By Pat McGrew
Innovation in the world of inkjet is constant. It is easy to be dazzled by technology demonstrations and product announcements because they are almost constant. Inkjet technology serves a vast array of segments, from wide format printing to digital textile printing, from marketing collateral to essential regulated communication, with many stops along the way. While the needs of each segment vary, the continuous announcement cycle might leave you confused about which innovation applies to the type of business you operate. Not every announcement you read nor every innovation that gets the spotlight may apply to your business.
Inkjet differs from other printing technologies because it is a non-contact process. Print heads drop ink onto the substrate. There is no platen or fuser pressing onto the substrate, so speed and resolution are dictated by how the ink is dropped and how many nozzles are available, as well as the nature of the ink and the size of ink droplets. With the right combination of print head, ink and substrate it is possible to create print products that allow you to print at high speeds, print high-quality work, and to add value and differentiate with new print product offerings while keeping an eye on the total cost of goods sold. And, because inkjet is driven by digital front ends, building an inkjet-based production environment means that it was born for transactional printing as well as mass customization and personalization for a wide range of products.
To identify which inkjet innovations you should be watching, start by understanding your needs and then listening for the innovations that will help you create differentiation in the markets you serve. Assess your current print capacity, identify jobs you turn away, and take a close look at jobs that may have fallen short of customer expectations in terms of color, substrate or even the delivery time frames. Once you understand your print environment, it’s time to look at what’s in the market.
Production inkjet printing cut its teeth in the transaction space producing statements, bills and correspondence. Inkjet offered speed and full color to support white paper factories at a cost that changed the way print service providers and in-plants looked at their total cost of printing (TCOP). Early inkjet solutions offered reasonable resolution and speed that expanded print capacity in a footprint similar to equivalent toner devices. Print quality was acceptable for most regulated communications while enabling the addition of full-color marketing objects and images to reduce reliance on inserts and drive engagement. Decisions to adopt inkjet often involved calculating how much warehouse space could be eliminated by eliminating pre-print rolls or cut sheet shells.
Those innovations are old news. Today you should be looking at features that improve your business infrastructure. If you are running near full capacity with a limited footprint available for additional hardware, look for solutions that offer higher speed. More vendors are offering variable speed options, which can allow you to buy into a higher speed platform and pay as you grow into it. If you have 20-30 per cent open capacity in your normal schedule, but hit full capacity at certain times of the year, look for those variable speed options, too.
In the last decade, vendors have evolved machines that produce higher quality print often with increasing levels of vibrancy and optical density. Many have updated the ink that they offer. Blacker blacks and more brilliant color is now where the bar sits for any device, roll-fed or sheetfed. Innovations to watch for in this space will come from additional color options, including expansion to 6 or 8 colors to aid in expanding color gamut as well as speed. Support for more substrates with additional paper tension settings in roll-fed devices and the ability to have the print head adjust to heavier and lighter substrates should be on your watch list. Expect to see more automation between the point of file generation and the point that print begins, and in some cases, through to inline finishing. Automated color profile configuration and management to eliminate the trial and error common with machine setup today is an important function to watch for since it materially impacts the cost to produce a job. Also, watch for automation of job setup, including everything from the dryer configurations to the speed and profiles to create an optimized print. Transaction work is typically commoditized, so any opportunity to add value to the print product while reducing labor costs is innovation worth the investment.
The most important guidance, however, is not to overbuy. If you cannot make more money or improve your margins by adding more colors or more speed, temper your thirst for innovation with process improvement. And before you begin the acquisition of any innovative technology addition for your production environment, be sure to do a thorough assessment of current processes to understand friction points before adding new equipment.
Thrilled that Pat and Mary Schilling will be joining me (Elizabeth Gooding) for a panel presentation tomorrow at the Inkjet Summit on Transforming Transaction Printing.