Let's face it; digital print technology is not new. Benny Landa, the founder of Indigo, said at the time of it's introduction, "Everything that can become digital will become digital. Printing is no exception."  This rings very true in an era where our means of communication have been transforming from conventional print and analog technologies to digital print and mobile technologies.

It is estimated that there were 46.1 billion color digital pages printed in 2010, and that number will jump to nearly 130 billion by 2015. While this estimate is comprised of all digital print pages, more importantly than the market share growth is the fact that the value of that digital print has jumped sharply, bringing better returns to the global print market. This change did not happen overnight.

Electrophotography (EP) as a real competitor to offset can be traced back to the introduction of the black & white Xerox 135ppm DocuTech in 1990.  In 2009, EP accounted for about 9% of the total global print market; it is estimated that it will account for about 13% by 2014. EP is continuing to grow, with new solutions from more than a half dozen different companies in the market today.

ElectroInk (EI), which is the technology used by the HP Indigo, not only raised the bar for EP when the E-Print 1000 was launched at IPEX in 1993, it also raised the bar against offset. Through continued growth, HP estimates that the Indigo customer global page volume will reach approximately 100 billion pages by 2016.

When inkjet printing technology came to the market in the mid 1970's with the introduction of HP thermal inkjet desktop printers, and Mead Digital's (now Kodak Versamark) first commercial inkjet product, it began a steady growth path to bring us to where we are today. Initially that growth was slow, but by 2000 the pace of innovation started to pick up dramatically.

During any snapshot in time, each of these technologies may have claimed to have had a quality advantage over the other. However, as time progresses each one refines its core technology and offerings to reach an effective, and comparable level of quality. And while there is no stopping the migration from analog technologies like offset, flexo and gravure to digital where appropriate, expect a lot of jockeying for position among all of these digital technologies going forward.

The majority of the migration will still undoubtedly come from offset in the long term, although in the short term an increasing percentage will also migrate from one digital technology to another, as a result of cost and productivity advantages. For example, we are already starting to see this in the replacement of multiple EP and EI devices by a single continuous feed inkjet printer to support transactional/transpromo production and book printing.

Until recently, the advantages of EP and EI over production inkjet centered around image quality. However inkjet printheads, ink, and compatible media have started to reach a level that brings the printed pages to a comparable level with offset print and the other digital technologies. As inkjet technology continues to mature, as described in this series, the movement to IJ from EP and EI will accelerate where there is a speed and cost advantage.

And now we are about to see two new technologies enter the digital print production mix; Liquid Toner (LID), and Offset Inkjet. Both of these new technologies were introduced this year at drupa, and each is expected to ship products within the next 2 years.

The first are the Océ and Xeikon liquid toner continuous feed presses. The Océ InfiniStream is currently operating at 400 fpm in four colors, and the Xeikon Trillium is already running at more than 300 fpm in testing. The Océ cut-sheet packaging press is targeted at 14,000 B2 sph, or 7,200 B1 sph. One of the strengths of this technology is its ability to print medium to high image coverage at a high quality, which makes it particularly suitable for direct marketing, commercial printing applications, and packaging. Furthermore, the technology offers more room for speed and width growth in the future. Both the Océ and Xeikon presses use mineral oils rather than oils that release VOCs, making them more acceptable in label and packaging applications. The image quality of these technologies is equal to that of current EP and EI offerings.

Offset Inkjet technology from Landa offers the promise of some interesting things to come. As I have discussed in this series, in order for production inkjet to be of value to mainstream commercial print, it needs to meet the offset bar of expectations and be a cut sheet device. Of the six Landa presses shown at drupa, three of them were sheetfed. Landa showed 20, 29 and 41 inch widths; or in ISO parlance, a B2; B3; and B1 respectively. They are projected to be "the fastest" sheetfed inkjet presses available, and print at speeds up to 11,000 or 12,000 sheets per hour on the B3 and B2 respectively, and at 6,500 sheets per hour on the B1.

In my earlier article from drupa, I mentioned that the Landa technology is a bit like Indigo version 2. Unlike the other inkjet solutions that directly jet the ink onto the substrate, Landa Nanographic Printing jets the water-based ink onto a blanket and then uses the blanket to offset the image droplets onto the media. First of all, this allows it to run a much wider selection of papers and paper weights. Second, the process actually uses heat on the blanket to evaporate the water, which means that when the dots hit the paper, they sit on the surface and don't wick into the paper fibers. This creates a sharper dot with more saturated color. At Graph Expo 2012, we saw some recently printed samples to compare against those we had seen six months prior at drupa. The printed samples showed more ink density; however, it is evident that Landa still has additional development work to do in order to have a saleable product that will reach the offset bar.

So as you can see, there are some exceptional technologies on the horizon. These new technologies will mature with time, and join the other more mature digital technologies to offer new ways to bring advantages to the print production community.

In closing, over the last year I have looked at and presented information on many, if not most, of the production inkjet print offerings currently in the market, those that were introduced at drupa, and even some not quite ready for display. The goal of the series was to present a broad view of the technology, the challenges, the opportunities, the companies and the products. Of course, while many of these emerging technologies offer a certain aura of glamor or excitement, your selection of any of these products or technologies should be made on the best fit to your current and future requirements, and those of your customers.

I hope that you have found this series to be interesting and educational; I know I did…