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Commentary & Analysis

Inkjet Printing is Evolving - Worth a Second Look by Offset Printers?

by Stewart Partridge,

By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: June 23, 2003

by Stewart Partridge, Web Consulting Inc June 23, 2003 -- The year 2003 marks the tenth anniversary of when wide format digital printing, mainly in the guise of 200-dpi electrostatic and 300-dpi inkjet printers, first seriously entered the print market as a short-run production technique. Originally - by using high cost specialty media with inappropriate inks and toners, printed by plotters never designed for graphics applications - repro houses, photo labs, newly emerging graphics service bureaus, and other digital print providers were able to create and serve a new market, plus support existing sectors such as exhibition and event graphics. Over the last decade, inkjet printing has emerged to become a "serious" printing technology, and now takes its rightful place alongside offset, screen, flexo and gravure. In most developed countries, Web Consulting's research shows that inkjet has captured typically 14-17% of the wide format graphics sector by volume, and considerably more by value. In certain developing graphics markets such the outdoor advertising industry in China, inkjet printing has actually become bigger than screen printing and offset together, capturing >55% market share. The good news is that in developed countries, inkjet printing is not a threat to offset printers or offset printing. Perhaps that is why worldwide, so few offset printers (well under 3%) have adopted wide format inkjet technology as anything other than a convenient proofing tool. The installed base of inkjet proofing devices is destined to grow steadily, as it accompanies the in-plant adoption of CTP devices by the more professional offset printers. The more creative offset printers are now using their inkjet proofers as marketing tools, utilizing spare proofing department capacity to produce full-colour mock-ups to help their sales staff win new offset business. But even today, many offset printers do not consider wide format inkjet printing as anything other than a slow and expensive print tool that requires dedicated papers and media. They do not believe it is "relevant" to their business. This is an interesting debate. Do offset printers exist to make offset prints? Or do they exist to make money? Other traditional types of printers and technology end-users have not been so reticent. The more visionary screen printers, signmakers, professional photolabs and repro companies have adopted inkjet and other digital technologies, and find that they make considerably higher margins from digital output than from their traditional core business. This is causing a rethink among these companies, as they reconsider their business strategy (or write one for the first time….) against a more technology-independent model. A lot of printers now call themselves something new, and think differently. And an increase in the order book is no longer greeted with an auto response to go out and buy another faster and better screen or offset press. For some, flexible production is the name of the new game. Among most offset printers, shorter run wide format colour work is not a significant part of their business, and they may have been right to shun inkjet in the past. But times are changing, and inkjet is reaching out with new capabilities. Current examples are the rapid emergence and adoption of new inkjet printers that print directly onto pressure-sensitive vinyl or even rigid substrates such as display boards, using solvent-based or UV-curable ink sets. For some applications, this can eliminate the need for high cost, branded specialty media, and the finishing steps of encapsulation, lamination or mounting onto display board. Cost is being squeezed out of the family of inkjet processes, preparing them as the economy recovers for the next major growth phase. I am not suggesting that every offset printer should go out and buy an inkjet machine, or invest in the technology tomorrow. But perhaps the time is right for a re-evaluation. Take a serious look at the wide range of inkjet print devices and systems that range from $5,000 to $1 million. But if it is your first digital machine, don't buy the expensive printer! Experience shows that it is better to go through your minimum six-month learning curve (some would say "learning cliff") with a $10,000 machine than $500,000 - then you can move upstream when the business, your production staff, sales personnel and customers are ready. One of the best ways to investigate the possibilities for using inkjet output in your business is to see the equipment first hand, operating as you watch, so you can evaluate output speed, print quality, media flexibility, operator convenience and discuss operating costs. A unique opportunity is available at the upcoming GRAPH EXPO and CONVERTING EXPO, September 28 - October 1, at McCormick Place South, Chicago, IL. The Wide Format Pavilion at this leading major tradeshow for printers and graphic communications professionals allows visitors to see a wide variety of digital printing equipment in operation, compare models, sizes and speeds, and view practical demonstrations. More information on the pavilion and the event can be found at www.graphexpo.com



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