Will Inkjet Technology Dominate DRUPA?

The last few years have seen a number of breakthroughs with inkjet quickly becoming a competitor to toner-based and even offset printers in the commercial space. So, at the big German print industry show DRUPA next year, there is quite a bit of speculation that inkjet will be the big thing.

Doc remembers when many in the commercial print industry said that inkjet would never be ready for production-scale press work. But the last few years have seen a number of breakthroughs and it seems that inkjet is quickly becoming a competitor to toner-based and even offset printers in the commercial space. So, at the big German print industry show DRUPA next year, there is quite a bit of speculation that inkjet will be the big thing.

For some great perspective, take a peek at an excellent article by Doc's friend David Zwang over at What They Think.  Dave is a former commercial Photographer, owner of two Prepress and Printing companies, and currently the principal consultant of Zwang & Company. He specializes in strategic business planning, analysis, and related services to companies in the vertical Publishing market. And, he's a nice guy.

It seems like I was just in Dusseldorf for Drupa 2008, where it was billed as 'the event' where Inkjet was going to be the prime focus. While there was production inkjet technology there, it was probably more of an inkjet intro event rather than an event focused heavily on inkjet technologies and products. Those of us who went there did get a chance to see some interesting technology, but only some of it ever made it to the marketplace, or should have.

Sheetfed commercial printers, and more importantly their customers, are used to working with many different substrates.

While it might sound like a strange thing to say, on one level it is probably good that there wasn't a big push to mainstream production inkjet. There are many reasons for this. First is the quality level, or more accurately, the comparable quality level to offset print. The current production inkjet offerings are achieving a quality level that is acceptable for certain very specific markets, as evidenced by the focus and adoption of the current production inkjet devices. It's not that they don't produce very acceptable output in those primarily web offset markets; it's more that in order to mainstream production inkjet, a number of things need to be in place.

The good news is that the current complement of roll fed products from HP, Ricoh (Infoprint), Kodak, Oce, Screen and Xerox are increasing their comparable quality levels. Most importantly, we will need a fast 'sheetfed' inkjet device, and almost all of the current offerings are roll fed. Fujifilm's J Press 720 is a good attempt at a quality sheetfed inkjet device, but probably not fast enough at 2700 half-size sheets per hour to differentiate it from EP or Offset. One benefit it does offer is a larger sheet size than EP, at a maximum sheet size of 29.5" x 20.8". Why is a sheetfed device so important?

Sheetfed commercial printers, and more importantly their customers, are used to working with many different substrates. In fact, a study I did a few years ago identified that the majority of printing companies used more than 8 substrates on a regular basis, and of course not all the same 8 across different companies. This is one of the reasons why sheetfed EP (electro-photographic) printing, without the substrate limitations inherent in a roll-fed environment (time and labor to change rolls for a substrate change) and for inkjet in general (need for optimized or pre-treated papers), has been able to have an impact on commercial offset printing. While paper manufacturers are increasing their 'inkjet friendly' substrate offerings, and some inkjet press manufacturers are offering pre-treating for substrates inline, the current substrate limitations are an obvious obstacle to mainstream adoption and use.

Doc is glad to see inkjet coming of age and available as another option in the commercial marketplace where there is room for many technologies. Will inkjet ever be comparable to toner-based and offset printing? Time to book your flight to Dusseldorf and find out!