Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Production Inkjet 2013 and Beyond

The inkjet market is evolving rapidly and moving into full-blown commercial applications. Paper dimensions, color quality, substrates, workflow and finishing are evolving rapidly.

Looking across all categories of print, and how people use it, the exciting thing now is that people can see this is the right technology for what the future of the industry looks like. Disruption of the traditional analog printing processes and business models as a result of high quality, shorter runs, personalization, and good economics is starting to present itself. Speed and cost are good enough to compete favorably against legacy technologies in many applications; then you layer on the value added capabilities and turn-around times, it's very striking.

Furthermore, Inkjet has the real possibility of disrupting today's existing high-quality digital production presses. For example, you could take the equivalent of an entire day of work on four of the highest productivity color digital presses, and move them onto an inkjet platform, and the result might be that the former entire day is reduced to only two hours. The opportunities are really in the improved efficiency, the cost impact, and the capability of adding new product features.

There is a lot of activity in hardware for "paper moving", in heads, and in ink itself. The software and computer side of things is ahead of the game at this point, which was a problem in the past. From my perspective, everyone but HP is in Version 1.0 of their production press technology. HP had quite an impressive showing at Drupa with their presses, notably showing the T-400 coupled with two different industry standard finishing lines.

A lot of the offset press manufacturers are "bolting on" inkjet technologies to existing platforms, a trend that I think has a short life expectancy-- primarily due to emerging technologies from companies like Landa Corporation. With their impressive show at Drupa, with such a great, comprehensive story and Benny Landa's proven track record, although they are at "version .9", it would be foolish to doubt that what they are doing will succeed. Landa will be an important company in the market. Another interesting showcase at Drupa, on the lower end of the spectrum was Delphax with their sheetfed Elan press, based on Memjet technology. A couple of years ago, it was commonly questioned whether Memjet technology was even real, whereas now it's seen altogether differently, and very real.

Inkjet is a big investment, but it's evolving so rapidly that an acquisition should probably be treated more like the purchase of computer systems, than a printing press has traditionally been financed. If you buy a machine today, the outside life expectancy is probably 5 years and at there will quickly be much better equipment available.

You also have to understand the workflow and finishing parts of the equation. Most printers innately understand the printing part, but it's getting the work onto the press and getting it finished and out the door that can make the difference between success and failure, and Inkjet presents new challenges in these areas.

Finally, the machines that create a competitive advantage today tend to be large and expensive. They have very high throughput. In order to achieve an ROI, a company must have the volume of work necessary to keep the press operating virtually around the clock. You may need two presses— because what do you do when you have 20 hours of capacity planned for a press that goes down?

A lot of people are saying, books and “transpromo” now, then marketing materials, newspapers, packaging, even photo books-- everything people use other printing technologies for, will be rolling out on Inkjet over the next 5-10 years significantly replacing offset technologies. I agree with this thought process.

Although there are many challenges, the opportunities clearly outweigh them. It’s a very exciting picture today, and I’m looking forward to rapid development over the next couple of years.

(this commentary originally appeared in Graphic Communications World "The Green Sheet", November 2012.)