The pace of innovation in production inkjet has accelerated over the past few years with new technology conquering more substrates, entering new markets and driving quality to new heights. For each of these releases there is a first customer. Often that customer is on board long before the product makes it to market, and not all products make it to market. It’s easy to understand why OEMs want to be first to the market with new technology and that they need beta customers to succeed, but why would a printing business want to take a risk on unproven technology?
To answer this question, we spoke with 5 technology leaders using inkjet in quality-sensitive operations about their experience as pre-release adopters of production inkjet presses. Some of these companies dipped their toes in the inkjet pool as far back as the late 1990’s while others purchased their first inkjet press within the past two years. In each case, the company was looking for some combination of quality, flexibility, media compatibility, productivity or price that was not commercially available at the time.
Japs-Olson Company, a commercial print and direct mail provider based in St. Louis Park MN (japsolson.com) made their initial foray into inkjet in the late 90’s after several years of working with inkjet arrays added to their traditional presses. Their beta test of that initial press didn’t work out, and it wasn’t until 2014 that they were ready to look at presses again. When they did, they again pursued a device that was not yet commercially available, the Kodak Prosper 6000. Patrick Murrayy, President of Japs-Olson told us that they had been watching the market, “We were aware of the Kodak Prosper 5000 and waited to jump in until the 6000 was announced. As an alpha/beta partner, we had months of questions before we installed.” An existing relationship played a big role in the decision to work with Kodak. While it was their first inkjet press, Japs Olson had over 100 inkjet heads (DOD and CIJ) in the plant at that time. According to Murray, their decision was made based on “speed, quality, technology and trust based on our relationship with the OEM”
ProList Inc. a direct marketing services provider operating in Frederick MD (prolist.com) is a much more recent convert to production inkjet, but they have moved quickly. In 2018 ProList invested in the Konica Minolta Accuriojet KM1 cut-sheet inkjet press when there were fewer than a dozen installed in the US and then installed a second one in 2019. ProList engaged with MCS several months prior to the launch of the Merlin K146C and acquired not one, but two of the presses in 2020. This represented a shift from a B2 sheet-fed press using UV inks on the Accuriojet KM-1 to a B3+ format aqueous inkjet device, but this didn’t daunt ProList. They continue to support both platforms, inks and formats successfully. Dave Lokos, President and CEO of ProList justified the investment in the Merlin K146C based on “Relatively low capital cost, low transactional cost, good quality, speed, and confidence in MCS.”.
The team at IWCO Direct in Chanhassen, MN (iwco.com) could be considered innovation junkies. This direct mail and marketing services provider was one of the first to install the original Océ (now Canon) ColorStream 3500 in 2012 and then the ImageStream 3500 a few years later. The ColorStream was a big leap since it was not only the company’s first inkjet press, it was their first continuous press as well. John Ashe, their CEO, told us, “The ColorStream 3500 was one of the first presses to achieve the combination of quality and speed needed for our clients. Canon’s original Chromera ink set was formulated specifically for IWCO Direct.” IWCO was also a beta site for the Xerox CiPress and, more recently, the first site in the U.S. to install the Canon i300 VarioPrint cut-sheet inkjet press.
The St. Louis Missouri operation of worldwide marketing powerhouse, Epsilon (us.epsilon.com) selected their first inkjet press in 2014 after 9 month of fairly intensive OEM testing and due diligence. Epsilon was looking for a continuous press that would print on coated offset stocks and there were very few solutions available at that time. Nate Miliken, VP and Managing Director of the operation said, “We were the first in the US and 3rd globally to install the Screen 520HD in 2015 while the device was still in factory beta. Screen offered the best print quality on gloss and matte cover and the best ROI.” Miliken advises, “Pick a good reliable business partner but don’t be afraid of trying the “new guy” either.”
