains the average cost per page with the Screen Truepress Jet520 is less than that of an EP system. “Since the cost per page is dependent on the ink usage on the page rather than a cost per page [determined] by the manufacturer, the customer can amortize his equipment, maintenance, and labor costs in any way that best suits his business model,” says Leibrandt.

Kane says the Fujifilm JetPress 720 won't carry a click charge. He also hints at a kind of running economy typically associated with offset: “We don't have a detailed pricing model yet, but because of the speed and the format's ability to run more up on a sheet, the cost per piece will decline.”

Xeikon's Ring counters that reliable cost-per-page comparisons are difficult to make. Rather than a click-charge approach, Xeikon uses a “pay-as-you-go” model. Just as inkjet system users pay only for fluid used, Xeikon's customers pay only for toner consumed. At 40 to 50 percent area coverage, says Ring, the cost per print on a Xeikon press can be as little as $.01 to $.02. This roughly corresponds with an estimate by Mark Hanley, president of IT Strategies, that an A4 color page with 30 percent coverage on one side can be printed electrophotographically for about $.02. The same page might cost $.01 to print on a continuous inkjet press, says Hanley, but at a lower level of quality.

PrintCom's Bill Lamparter cautions against using click charges as the sole basis of comparison. “It's not necessarily written in stone that inkjet won't have click charges,” says the consultant. Lamparter further observes that EP equipment sometimes is sold without click charges and, when click charges are applied, they aren't always all-inclusive.

Get your head in the game

Inkjet press manufacturers source printheads from a variety of suppliers. Hanley says that depending on whether the source is a high-volume producer or a specialized provider, the cost per nozzle can range from a few cents to $7.00.

Agfa's Dekeukelaere explains the replacement drill isn't the same for all inkjet systems. Thermal heads are subject to the effects of the heat they use to vaporize the ink, whereas piezoelectric heads — the kind found in :Dotrix Modular and :Dotrix Transcolor presses — rely on a gentle, low-voltage action to expand the crystal that expels the ink droplets from the nozzle. Dekeukelaere characterizes the wear and tear on piezo heads as “almost nothing” vs. the stress on thermal heads. He says piezo heads can operate for up to 24 months before new ones are needed.

Ink type also impacts print head life. Solvent-based inks, says Dekeukelaere, can attack the nozzles, while oil-based inks may be prone to clogging. UV inks are more maintenance-friendly because, as energy-curable fluids, they don't dry in the nozzles before jetting.

HP's Schiller argues that even with printhead replacement, inkjet has the TCO advantage for the life of the press. Noting that printhead installation now takes only a few seconds, he asserts the impact of this routine procedure is likely to be minimal on day-to-day operations.

Promis, whose company manufactures the InfoPrint 5000 color inkjet printing system, notes that press reliability depends on useage. Nozzle contamination is less likely to happen when ink is continually flowing from the heads in a long run. “The more you print with it, the better it runs,” says Promis.

An important technical objective in the development of Océ's JetStream family, according to Broadhurst, was to use DOD heads with lifetimes comparable to those of EP components. Océ guarantees 3,000 printing hours per JetStream head.

In a Screen inkjet printing system, printheads are the only significant components that require regular replacement. The Truepress Jet520 uses self-cleaning Epson heads containing nozzles that fire with every page impression to minimize clogs. Says Brunone: “The cost of printhead replacement every two years or more is nearly invisible in the calculation of TCO and cost per impression.”

Digital printers should be prepared to replace belts, drums, corona assemblies and other EP press components, says Steve Adoniou, a hardware and print-on-demand analyst for InfoTrends. An accurate comparison should include the cost of time spent replacing the parts — including operator-replaceable items — in addition the cost of the parts themselves.

Inkjet's wide angle

At Drupa, HP showed an inkjet press that could print a 36-inch web. From Fujifilm, there was the B2-size Fujifilm JetPress 720, built to handle sheets up to 28.35 × 20.47 inches. Screen's Truepress Jet SX, a full-color, variable printing system, works with sheets up to 20.87 × 29.13 inches. These are offset formats, and inkjet seems poised to advance even further into offset territory in terms of size if not speed.

Scalability is the key. Promis explains that inkjet presses are modular — increasing print width essentially is a matter of adding more printheads. On an EP press, every component would have to be modified to increase the print area.

According to Hanley, building an EP press with a printing area larger than 17 × 24 inches may not be economically feasible, whereas inkjet theoretically can be scaled up to any desired printing width and print on any substrate.

