Toner vs. Inkjet Presses: Does Size Matter?

By | August 18, 2010

I was in a presentation early last week and someone complained about the size limits of digital presses. That was echoed later in the week during the Graph Expo preview on WhatTheyThink by Frank Romano and David Zwang. During David’s presentation, he mentioned that sheetfed electrophotographic (toner) based digital presses had hit a wall in terms of productivity. And at the end of that presentation the audience was asked, “What’s Your Next Big Equipment Investment?” The two top answers were 43% digital press and 24% production inkjet. The focus on production based inkjets was a real shock and together these comments got me thinking and, as you will see, took me down a strange hypothetical road.

I think both points are true. Except for the manufacturers that have put two machines in tandem allowing the first to print on one side and the second to print on the second side there has not really been an increase in productivity in the sheetfed toner-based devices for a few years. But let’s keep this straight – the productivity concern is really two issues, size and speed. Let’s just focus on format size for this discussion.

As they ask in the Godzilla movies, “Does Size Matter?” For larger sized applications it does – for smaller sizes it may not. The reason it may not is because increasing the speed with a tandem based configuration can help with applications that fit. (Except when a larger device can print it multiple times up on a sheet and be faster or more cost effective.)

But if that last international show showed us anything about format size it appears that size limitation is more of a toner issue than an inkjet issue. If you remember, one of the manufacturers announced that they would bring a 32” inkjet press and then showed up with a 36” press. As a result, we are learning that the inkjet heads are grouped into specific widths and can be added or subtracted and the toughest challenge is to the paper handling function. However, there are rumors that there is a width barrier for the toner-based devices due to the electrophotographic nature or ability to hold a charge across a sheet.

What does all this mean? Clearly this is speculation but it could mean that understanding your application mix based on size may become a more important consideration in the future when deciding which digital print technology best suits your needs. Of course quality and equipment cost is important too, and there are critical differences with these technologies, but lets take quality and cost off the table for this conversation and see what happens.

One more disclaimer. Admittedly at this point in time what I am about to suggest is more of a bizarre idea, but if quality, cost and speed were comparable and you could buy either a electrophotographic 2 up press or an inkjet 4 up press for $500,000, which would you buy?

Howard Fenton is a Senior Consultant at NAPL. Howie advises commercial printers, in-plants, and manufacturers on workflow management, operations, digital services, and customer research.

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7 thoughts on “Toner vs. Inkjet Presses: Does Size Matter?

  1. Fadel F. Iskander

    Lets see:

    Electro-photographic presses peak at or about 120 A4s per min which is equivalent to about 60 ft/min. or 240 A4s & 120 ft/min (when in tandem).

    So, would we be willing to spend $500,000 for a 4-up 60 ft/min Inkjet press vs. a 60ft/min 2-up electro-photographic press?

    (I believe the $500,000 would be barely be enough for one 120 A4 per minute electro-photographic press.)

    hmmm!!!

    Quality is JOB ONE for us.
    And if the quality is the SAME, then it is a no-brainer.
    4-up wins (for our company).

    Every once and a while, you will run across applications that require different substrates to be fed from different drawers (which can’t be done on a web-press) but for twice the productivity and the same quality, we would keep one of those sheet-fed presses.

    However, it is hard to believe that the $500,000 would cover the pre & post (winder/un-winder) and other hardware necessary to handle the very heavy 4-up rolls before & after they have been imaged.

  2. Henry Freedman

    Electrophotographic presses have not hit a wall.

    You will see faster, wider and more productive.

    You WILL see these before they debug IJ.

    Toner technology is improving, lower energy, better paticle control,
    oilless fusing internal realtime IQ on the fly.

    Electrophotgraphic press image quality exceeds the IJ press.

    Hope this adds some balance to the technology discussion.

