A week or so ago, the news went around that Glasgow, Scotland’s Bell & Bain placed the world’s first order for the Fujifilm Jet Press 540W, the company’s high-speed production inkjet web press. (The company has already received orders for its Jet Press 720 sheetfed press. By the way, the family is referred to as the J Press in North America.) “Once the story hit the press, there was quite a bit of activity inbound to us,” says Mark Stephenson, sales director, digital solutions, for Fujifilm UK. “Quite a few customers we tried to talk to about it have woken up a little and saw, ‘Someone else has done it, I’d better keep up.’”
It often takes a crowd to draw a crowd, as anyone who has ever done trade show booth duty can tell you.
In Europe as in the States, interest in production inkjet has started to ramp up in the past one or two years. “I think it’s waking up now, people are starting to realize that it’s the way to go,” says Stephenson.
Bell & Bain has been in business since 1831, specializing in books and journals, and in the more than one and a half centuries since its founding, has been through a few changes in printing technology. Most recently, it has been an offset company, with a few toner-based digital presses, and, in fact, the Jet Press 540W was purchased to replace a toner press. The company hadn’t necessarily been looking at production inkjet per se, but had had a relationship with Fujifilm that dates back to the days of film and a Sumo filmsetter. Over the years, Bell & Bain has remained a customer for film, a CTP system, and plates. Meanwhile, Bell & Bain had had overtures from various production inkjet equipment manufacturers, but when they looked at the cost models, it never quite worked out.
“I had seen so many [inkjet machines] that it was confusing for me to understand pricing and service costs and click charges and all that,” says Stephen Docherty, managing director of Bell & Bain. And: “I didn’t think the quality was that good.”
Shortly thereafter, last year’s DRUPA didn’t allay any of the confusion, but a visit with Fujifilm did plant a seed of thought that grew and germinated, especially following a trip to Fujifilm Europe’s Advanced Print Technology Centre in Brussels, Belgium. (The Centre features a 540W as well as the Jet Press 720.)
“When I went out to see the Fuji press, it was jaw-dropping. I thought to myself it was fantastic,” says Docherty. He told a couple of colleagues about the press, and they ventured down to Brussels to have a look. “When they came back, it was like ‘we have to get this,’ because it comes with a no-click model—there are no click charges.”
“The one thing that stuck in their mind was that we don’t have a click charge,” says Stephenson. “Many printers do see a click charge as a tax on their printing. So that led them to look a bit closer. That’s really the thing that triggered it.”
One of the biggest challenges that printers across the board have in evaluating production inkjet equipment is not an unfamiliar one in the age of digital printing: the battle of the spec sheets. “When someone says it’s that many dots per inch or it goes this fast, there’s always a caveat that says, ‘However, when you’re doing this, it’s different,’” says Stephenson. “The biggest challenge is to find a level playing field because not only do we have different inkjet technologies, sometimes a low-dpi printer could look better than a high-dpi printer, a printer that claims a certain printing width suddenly can’t print that width because it’s printing control data on the side or something like that.”
And that’s not the only variable. There are substrates that are handled by different machines differently; and many need special substrates engineered specifically for a given press, and even then may need to have color profiles tweaked when, say, a vendor changes the viscosity of their ink.
But wait: there’s more: “You’ve got a number of different commercial offerings; click rates, service models, ink prices, substrate costs, so yeah, it’s a big job for any company look at and decide, ‘OK, how do I benchmark myself, which way am I going to go?’” says Stephenson.
The best is to evaluate it for the applications you expect to put on it—and the applications that can organically grow off it. The new press has given Bell & Bain the opportunity to expand their offerings for their customers, particularly in the area of color, and start some conversations they had never been able to before. “Often it was black-and-white and color wasn’t an option, but now it is an option,” says Docherty. At the same time, though, “Customers are hedging their bets a little and keeping their costs down [with] smaller-run books.”
So it’s not a case of just buying equipment and seeing who bites on what it produces. “I bought the Jet Press to service what I already have,” says Docherty. “Manufacturers tell you that you need to get 25% more customers and it’ll be easy, but we won’t do it. We’ll get the customers, then buy the press. I never buy anything and then go look for 25% extra business.” His advice for other commercial printers? “Make sure it’s right for you, to not go down that road because everyone is telling you to get it. Make sure that you have a market before you go to the market.”
Stephenson also has advice for printers thinking or looking at production inkjet. “Test everything,” he says. “Don’t just look at the specs on a piece of paper and say, ‘well, obviously, that’s the standout machine, that’s the one I’ll buy.’ Go along with your own work, test it, time it, make sure it works for you and your customers. Be demanding. It’s the only way you can make an educated choice.”
As the production inkjet market evolves and grows, more possibilities will be enabled, and it’s obvious it’s where manufacturers are putting their energy and even their enthusiasm. “When it comes to digital technologies, some technologies are moving by leaps and bounds and some are plodding along meeting a need, but they’re not the next level of innovation,” says Stephenson. “Certainly production inkjet is where it’s all going.
“The biggest thing about production inkjet at the moment is you ain’t seen nothing yet.”