Inkjet for Online printers
Online printing is a major growth segment in the printing industry and could, depending on the country, already account for more than 20% of the print revenue. After a dent during the pandemic, volumes are expected to continue to grow. Online printers serve customers that were barely addressed by traditional print (B2C, micro-companies) but take away volume from traditional print as well, by offering lower prices and convenient online business. Additionally, some traditional commercial printing companies are reinventing themselves as online printers.
Inkjet printing and online printers should be a marriage made in heaven. Online printing companies strive for short runs, focus on automating processes, and offer good quality but without going for all bells and whistles. The turnaround times are usually short and the paper choice limited.
Inkjet would tick all the marks. Inkjet has the biggest automation potential of all print processes as, besides not requiring plates, no moving parts are involved in the imaging system. Accordingly, any deviations or defects picked up by sensors can be compensated in real-time automatically. Set-up procedures and human intervention are superfluous. While this is still somewhat an unfulfilled ideal state, vendors are working hard on automating processes and made great progress so far. In-line finishing, as available on many inkjet devices, could take automation even a step further.
It has to be admitted that the term “online printer” is not well defined. There is somewhat a common understanding that an online printer receives the majority of jobs via web portals, has few formal agreements with large customers and mostly relies on ad-hoc business. There can be overlap into other business areas. B2C focused online printers often have a considerable photo print business, while B2B focused online printers often evolved from commercial printers. Definitions aside, the main fact is that there are few inkjet solutions installed at typical online printers so far.
The strategic fit of inkjet
Further growth strategies for online printers follow typically two approaches: broaden the product portfolio and operational efficiency. Both are counteractive to some extent.
Broadening the product portfolio allows addressing bigger portions of the print markets and higher margin products. High-volume inkjet printers are somewhat limited in helping to enlarge the product portfolio – except probably in high volume personalised print. Enlarging the product portfolio usually entails special effect colours or varnishes, unusual or a wider range of substrates or elaborate finishing. Commercial inkjet presses struggle with these requirements and although dedicated inkjet solutions exist for all these features, these are specialty devices.
Inkjet can definitely help in operational efficiency. Not needing plates and makeready compared to offset and incorporating far fewer moveable parts than electrophotographic (EP) technologies means that inkjet can be very efficient. Inks tend to be more cost efficient than toner and presses are more productive. Lowering ink prices and increasing productivity is driving up the break-even against offset as well.
Online printers concede that with the latest generation of inkjet devices quality is barely a problem anymore – at least not for the wide majority of the products offered. Paper choice is still more limited, but the usable range is increasing as well. In short, a wide range of applications exist already where inkjet could be the most efficient process across a wide run length range.
Still, online printers tend to play it safe. In applications generally suitable for inkjet, there can be image and paper combinations that can be challenging. A fear is that a solution that works in 95% of all cases for a certain product pipeline is not good enough. With streamlined processes, there is no time for the operator to filter out jobs that do not run on inkjet or would yield inferior results. Until technology and workflows improve further, this keeps some from investing.
A challenge is also the lack of inkjet sheet-fed presses for commercial print. The Landa S10P remains the only B1 inkjet option. Some B2 presses are available, but they tend to have a lower speed. B3/SRA3 inkjet printers can have a good price/performance ratio but the small format limits the application range somewhat.
The status of inkjet adoption
There are some adopters of inkjet in online print. A frontrunner has been the Bluetree group, which operates two CF Screen inkjet presses for books, runs a Landa S10P for commercial work and a Fujifilm JetPress 720S for high-quality business cards. A second Landa press in online print is used at Simian/Reclameland in the Netherlands and this installation recently set a monthly print volume record for Landa presses.
There are some B2 inkjet presses in use at dedicated online printers from Fujifilm or Konica Minolta/Komori. PLS in Germany, getitprinted.com in the UK and realisaprint.com in France use a Konica Minolta KM-1, while Bulckens/ZwartOpWit in Belgium has the IS-29 sold by Komori – all printing general commercial jobs. Online printers with a strong heritage in photo print as Poster XXL, Cewe and Instantprint run B2 inkjet as well, although usually for specialty applications and not commercial print. The B3 Canon VarioPrint is found at some online printers, such as Kampert-Nauta in the Netherlands, LOS in Norway and Tradeprint in the UK.
Web presses such as the HP T-250 are used at Onlineprinters and its subsidies Solopress in the UK and Print Group Polska. Canon CF printers are used at Exacta in Sweden and at Pixart in Italy.
More to come
A sign of the pace of adoption picking up is the announcement in September 2021 between Canon and Cimpress. According to the agreement Canon is to supply Cimpress with inkjet printers in multiple locations. According to Cimpress’ founder and CEO Robert Keane this reflects the strategic decision by Cimpress to continue to invest in technology, including inkjet printing, to retain its position at the forefront of the online printing industry. He also remarks, “we believe inkjet technology has an important role to play, bringing flexibility, efficiency and a positive step to reduce waste, contributing to the achievement of our sustainability goals.”. At the point of the announcement, Pixart in Italy had three Canon ProStream presses up and running while Cimpress’ Austrian subsidy Druck.at had several VarioPrint cut-sheet inkjet printers in operation.
It is likely that more inkjet printers already found their way into print shops, as only selected installations are being made public by vendors and printing companies. When extending their product range online printers are far more likely to publicise an installation than when they invest to improve (internal) efficiency. There is some interest in keeping quiet about efficiency enhancing investments to keep margins up.
Canon affirms that a substantial portion of the cut-sheet inkjet printers are being installed at online printers already. Additionally, these sites make good use of the investment and drive very high volumes per device.
Other online printers are putting their investment off a bit further. They usually have noticed the progress inkjet technology has made in recent years and bank on further improvements in the near future. As one online printer states: “The time when offset and HP Indigo were seen as the only choices is gone now. Inkjet is now being considered in earnest.”
In the second part of this story, I will have a look at the opportunities and challenges of inkjet in online print.