by Pat McGrew
Building your own inkjet press might seem like a radical approach. After all, there are a wide variety of commercial presses in the market with bundled Digital Front Ends (DFE) and features designed to facilitate a variety of ink profiles, a wide array of paper options, dryer controls, and quality inspection. Each year brings more inkjet options for speed, print resolution, and finished print sizes in both cut-sheet and web-fed formats. But, for some companies, the option of building a custom press provides opportunities for differentiation that are worth considering.
You may choose to build an inkjet press or a hybrid press to meet your vision. Depending on where you sit in the print market the term hybrid can have different meanings. For some it means a print shop that has both digital and offset capabilities. For others it is a digital shop that has both inkjet and toner capabilities, or one that does both wide format and document printing. From a technology perspective talking about hybrid printing can mean many things. For the purposes of this discussion, inkjet hybrid printing means creating print using both offset and inkjet technology.
What Goes into Building a Custom Inkjet Press
An Inkjet Press typically has a paper transport mechanism, inkjet print heads, dryers, and some way to get data to the print heads. To create an ecosystem for the press, there is typically a digital front end that can receive input files and prepare them for ingestion by the print heads. There are options for every element. The paper transport may be built to move sheets of paper or rolls of paper. The inkjet print heads might be made to drop on demand or to rain inkjet in a continuous inkjet system. The dryers might use forced hot air, infrared drying, or a combination of drying techniques to ensure that ink dries at the correct point in the printing cycle. The digital front end is sometimes thought of as only a Raster Image Processor (RIP) that accepts the print data and prepares it to move to the print head to enable printing. In many cases the DFE is the home of a wider array of functions, including data collection, job monitoring, interaction with inspection and quality monitoring systems, and access to features like imposition, post-RIP color adjustments, or page reorganization. DFEs can be built from the ground up using solutions from a variety of vendors or can be purchased as a unit.
These elements have their own complexity, so it takes some research and a grounding in the technologies, but you can build your own press. Companies as diverse as high-volume transaction mailers and commercial printers have developed custom-engineered solutions, typically using print modules from one of the main inkjet print head vendors. Canon, Domino, Fujifilm, HP, Kodak, Konica Minolta,Memjet, Panasonic, Ricoh, Seiko, and Xaar are among the names you might recognize among the top print head providers. Each of these companies have teams that can guide you through the specifications for driving their heads, the DFEs and RIPs that they support or recommend, and provide guidance on transport and drying.
On the topic of print heads, don’t forget to ask about ink. Some print head manufacturers require you to buy ink from them, while others have third parties who also supply ink. Some will even create custom colors.
Building a custom inkjet press can be a viable option for companies with needs not met by off the rack devices, either because of paper widths, weights, and composition or highly specific marking needs, like a two-color press or five or six color presses.
What Goes into Building an Inkjet Hybrid Press?
Everything listed above goes into an inkjet hybrid press, but there are configuration options to consider. Do you want to hang inkjet heads off the back of your offset print line to add variable content, or do you want to link a full-size inkjet press to the offset line? There are opportunities for both options.
Hanging print heads on an offset press has been a common practice for more than 20 years. Inkjet print heads were first used to add addresses and other variable information to transactional and marketing communication using black ink. Over time, mailers worked with their vendors to develop additional colors and ultimately full color options that are used widely today. Today’s solutions can be limited to the addition of narrow heads to print in specific zones on the page or more fully featured using page wide heads to add variable content at any point on the page. Configurations vary as much as the needs of the print shops that build them.
If this solution will work for you, look at print heads from HP, Kodak, Ricoh, Fujifilm and others who have experience helping their customers create efficient systems. Ask if they can support you with a DFE or if you are on your own. Ask about drying requirements and for print samples showing inkjet print on the types of offset work you do.
Thinking Through the Options
A custom inkjet press can provide a workflow that enables the types of jobs that can be sold at a higher value. It might take some time to build the solution and integrate it into your product offerings but, once complete, the sales team should have a story to tell that differentiates your capabilities in the markets you serve. Start the journey with just a few basic questions and expand your checklists as you decide which path is right for you.
- What work would a custom press enable?
- Is there a strong technical capability in-house to support the research and decisions about what components are needed, as well as how they should be configured?
- Is there enough time available to do the research, configuring, buying and implementation without impacting the current book of business?
And if you determine that there isn’t a path toward building a custom press, don’t forget to look at those who build custom configurations. Companies like Document Data Solutions, Prototype and Production Systems Incorporated (PPSI), Engineered Printing Solutions, and Direct Color Systems have a portfolio of experience they can apply to fast-path you toward the differentiation you need.