Production Inkjet: 'Truly Unstoppable'
When a technology is as new and groundbreaking as production inkjet printing, it can be tough to imagine its future. Technical innovations and market applications are coming at a fast pace, leaving printers uncertain about their next moves.
The more than 130 printers who attended the fifth annual Inkjet Summit in April left Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., with the bearings and insights they needed to gain a competitive advantage when they invest in production inkjet printing equipment. Most of the owners and senior managers at the invitation-only event have yet to take the plunge, but it’s safe to say that they’ve returned with fewer reasons for delaying the decision.
Organized by NAPCO Media (which publishes In-plant Graphics) and nGage Events, the Inkjet Summit follows a very different business model from traditional industry trade shows and conferences. Top-level executives were flown to a four-star resort outside of Jacksonville, Fla., by nGage and NAPCO Media to learn about the business opportunities that high-speed inkjet can offer them and the steps needed for a successful implementation.
The Inkjet Advantage
In his opening keynote, conference chair Marco Boer, VP of IT Strategies, said that although inkjet’s present share of total print volume is small, its piece will get bigger as printers realize how advantageous the process can be for producing the kinds of work their businesses depend on.
He cited NPES data showing a 73% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in page volume for continuous-feed inkjet from 2008 to 2016. Boer said that this momentum would be sustained by printers now getting ready to join the ranks of production inkjet users.
“It’s a market that’s truly unstoppable at this point,” he said.
Boer identified three groups of inkjet adopters, each of which was represented at the Inkjet Summit:
- Those who own fleets of toner-based devices and want to replace some of them with faster, more versatile inkjet devices.
- Current users of production inkjet equipment who are looking to add capacity in the process.
- Offset printers on the cusp of a decision about committing to inkjet but holding back because of concerns about cost, quality or the unfamiliarity of the technology.
He reiterated that production inkjet is still in an early phase and that dynamic growth rates and new business opportunities may take a little while longer to arrive. But by adopting inkjet, Boer assured the conferees, “you grow your business with efficiency gains and net new pages.”
Of in-plants, Boer had this to say to the crowd: “The in-plants are becoming far more sophisticated. They’re ready to look at inkjet.”
Indeed, several in-plants at the Inkjet Summit have done more than look. IPG Editor Bob Neubauer led a panel discussion with four managers that have installed inkjet presses in a session that several attending in-plant managers called the best one of the summit. The managers detailed their successes and struggles with adopting inkjet, giving managers in the audience a lot to think about (see sidebar, next page).
An Inkjet Education
Sessions at the Inkjet Summit included industry expert and keynote presentations, boardroom-style case history discussions and, most importantly, user panels featuring print providers who shared their candid assessments and commentary on the good, the bad and the risky sides of high-speed inkjet.
Attendees were divided into smaller special interest groups for breakout sessions: publishing (books, catalogs and magazines), direct mail/marketing, transactional (bills and statements) and general commercial. New this year was a separate in-plant breakout session.
At the breakout sessions, equipment and software vendors introduced customers who provided real-world case studies of how inkjet technology has worked to meet end-customer needs within their businesses. Those customers included several in-plants: Chuck Werninger of Houston Independent School District, Jason Fonner of HM (Highmark) Health Solutions, and Mike Lincoln, with the State of Colorado, were all there to personally tell their inkjet success stories.
These were not lightweight sessions, and some of the questions and answers were quite detailed and fostered additional one-on-one discussions elsewhere during the conference. The learning and peer-to-peer networking, during the program each day and at the social receptions and dinners held each night, were nonstop throughout the event.
As a result, much of what the printer attendees learned about production inkjet at the Inkjet Summit came from their peers: printers who have reinvented not just their production routines, but their entire business models by installing high-volume color inkjet presses.
The 37 participating sponsors — a sell-out — comprised the major manufacturers of production inkjet presses, feeding, finishing and postpress equipment; leading inkjet paper/substrate and ink suppliers; and providers of workflow and personalization software. Keynote-level sponsors this year were Canon Solutions America, HP, Ricoh and Xerox. Executives representing those four firms participated in a keynote panel moderated by Boer. They talked about advances in inkjet technology and its role in multichannel communications.
