Europe’s printing industry is struggling to achieve sales increases which match the region’s low GDP growth rates. However, the inkjet business is continuing to buck the trend. In many digital printing segments, inkjet in Europe is booming, with suppliers of inkjet equipment, including inks recording double-digit percentage increases in sales.
Although a proportion of these increases come from outside Europe, mostly in fast-expanding emerging markets, the revenue increase in Europe itself is well above average for the printing sector.
Much of the European sales growth is coming from installations of new inkjet printing equipment by printers or from the construction of new printing plants, despite the squeeze on loans from banks.
In a recent report on trends in digital printing applications in Western Europe in 2010-15, market research organization and consultancy Infotrends predicted an average 2.8% volume growth over the five years. “We found that some applications are expected to outgrow that average rate quite noticeably,” said Ralf Schlozer, director of Infotrends’ consulting service for on-demand printing and publishing.
With books, newspapers and newsletters and magazines, volume demand for digital printing will at least double by 2015, according to Infotrends. Digital printing of direct mail will continue to increase to remain the largest application with an annual volume of approximately 60 billion impressions in the middle of the decade.
Inkjet vs. Toner
Within the digital sector, inkjet is doing better than its main rival, toner printing. In the transactional documents segment, for example, inkjet is clawing back share from toner, which historically has dominated document printing sales.
Inkjet is grabbing most of the attention in the digital market because the sector is coming out with a steady stream of innovations.
Its R&D teams are probably the most active in printing at the moment, not only in the engineering of machines and printheads, but also in the chemistry of inkjet inks, whose properties and scope are constantly being improved.
“There is a widespread belief now that innovation in the toner segment has reached a plateau while inkjet technologies are still advancing,” said Tim Phillips, marketing manager at Xennia Technology, where a third of its staff is focused on ink development and production.
“Inkjet has now reached levels of cost effectiveness and efficiency which make it an acceptable alternative not just to toner but also more traditional printing processes,” he added.
The last drupa exhibition three years ago in Dusseldorf, Germany – the world’s largest printing fair – was called Drupa Inkjet by some observers because of the amount of new inkjet technologies at the show. At last year’s IPEX in Birmingham, England, the world’s second largest international printing exhibition, more space was taken up by digital printing equipment companies, virtually all with inkjet businesses, than those providing conventional processes.
Next year’s drupa is already being dubbed Drupa Inkjet Part II because of the likelihood that inkjet innovations will be the most prominent feature of the exhibition.
Gaining on Conventional Printing Processes
One segment in Europe in which inkjet sales have been weakening is the small office and home (SOHO) market because of the slowdown in growth in demand for personal computers (PCs) in the wake of the popularity of mobile communication alternatives like the iPhone.
But the dip in revenue growth from the PC-related area has been more than compensated by the expansion in demand in the industrial printing sector, where the performance of inkjet printers has been increasing to levels at least matching those of traditional printing processes.
Screen printers are increasingly opting to include inkjet in the processes they offer their customers because of the competitive intensity from digital printing technologies, particularly in the large format segments for outdoor advertising and point-of-sale (POS) promotions.
Printers using rotary gravure and flexo in parts of the packaging sector are also feeling the pressure from inkjet printing.
In the offset sector inkjet has been penetrating the lower end of the market, where there is demand for a lot of short-run work for which inkjet is more preferable in terms of cost.
But inkjet has yet to make much of a headway in the high volume core of the offset market, such as magazine publishing and bulk packaging for consumer goods.
Nonetheless, advances in inkjet technologies have put the process in a position to attack a wide range of niches and even some mainstream sectors of the European printing market.
The improvements have made inkjet much more suitable for industrial scale production of printed products, in particular in the main areas of cost, quality and durability.
Cost is linked directly to printing speeds – the faster the process, the cheaper the unit printing costs.
