Inkjet vs. Toner: The Battle Heats Up at Graph Expo

By | November 2, 2010

Walking the show floor at Graph Expo it became very clear that there were almost no big iron presses and the two emerging digital printing camps: electrophotographic (EP aka toner) and high speed inkjet web presses. The EP devices are going through revolutionary changes and are used mostly for a wide variety of short run applications. While the inkjet presses are going through revolutionary changes and are targeted for high volume applications.

On the EP front, both Xerox and Kodak announced similar size upgrades (26”). HP showed the Indigo 7500 digital press, which added the new Vision System, which can detect unintended marks and reject pages and automatically reprint them even with variable data printing.

This was the first US show you could see the inkjet presses. Meeting with Aurelio Maruggi, Vice President and General Manager at Hewlett-Packard, I learned of the new HP T350 press, which prints at 600 ft/min., which is 50% faster than the T200. One of the nagging unanswered questions about the HP Inkjet presses is head life. According to Maruggi, customers are reporting they are replacing 1 print head every 3 shifts, which is 3 times longer than HP expected. Three other exciting inkjet presses were the Kodak Prosper 5000XL, Fuji Digital Inkjet J Press 720 and Dainippon Screen Truepress Jet520 ZZ (aka Ricoh 5000VP).

But the most interesting thing I saw at the show was an event in downtown Chicago sponsored by Cabot. Founded in 1882, Cabot Corporation is a material manufacturing company headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts. Its profit came in at $248 million for fiscal 2010, a reversal from the company’s net loss of $125 million in the prior fiscal year. Their Inkjet Colorants are part of their New Business Segment.

After the show, in the Grand Ballroom at the Peninsula Chicago Hotel, there was a panel presentation moderated by Andy Tribute with Mary Lee Schneider, President, Digital Solutions and Chief Technology Officer for R.R. Donnelley; Frank Delfer, Executive Vice President of Technology and CTO, DST Output; Chris Carosella, Vice President of Product Development & Regulatory Affairs, IWCO Direct; and Marco Boer, Vice President, IT Strategies.

The panel talked about many customized communication and inkjet related topics. For example, DST is the largest third-party First-Class mailer in the US. There is an interesting side note about DST that comes from the book “Data Driven Print,” written by Pat Sorces and Michael Pletka. In the book they talk about how DST is successful because they understand how to match printing technology with the right manufacturing cost to create cost effective customized communications. Sorces and Pletka describe how DST combines Oce VarioPrint technology with the Extreme Dialogue composition engine for effective and cost efficient transpromo 401K programs.

But the focus of the presentation was how some printers were installing color inkjet heads on their web presses and creating, in essence, a press that could print using offset printing, color inkjet printing or a combination of both. Some of the larger companies may have staff capable of installing these heads; other companies may hire integrators for the installation.

System Integrators, such as Adphos, are offering to add color heads to web presses. Adphos is a privately-owned company in southern Germany with subsidiaries and support offices worldwide. They have already done a proof of concept by adding color Kodak Prosper heads to a Goss Sunday Press.

An integrator in the US that specializes in adding inkjet heads is Buck Automation. According to owner Buck Crowley, there are a wide variety of heads available for different applications. Crowley talked about the importance of matching the heads to the specific application but discussed viable heads from Lexmark, Canon, HP, Domino and Versamark. According to Crowley, the costs to install are much lower than the purchase price of an inkjet press. Crowley described a recent project he worked on in which he added four color heads to a web press capable of printing at 800 ft/min. The installation of inkjets across 52 inches cost about half a million dollars and the resulting cost per page was 3¢. And that cost/page may be high because an advantage of adding heads is that you may be able to buy the Inkjet Colorants and, not unlike a microbrewery, make your own ink for much less.

Where do you stand in the battle of digital printing technologies?

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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6 thoughts on “Inkjet vs. Toner: The Battle Heats Up at Graph Expo

  1. Paul England

    Nice writeup, but a few minor notes: the HP T350 is 50% faster than the T300 (600fpm vs 400fpm) and triple the process color speed of the T200 (200fpm). Both Ricoh Infoprint and Océ JetStream were very prominent at the show as well with presses onsite, it should be noted.

    I also attended the Cabot event, and came away with a different impression. While they did mention using umbilical inkjet systems to augment existing offset equipment, I saw that more as a stopgap solution to squeeze a little more life out of existing investments, but notably each panelist mentioned they felt process inkjet solutions were the future. Of particular note was Ms. Schneider’s comments about RRD’s in-house developed solution. Quite an investment there into an interesting platform, but she stressed more than once that RRD’s methodology was to “buy when you can, build if you must” and that they intend to continue investigating and investing into inkjet technology from a host of vendors.