The Inkjet Summit also included scheduled one-on-one meetings between individual printers and appropriate vendors. Three hours were set aside each afternoon for attendees to meet with vendors individually for about 25 minutes at a time to talk about the challenges they face and how inkjet might help them.
Inkjet Adopters Share Experiences
Several general sessions included inkjet adopters. A user session moderated by Elizabeth Gooding, president of Insight Forums, addressed the common challenges and opportunities faced by printers using production inkjet equipment in three diverse market segments: transaction, direct mail and general commercial printing.
Her panelists were Tim Cooper, enterprise architect at Harland Clarke; Jim Jackson, solutions architect at Quad/Graphics; and Kirk Schlecker, vice president of operations at Heeter. Out of their discussion, three takeaways rose to the top:
- Realize that technology alone won’t solve your problems. Harland Clarke first acquired inkjet devices in 2012 and currently five of its locations have high-speed production inkjet presses. In Cooper’s view, learning the technology is a very small part of the change that’s required to make inkjet successful. Shops need to address everything up and down the line — from creative to composition to understanding color itself. “You need to do your homework, not around just owning the technology component, but also all of the other components that are required to make that change successful,” he said.
- Educate your sales staff on how to have different conversations with clients. Quad/Graphics has been involved with inkjet for the past decade and currently has both rollfed and sheetfed inkjet devices across five of its facilities. Jackson pointed out that Quad/Graphics had been successful with only 10% utilization on the inkjet machines, but the company needed to figure out how it was going to fill up the other time. This posed a challenge to sales staff. Jackson said that once the sales staff was able to turn the conversation with clients into “how can we help you achieve higher ROI?” or “how can we move your information more efficiently?” Quad/Graphics was able to build workflows and programs to fill its hungry inkjet machines.
- 3Rely on smart people to run the equipment. In 2015, Heeter invested in its first production inkjet press and is still learning how to transition work from its toner and offset presses. One of the things Schlecker has learned is that’s it’s all about the operator. “It’s up to our operators to really control the level of ink that you put down,” he said. “We’re responsible for paying for the ink, and the operator has to understand that. So it’s really how we control the cost of the ink — the device is a fixed expense — and the paper.”
Performance Paper Buying
Paper and its impact on the performance of inkjet printing equipment were constant themes throughout the Inkjet Summit. In the general session titled “Performance Paper Buying,” Gooding asked veteran paper buyers Julie Nook (Merrill Corp.) and Nate Milliken (Epsilon) to talk about how they source inkjet paper and what they expect of the mills and the merchants that supply it to them.
“Not all inkjet papers run the same on all inkjet devices,” Gooding cautioned. “There is more variation in the color of the paper than there is in the inkjet process.” Acknowledging this, Nook and Milliken said that the best way to maintain consistency is to standardize on a limited number of thoroughly tested house stocks and to run as many jobs as possible on these qualified papers.
They emphasized the importance of testing paper not just for how well it will print, but for how well it will stand up to the finishing techniques that will be applied to it. Each discussed the physical challenges of handling and storing paper: roll splice issues, problems with shafts and cores and the hazards of improper roll stacking.
“Paper is a big deal” in inkjet production environments, Gooding commented.
Three-Stage Paper Testing
For most printers, inkjet is unfamiliar territory where the norms of running offset papers don’t apply. In a general session on understanding and measuring the components of print quality, independent consultant Cathy Cartolano recommended a three-stage testing methodology for minimizing difficulties with inkjet stocks:
- Pre-hardware purchase. Have the OEMs test-print samples on their approved stocks using your job files. Make clear how you expect the papers to perform both on press and on finishing lines. Ask the OEMs for an approximate but fully loaded cost per page, and compare print results from each. Remember that because testing at OEM sites will take place under ideal conditions, the results may be better than what can be accomplished in real-world production.
