On March 19th Océ (part of the Canon Group) hosted an International Inkjet Days event at its site in Poing Germany (just east of Munich).  Océ invited a group of industry analysts to see the latest enhancements to its impressive inkjet product portfolio and it offered educational sessions on inkjet technology, document security and color perception.

Océ has built a fantastic customer experience center at its Poing site which allows it to showcase multiple products and configurations for prospective customers. Its latest inkjet products, the JetStream 5500 and ColorStream 3900, were up and running for us to see firsthand. Target applications for the products are transactional, books, direct mail, and newspapers.

The market for high speed color inkjet printers is growing.  Sales of continuous feed, high speed color inkjet presses now account for roughly 40% of all sales of continuous feed printers in North America and 50% in W. Europe. The main players are Océ, InfoPrint (Ricoh), HP, Kodak, and Screen.

A large portion of the recent sales are going into the transactional printing market. While the printing of statements, bills, and invoices is slowly migrating to online presentment and payment; transactional printing remains the largest digital printing application today. And the move to color is on.  While the upfront cost of a color inkjet printer is higher than a monochrome laser printer there are several operational advantages. The cost of black only printing is much lower with the inkjet device, the expense and hassle of preprinted forms is eliminated and, of course, there is the opportunity to do color onserts and messaging. 

Inkjet is making inroads in the direct mail market as well, especially for direct mail in the form of letters. Why letters? Because letters are typically a preprinted shell on uncoated stock and over printed with laser and this is an easy replacement for inkjet. Direct mailers are finding that by having a “white paper solution” they can print as cost effectively as before, plus they have new options for placing the output in the mail stream which can lead to significant postage savings.

Books are another high growth application for inkjet.  Publishers now have the ability to cost effectively order short run titles and avoid inventory and obsolescence costs. Initially the demand was for short run titles, which couldn’t be produced cost effectively with offset. Now many publishers are moving to a model of ordering monthly to better match production to demand. 

One of the key hurdles that remains for inkjet is the ability to print with high quality at high speed on standard coated papers.  At the International Inkjet Days event, Dr. David Croll of Océ gave an enlightening presentation on printing technologies and substrates. Here are some of the highlights.

In standard offset printing the ink layer is roughly 4.5 microns thick.  Dry toner printing is 18 microns thick or 4 times offset. Liquid toner or HP ElectroInk is about 4 microns, similar to offset.  Inkjet inks hit the paper at 15 microns, but 13.5 microns are water and must be removed. As the inkjet ink penetrates the paper the pigments and dyes penetrate as well causing issues of bleed through or loss of image sharpness.

Research is underway on inks and paper treatments throughout the industry to find a solution.

  • For example, Océ has developed a new fast immobilizing black ink.  After the penetration of a small amount of the fluid into the paper, the ink viscosity increases and the ink becomes gel-like, preventing further penetration into the paper. This produces a sharper image, but also carries a 20%-30% upcharge over regular inks.
  • Another potential solution is applying bonding agents to the paper just prior to printing. 
  • While work is being done on inks and bonding agents the paper industry is busy developing new paper grades for inkjet.
  • There are inkjet treated papers which have a treatment, sometimes also called a primer, which contains fixatives to remove the colorants from the liquid phase of the ink in order to hold more colorant near the paper surface. Examples of suppliers include Crown Digital PS, Mondi DNS hsi, Ziegler ZAdvance, and Modo Jet PRO.
  • Inkjet Pigmented Papers have a specialty coating which keeps pigments/dyes in the coating, while the carrier liquid penetrates into the base paper. For pigment and dye based inks, the optimum coating can be different. Suppliers include Crown Digital FC, Ziegler Evolution, and Mondi Enhanced Color Inkjet.
  • Photo quality is the highest quality grade of inkjet paper and the most expensive.  Suppliers include Mitsubishi and Felix Schoeller.
  • The main focus of development is now on offset-like coated papers. The main challenge with coated papers is that ink absorption and immobilization is too slow which can lead to incomplete drying, smearing, color to color bleeding, and coalescence. Suppliers of the new coated papers include Sora Jet Matt and StoraEnso MediaPrint Jet Silk.

While these new papers perform better they come at a cost. Just a year or two ago the upcharge was on the order of 40%, but now the upcharge is much less – on the order of 10%-20%. As the volume of inkjet printing grows the cost of inkjet papers will continue to decline.

One other solution that is coming to the market is from Landa. Their solution involves bypassing the water and paper issue by printing to a blanket and then transferring the image to the paper. 

The takeaway is that inkjet technology is ready today for any application that uses uncoated paper. And for applications requiring coated paper, a number of clever solutions already exist and more are on the way, which will drive the cost down and quality up.