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The Growth of InkJet

Quality was King, but can lower consumable costs win the day?

By January 19, 2023 April 26th, 2023 No Comments

There is never just one way to do something. Want a tattoo? You can use a tattoo machine or go the stick and poke route. Need to get across town? Walk, bike, drive, take a bus, call a taxi, rollerblade. Options are often endless, and the printing world is no difference. To that end, we have jumped into the deep end of InkJet with three industry experts to find out the benefits, challenges, past and future of the printing technology.

Raffi of Marlin Digital next to his new workhorse, the Astro S1

The taboo years

InkJet is not a new technology, though it did not gain traction until the mid-1980’s. It was first developed by HP in 1976. Twenty years later, InkJet still found itself on the outside looking in when it came to print shops. The reason is simple according to Raffi Stepanian, Operations Manager for Marlin Digital Imaging Inc., “the best InkJet machines out there do not compare to the quality of image that comes out of these digital laser machines.”

This comes down to the way the technology works. With a toner-based printing system, it’s added to a sheet of paper and sits on top of the paper, add a little heat and you essentially bake the toner directly to the paper. This allows for extremely sharp lines and divisions in colour, while also providing a glossy premium finish. The competing InkJet soaks into the paper, allowing colours to bleed into one another. There’s no doubt that InkJet is a much less expensive option, but the deficit in quality left a large gap between the two technologies in decades gone by.

Closing the gap

Unable to compete on quality, but a clear cost advantage, it was up to the manufacturers to either improve the process or the technology. To understand those improvements, we turned to Andre D’Urbano, Executive Director for RISO, Inc.

“It used to be InkJet [printheads] moved side to side, so speed was phenomenally slow.” Says D’Urbano, outlining the improvements. “Today they are fixed and it’s the paper that is moving fast. Because we have no heat, we’re not baking paper, we’re printing at 160 sheets per minute. Canon does 350 per minute.”

the growth of inkjet

For RISO, no water means no drying, giving you a smaller machine footprint and a better quality print at the same time.

The bigger breakthrough came with the ink itself, striking at the core advantage of toner, the ability to stay on top of the paper. “The compound found in nail polish, it’s called resin, it’s a hardener. In RISO’s case they add resin to the ink, so as soon as the drops hit that sheet of paper it immediately hardens.” A huge breakthrough for InkJet technology according to Andre. “We want it to harden so that it doesn’t seep into the paper. It hits that sheet, the ink is wet, but if it hardens fast enough so that only a little bit seeps into the paper [while] the rest remains above the paper. The inks have gotten better, and they just keep getting better. That’s the key.”

A growing niche or the future of print?

With the technology improved we see more and more InkJet printers entering the marketplace. Yet they are not completely taking over print shops just yet, instead they are slowly replacing specific machines for specific applications.

To that end, Raffi Stepanian at Marlin Digital has just replaced a Xante toner-based envelope printer with an Astro S1 InkJet machine. “It’s amazing. Colour quality is great, bang on, I’ve had no issues. In terms of colour accuracy, on the [Xante] I would have to mess around on the colour and try to hit a particular pantone or something, but with this thing it’s been very accurate. There have been no issues with it.”

The consistency of the machine and the ease of use with the InkJet technology has also allowed production to skyrocket in the shop, despite the ongoing envelope shortage which has impacted the quality of envelopes coming into Marlin Digital. “Right now, we’ll do about 25,000 envelopes a day, but it would never happen on the Xante. [The envelopes] wouldn’t run in the laser machine, there were different grains of stock in the box of envelopes, so the sensors would notice a difference in thickness or coating, and it would just jam. In the [S1] there’s nothing touching the envelopes so they’re just flying through no matter how bad the quality of the paper.”

Though Raffi has printed hundreds of thousands of envelopes in the couple months since acquiring the InkJet printer, he isn’t yet ready to make the jump for the rest of his shop. According to Stepanian Inkjet “was always associated with Bell Canada statements that you would get in the mail, that’s what [InkJet] was for, cheap full colour stuff, but not graphic intensive work.”