  3. Duncan Newton

    There are many good reasons why sheet-fed digital equipment has secured its niche in this world. Simply stated, it does what roll fed cannot do. And it does it at an acquisition cost that is much lower. Do you need to mix substrates in a document – sheet fed. Do you need to make frequent changes in substrates – sheet fed. Do you have production requirements that are less than, say, 1 million pages a month – sheet fed.
    The reason why roll fed equipment came into being (thank you, Siemens) was to do transactional printing. It turns out that you just can’t physically move a piece of paper through a digital device any faster than they are going right now. If if was possible they would be doing it . Transaction work has its own challenges there are huge numbers of documents, all on the same stock, all from the same data source and done with very tight SLAs.
    Initially, image quality took a back seat to pure horsepower. If the consumer could read the number at the bottom of the bill it was “good enough”. 240 dpi was the standard.
    And it was all monochrome and/or MICR. The equipment of the day was built to do that kind of work and over time it was perfected to do it better. The gear got more productive, the image quality improved and price of the equipment got more expensive. And yet, if you had the volume and the customers it was the only way to get the job done.
    Then things started to happen. The world started asking for faster and better. So we all went back to our drawing boards and just when it looked like we had it solved the word “color” started sneaking into the vocabulary.
    Color, we all asked, what are you going to do with it? Turns out that at the time nobody knew. So we, the manufacturers, started coming up with reasons for you buy our shiny machines. The problem was that the early machines were rather slow and very expensive on a per copy basis. If you will all remember the iGen3 started talking about a goal of 5 cents a page at drupa 2000. Interesting…
    But you can’t compete with a half a penny for production monochrome without having a pretty serious value proposition to justify the use of color. Short run and color VDP were the answers. Still, 5 cents a page is pretty steep especially when compared with the elephant in the middle of the room – offset. And there were problems with toner that ink just didn’t have and there was no way around it. The Versamarks printers had been around for years printing miles and miles of bills and statements. The image quality was always its limiter, you know, it just wasn’t designed to do the National Geographic.
    And there we stalled until about 3 years ago. Finally, quality color inkjet came to market. It was certainly faster than toner, the cost per page was dramatically lower and the image quality had broken the 600 dpi barrier. But, WOW, it’s a lot more money to buy one. No, really, a LOT more money. We’re talking millions.
    Or was it really expensive?
    Think about it this way. Roll fed monochrome toner production machines peak out around 8 to 10 million pages a month and there are fleets of the things out there. A production inkjet printer is just warming up at those volumes. These new inkjet machines are built to run 45, 65, or in our case up to 120 million pages a month. Repeat those numbers to yourself and think about them for minute.
    Now here is a little math. Just for arguments sake, a $5million machine would probably carry a monthly lease payment of around $100,000 (2% of purchase price per month). Divide that $100K into 65,000,000 pages and suddenly that expensive machine starts looking pretty reasonable. Then compare the cost of toner with the cost of ink. [Toner has been likened to spreading gold on paper.] Suddenly injet starts looking cheap. Four color work at 600 dpi for under a penny a page? Easy!
    Toner, however, moves around via electrical charges and is driven by light. Ink moves via a mechanical process of some kind, e.g., pulse, spray, heat. That means there has to be a controller that actuates that single ink nozzle at 600 times per inch onto a sheet of paper that is moving at speeds of up to 650 feet a minute. Do that math and you will be thunder struck by the number of very precise messages that have to be sent to that single nozzle every second (no, I am not going to tell you the answer – do it yourself!). Now, multiply that HUGE number by 600 dots per inch across the width of the web, say, 24 inches or so.
    Howie wants to know if size matters. Let’s not limit the discussion to the size of the printer. We’re not burning plates. We are not limping along at 100 pages a minute. We are talking 36 times that number and in four color.
    We are in a whole new world here. Throw out what you thought you knew. We are in the land of brute force cybernetics; dual, half-height, quad-core, Blade arrays are the norm. As the inkjet machines start to go faster, and they will, the demands on the processors will increase. Luckily, More’s Law is on side.
    It’s increasingly clear that inkjet machines will become the preferred method for doing quality high volume work whether it is color or monochrome.
    Huh? Did I say “quality”?
    Have you seen the output? It’s fabulous and you can fold it without the images cracking off the page or getting smeared in an inserter. It’s the color that “pops” off the page not the ink. And when it comes to monochrome printing the output is virtually indistinguishable from offset and cheaper than toner.

    It’s a good thing that GraphExpo is just a month away. Now all of you can come and see for yourselves. Inkjet is the wave of the future.

  4. Fadel F. Iskander

    Henry,
    I am curious as to what “bugs” are the IJ presses suffering from?
    Are all of them suffering from the same bug?

    Duncan,
    Being a Kodak person,
    Is it true that Kodak owns the patent on “drop on demand” IJ technology?
    Is it also true that Oce, InfoPrint, and HP IJ presses use this technology?
    Is it also true that Prosper uses another IJ technology?

  5. Howie Fenton

    Wow .. great insights and thanks.

    First Henry always seem to have some interesting insights and possible scopes about new products and technologies on the horizon. So I will be interested in seeing which of those predictions will be available soon.

    And of course Duncan its tough trying to argue with Duncan. Although he is not been around since Gutenberg, he has been around for a while with Kodak, Oce, Xerox, Aldus and Adobe. But I have some grey hair on my head and have some history here too and have a slightly different recollection of some of these facts.

