The Inkjets are Coming! Screen, IBM, Kodak, RISO By Noel Ward, Managing Editor, Trade Shows April 27, 2007 -- The inkjets are coming! The inkjets are coming! That's not unlike the cry of Paul Revere who left Boston on an April night some 232 years ago to warn the colonists that the British were on the March and revolution was in the air. High-speed inkjets, most visibly those of Kodak Versamark, have been gaining ground for some time, and we all know they will coming in force. As Andy Tribute (WTT columnist) and others have noted, drupa 2008 is going to be the "inkjet drupa." In Boston at On Demand, we got a hint of what is to come. Kodak Versamark did not have any of its inkjet machines in Boston, but Kodak has been seeing increased success in placing these printers in a variety of companies including service bureaus, data centers, and commercial printers where some are used to print newspapers. These machines have been the only high speed inkjet option, but now there is competition for the big machines from Dayton, and also other devices that are especially complimentary. Screen and IBM Big production-class machines always get the most play and the piezo head units developed and sold by Screen and OEMed by IBM Printing Systems Company are not only going to compete with Kodak Versamark but are going to rattle some cages in the high-speed toner world. Screen had a single simplex unit on display while IBM showed a twin configuration. There is little real differences in the two devices and the output is the same, so it will come down to availability and support. Screen says they will roll the machine out slowly, beginning with markets where service is available. This makes good sense and is standard procedure for high end print engines. IBM will probably be able to move faster due to its larger size and service depth, but I still expect the roll-out to be somewhat cautious. And anyway, with the $1.2 million-plus sticker price for a simplex unit, buying an InfoPrint 5000 or TruePress 520 Jet 520, is hardly an impulse buy, and it's really early adopter time for these boxes anyway, so demand will be slow for a while. As Andy Tribute (WTT columnist) and others have noted, drupa 2008 is going to be the "inkjet drupa." In Boston at On Demand, we got a hint of what is to come. What everyone is really interested in is operating cost and print quality. I don't have all the costs yet, so will report back on that later. There are different pricing models from each vendor that get a little involved, so stay tuned for more on this key point at a later date. In at least the Screen pricing model, ink usage will be based on volume of ink used, so there isn't really a click charge in the sense there is for a toner based machine. That has the potential to change the pricing dynamics of the high volume market, and will make TCO comparisons interesting. As I said, more later. Next is print quality and the image quality shown in Boston definitely makes these machines worth a closer look. It is not "graphic arts" quality color like you'd get from an iGen, an Indigo or a NexPress, and it doesn't pretend to be. It is what most people are calling "business color" and it looks fine to my eye for the kinds of applications for which these devices are intended. Think trans-promo statements, trade confirms, and direct mail. If day-to-day trans-promo is going to take off--and I believe it will--these are the machines that could well make it happen without some of the issues inherent with inkjet technology. Different Ink The magic is in the ink itself, which is not just a teensy droplet being sprayed onto a page. The droplets are encapsulated in a polymer coating that prevents the ink from penetrating the substrate. This changes the game, because the challenge with inkjet is that ink coming in contact with a semi-porous substrate tends to spread--sort of the inkjet version of dot gain. This makes the surface chemistry of the paper absolutely critical in controlling ink absorption. This typically requires a more expensive paper and somewhat negates the lower running costs of high-end inkjet devices. The coated inks in the Screen technology wind up sitting on top of the paper, with minimal penetration, much as toner does, and both Screen and IBM say you can run a standard electrophotographic paper on their inkjet printer. For the data center or service bureau with a dozen continuous feed toner-based printers on hand this is a big deal, because all of sudden a high speed inkjet device doesn’t' require special paper. This removes a key barrier to purchase. The inks, on the other hand, cost more, but at least for the moment this appears to be more of an incremental cost increase compared to use of a more expensive paper. Both the IBM and Screen printers in Boston were using pigmented ink, which seemed to deliver excellent results, although the range of samples was narrower than I would have liked to see. I want to see them doing things like Cingular Orange (reportedly a tough color to match) but for many applications they should be just fine. The machines can also run dye based inks, but according to Screen the flushing process is fairly involved, so most customers will likely run one or the other. The magic is in the ink itself, which is not just a teensy droplet being sprayed onto a page. The droplets are encapsulated in a polymer coating that prevents the ink from penetrating the substrate. This changes the game... They are also fast, although not quite in the same league as the fastest machines from Kodak Versamark, which are also more expensive. Still, John Seibt of IBM said the duplex version runs at 209 feet per minute, which in a 2-up duplex configuration translates into 916 letter-size impressions per minute. Monthly duty cycle is around 10 million with an expected AMPV of 5-7 million. That's a lot of transpromo, direct mail or whatever else one chooses to run off this box. Seibt said it's important to understand that IBM is not selling just the hardware but is providing a complete solution for the supporting workflows and print management. He says it includes a readiness study to assess the entire operation and to help implement the color print strategy for customers investing in the InfoPrint 5000. "The machine is really the last thing," Seibt noted. "We don't want it on the floor until everything else is ready. That way we can be sure it will be successful." Then there's Riso Riso, best known for its digital duplicators, has had its ForceJet technology on the market for about three years and the company's HC5500 is gaining more attention and always draws a crowd at shows like On Demand. Some of that attention is actually coming from companies that have invested in Kodak Versamark's high speed printers. The speed and RIP technology of the big machines don't lend themselves to doing reprints. Yet reprints are a fact of life in transactional printing: every bill has to go out. Riso HC5500 inkjet printers are finding a home doing reprints of statements that get damaged in high-volume printing and mailing processes, and are able to produce statements with a similar look and feel of those produced on the high-end machines. The Riso HC5500 is small, laser printer look-a-like that uses 24 stationary in-line piezo drop-on-demand print heads. The fixed heads let the HC5500 to achieve speeds of 120 A4 pages per minute, much faster than any cut sheet color laser printer--and at a cost of just 3 cents per page. While no one with a Xerox DocuColor 8000 needs to worry about this machine, it produces excellent business color that can be used for many applications. Inkjet is one of the most exciting parts of this industry right now. The speed is great, the quality is steadily improving and the technology continues to advance. There are those who say it can't--or won't--match toner based printing for sometime. I look at it and think back just a few years to when there were people who said digital printing wouldn't replace very much of offset. But that shift is now taking place. It's all about cost, capability and applications. Inkjet won't replace toner, either, but as the technology develops it is yet another form of digital printing that will carve out its own distinct piece of the market. I'm really looking forward to 2008. Correction: On April 23rd I stated that the Konica Minolta C6500 ran at rated speed regardless of substrate weight. I was wrong. Print speed on this machine will vary based on paper weight and type. I apologize for any confusion.