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Commentary & Analysis

High-Speed Inkjet: Have We Seen All This Before?

The old adage goes: Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it. As we look at the adoption of high-speed inkjet, both the technology and the applications, are we seeing history unfold ... again?

By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Published: September 13, 2017

Whether you are talking about history, politics, or the printing industry, the old adage holds: Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it. Right now, I’m feeling very nostalgic.

According to PODI Insights, pages printed on digital color presses continue to grow. Specifically, they are up 15% in North America last year alone. This growth is not equal opportunity. It is being driven by high-speed continuous feed color inkjet.

The post reports that pages produced on web-fed versions of these presses have been growing at 20%+ per year, double the rate of cut-sheet pages. As a result, nearly half of the total volume being printed on digital color presses is now coming from inkjet.

Most of the volume being printed on these presses is

  • transactional documents,
  • direct mail letters, and
  • books.

“The economics of transactional printing and direct mail letter printing now favor white paper feeding a full-color inkjet web press versus preprinted forms with non laser overprinting,” writes Dave Erlandson, general manager for Caslon, author of the post. “For books, the focus is shifting from the print cost per book to the cost of books sold.”

The next phase of growth for digital color printing, Erlandson continues, is the use of inkjet to print offset quality images on coated stock at reasonable costs. Look for inkjet to start carving into the market for full-color direct mail, catalogs, marketing collateral, and magazines.

It’s all so familiar. When I first stepped foot into my office at Printing News back in the 1990s, my first issue of the then bi-weekly tabloid showed a picture of two Indigo presses (back when digital presses were sold in pairs) being hoisted into an upper story of a Manhattan office building. For the next 20+ years, both on the staff of Printing News and beyond, I have reported on the benefits, drawbacks, praises, and complaints regarding digital presses. Funny that there are now those in the industry (many the same age I was when I first wrote the headlines for that cover) who never knew the industry without them.

What makes me feel nostalgic is that the data and the adoption path is parallel to that of what I observed in toner-based presses. The skepticism, the cost-benefit discussions, the application development—we’ve seen it all before: in the same order, and unfolding in a similar frame of time.

The 1990s debates still ring in my ears. “Not every shop will be able to afford a high-speed inkjet press,” they said. “Who can afford a $500,000 machine (let alone a pair of them) for such a small market?” “Maybe the presses will be good for low-end production work, but certainly not for high-quality work—jobs with photographic images and heavy ink coverage.” Of course, “Certainly not for volume.”

Today, shops with digital presses have become the norm. I have watched as applications have gradually expanded from “pleasing color” to high-end color, from general market to specialty printing, from coated papers only to uncoated, from 2D projects to those with dimensional effects. PODi’s post brought it all flooding back.

What do you think? Is high-speed inkjet not inevitable for every digital shop? Think the volumes will never sufficiently drop, that the quality won’t ever compete, or that your shop won’t need it? You might not think you will need inkjet at this point, but one day many shops that thought they wouldn’t need it, probably will.  I didn’t say it. History did.

So what’s your plan? If you think you aren’t likely to need high-speed inkjet, are you prepared to be wrong?

Heidi Tolliver-Walker Heidi is an industry analyst specializing in digital, one-to-one, personalized URL, and Web-to-print applications. Her Marketer’s Primer Series, availalbe through Digital Printing Reports, includes “Digital Printing: Transforming Business and Marketing Models,” 1:1 (Personalized) Printing: Boosting Profits Through Relevance,” “Personalized URLs: Beyond the Hype,” and “Web-to-Print: Transforming Document Management and Marketing.”



By Chuck Werninger on Sep 13, 2017

Heidi, how very true! I think we entered the industry at about the same time. It would be interesting to look up the names of some of the PSPs who said "digital won't work here because..." to see how many are still in business today...and whether they're using digital today. There were valid reasons to resist digital back then and inkjet today but customer needs and expectations will keep evolving and they'll take their printing needs to a printer who can meet them.


By David Murphy on Sep 14, 2017

Inkjet print quality is now increasingly suitable for many mainstream commercial applications beyond transaction and light-coverage books. PSPs should consult with manufacturers to determine how they can profitably produce the widest range of salable jobs with the highest ROI.

Ask about offset coated media versatility, cloud/local and digital/physical workflow automation, nozzle health, total uptime, upgradability, and relevant 'beyond-the-press' solutions and services.

Clearly, inkjet is the go-forward driver of production digital print volume. Total inkjet pages surpassed total toner pages in 2014 and the inkjet/toner volume split should be 60/40 by 2018.

Those who have previously looked at inkjet and decided to wait should probably not wait much longer.


By Rossitza Sardjeva on Sep 15, 2017

It is really true that Inkjet print quality is already increasingly proper for many commercial applications including to high volume of color illustrations. Inkjet surpassed total toner print especially dry toner may be around 5 years ago.....


By Will Mansfield on Sep 22, 2017

One key difference between the horizons of growth for toner adoption as compared to inkjet adoption is that inkjet offers the option of on press imprinting, not just offline. This single pass hybrid approach has been common place in direct mail and transaction for years and is now taking hold in packaging applications.


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