    The way I remember it was Charlie Coor (at the time working for Infotrends which at the time was called CAPV) which started talking about color pages had to go down in price to cost $.05 to “cross the chasm” and make color printing more attractive for mass market migration of transactional documents to color. It was then discussed by many venders including Xerox.

    And I am not sure that taking a monthly equipment payment and dividing it into the number of pages will not give you a true TCO (total cost of operation) for a page. Lets not forget the maintenance contract, floor space, operators, utilities, pretreated paper, etc. But even with that said, Duncan’s point is still valid with a high enough demand production inkjet is significantly cheaper then toner.

    And yes the quality is improving significantly. I have been lucky to see the some of the machines up close and personal including the HP and Oce. But from what I understand the quality is related to three improvements in inkjet heads, inks and paper.

    So I am looking forward to see what new developments are discussed or shown at Graph Expo.

  6. Elizabeth

    I’m on vacation – but I just loved “its the color that pops off the page – not the ink” Hah! Thanks Duncan. Miss you.

  7. Duncan Newton

    OH, NO!!! It’s Duncan again!!
    I will try to be less long winded. It will be a challenge.
    First, Fadel asked three questions.
    1) Is it true that Kodak owns the patent on “drop on demand” IJ technology?
    2) Is it also true that Océ, InfoPrint, and HP IJ presses use this technology?
    There are three different approaches to inkjet imaging. Drop on demand (DOD) uses an electronic pulse to push ink out of a chamber through a nozzle and on to the page. Thermal inkjet (TIJ) uses heat to expand the ink in the chamber thereby accomplishing the same thing. Continuous inkjet (CIJ) produces a continuous flow of ink droplets that are either sent directly to the page or deflected to a catch tray.
    As far I know, Kodak does not own any DOD patents. It is possible though. Once upon a time (1972) there was company in Dayton, Ohio called Mead Digital Systems; they invented the inkjet heads that have been used for decades to addressing – often called Scitex heads. Clever things, really fast, but low image quality – but, hey, it was 1972. Mead sold their printer division to Kodak, who sold it to Scitex, who was purchased by Creo, who was bought by Kodak. Kinda makes you dizzy, but somewhere along the line in those intervening 42 years it seems probable that some DOD patents were filed. Can’t say for sure.
    The DOD heads that we use in our VL family of inkjet printers are not of our own manufacture. The only one of the big manufacturers that uses their own DOD heads is HP and they are using the Edgeline heads that they developed a couple of years ago for photo kiosk and are based on thermal inkjet (TIJ), aka BubbleJet. Got it?

    3) Is it also true that Prosper uses another IJ technology?
    Yes, the Prosper family of inkjet presses uses our new Stream technology. Stream is a continuous inkjet (CIJ) process that is designed around a different concept. Stream sends a continuous flow of ink through a silicone nozzle that is excited at a very high frequency causing that stream to be broken into a uniform flow of droplets that are ridiculously small. Obviously, very few of these droplets will actually to required to go on the paper to create the text and images. The trick is to control which drops go where.
    The way we do it is to create two droplet sizes – let’s call them big ones and little ones. Simply stated, the big drops go on the page and the little drops are redirected into a catchment system where they are re-cycled. We use an airflow to move the droplets, the big ones have too much mass to be deflected. It’s simple when you think about it.
    By using a continuous flow we never allow the ink to settle into a print module’s ink chamber where it can clump up and cause a clogged nozzle – called a jet out. The advantage is that we do not have to periodically take the system down to purge the print heads of the accumulated ink solids. The other advantage is that we are not using a mechanical actuator to fire the dots at the page and because of that we have achieved some very impressive speeds. The Prosper 1000 and 5000XL run at 650 feet/min. When these same Stream heads are used in a rack mount on an offset press we have been successful running at 1,000 feet/minute.

    And, Howie, thanks for the kind words and the trip down my “colorful” résumé. I think we are all intrigued by inkjet. Inkjet addresses all of the issues that drive print providers crazy, speed, cost and quality. Stream is the reason I asked Kodak to let me join them. After careful analysis I saw the Prosper presses as the true game changers and I wanted to be part that.
    When we all saw the first Dainippon Screen demo of their inkjet press in 2005 some of us knew that something important was happening. The toner guys poo-pooed the speed and went back to printing invoices. The color guys were underwhelmed by the image quality and went back to 1:1 marketing. But some of us saw the potential and, Howie, I remember talking to you at that show and we both agreed that that little machine was going to be something to pay attention to. Just three years late we all attended the “Inkjet Drupa”.
    If I was you, I would be making my plans right now to be in Dusseldorf in May of 2012, you really don’t want to miss what’s coming next.

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