Broadhurst says that Océ's roll-fed JetStream presses, currently capable of printing 20-inches wide in any length, can be made wider if that is what the market wants. The principal issue for scalability, Broadhurst notes, isn't print area coverage, but the ability of software and press controls to keep pace with the speed of the print engine.

“Inkjet can be whatever size you want it to be,” agrees Lamparter. “[The real challenge] is throw[ing] data to the jets.”

As inkjet head technology improves, says Dekeukelaere, inkjet printing will become more attractive for offset-sized applications. Dekeukelaere says Agfa, a leading producer of lithographic plates, isn't out to replace offset presses with :Dotrix platforms, but will offer them as complementary solutions in markets where they can add the most value. He claims that interest in inkjet is especially strong among producers of folding cartons, point-of-purchase (POP) materials, and flexible packaging. (“Inkjet advantage,” June 2006, profiles Rock-Tenn's :Dotrix-powered just-in-time fulfillment, customized labeling, folding cartons and signage for short run jobs. See www.americanprinter.com.)

Offset says think about the ink

Joerg Daehnhardt, director of product management for Heidelberg USA, doesn't see offset-format inkjet as a threat in the near term. In high-volume applications such as folding-carton production, he says, it's impossible for an inkjet press to print as economically as a VLF or a 40-inch offset press.

“As long as your ink costs more than perfume, it's hard to compete with a $25, 5-lb. can of offset ink,” he says. Still, Daehnhardt acknowledges that inkjet press manufacturers probably will try to expand into formats rival printing processes previously dominated.

Screen will attempt to do it with the Truepress Jet SX, a press said to be capable of printing on ordinary papers and heavy stocks as well as inkjet substrates. This device and others seen at Drupa, says Brunone, “will certainly push the viability of digital print further into the realm of offset in terms of larger run sizes and competitive widths.”

Adoniou thinks that the trend to shorter, more numerous print runs will drive some work to the four-up formats that now seem possible on the larger digital platforms. But the real appeal of offset-sized digital presses is their ability to get into production without platemaking and conventional makeready.

We're not dead yet

If their inkjet presses can do a good job of printing transaction/transpromo documents, manuals, books, direct mail, packaging — and, in web configurations, periodicals and newspapers — it's reasonable for the vendors to see growth opportunities for the process in these categories. But what will it take to convince the print buyers?

Schiller predicts that inkjet will win when buyers realize it can do things that offset can't, such as creating book mashups and other highly customized special products.

The pattern of inkjet adoption will depend entirely on individual markets, according to Dekeukelaere. He believes that book publishing, with its increasing tilt toward versioning and on-demand printing, lends itself strongly to inkjet. Lamparter agrees, forecasting that between 2012 and 2015, books will be the first major category in which more than half of all products will be printed digitally.

An even better bet for inkjet, according to Skelley, lies in producing short runs of packages and POP tied to specific events and localities. Inkjet can print directly onto the surface of cans and other containers, eliminating labels. This capability, in development by Jetrion and its packaging partners, requires a non-contact, energy-curable process that Skelley says toner-based systems can't support.

Promis says that inkjet is in the infancy of its ability to penetrate offset markets. As its quality and productivity improve, it will complement offset in the near term and may, in 20 to 30 years, displace offset in some applications.

Hanley thinks that inkjet's push into mainstream graphic arts markets could take from three to five years. He points out that conventional processes won't be standing still in the meantime as VistaPrint and other providers excel at producing large numbers of very short runs on standard offset equipment. Offset, says Hanley, is “far from dead,”and it would be premature to forecast any significant loss of offset market share to inkjet.

Stay tuned for Drupa 2012

Lamparter says that the so-called “inkjet Drupa” was something of a letdown because much of what was shown is far from commercial availability. Drupa 2012, when fully marketed or market-ready products presumably will be on view, will give prognosticators more to work with.

But real progress is being made today, says Lamparter, citing speeds of 500 fpm as a “cakewalk” for current inkjet presses. He believes 1,000 fpm is the tipping point for inkjet's adoption as a high-volume commercial printing process.

Every printer is looking for higher-volume applications to justify the investment cost of new printing systems, according to Promis, who thinks that inkjet's quality and cost have improved to the point where the process can be competitive for long-run work. Thus, instead of promoting inkjet primarily for its short-run and VDP capabilities, a better selling strategy might be to lead with its merits as a solution for work in offset quantities. “If you can get the high-volume work onto it,” says Promis, “the short-run work will come.”

