Drupa 2012, the Inkjet Drupa…again?

It seems like I was just in Dusseldorf for Drupa 2008, where it was billed as ‘the event’ where Inkjet was going to be the prime focus. While there was production inkjet technology there, it was probably more of an inkjet intro event rather than an event focused heavily on inkjet technologies and products. Those of us who went there did get a chance to see some interesting technology, but only some of it ever made it to the marketplace, or should have.

Sheetfed commercial printers, and more importantly their customers, are used to working with many different substrates.

While it might sound like a strange thing to say, on one level it is probably good that there wasn’t a big push to mainstream production inkjet. There are many reasons for this. First is the the quality level, or more accurately, the comparable quality level to offset print. The current production inkjet offerings are achieving a quality level that is acceptable for certain very specific markets, as evidenced by the focus and adoption of the current production inkjet devices. It’s not that they don’t produce very acceptable output in those primarily web offset markets; it’s more that in order to mainstream production inkjet, a number of things need to be in place. The good news is that the current complement of roll fed products from HP, Infoprint (Ricoh), Kodak, Oce, Screen and Xerox are increasing their comparable quality levels. Most importantly, we will need a fast ‘sheetfed’ inkjet device, and almost all of the current offerings are roll fed. Fujifilm's J Press 720 is a good attempt at a quality sheetfed inkjet device, but probably not fast enough at 2700 half-size sheets per hour to differentiate it from EP or Offset. One benefit it does offer is a larger sheet size than EP, at a maximum sheet size of 29.5" x 20.8". Why is a sheetfed device so important?

Sheetfed commercial printers, and more importantly their customers, are used to working with many different substrates. In fact, a study I did a few years ago identified that the majority of printing companies used more than 8 substrates on a regular basis, and of course not all the same 8 across different companies. This is one of the reasons why sheetfed EP (electro-photographic) printing, without the substrate limitations inherent in a roll-fed environment (time and labor to change rolls for a substrate change) and for inkjet in general (need for optimized or pre-treated papers), has been able to have an impact on commercial offset printing. While paper manufacturers are increasing their ‘inkjet friendly’ substrate offerings, and some inkjet press manufacturers are offering pre-treating for substrates inline, the current substrate limitations are an obvious obstacle to mainstream adoption and use.

Another obstacle has been that there are only a few production inkjet manufacturers settled into the market at this point. This has a lot to do with the high cost of entry. Developing your own head technology, or licensing it from a third party and building the supporting technology, is a very costly and time consuming process. There is new head technology from Memjet that should reduce the cost of entry for production inkjet printer manufacturers, and we should see many new entrants and printer offerings as a result. In fact, Xante showed an early release of a printer using this technology at the recent Graph Expo event in Chicago.

However, even if these issues were resolved today, many printing companies do not have the infrastructure necessary to support the increased throughput that these devices will handle. Additionally, many don’t know how to take advantage of the new opportunities that these devices can offer.

Recently I had an opportunity to attend an event that the HP IPS group held at its headquarters in San Diego. A group of prospects in the Direct Mail space was invited. While HP did use the event to showcase HP and its products, more importantly the company used it as a way to educate these prospects as to what they would be getting into should they purchase a web fed production inkjet device. I have been to many of these vendor-hosted events in the past, but this one really stood out. HP educated the attendees, in a fairly agnostic way, on inkjet technology, substrates, data requirements, infrastructure requirements, and marketing, in addition to soft selling them on HP. Even if these attendees don’t purchase an HP device, they spent a valuable two days really learning the issues, ultimately preparing them for future purchases.

Ultimately, as a potential purchaser of a production inkjet device, it’s not only about the cost of the device. This type of education is crucial for the vendors, printers, and the industry as a whole. The opportunities that are afforded by this new technology, combined with the vast changes in the marketplace, demand that we all educate each other on how to live and work in this new landscape.

In the next article, I will continue the education by looking at the HP production inkjet offerings and applications. In each subsequent article we will look at a different vendor’s offerings.