Ink-jet: A Disruptive Technology
There have been significant developments that make ink-jet a more viable process and now thrust it into the mainstream of the printing industry.
The ink-jet market is growing in every direction, from flatbed and wide-format, to label, to transpromo, to commercial web and sheet. Print head manufacturers are accelerating their developments, and new inks are being introduced almost daily.
Today’s ink-jet technologies are undergoing a number of significant quality and performance evolutions. These changes will combine with advances in new jettable fluids and inks, with improved materials handling and substrates—all of which are leading to a new generation of cost-effective printing solutions. But many of these solutions are due in the 20092011 time frame.
Present and future systems will have a major impact on how printed products will be created, printed, distributed and managed, and ink-jet could truly be a disruptive technology. In the coming years, we will see printing systems employing ink-jet technologies replacing some of the dominant printing tools, workflows and supply chain practices being used today.
Of all printing processes, only the ink-jet process does not come in contact with the materials being printed, making it both substrate- and application-independent.
Ink-jet also uniquely integrates easily into multi-step manufacturing processes, because it can be inserted at various points in the production line to decorate or pattern materials as they are formed.
A Challenge to Toner
Full-color ink-jet printer/presses challenge toner for many—if not all—applications and open up the potential of medium- to high-volume offset litho markets previously closed to digital production. Hybrid combinations of ink-jet and offset—as well as ink-jet and flexo for packaging applications—provide another dimension to the way in which processes are used to cost-effectively produce differentiated products.
Offset vs. digital quality is no longer an issue. Offset has benefits in running speeds and sheet size that generate many more finishing options. Many digital presses, however, have a significant benefit in offering in-line finishing and printing of a complete product that may make use of many different substrates in just one pass.
The cost of offset litho print has fallen by nearly 50 percent over the past decade, partly as a result of productivity improvements. But it still cannot compete with the very short runs of digital printing, or the variability which digital printing provides.
Ink-Jet technologies will produce even faster speeds and higher levels of quality at lower cost per page in the coming years. One needs only to plot the role of ink-jet for transactional printing and direct mail. It lowers the barriers for entry into the growing transpromo market. It will also bring ink-jet into applications that were typically only feasible with offset or flexo or screen printing, such as publications (newspapers and magazines), catalogs and newspaper inserts. These developments will even increase the range of commercial printing applications that may transfer from conventional processes.
The pace of development in ink- jet printing is accelerating. The number of models for every application is increasing and functionality is growing. Just as toner-based printing has usurped some offset litho volume, ink-jet will usurp some offset litho as well as some toner volume. There are new dynamics in the printing world, and we must be attuned to how they will change our businesses.