- Implementation. After the device is installed, budget sufficient time for paper testing in spite of pressure to get the press into full production. Evaluate all inkjet house stocks using the same test file. Profile and linearize each paper tested, track the results and run the papers through relevant finishing equipment.
- Post-purchase. After six months to a year, use what you have learned about paper performance to fine-tune your testing routines. Do colors shift from side to side or print to print? Do they pop, wash out or show through? Do they match color from other devices or from proofs? Are you seeing defects such as mottling, cockling and scuffing? What about drying? “You spend a lot of money running a press at half speed so that the paper can dry,” Cartolano said.
Other tips for testing and working with inkjet papers: first acclimatize the stocks, and never rush a test. Inspect rolls for crushed cores and other kinds of damage. Save mill labels. Check for dust and other factors that might affect finishing. And don’t forget proper roll handling and transport.
One of the many success stories related during the Inkjet Summit came from Robin Welch, the chairman and group board director of GI Solutions Group, Britain’s seventh-largest printing business. Welch has been pushing the limits of what production inkjet can do since 1992, and today, his company relies on high-volume inkjet equipment to print and mail 500 million postal pieces per year — about 5% of all the addressed mail sent annually in the U.K. He said that gaining mastery of the process came with some challenging and even “scary” moments.
“Getting customers to change their behavior is massive,” he said, alluding to the resistance some of his customers initially put up to the idea of switching to inkjet. His most important takeaway for first-time production inkjet adopters was to be realistic about what to expect: “Double the time and half the revenue forecasts in your first 18 months,” he said.
Above all, noted Welch, learn to sell outcomes for clients and to “live and breathe return on investment”: the benefit that conveys inkjet’s value proposition most effectively. To sell ROI-producing outcomes, it’s necessary to get closer to what drives customers’ revenues and costs. Understanding their data is the key to making inkjet work for them, Welch said.
Direct Mail Printers With Inkjet
Barb Pellow, Group Director at Keypoint Intelligence, moderated a direct mail user panel that looked at how inkjet production has contributed to the success of mail-based promotional campaigns. Peter Barzach of Data-Mail said inkjet is eclipsing electrophotography as the process of choice for direct mail at his company. Data-Mail has cut its fleet of toner devices in half and is “not going to stop until we’ve moved most of our toner boxes to ink,” he said. As a result of installing inkjet equipment, Data-Mail has landed jobs that it would not otherwise have been able to obtain, he added.
Formerly an in-plant, Documation is a commercial printing company that serves associations, the automotive segment and other customers with the help of two high-volume color inkjet web presses. Martin Aalsma, president and COO, advised paying as much attention to the finishing as to the printing, because postpress is where most of the value is added.
Aalsma was one of a number of speakers who urged printers to be certain of having enough volume to justify taking the inkjet plunge. He also recommended keeping a close eye on ink consumption. Inkjet ink is expensive, he said, and for that reason, jobs requiring heavy coverage may not be the right ones to run on inkjet equipment.
In a related presentation on best practices for direct mail/marketing, Pellow said that success was all about using data to make receiving printed communications a personal experience. But she noted that many marketing organizations can be “blind and deaf” when it comes to translating the data they have gathered into something useful. Printers must help, Pellow said, by becoming proficient in data management either by acquiring the capability themselves or by partnering with providers of data management services.
Data-driven direct mail is critical to driving consumers to the other channels that marketers want to leverage in their campaigns. When done correctly, Pellow said, direct mail gets results: two-thirds of it is opened, and more than 80% of it is read for more than a minute. The more personalized a mailing piece is, the likelier it is to be opened and read.
Inkjet Market Share Still Small
Although the Inkjet Summit has been shaping the inkjet narrative with increasing effect for the past five years, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the extent to which production inkjet has taken hold in the industry. Boer presented data indicating that by 2020, digital printing technologies of all kinds will still account for less than 5% of pages produced. Boer reckons the installed base of production inkjet presses in North America to be about 600 devices at 250 locations.
