Digital Printing Continues to Grow

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 09.02.05

As market expands, ink manufacturers look to take advantage of new opportunities

As market expands, ink manufacturers
look to take advantage of new opportunities

Digital printing encompasses a wide range of processes. Depending on who one talks to, the field includes on-demand printing, variable data, distribution, and reprographics. Some experts include ink jet printing in the digital field.

What isn’t under debate is the rapid growth of digital printing. According to Jim Hamilton, senior consultant at CAP Ventures, Norwell, MA, on-demand printing was a $13.3 billion business in 1998. In five years, Mr. Hamilton estimates that it will grow to a $35.1 billion field.

"In the print-on-demand market, we’re seeing 20 percent growth rates," Mr. Hamilton said. "The market is maturing, and I think there’s a lot of growth to be had."

As digital continues to blossom, ink manufacturers and machinery companies alike continue to examine their options.

Digital Revolution
Technological improvements have made computers practically a necessity throughout the printing industry. Digital prepress is common, as are computerized color readings. In offset, the Heidelberg Quickmaster DI and Speedmaster DI presses utilize digital imaging.

"The DI is a completely digital offset machine," said Ron Kendig, marketing director, direct imaging, Heidelberg USA Inc. "The only thing that’s analog is the printing."

There are many types of machines available, ranging from office copiers to digital duplicators, that perform numerous functions. The most common area are the machines that utilize dry toners; the leaders of the field are Xerox and Canon, with Ricoh, Minolta and IBM also garnering shares. Xeikon manufactures its own copiers, as well as the engines for a number of these machines. The Indigo E-Series utilizes its own liquid toners.

In the dry toner area, the Xerox DocuColor 40, which produces 40 pages/minute, and the Canon CLC 1000, which produces 31 pages/minute, are the highest-speed color copier printers.

"The DocuColors are aimed at the graphic arts, which includes production as well as creative graphic arts," said Doyle Riley, Xerox product marketing manager, Color Solutions Business Unit. "Production includes quick printers, franchise printers, commercial printers and in-plant reproduction departments."

In particular, these types of machines have found their niche in the quick print for profit market, with major printing chains such as Sir Speedy and Kinko’s. Another use is with reprographic departments, where companies can create reports. Creating proofs before printing is another important graphic arts segment.

Xerox has recently introduced the DocuColor 4 LP, designed primarily for office use. The 4 LP produces four full-color pages or 16 black-and-white pages per minute, and employs Intermediate Belt Transfer technology (IBT) to yield image quality of 600 dots per inch (DPI). It sells for below $7,000. In addition, Xerox is now offering its DocuColor 30, which is similar to the DocuColor 40, although it produces 30 pages/minute. It sells for about $80,000.

Digital duplicators, a modern-day version of the old mimeograph machines, are also becoming more commonplace.

"Digital duplicators are popular with government, religion and education," Mr. Hamilton said. "They’re good for short runs. The text quality has gotten really nice, and it’s inexpensive to run."

Ricoh and Riso are the leaders in this field of machines, which cost around $15,000. For Van Son Holland Ink, this represents a business opportunity.

"The digital duplicators of today’s world are newer, cleaner machines with higher DPIs, up to 600, crisper quality, and masters are digitally cut," said Roger Giza, product manager for digital and ink jet, Van Son Holland Inks.

"Anything that needs more than 30 copies should be moved to a digital duplicator," Mr. Giza said. "It becomes more cost-effective; you don’t have to create plates or films. The key is that the new machines can print up to 600 DPI, which is incredible work. The quality is far superior to DocuTech. It looks like a copy machine, and is good for up to two-color, but registration is possible for three or more."

Van Son is selling the inks in tubes, and presently offers 11 colors. "This is brand new to us," Mr. Giza said. "We have 11 colors, and hope to replicate our entire Van Son line of colors. We’re an ink company, and if we can’t market this ink, then nobody can."

One difference now is that these machines are getting graphically better.

"The big change in toner-based printing over the past five years has been the dramatic shift from black and white to color," said Dr. John Rooney, vice president of R&D at Sun Chemical.

