Inkjet Futures

By Sean Smyth / Published:

In July this year Smithers published a new report, The Future of Inkjet Printing to 2027, that forecasts healthy growth in inkjet over the next five years. The report covers graphics and label/packaging inkjet print that generates revenues of $86.8 billion globally in 2022, printing the equivalent of 875 billion square metres. This growing output supports a thriving supply side sector. The global new equipment totals $4.1 billion for all types of printers that will grow to $4.9 billion in 2027. The inkjet ink market is 154,000 tonnes in 2022 rising to 247,000 tonnes by 2027, when it will be valued at $13.3 billion.

Beyond graphics and packaging, inkjet is growing in industrial decoration, another $23.5 billion in 2022 printing 24.8 billion square metres. All this makes inkjet the fastest growing print process, as it competes directly with litho, gravure and flexo presses. In 2027 inkjet will account for 14.1 percent of the global print market value, higher proportions in North America and Western Europe.

Inkjet is succeeding because it offers economic advantages over analogue printing for short runs, which are increasingly common in all markets. Higher performance presses provide higher economic crossover against analogue and, as print quality and reliability improves, inkjet is used in more applications. Inkjet technology is still developing with regular announcements from printhead, ink, software, print engine, drier and finishing equipment providers. Workflow and business processes are improving as customer demands develop. Highest productivity is from web inkjet colour machines exceeding 1,000fpm on webs up to 110 inches, faster for narrower formats with Kodak launching the 1,345fpm Prosper 7000 Turbo. Sheetfed machines now run at 6,500 B1 sheets per hour, with 11,000sph in the pipeline from Inca Digital and larger format sheet presses compete against litholam and flexo in corrugated. 2027 will see more productive systems, B1 sheetfed up to 14,000sph and webs printing over 500m per minute at high resolution. These developments will give greater reliability with automation aids to increase productivity while incorporating levels of nozzle redundancy improve reliability, with cameras detecting issues and heads compensation routines using neighbouring nozzles to eliminate visible artefacts. In-line monitoring with spectrophotometers check colour consistency, leading to real time comparison of the print against a digital master, guaranteeing defect-free print runs.

Some manufacturers use the technology to automate printing and increasingly finishing, streamlining and smoothing print and packaging manufacturing. Inkjet provides greater flexibility allowing users to be more responsive to changing customer demands. Sustainability benefits are increasingly important. Inkjet offers benefits against analogue through lower set-up and running waste. There are no plates or cylinders, with associated chemicals, water and transport impacts. Printing on-demand only what is required eliminates waste through the supply chain.

A big change that is coming as inkjet technology matures will be more integrated print manufacturing, linking prepress with print and finishing in a single pass operation. This will go well beyond simply adding an on-line finishing unit to a press, it is creating a reliable balanced and flexible manufacturing system.

Inkjet book printing has led the way. Many high-speed inkjet web presses are combined with finishing lines from companies including Hunkeler, Tecnau, Müller Martini or Magnum, all delivering finished book blocks ready for binding. Some lines deliver sections for sewing and stitching, or pages glued in a stack. Adjustments of pagination and format changes are made on-the-fly. A buffer station ensures the inkjet press always prints at full rated speed unless there is a paper change needed. Compared with litho paper waste is lower. One operator can run the complete line printing thousands of books in a shift. Inkjet eliminates platemaking, press make-ready, printing, (storing), folding, (storing), collating, gathering and binding. Discrepancies in the quantity of all sections results in waste while binding cannot start until all sections are printed.  Integrated inkjet systems allow book printers to offer new models to customers, printing on-demand from one copy to thousands, allowing publishers to reduce inventory, reducing publishing risk.

Figure 1 Comparison of analogue and inkjet book production

Manufacturing efficiency comes by combining upstream order processing, file, prepress and workflow to feed the press that is integrated with downstream specialist finishing equipment. Books work well as all products are similar, just pagination and format changing. Similar approaches are being investigated for more products. Cell manufacturing is being adopted as companies look to eliminate the dead time of work in progress being stacked on pallets, waiting for the next stage of production to commence. Inkjet sections may incorporate a barcode that is read by a finishing machine that automates set-up and performing the operation. This approach is suited to smaller runs, helping speed jobs through the print shop with links to logistics providers for delivery.

Figure 1 Comparison of litho and inkjet commercial print production

One company who has adopted this approach is UK based Route One Print. They created a business card production cell, linking a Fujifilm Jetpress 720S (JPress in North America) inkjet press with Autobond laminator, Scodix S75 digital embellisher and Rollem JetSlit cutter to automate processing a sheet into finished and stacked sets of cards. These are then inserted into mailers automatically. The slick system speeds throughput while reducing manual labour involvement, helping minimise cost of a very competitive print product.

Some equipment developers are following similar principals. The MGI inkjet sheetfed AlphaJET B1 is designed as an integrated production line. The company highlights this as: “4.0 printing technology”, integrating single-pass colour inkjet printing; fully variable UV varnishing – flat and high-build tactile; with digital hot foiling. Laser die-cutting is on the roadmap. It will produce posters, collateral, covers or cartons. The intention is to integrate into the print operation’s workflow, simplifying the production cycles that required multiple machines into a single operation. MGI refers to AlphaJET as a “printing factory” rather than a press, speeding up production by eliminating intermediate dead-time.

Integrating manufacturing requires the print and finishing speeds to match and all components need high reliability and rapid set-up to avoid downtime. The other necessary component is a controller that monitors all aspects of production in real-time with the ability to make any necessary adjustments. One supplier pushing this approach is Bobst, who has developed their AccuCheck technology for the narrow web inkjet label presses. This unit has a high resolution camera to control colour, registration and blocked nozzle detection. The idea is to link this to the cloud and use a digital master PDF to refer against, including variable data when used. This is a natural development of the vision systems that Bobst has developed for many years on its analogue presses and converting systems. Currently it looks at three potential print faults:

  • angle and stitch – to calibrate and align printheads
  • colour to colour offsets – inter-colour registration including any flexo
  • clogged nozzles – to detect and compensate for nozzle outs to avoid visible lines

Bobst is working on connecting all their machines to improve the efficiency and workflow of packaging production as they work to digitise supply chains. Over time, this approach will become more important in controlling production including die-cutting and embellishment, aiding automation and potentially an operator-free dark factory approach.

These changes are making inkjet print manufacture relatively easy to operate, certainly when compared with analogue methods. This helps companies facing skilled staffing shortages in print and finishing operations. Inkjet’s basic flexibility, combined with increasingly digitised finishing methods, will open more opportunities for more effective print and packaging product manufacture.

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About the Author

Sean Smyth

Sean Smyth is a print technologist, holding senior roles within large and small print and packaging businesses. He was involved with the first digital technology, understanding the changed business benefits the new technology could provide. As a Smithers analyst and consultant he has authored many market reports, including the Future of Digital Print & Packaging to 2026 published in 2021. He chairs the thought leading Digital Print for Packaging conferences for Smithers in the USA and Europe observing their growth over ten years, and the changing dynamic to the benefits offered from new technology. He also contributes to the Trade Press including acting as the original editor of the Digital Labels and Packaging title in the UK. He is the Group Technical Editor for Whitmar Publications Ltd.

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