David Zwang of Zwang & Company and Elizabeth Gooding of Inkjet Insight discuss the latest inkjet printing trends.
The past couple of years have been difficult, to say the least, with the disruptions caused by the pandemic. But for many of the vendors in our community, research & development efforts, while slowed down a bit, certainly did not come to a complete halt. Most of these companies were preparing for big announcements at drupa 2020 which was canceled, and then held virtually in 2021. And in the U.S., PRINTING United 2020, which was targeted to use up to a million square feet of exhibit space in Atlanta, and then PRINTING United 2021 scheduled for Orlando, were also canceled due to safety concerns. These are just three examples of industry events around the globe that were either canceled or put on hold, events that would have been key showcases for new products manufacturers planned to bring to market.
In lieu of the in-person events, many conducted or participated in virtual events to get the word out. This approach, of course, is not the most effective way to debut high-dollar-value production and industrial inkjet solutions, but under the circumstances, it was the best that could be done.
To shine more light on what’s happening in the world of production inkjet, we spoke to two industry experts to uncover the key trends and developments in this important market: David Zwang, principal of Zwang & Company and Elizabeth Gooding, founding partner and editor of Inkjet Insight.
CR: David, let’s start with you. Talk a little about some of the challenges you saw for the OEMs trying to bring production and industrial inkjet products to market.
Zwang: Pre-COVID, of course, there was a lot of development underway as folks got ready for drupa 2020 and other events that ultimately never happened. But in the meantime, they had all these products that were ready for announcement or launch. We started to see announcements come out in private Zoom sessions, which is not necessarily the best way to do it, especially as people began getting Zoomed out. But when you take a look at the products themselves that have been developed, it’s actually pretty impressive.
CR: Explain what you mean.
Zwang: If you think back to the so-called “Inkjet drupas” where a lot of continuous feed inkjet was first displayed, that really started the whole production inkjet craze. Those early products were really directed at specific markets, mostly transaction, direct mail and books, and were basically a replacement for toner-based devices and then ultimately for offset, which was the Holy Grail. They all wanted to be able to get speeds and cost to the point where they could economically move work from offset. But over time, and particularly in the context of the pandemic, the market shifted to shorter runs across the board in commercial print, and that changed the dynamics. The cost of inkjet has been coming down, of course, as we reached critical mass and there was more competition. But more importantly, average run lengths have come down and the amount of targeting has increased. As a result of that, continuous feed inkjet is undergoing kind of a Renaissance, if you will.
Gooding: But we have also seen fewer installs than we anticipated, and that’s due to the pandemic. To help mitigate that, we’ve seen a lot of activity on the software side, with OEMs being able to manage clients remotely and also helping print companies manage their workforce remotely where they can. It’s difficult to go out and install equipment when you might have to quarantine every time you do a visit. This includes pre-emptive diagnostics that help companies plan better and have less downtime. And the ability for service professionals to do diagnostics without having to come on-site.
CR: For the folks that were already in the market, how are they impacted by the newer developments?
Zwang: Most of the older inkjet presses are being either replaced or upgraded. All of the manufacturers offer some kind of an upgrade path – new print heads, updated dryers, that kind of thing. Sometimes it is a forklift upgrade. But the changing dynamics in the market also created some challenges for continuous feed inkjet.
CR: How so?
Zwang: As I noted, run lengths are coming down, in many cases pretty dramatically. According to a study I did a while ago, most of these companies carried an average of eight different paper stocks that they always had on hand. And of course, sometimes they got special requests outside of those standard stocks. But if you are a commercial printer producing relatively short runs, even if it is 1,000 or 2,000 units, that doesn’t take long. And if you have to change stocks and move rolls of paper around, that takes away from production time, making the operation less efficient. How often can you be schlepping these rolls around? What we have been waiting for was the emergence of sheetfed inkjet presses.
CR: And where are we with that?
Zwang: Canon jumped into this market early with the i300 and now the varioPRINT iX series. Landa, who took longer than anticipated to bring presses to market, also jumped in on the sheetfed side. And Koenig & Bauer is now also jumping in as well as Ricoh. The early entrants were A3 sheet size, but now you have sheetfed inkjet presses coming to market in B1, B2, and B2+, which are good sizes for a sheetfed press that cover a broad range of applications. The Koenig & Bauer VariJET 106 developed in partnership with Durst is a B1 single pass digital press. The Landa S10 is also a B1 format. And then you have the Konica Minolta AccurioJet KM-1, and more recently, the AccurioJet KM-1e which are B2+ sheet sizes. And the Fujifilm J Press with a B2+ sheet size and increased speed over earlier models. And there are others in the pipeline that we will see roll out through the first half of next year.
Gooding: We also have a lot of sheetfed capability with entry-level inkjet systems like the Xerox Baltoro and Kyocera Taskalfa. While we haven’t seen a lot of recent updates or new entrants in that space, those presses are continuing to sell very well. So well that many companies such as MCS, BlueCrest, and now Ricoh are white-labeling the Taskalfa [from Kyocera] to meet a variety of needs for customers at a low price point.
CR: What do you see as the primary benefit of sheetfed inkjet for commercial printers?