Kodak locates a big opportunity for inkjet in its present estimate of the worldwide market for static, long-run pages: 92 trillion pages as of 2011. “This category, while still dominated by offset, should yield a substantial number of new digitally printed pages,” says Will Mansfield, director of product marketing, inkjet solutions. “We believe Stream technology will expand digital print into medium production print runs compared to the short runs of today. This will significantly increase the addressable volume to digital print.”

It would be a mistake, however, to think of the process strictly in terms of longer runs. “Inkjet printing has shown significant time savings over short-run offset printing, and that means that printers can not only produce jobs in a shorter amount time of time, but also take on more projects,” says Kane. “For short turn work with a quick turnaround, inkjet printing is the answer.”

In Dekeukelaere's view, the short-run and VDP markets “have already been conquered by digital printing.” He says that inkjet's next conquest will take place in the commercial market, where it will be called upon to produce medium-run work as well as small quantities. He also points out that as consumable suppliers, Agfa, Fujifilm, Kodak, and HP all have a major stake in the broader adoption of inkjet. “The consumable of the future will be inkjet,” he says. “This is only the beginning.”


Patrick Henry is the director of Liberty or Death Communications. Contact him via www.libordeath.com.

Inkjet in a nutshell

  • Inkjet shouldn't be regarded as a wholesale replacement for any other process.
  • Potential applications include manuals, books, transactional and transpromotional documents, direct mail, packaging, periodicals and newspapers.
  • Electrophotography (EP) currently has the edge, but ultimately, inkjet is expected to close the quality gap.
  • Some observers cite 1,000 fpm as the inkjet tipping point.
  • Replaceable heads and nozzles and a no-click-charge operating model change the traditional TCO computation.
  • Inkjet inks are expensive.
  • Inkjet's scalability offers intriguing platform possibilities.

Drupa 08 inkjet briefs

  • Drupa 2008's high-volume web-fed inkjet highlights included Océ's JetStream 1100 (492 fpm) and 2200 (500 fpm); and HP's 400 fpm, 30-inch-wide, 4-color duplex inkjet platform. Kodak's continuous inkjet solutions include the 500-fpm Stream Concept Press — a high-speed, process color system with resolution that exceeds 600 dpi.

  • Oce's expanded JetStream portfolio now includes five models for direct mail, transactional and other high-quality color applications. Speeds range from 715 to 2,865 letter-size images. The JetStream system can now integrate MICR into the print engine. A multilevel printing capability allows customers to vary drop sizes within a job.

  • InfoPrint — the IBM/Ricoh joint venture — showed its inkjet strength with the InfoPrint 5000, a 209.9-fpm continuous forms production printer with a maximum print width of 19.96 inches. Also new: the InfoPrint EMP156 cut-sheet printer.

  • Sheetfed Drupa standouts included Fujifilm Corp.'s Jet Press 720, a high-speed inkjet press targeting runs of 2,000 or less, and Screen's Truepress Jet SX that can print on A2-wide size paper, up to 530 × 740 mm. In addition to sheet size, these presses offer substrate flexibility--special papers aren't required. (HP also is developing a new solution for coated media that enables high-speed production.)

Graph Expo notes

  • At Graph Expo, HP said it is working with book press vendor Timsons to pair its Inkjet Web Press with Timsons' Digital Book Finishing System.

  • Standard Finishing Systems announced a partnership agreement with HP for Standard Hunkeler paper handling solutions and service support.

  • Muller Martini's SigmaLine high quality, on-demand book line also is a good fit for HP's web press.

Donnelley's IPS

Just prior to Drupa 2008, RR Donnelley announced the installation of a proprietary Integrated Printing System (IPS) 3, a 1,200-dpi, 4-color inkjet web press. The new 30-inch-wide IPS 3 inkjet web press runs at rated production speeds of 400 fpm. Initial financial service applications could pave the way for more transpromo projects.

See www.rrdonnelley.com.

Onset challenges offset

In 2008, Inca won an InterTech award for Onset, a large-format UV digital flatbed. “This will significantly change the large-format market and has the ability to take away share from other printing applications,” one judge noted.

Handling print sizes up to 10.5 × 5 ft. (3.2 × 1.5m) at speeds of up to 6,458 sq. ft. /hr. (600m2/hr), using new bi-directional modes the automated Inca Onset delivers 125+ full bed sheet (or 375 60 × 40-inch) posters an hour. Edge-to-edge printing allows images to be printed to bleed on substrates up to 0.39 inch (10 mm) thick and up to 10kg at full speed.