The speeds of inkjet printing have soared from around 10 meters per minute to 50-100 meters in standard machines made by leading press manufacturers and even higher in some new inkjet presses. The Hewlett Packard T 350 Color Inkjet Web Press has a speed of 183 meters (600 feet) per minute.
High-end inkjet speeds are now much – in some cases more than six times – faster than toner-based digital machines, giving inkjet a considerable advantage on the basis of price-per-unit cost.
A key element in printing quality is high resolution, which is now being provided by inkjet in consistency in the size of ink drops from the printhead and the capacity to fire nanoscale drops through advances in printhead engineering and ink chemistry.
Printheads, whose design determines the level of performance of the entire inkjet press, can now achieve resolutions of more than 1,000 dots per inch (dpi).
Another major step forward has been in the reliability of inkjet presses and their printheads. Problems with printhead nozzles becoming blocked and causing expensive downtimes are being resolved through technological innovations.
Xaar has developed for its Xaar 1001 printhead a revolutionary design with a horizontal ink channel, from which the drop is fired through the nozzle in a perpendicular angle to the flow of the ink. The printhead architecture provides both an inlet and outlet for the ink separate from the nozzle so that the ink is constantly being recirculated.
“This continuous recirculation of the ink prevents sedimenting and blocking of the nozzles and keeps the constituents of the ink in constant suspension,” explained Mark Alexander, Xaar’s marketing director. “Any unwanted particles or air bubbles occurring in the ink are taken away from the nozzles. The flow technology also eliminates temperature variations, which helps to control viscosity and ensures consistent drop formation. All this makes the printhead extremely robust, which is what is required in industrial-scale printing.”
Printheads are now being designed to handle a wide range of fluids with a variety of different properties and levels of viscosity. With color printing, there is an option to use pigmented or dye inks.
The choice of types of ink has been broadened even further with the recent introduction in Europe by Xerox of its waterless inkjet technology based on a novel polymer chemistry. This turns granular ink into liquid in the inkjet and solidifies it as soon as it hits the paper.
The new inkjet technologies are opening up opportunities for the process to expand – in some cases rapidly – in many sectors.
In a mainstream segment like labels, inkjet has now established itself as a major option for printers, mainly because of its higher speeds, greater resolution and improved reliability. “Inkjet technology is now firmly embedded within the label sector,” said Mr. Alexander.
The fastest growth in demand for inkjet is in sectors where there is a need for frequent changes in decorative designs. Inkjet offers a more practical and quicker means of switching designs than conventional processes like screen and gravure.
At the International Exhibition of Textile Machinery (ITMA) in Barcelona in September, a relatively high number of inkjet printing press manufacturers displayed inkjet technologies targeted at the short-run segments of the textile printing market, which is dominated by flatbed screen.
“There is a fast growing demand for inkjet at the moment in textile printing because of the requirement for rapid introduction and turnaround of new designs,” said Mr. Phillips, which participated in the exhibition. “Inkjet has less than a 1 percent share of the total global textile printing market. In Europe it is higher, although still small, but the potential for inkjet in textiles is enormous in what is a massive market.”
Inkjet’s fastest growing sector in Europe has probably been ceramics, where the process is now able to deal with inks with large pigment particles. Inkjet now has an estimated share of more than 20% ceramic printing.
“The difficulty has been to keep the large pigment particles in suspension in the inkjet inks,” said Mr. Alexander. “For a while, inkjet was making little progress in ceramics, with a total of around 100 machines being sold in 10 years. Now with improved printhead technologies, demand has taken off and we’re seeing that number being sold in a year.”
For the burgeoning inkjet sector, there still remains many significant technological challenges, particularly if it is to become a much bigger force in the offset market. This requires progress in dealing with problems like the need for pre-coating of substrates like paper and in overcoming chemical barriers to high print speeds in some types of inkjet inks.
However, inkjet researchers and developers have been making such major technological advances over the last few years that it seems only a matter of time before these other major problems are resolved.
European Editor Sean Milmo is an Essex, UK-based writer specializing in coverage of the chemical industry.