FACT: 90% of all books are still printed on offset equipment. So where exactly does inkjet play in the book printing market?
I recently spoke with four book printers to better understand how inkjet supports their current manufacturing process and how inkjet has changed their approach for future capabilities. Each have taken different paths to migrate to inkjet platforms. All four executives expressed optimism about growth opportunities in book printing. All shared ways that inkjet is a key component in their manufacturing capabilities and how it complements other press technologies.
This article includes insights from:
- Doug Gasch of Gasch Printing which has been in business since 1982 and printing books since 2006 for publishers, and independent authors.
- Graham Bromley of Hobbs the Printers in UK in business since since 1884 printing books, periodicals, and journals for diverse customers across scientific, legal, education, transportation.
- Bill Clockel of Books International which started as a fulfillment company in 1984. They later expanded into printing, serving professional publishers, educational books, scholarly, and trade book printing globally.
- Andrew Van Sprang of Maple Press providing book printing since 1901 focused on large print publishers, specialty trade publishers, academic, and university press publishers.
Why Inkjet for Books?
Inkjet adoption and migration from offset and toner platforms is situational for all printers. Each printer I spoke with made several evaluations of customer needs, capabilities, and cost in determining when and why to add inkjet to their production mix.
For both Gasch Printing and Hobbs, their initial inkjet investment was a Canon continuous feed (CF) mono platform to replace a CF toner device. The decision was driven by the acceptable image quality for low area coverage jobs and a lower consumable cost with inkjet. After seeing the benefits of inkjet, Gasch later added a Canon Varioprint i300 sheet-fed device for shorter run books. They then added an HP PageWide T240 series web press in 2019 to expand their digital capabilities. Hobbs is looking at an additional inkjet press later this year.
Several years ago, Books International acquired its first inkjet platform, an HP T230 web press. Their decision was driven by the improvements in image quality with high density inks. They felt the image quality was sellable to their clients. In 2018 they added a Canon VarioPrint i300 to support shorter runs. Recently, they have significantly expanded their roll and sheet-fed inkjet capabilities with the installation of an HP PageWide T490 in 2020 and 2 Canon VarioPrint iX series presses this year.
Maple Press recently ordered their first inkjet press, an HP PageWide T260 mono press, with installation scheduled for this summer. They have been monitoring inkjet image quality for five years, with a focus on halftone image quality that compares to offset. They are excited to expand their digital capabilities and improve throughput with efficient changeovers between book jobs with different finish sizes.
All four book printers are running mixed production environments with two or three press technologies. All are printing book covers on toner devices. Book covers typically require high ink coverage (TAC) and high image quality. Printers often prefer the reflective nature of toner output over aqueous inkjet for covers. Because book covers typically have high coverage (over 20% area coverage) and full color, they are usually less expensive to produce on the per click basis common with toner than the consumables-cost model common with inkjet. But this common wisdom may be challenged in some environments where toner is not using a click model, with UV inkjet that offers durability and shine for covers, and where overall volume on inkjet drives down per image costs on higher coverage jobs. With both toner and aqueous inkjet often a varnish is used to protect book covers.
All printers have taken a methodological approach to determine what jobs run on what platform. They expressed the ongoing need for keeping offset web presses for long runs that will never move to inkjet as well keeping some offset cutsheet presses for medium to long runs and larger finish sizes. These hybrid producers are moving more books to inkjet presses for medium runs and fast turnaround. Maple press will replace one sheet-fed offset press with a web inkjet platform for book blocks. Shorter runs are driving growth in book orders across all segments as printers see the need for cutsheet digital toner and inkjet to enable print-on-demand capabilities.
Books are predominantly run on standard offset uncoated stocks. OEMs have focused R&D efforts on expanding compatible papers to include untreated and coated offset stocks which can run at rated speeds and achieve acceptable image quality. Inkjet treated papers designed to produce the best image quality for inkjet platforms are priced at a significant premium over standard offset stocks. None of the printers I spoke with are running inkjet treated stocks due to the additional cost. The offset to inkjet migration has been driven by improved image quality and the use of bonding agents to improve ink adhesion and reduce dot gain on uncoated stocks.
Clockel of Books International cited the need to use regular papers to compete with pricing for similar jobs run on offset presses. Bromley at Hobbs noted customer requirements to run jobs on offset with reprints run on inkjet or toner using the same paper stocks across platforms. Van Sprang of Maple Press intends to run their standard uncoated offset stocks on the HP press. These companies are typically offering customers a few choices of uncoated and matte coated stocks for roll fed inkjet platforms. Those with Canon VarioPrint i300 and iX series are able to offer their customers more paper choices on cutsheet short run books.
The U.S. book printers interviewed had no issues with paper supply in 2020. However, they recently started to see longer lead times for delivery of standard stocks. Some stocks now need an average of a 5-week lead time to deliver. Some printers expressed concern that paper supply will be more challenging this summer and fall. In the UK, Hobbs had minor issues with paper supply in 2020 due to the complexities of Brexit and policy changes for EU papers coming into the UK. The new rules have been worked out and they are not currently experiencing any issues. All printers have some concerns about the mill capacity that is shifting to cardboard and packaging products and reducing the overall supply for book papers.
Several printers expressed seeing some limitations with inkjet. Continuous presses are often run at a lower speed or “quality mode” to improve image quality with higher coverage books. This strategy is still more cost-effective than the additional cost for inkjet treated stocks that could run faster, potentially at top speed for the press. Some reported challenges in bindery due to cockle and curl with higher coverage, as more water must be extracted from the sheet in the drying process.
Growth with inkjet
In the last few years, several large book printing plants have closed their doors. All were well respected companies that were primarily running offset presses. Those with inkjet and substantial digital capabilities are growing.
2020 showed solid growth from independent publishers that have done well during the pandemic. They connected readers to new market channels, and many are printing books from their backlists. Larger publishers have taken a conservative approach to book order quantities. They’re placing more orders at lower quantities rather than letting multiple years’ worth of books sit in warehouses.
Inkjet platforms are enabling book printers to offer clients more flexibility, improved turnaround and price points that are compelling. Inkjet combined with traditional offset and digital toner provide a full suite of services and solutions across the book publishing sectors. Printers that are thriving see the services they combine with their book printing to be as important as competitive pricing and flexibility in manufacturing. All printers I spoke with see inkjet as a critical component to their growth and expanded capabilities to exceed their customers’ expectations.