    I also disagree with the assertion that “homebrew” inkjet inks are a good idea, on two fronts. First, inkjet printing systems are much less tolerant of inks that fall outside their design spec. You may suffer dramatically reduced overall print quality and/or head lifespan. If the heads are replaced as part of a press’ service agreement, the manufacturers will begin charging considerably higher service dollars to recover that (which is also partially subsidized by the cost of the ink itself). That would undo much of the potential savings realized on top of the service downtime and PQ issues it may cause. Not sure the economic model makes as much sense there. And second, related to the first, is that the manufacturers do indeed make profit off the inks (as well they should, as that is why they exist) and that profit is what fuels technology innovation investment and partially subsidizes the development and manufacture of the machines themselves. Bypassing that may serve to either drive up the cost of the equipment or slow innovation — neither are a positive long-term outcome for commercial printers!

  2. Bob Raus

    Hi Howie. Thanks for the overview of Graph. Inkjet is hot and while roll-fed presses are fast, the acquisition cost is something most printers can only dream of affording. RISO ComColor prints at 150 PPM for 2-3 cents per page, with a TRUE duty-cycle of 500,000 per month and an aquisition cost of $35k-$55k each. An INTERQUEST direct mail study confirms that ComColor print quality drives equivalent response rates to high-gloss toner too.

    Have a roll-fed IJ press today? No other cut-sheet printer produces a closer match to look and feel either because RISO ComColor is the only production class full color cut-sheet printer on the market today.

    The sexy space shuttle may get the press, but the cargo plane keeps the economy moving. I’d love to share more details with you.


    Bob Raus. RISO Inc.

  3. Jim Olsen

    To all: Since one of issues with inkjet is printing on coated stocks, how does that fit with adding inkjet heads to offset presses? Doesn’t the same problem exist on a “hybrid” offset/inkjet press?

  4. Capt. J

    Yes. If the colorant and substrate have not changed the technological limits have not changed either.

  5. Bill Hanson

    Re the consumables cost of ink jet/toner, the $.03 per page ink cost could add up fairly quickly. A web press running 800 fpm is probably printing at about 30,000 impressions per hour. If the press is running a 16-page form, the cost to produce that 30,000 is about $14,400 in just the ink expense. Both toner-based and ink jet presses have huge advantages over offset in waste reduction, registration and other attributes, but will not displace offset for anything other than extremely short runs until the consumables prices come down significantly.

  6. Richard Wright

    For the short run, variable data segment, inkjet will increase it’s share of the market. Here’s why I believe this will be the case:

    – Simplicity of applying the imaging material on the substrate
    – Cost to produce the imaging material
    – Environmental / health issues
    (detailed reasoning below)

    In addition to the cost/click to output pages, printers should pay close attention to the equipment and technology required to use the equipment. Ask questions about the cost and maintenance of software and computers required to operate the systems.


    Inkjet systems are inherently simpler than toner systems. Toner systems have far more moving parts and greater sensitivity to ambient conditions. The internal transport of the toner from the supply to the substrate and waste container initials mechanical, electrostatic and air along with a long list of sensors, electrical charge / discharge devices and filters. These contribute the requirement of on-site technicians to keep it all working.

    In contrast, Inkjet systems have very minimal list moving parts. With the wide-array printhead configurations, only the paper moves. I don’t want to underestimate the complexities of managing millions of inkjet nozzles. This is a technology challenge that has been overcome and will improve similar to other computer technologies.

    Cost to produce imaging material
    Toner production is process energy and mechanical intensive. It involves mixing, melting, crushing, classification and reprocessing of plastic into a consistent powder. It’s a complex and messy process that requires major capital investments in equipment in order to produce efficiently. Large batches are required to attain low cost / ton of toner. We can be confident that toner manufacturers are making a reasonable profit, but at much higher investment to produce and longer time lines for returns will inhibit new development.

    Ink, on the other hand, is far less complex, more efficient in terms of waste and easier to control the production variables. Ink production lends itself to faster development cycles, smaller batches to be cost effective. The margin opportunity and faster ROI are delivering far higher margins for suppliers and manufacturers. This will attract more development and improvements.

    The profit potential on toner can be nice, but the potential on ink is many times that of toner.

    Environmental / health issues
    Smaller particle sizes in toner technology have enabled toner to significantly improve image quality along with improvements in technology. These ever smaller particle sizes can become a health concern especially in commercial print applications where operators interact with bulk bottles of supply toner and the waste toner.

    Ink can also have challenges, especially with solvent based inks. These challenges are easier to manage and are similar to what printers manage today.
    Ink jet is a far more efficient process that is not as waste intensive as toner. Toner devices produce considerably more waste than inkjet. The amount of unused toner can be as much as 30% in continuous feed print applications. This translates to 1/3 of the toner put in becomes waste. The amount of waste ink is minimal in comparison.

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