See www.incadigital.com.

Digital connectivity for consumer print

Goss RSVP, LLC, a subsidiary of Goss International Americas, Inc., is a print-to-mobile solutions provider. The company and its partner, UpCode, are driving scanning of smaller codes to promote full integration within print.

Goss RSVP is a way for print advertisers to digitally connect with consumers. Advertisers and publishers include a small RSVP logo that includes a two-dimensional bar code and alphanumeric sequence in their print media. Shoppers, depending on the type of phone they have, can either scan the code or send a text message to receive a response such as a coupon that is sent directly to their phone within seconds.

See www.gossrsvp.com.

Security and protection

Last year, Heidelberg revealed its ongoing development of Linoprint — a DOD process printing in monochrome at 720 dpi.

Specialty imprint

Linoprint adds a specialty imprint as a final step, either to insert critical product information or to protect the package against counterfeiting in a special application called Linoprotect. Heidelberg's Joerg Daehnhardt says spot- and process-color versions of Linoprint also are being developed.

Linoprotect is applied as the final step of production, either just before or just after the product is inserted. Because the chain of custody surrounding the package at this late stage is clear, the deposition of the Linoprotect tags assures authenticity.

Fine metallic strips are glued to the package or the label in a random pattern that's scanned and converted into data for a unique bar code. Linoprint, Heidelberg's DOD inkjet system, then imprints the bar code next to the strips.

The cell will tell

In stores, packages tagged for identification by Linoprotect can be instantly verified via the shopper's cell phone. Consumers who have downloaded “public key” software to their camera-equipped cell phones can photograph the two elements and tell in an instant whether they correspond. Anything other than a match confirmed by the public key says “caveat emptor.”

But can you de-ink it?

An unavoidable — and controversial — question about inkjet is how “green” a process it will prove to be, especially compared to EP. A European group, the International Assn. of the Deinking Industry (INGEDE), has declared, “Direct mail or newspapers printed with inkjet act like a sponge full of ink — and even in small amounts this kind of printed product can cause the system of graphic paper recycling to collapse.”

Charles P. Klass, president of Klass Associates and adjunct professor of paper engineering, chemical engineering and imaging at Western Michigan University, questions INGEDE's laboratory evaluation method. “INGEDE Method 11 is an easy to perform test method, but it is not relevant to many, if not most, commercial de-inking processes — especially in North America.” Klass provides a detailed analysis in the January/February 2009 issue of Paper 360°. (See www.tappi.org.)

An inkjet sequel

The Digital Printing Council has published a second volume of “Inkjet!” with information on printheads, inks, productivity, quality and major markets. Written by RIT's Frank Romano, the book covers inkjet's history, technology, trends, markets and applications. See www.gain.net.

More at americanprinter.com

  • “Special delivery” (September 2008) includes postpress inkjet developments from Domino Amjet, EFI Jetrion, Kodak, Lake Image Systems, Pitney Bowes, MCS, Secap and Videojet.
  • Wide-format inkjet trends include a shift to UV-curable ink technologies for both roll-fed and flatbed printers, as well as wider options for aqueous-based printers. “Grand times” (January 2008) covers products from Agfa, EFI, Fuji, Gandinnovations, Inca, HP, Mutoh, Océ, Roland, Sericol and Screen USA.

More to come

Xerox intends to make its bid with a proprietary jet-and-set technology that cures special ink to a gel-like consistency on the substrate, thereby fixing it firmly to the surface. The company has not disclosed technical details or announced a date for commercial release. According to Dr. Stephen P. Hoover, vice president and center manger of the Xerox Research Center (Webster, NY) in its initial version, the process will use piezo drop-on-demand heads and non-UV energy fixing. He adds that Xerox has several proprietary fixing methods that will be introduced over time as the technology evolves.

At Drupa, Kodak — already a strong force in the inkjet market with its Versamark CIJ presses — discussed the development of Stream Inkjet Technology: a CIJ solution that uses a thermal “pinch-off” technique to vary the size of the droplets. According to Kodak, this feature and the extremely small size of the ink pigment particles will take continuous inkjet to a new level of print quality.

Will Mansfield, director of product marketing for inkjet solutions, says Kodak will bring the first Stream product, a monochrome printhead, to market early this year, with full commercialization by the end of June. The first full color press based on Stream technology is slated for commercialization in mid-2010.