In 2015, Heeter Inc. based in Canonsburg PA was the first general commercial printer in the US to purchase a Ricoh Pro VC60000 and then in 2019 they doubled down with Ricoh to become the North American beta site for the Pro VC700000. Like IWCO Direct, Heeter’s first inkjet press was also their first continuous device. Heeter was in discussions with Ricoh about the VC70000 for 10 months in advance of the VC70000 beta delivery. Kirk Schlecker, President of Heeter described long lead times for ordering inkjet formulated papers and major cracking issues with some papers as impetus to find a press fully compatible with offset stocks. “Quality is seen by all that interact with the VC70000 and the new ink set was a step up but productivity was the game changer for us” said Schlecker. “It’s much faster than the VC60000 on coated stocks and we no longer have to deal with IJ treated or coated stocks.”
Each of these companies is consistent in their claims that being a beta site was beneficial in several ways: access to new capabilities, building a stronger relationship with the OEM and prestige with print-buying customers. “Being one of the first elicits real investment from the vendor,” said Lokos. “Additionally, Prolist has a much stronger voice in the direction of future technological upgrades and additional features by being an early adopter. Being first means we are essentially playing an integral role in creating an entire new market/channel of services.”
Ashe echoed these sentiments and added, “Being early adopters allowed IWCO Direct to offer the benefits of a fully digital workflow to our clients before our competition. Being first also meant we were in a position to partner with the OEMs in defining what features were needed on the equipment to succeed. We had input on technical and service aspects of the equipment, especially helping the OEM understand what was needed for success in the direct marketing space. Based on the reputation we developed as an early adopter, our input is now sought out by other OEMs who understand the value of our feedback and respect our input.”
“Heeter had a competitive advantage and the level of quality surprised our customers,” Schlecker said of their early-adopter benefits. “We also were able to win work from other B2 digital presses based on price and quality without cannibalizing our margins.”
Many print providers want to be the first to deliver new capabilities to their customers and to develop an influential relationship with their OEM, but not every company is cut out to be an alpha or beta site.
What does it take to succeed as a first mover with inkjet?
Being an early adopter comes with significant responsibility as well as benefit. The level of stability of a new product can vary greatly depending on whether it is an upgrade to an existing line or the first of it’s kind for the OEM or the market as a whole. Beta sites must be committed to the potential of many months of testing and the possibility that the product may not deliver the benefits promised. In short, they must be financially stable and comfortable with risk.
Murray of Japs-Olson warns, “There is always a risk it will not perform as planned. The investment and commitment of resources is difficult to gauge when planning a beta test or implementation of new technology. You have to accept some risk and possibly a longer ROI.” Ashe of IWCO concurs, “First adopters need to realize every test isn’t going to be a success, and sometimes you have to pull the plug and say ‘let’s try something else’.”
Early adopters also need to be experts in their field able to share valuable market expertise and speak candidly with OEMs. Ashe advises, “Being first meant having many discussions with the OEM and giving candid feedback. It also meant the OEM was learning how the equipment would actually perform in a 24/7 environment, which can differ widely from the performance of a machine in a controlled R&D environment.” Murray adds, “OEM’s do not know or totally understand the day to day issues that arise on a production floor or how we may integrate this new technology into our environment. These discussions and agreements must be part of the project from day 1. It’s in the best interest of everyone involved.”
It must also be understood that any pre-launch product will have issues to be resolved in the testing phase. Part of the responsibility of the beta-tester is to help the OEM work through those issues. Schlecker says of Heeter’s experience, “When there were issues, we spent a lot of time and effort helping Ricoh diagnose them. A few of the issues ended up being resolved with engineering new parts and patches. Our responsibility to Ricoh is, and was, that we will put our best efforts forward and will not play any games with regards to accountability and equipment availability to their service team and engineers.”
It’s also important for both parties to ensure that the product being tested is a good fit for the business with numbers to back it up. Lokos advises, “Have a strong business case for the new equipment. It will likely be of little value to you, and you will be little value to the vendor, if you bring in a piece of equipment that you ultimately aren’t going to run very much.” Murray adds, “Don’t get blinded by the excitement of the new technology. Make sure you have a strong project scope defined with your internal team and the OEM’s at the start. It’s almost the same advice I received before getting married:’Learn how to solve problems quickly, openly and respectfully then learn how to disagree without getting angry and remember that if someone wins an argument, the marriage might have lost’.”