"The distinction between color copiers and small presses has become blurred, as these copiers have started doing the job that small sheetfed presses did," said Dr. Rooney. "Tens of thousands of small offset machines have been replaced by toner-based machines."

One important criteria for determining the differences between digital printers as opposed to offset is the point where it becomes more cost efficient to switch over to offset presses.

"Run length really is a divider," Mr. Hamilton said. "Xeikon sees the break at 1,000 units."

Mr. Kendig said the point is somewhere between 500 and1,000 copies; Mr. Riley believes that the point appears to be somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 copies.

Hybrid Systems
There are also areas where digital printing is enhancing the offset printing process. Industry experts note that many printers are utilizing hybrid systems, in which printers opt to do most of the job on offset presses, using pigment-based inks, while keeping a small area available for variable data, which will utilize a toner-based system.

"Twenty-nine of the top 50 digital printers satisfy their customers’ digital printing needs by ink," Mr. Kendig said. "The only disadvantage is variable ink. A lot of customers do hybrids; the Quickmaster DI does most of the page, and the variable data is printed later. We have customers who swear by this. You get a high quality durable sheet with a small amount of toner."

"Digital printing will be utilized where the ‘on-demand’ feature or personalization is needed," said Roger Oberg, vice president of Flint Ink’s digital division. "It also will be employed in combination with other printing processes."

Variable data, where a printer can create personalized mailings for consumers from databases, is an important advantage of digital printing.

However, considering the disparities between toners and inks, some experts wonder whether using variable data is as promising as its proponents believe.

"How important is 100 percent variable? " Mr. Kendig asked. "I would contend that by using a technique called versioning, instead, say 20 runs of 500, you can offer your customers the advantages of ink with the advantage of improved response."

Opportunities for Ink
Once a machine is sold, that is not the end of the line in terms of revenue. After the inks or the toner has been used up from the original purchase, there will be a need for refills, which then becomes a major source of sales.

Many of the digital equipment manufacturers also benefit from selling proprietary consumables, such as toners and ink jet inks. For ink manufacturers, the challenge has been to make headway into the market.

"This market is different from the normal printing market," said Mr. Oberg. "The equipment companies control the sales and distribution of supplies. It is not an easy matter for an ink company to participate."

However, there are areas where pigment-based inks have advantages over toner-based and dye-based inks. Those are the areas that ink manufacturers are examining closely.

"In my view, pigment-based ink jet inks are making more headway against dye-based ink jet inks, rather than proprietary toners," said Mr. Oberg.

"The print quality still isn’t up to litho-based standards," said Dr. Rooney. "Toners inherently have a relatively large particle size. That places a limitation on how effectively you can use color.

"There’s quite a lot of activity in pigment-based ink jet inks," Dr. Rooney added. "There’s been a lack of bleed resistance and durability properties. The ink jet manufacturers and ink companies are working feverishly to construct inks with these properties, and pigmented inks have light fastness properties. To get the kind of properties that print buyers want, there are going to have to be binders formulated into the inks, but there are restrictions on how viscous you can make the inks."

The copier companies are also looking to improve their offerings. "In our research labs, we’re looking at other forms of inks that will narrow toner distribution size, which will make it more efficient," Mr. Riley said.

The Future
As digital printing continues to grow, more companies are looking to expand their offerings. Even major press producers such as Heidelberg are getting into the field, purchasing Eastman Kodak Company’s digital printer, copier/duplicator and roller assembly operations earlier this year for a reported $200 million.

According to CAP Ventures’ Newsflash dated March 17, 1999, Heidelberg officials are looking to become involved in the high-speed digital black and white technology. Kodak’s new DigiSource 9110 Network Imaging System, introduced one week after the purchase, is expected to run 110 pages per minute, and officials are reportedly aiming for 20 percent of the market.

"It’s interesting to look at the strategies," Dr. Rooney said of the activities of many major companies in the field.

Ink manufacturers are also taking advantage of the opportunities, working together with other manufacturers to create opportunities.

"We’re involving customers in the designs of these systems," Dr. Rooney said. "Our goal is to come to the table with proprietary technology that will meet higher customer performance expectations."

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