While it may be true that InkJet can’t yet compete with the highest quality of Toner, Andre D’Urbano and RISO know that there is growth to be had. “Canon, HP, Xerox, they are looking to eliminate off-set [colour printing]. They are looking to get the quality as good as toner. InkJet will eventually wipe out the colour toner as well, but it’s a few years away.” When it does arrive, these advanced InkJet technologies will likely come with million-dollar price tags, not a very approachable number. Yet that number isn’t the biggest obstacle when it comes to putting new equipment into a print shop.

The difficulty is finding the right opportunity and timing to get a printing shop to trade in their old equipment says President of Insource Corp. Tim Wakefield. “So, you’ve got HP, you’ve got Xerox, you’ve got Canon and you’ve got companies that sell them direct everywhere. The way they operate is, they’ll lease you this toner-based machine for five years, and at the end of five years, the lease is up, and you don’t have any opportunity to buy that machine. So right around that four-year mark they come around and start knocking. They’ll say, ‘you know your machine is coming to its end of life, you’ve got one year left on it, but why don’t we flip that out, we won’t charge you for that one year, and you can get a brand-new machine for virtually what you’re paying for right now!’”

These contracts can make it hard to completely replace a machine in a print shop, however, “that is not necessarily RISO’s game,” D’Urbano admits. “The problem is that a lot of print shops, don’t even know that there is a void [in the printing industry]. It’s almost 2023 and people still view colour printing as a luxury.” To this end, RISO views themselves as entry-level colour, an alternative to black and white printing.

New revenue streams today

“Colour toner, we’re not going to touch any of that really. That’s high-quality work. Where the impact is going to be felt is on the back of the monochrome.” Explains D’Urbano. “Where InkJet lives is a world where it brings customers stuck in a black and white world into the colour arena. Why are printshops tripping all over themselves to add inkjet into the mix? MONEY! PROFITS! It’s why we do anything!”

Andre D’Urbano, Executive Director for RISO inc.

As Andre explained it, if your typical printshop sells colour jobs for 12 cents per page and the cost from their printing company (HP, Canon, etc.) is in the ballpark of four cents, they in turn make about eight cents per page. On the black and white side, the cost may be about a penny, resold to the end-user for roughly two to three cents, making only one or two cents for themselves.

“If you drop a RISO into that printshop,” says D’Urbano, “you can tell your customers that you brought in a new technology without breaking the bank. You can now charge five cents for colour, knowing that your cost is only about a penny, maybe a penny and a half. Now your profit margin is three and a half to four cents, sell it for seven you make even more money. InkJet is a huge profit center.”

That third level of pricing allows print shops to open new revenue streams, which is why Tim Wakefield backs the technology as well. “Looking at our focus as a supplier, we create new revenue streams for companies. If we can come in and provide them a lesser cost spot-colour, so instead of six cents apiece they can now do it at three cents apiece, that’s profit in their pocket.”

“Basically, the way it works is there is a ‘click-charge’ for the toner printers,” explains Wakefield. “It’s a charge per image. If that cost is six cents per image, and they’re doing 1,000 prints that’s $60, even if it’s only 20% coverage. The cost of InkJet is based upon the volume of ink, so on 20% coverage we can input the cost of the ink, the printhead and we can calculate that for the same image it will only cost two or three cents. Where toner has the advantage is high volume coverage, that price doesn’t change, so you’re paying six cents for a full coverage 8” by 14” sheet, or you’re paying six cents for a little logo.”

That lower cost is exactly why Raffi ultimately decided to put the Astro S1 InkJet into his shop. “I think that because of the consumable aspect, this will be less expensive to run, unless you’re running heavy coverage envelopes, which we generally don’t. Usually there is a little address in the corner, a logo” says Stepanian. “I haven’t seen anything else out there that I would recommend over the S1. OKI, which is a laser printer, has pretty good quality, but in terms of speed and no-mess, no-fuss, this has been really good. If all goes well, and we continue the volume we’re doing, I might get another one.”

At the end of the day, that’s the goal when investing in a machine, it should be able to generate new business and increase profit margins at the same time. Marlin Digital has seen their envelope printing skyrocket in the last few months, to the point they’re considering expanding the investment into a second printer. Real world proof that InkJet is in a greater position than ever to generate revenue for your business. If you want to lower your consumable costs like Marlin Digital, or bring affordable colour to your customer base; it might be time to consider bringing InkJet into your world!

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