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Welcome to Planet Inkjet – Print 21 magazine feature

Tuesday, 09 August 2011
By Print21

The arrival of high-speed colour inkjet is changing the dynamics of the digital/offset divide that has defined the printing industry for more than a decade. Suddenly the digital lobby is raising its sights, targeting more of the offset printing market with higher speed and graphic arts colour. Now there is another choice for printers to make: offset, digital—or digital inkjet. Patrick Howard has been globe-trotting to China and Germany to find out what it all means.
There is a saying so often repeated by the digital printing lobby that it has become a cliché and, like all such sayings, is less than completely true. Benny Landa, founder of Indigo and credited as the father of digital printing, once claimed that: “Everything that can go digital, will go digital”.

This has become a mantra for those who see the future of printing as an inevitable migration to digital production. It is trotted out to justify the enormous expense in R&D that has gone into digital printing—yet to be recouped—and is held as a self-evident truth by those who promote digital technology in the marketplace.

Like many other pearls of wisdom, it is only half true.

It contains many caveats, many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. What can go digital, will go digital if… it is economic for it to do so… if there is a compelling production reason… if there is not a viable analogue competitor… if the market demands it.

On some level, digital printing has always been a technology in search of a market. It has colonised certain segments of the 52.5 trillion page printing market, notably the office sector where it found an easy niche. Of the remaining 47.5 trillion graphic arts pages, more than 90 per cent are still produced by non-digital printing processes—offset, gravure and flexo.

Most of this shows very little sign of migrating to digital. The volumes are too large, the run lengths too long, the established press technology too heavy with investment. The emerging markets of China, India, South America and Africa have such a need for print they will use the cheapest form of mass production for many years to come i.e. conventional analogue printing.

That is not too say that digital is failing or in retreat. On the contrary, it is the only segment of printing that is lively and growing in this constrained time. It has quadrupled its share of the printing market since 2003.

With the overall print industry forecast to show only marginal growth over the next five to six years, digital is taking a greater share of an essentially static printing pie. With run lengths tumbling in the developed world, the range of work coming into the scope of digital is rapidly increasing.

Quality has ceased to be an issue, especially with toner-based engines, and so far speed and cost are the main constraints that have kept digital out of even more of the market.

And along comes inkjet

Now, high-speed inkjet is the latest disruptive digital technology to enter the fray. Increases in quality as well as speed have encouraged companies such as Océ, HP, Kodak, Ricoh Infoprint and Screen to push their digital claims into sectors such as book publishing, catalogues and magazines, direct mail and even newspapers. Essential mail is also targeted as full-colour digital with the elusive promise of transpromo messages on bank bills and utility statements.

The whole high-speed inkjet sector is abuzz with excitement as evangelists proclaim the dawn of a new digital age. There is little doubt that the technology is making great strides into the industry.

So far Ricoh Infoprint has the greatest success in the sector, mainly selling its re-badged Screen engine on the strength of its previous IBM connections. In the local market it gained a notable success with Computershare putting in two high-speed IP5000 presses.

SOS Printing in Sydney has installed the first Kodak Prosper, albeit in a mono version; PMP’s book printer, Griffin Press in South Australia, is putting in a HP T350 also in a mono version, while rumours persist of a pair of full-colour Ts going into Blue Star, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne.

The first Océ ColorStream 3500 is poised to go into Bruce Peddlesden’s OnDemand in Melbourne (see below) while Salmat is also a staunch Océ supporter with two JetStream 2200s.

Pictured: Bruce Peddlesden, OnDemand, pictured in Poing, (2nd from left) with Simon Wheeler, Tim Saleeba and Herbert Kieleithner of Océ.

Over recent months Howard has been invited to China to attend a HP press conference and inspect the company’s first installation of a T300 in a book printing company, CTPS, in Guangdong. In June, in Poing, southern Germany, Howard attended Océ’s Production Printing Summit where the newly-owned Canon company staked its claim to having the largest range of high-speed digital inkjet presses.

Much of the value of going so far to view technology has to do with the people you meet. It helps give perspective in what is a hyper-charged sector to talk with the individuals who are actually going to place orders for the equipment.

Never mind the quantity

Digital printing and specifically inkjet are set to dramatically increase their share of graphic pages in coming years. Some figures he has seen suggest it might involve over 15 per cent of the total market by 2013. That would be a bonanza for the manufacturers while bringing little joy to offset press companies.

A notable feature of the digital migration is that much of it comes from the high-value end of printing, the non-commodity market where it pays to keep up with the latest technology. Personalisation of anything other than essential mail has not taken off as its promoters hoped, but it is a growing business.

Making many versions of the same document leads to ultra-short print runs, the so-called versionalisation. Copies of one are always possible, even if the economics are not there yet. Then there are the entirely new markets that have sprung up because of digital, such as photobooks.

Speed and quality are always relative in printing and the market will pay what it wants. The death of offset is a long way off, but the arrival of high-speed colour inkjet is a reminder that nothing lasts forever.

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