That’s a small base to build upon. But, if the history of graphic communications technologies teaches anything, it’s that when an emerging solution truly improves upon methods presently in use, movement toward it can be disconcertingly rapid.
A case in point is Liturgical Publications, highlighted in a user panel breakout session. For years, said Ken Shanovich, director of operations, the company printed Sunday church bulletins for about 4,100 congregations in a conventional production workflow that can only be described as frenetic: 28 million pages per week on 27 narrow web offset presses in four-color runs averaging 12 to 13 minutes each. This involved burning 23,000 polyester plates per month and throwing away vast quantities of paper in the endless makereadies.
“We were throwing out at least 50% of the paper we bought,” he revealed.
Liturgical Publications built a $65 million business on this model and probably could have gone on in the same way — until it realized that there was an irresistible time- and cost-saving alternative in production inkjet printing.
Today, production is almost 100% digital, with five inkjet web presses shouldering most of the workload. At one plant, two of these presses have replaced the output of seven offset machines with capacity to spare. A single operator can run two digital presses, eliminating the need for 16 offset positions. The end-of-week production crunch has become more manageable, paper waste is down to just 2% and print quality has improved, as well.
“Inkjet technology puts down a consistent color,” Shanovich said. “We never have registration issues.”
Shanovich and his staff anguished over whether to integrate finishing with the presses, but ultimately decided on near-line finishing, which he hailed as “absolutely the way to go.” Printed rolls can be distributed over several bindery lines, for faster turnarounds.
Inkjet Replaces Seven Toner Printers
Speaking in the same panel session, the print services director for a large insurance company described how his company’s decision to consolidate its two in-plants led to the replacement of seven continuous-feed toner printers with two rollfed monochrome inkjet presses. He praised the increased uptime that inkjet technology has brought.
The in-plant was able to continue using its existing finishing equipment, which was a major cost savings. He said stakeholders have been very pleased with the improved quality of the printing and the lower costs. Paper expenses alone, he said, dropped between 4-10%.
Customers, he added, are eager for his in-plant to add color inkjet. “They know that it’s going to improve the customer experience,” he said.
The third panelist, Don McKenzie, is president and chief growth officer for a marketing agency called Innovairre, which helps nonprofits raise money. He discussed in detail the crucial role data plays in creating relevant, targeted direct mail campaigns to potential donors. Inkjet printing has enabled the company to use that data more effectively.
The biggest struggle, McKenzie said, was convincing clients to stop obsessing over the differences between offset and inkjet quality, and understand how inkjet allows them to target their communications better. Instead of sending all donors the same form, for example, with donation options of $10, $20 or $50, “the $50 donor should be communicated to differently,” he said, with options of $50, $100 and $150. Inkjet allows these targeted versions to be created easily.
‘Inkjet Just Runs’
Boer wrapped up the Inkjet Summit by thanking the sponsors who made it possible: “It takes an industry to make this happen,” he said.
He also reminded the attendees that although production inkjet is still in an early stage of adoption by the industry, no other printing technology has advanced as far in as short a period of time.
That spells opportunity for printers who are ready to adapt their production routines and business models to the new capabilities that inkjet will bring, according to Boer.
“Inkjet just runs,” he said, noting that the success stories told at the Inkjet Summit demonstrate that printers are making money with it. “The ROI of inkjet is extremely convincing. The future of inkjet printing is assured. It’s just a matter of when you get into it.”
Related story: In-plants With Inkjet Discuss Best Practices
Bob has served as editor of In-plant Graphics since October of 1994. Prior to that he served for three years as managing editor of Printing Impressions, a commercial printing publication. Mr. Neubauer is very active in the U.S. in-plant industry. He attends all the major in-plant conferences and has visited more than 130 in-plant operations around the world. He has given presentations to numerous in-plant groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including the Association of College and University Printers and the In-plant Printing and Mailing Association. He also coordinates the annual In-Print contest, cosponsored by IPMA and In-plant Graphics.