Zwang: Most of these companies are sheetfed houses, and they just don’t want to get into the logistics of rolls of paper. Plus, they like the flexibility of being able to change paper stocks on the fly, which is really important in a diverse commercial printing business that has a lot of short- to medium-run jobs. In terms of migrating offset work, quality is not really even a discussion anymore, both because quality has improved and the market better tolerates any minor, if any, quality differences because of the advantages of digital print. So mostly, we talk about cost and speed. The cost dynamic for production inkjet, whether continuous feed or sheetfed, has been positive, and the crossover point with offset keeps rising.
CR: Any other challenges that you are seeing?
Gooding: A lot of the trends we are discussing here likely would have happened anyway but accelerated due to the pandemic. One issue is the paper shortage, and that is likely to drive increased demand for pre-coaters. People who bought an inkjet press and were using inkjet-treated papers and were happy with the supply chain are now saying that coating their own paper will give them more flexibility.
CR: What else do you see that’s driving volume to inkjet?
Zwang: The wildcard here is labor availability. If you look at analog pressmen, whether it is offset, flexo, or what’s left of gravure, they are all in the third quarter of their life, and there are not a lot of new people coming up to take their places. Also, you need more labor to operate analog presses. One operator can run a production inkjet press, and in some cases, even two. And they have a different skill requirement that is easier to find and train in the market.
Gooding: There is also opportunity for bespoke configurations where OEMs are either offering integration services or offering services to integrators. Memjet, Colordyne, HP, Kodak, and Fujifilm are examples of that where you can add inkjet to existing offset or flexo presses to add variable capability in full color with a variety of different types of ink as well. The whole integrator market is very interesting right now.
CR: We hear a lot about workflow automation. How does that fit into this picture?
Zwang: We see automation increasing across the board, in both offset and digital. Companies can more easily automate the front end—getting orders in, prepress, and even robots loading plates onto offset presses. The other trend is that companies are moving more to application-based printing, where they produce a limited set of applications rather than anything that comes in the door, and those workflows are easier to automate as well. That also plays into better automation of finishing. If you have a very wide variety of applications, it becomes more difficult to be efficient with in-line finishing. But if you are producing a limited set of applications, in-line finishing can be more efficient and is gaining in popularity. Most of these lines can also be configured as hybrid. With barcode readers, the system knows whether a job coming off the printer goes into the in-line finisher or gets offloaded to a skid for more specialized near-line finishing.
Gooding: Book printing is a good example here, even for what we might have considered as long runs before. You have to think about the full life cycle of that book. So even with a long run book, especially with the huge freight problems we are having in the U.S., breaking it down into smaller runs in different locations closer to the ultimate point of need makes a lot of sense and drives volume to digital as well.
CR: So how do you see the balance between offset, inkjet, and toner shaping up?
Zwang: I wouldn’t count toner out just yet. For example, Kodak just introduced ASCEND, a new press targeted at short-run folding carton and retail POP applications, with a five-color print engine. It’s an A3+ sheet size that can produce output up to 48 inches in length on media weights up to 30 points. And analog printing, offset and flexo, will continue to be complementary to digital as well for the foreseeable future. HP Indigo and Xeikon continue to bring more capability to market as well.
Gooding: Also, using offset and digital together can make the offset presses more efficient, leaving the longest runs there and moving everything else to digital.
CR: For production inkjet, do you see an opportunity for the dealer channel here?
Zwang: Absolutely. The company that was probably the leader in promoting the sale of these production machines through their channel was Konica Minolta. Some of the other manufacturers have been testing that model as well because the dealers are not just selling equipment; they are also selling services that drive equipment and consumables sales.
CR: So, would that be the OEM selling the equipment and having it supported by the dealers?
Zwang: The way Konica Minolta did it, which made perfect sense, is to have the dealer be the primary contact, sell the machine and provide first-level support. The dealer becomes the feet on the street and the OEM is there to provide more high-level and holistic support, and to help bring the dealers along in terms of capabilities for the future. And most of these machines are connected with remote service capabilities so the OEM can see what’s going on with them. The machines are getting smarter, and there is a greater ability to capture a lot of data in the cloud and analyze it. This allows them to work with customers on preventative maintenance, as well as to provide advisory services if an operation is not tracking with the rest of the community in terms of performance.
CR: We’ve talked a lot about production inkjet. What would you say is the top trend in large format or industrial inkjet?
Zwang: The biggest growth area I am seeing is décor, and that’s been driven a lot by the pandemic as well. I did a study recently around sustainability and looked at the rates of refresh for apartments and houses, and it’s fairly significant. You can do a lot with inkjet printing technologies in lieu of the more expensive materials such as high-quality wood and marble. And there is also great demand for wall and window coverings as well. And for textile-based products, there is increased availability and quality in pigment inks that can print to almost any fabric type, giving the printing company more flexibility with a single piece of equipment. This is clearly an area of opportunity for dealer channels.
Gooding: The pigment inks are important. If you really want the bright color and the durability, the pigment inks perform really well. But they are also subject to nozzle blockages. So, there is a balance between wanting to get the high color while also having consistency across the longer runs. You don’t want to have a jet out in the middle of your drapes or wallpaper!
Access Related Content