Digital print has been around for years, and when I was researching an article a few weeks ago, I was surprised to learn that inkjet goes back as long as to the beginning of the ’50s. Digital print even further back – or at least the technology that led to the first Xerography photocopying machine. Though digital print and inkjet have roots way back, it has taken time to get to where it is now, so let’s look at the past, the present, the future and opportunities digital gives both PSPs and customers.
When the Internet became widely available, I remember people talking about the end of print. And though countless podcasts and articles have speculated over the death of print, print is still very much alive. Digital print has become a fantastic opportunity for customers – and both support current trends as well as create trends.
But let’s try to understand what digital print is and how it differs from analog print.
Analog printing – offset, flexo, screen
Analog printing transfers a processed image – typically from a plate or form to a substrate. Offset or litho is generally used in commercial print and packaging. Flexo typically in flexible packaging and labels – and for easy – I will focus on commercial print in this article.
Analog print delivers outstanding quality and is superior in quality to almost anything, but the processes to get print on paper are time-consuming – and cost money. Analog presses have existed for a long time, so nobody expects digital to replace offset any soon – but the transformation has begun. The development of analog presses continues to amaze; however, they can’t serve customers’ needs for very short runs, personalized content and are often less flexible than digital.
Digital Print – toner and inkjet paving their way into the commercial print space
Digital presses or printers have become both faster and better in the past years. A few years ago, a PSP who offered both digital and offset would often feel obligated to tell the customer which production method was used. That isn’t necessary today!
Digital print is, however, not only one technology. Typically digital print is divided into three main categories: toner, wet toner, and inkjet. The two are essentially the same, but the wet-toner is dissolved into a liquid, where the dry-toner is a powder. HP is the only company using a wet toner called ‘electro-ink.’ All other toner-based printers use dry toner. The toner typically contains polymers that react to heat, so when the printer prints, it output an image to a charged drum or blanket and then offsets the image to the substrate. When the image is transferred to the paper, the charged drum is then cleaned and ready for the next image, and the paper is fused, which melts the polymers into the fibers of the paper. Inkjet is also digital, and most inkjet printers print directly on the substrate. The production inkjet printers don’t have moving print heads as we see on large-format printing, but rather a number of print heads covering the width of the paper – enabling a way faster output.
Today’s toner-based print has a perfect output, and most people won’t be able to spot the difference between analog and digital print. As a result, many printing companies have replaced their small-format/old analog presses with toner-based printers. These printers offer faster turn-around time on small print jobs and often require less staff, and maybe even staff without the same level of education as when working on an offset press.
Inkjet is in the commercial print space, the new kid on the block. The inkjet devices that entered the market decades ago were mainly used for transaction-print, transpromo, black and white applications, and products that didn’t require the superior quality of offset printing machines or when customers needed colors. That has, however, changed rapidly since the drupa 2016. Now all vendors deliver inkjet machines that are simply stunning. They are fast, and they have a great print in both black & white and colors – and often with a much wider color gamut than analog printing machines, allowing customers to print a given percentage of PMS/Pantone colors as processed colors.
Limited by the size of the sheet
Toner-based print is today widely available with almost every printing company – and the applications you can produce with toner devices are like the ones you would typically see in offset. However, there are a few things to consider when working with toner. First, the sheet size of most toner-based printers is considerably smaller than those in offset. If you are producing books or other perfect bound products, you will have to accept that the signatures consist of very few pages or accept other types of binding, i.e., hot glue or PUR, where each sheet is trimmed, milled and glued. The binding in this example isn’t limited to it being printed in toner, but most toner-based printers only have sheet sizes up to SRA3 or B3. Some vendors, like HP, are very successful with their B2 HP-Indigo series of printers enabling applications of larger formats, but also binding that by some customers is considered better!
When printing with toner – the print often feels and appears like being on top of the paper, and on some substrates and some printers, you should be aware that the toner can ‘crack’ when bound. If you are a print customer, don’t worry, I am confident that your print partner can tell you exactly what limitations you may have. With toner, you also often have to consider that not all print enhancement is as good as analog and inkjet. Still, your printer will know what limitations and options you have, so don’t worry.
Inkjet is now also both sheet and rolls
Inkjet is a bit different. First, inkjet also has various technologies that have their strength and weaknesses. Most inkjet printers, until recently, were roll-based; however, both Canon, Konica-Minolta, Fujifilm, Landa, Kyocera, and just a few weeks ago also Ricoh (and more) offer now cut-sheet inkjet devices. Nevertheless, roll-based printers are still very dominant, and it has a lot to do with the speed these printers offer and the tension of the substrate that needs to be in control for at least two reasons. For the first, thin substrates are easier to handle in a roll-based system than sheets, especially if the size is bigger than A3/B3/SRA3. The second reason is the inkjet itself. Inkjet printers use water to deliver the color to the paper – and as you can imagine, we want the color, but not the water. So this has to be removed quickly and also with a minimum impact on the paper. I think we have all tried to spill water on a book or magazine, and only seconds after, the paper reacts to the water and can destroy both the print and the paper.
Roll-based digital print is also great for binding, as today’s roll-based binding equipment can create nice signatures for, for example, book blocks.
The current situation is that digital print and particular inkjet is moving into the commercial print space with all the fantastic opportunities the latest technology offers.
“Everything that can be digital will be digital,” and though a saturated phrase, this is, however, still considered the case. The future of print is digital. The question is, of course, how long time it takes before that will be so and what influence the change the most.
Technology is driven by customer demand – always!
As with everything, technology develops with customer demand, and there is no question that print run is decreasing. Why stock finished products in a warehouse when short-run production today is a viable option? So shorter print run pushes production towards digital. Another trend is personalization which is not at all possible in analog production. Today it’s still more expensive to print in digital, but that is changing rapidly. Not only is the higher price a questionable myth, because compared to what? If you need 1,000 books, maybe yes, but if the trend is that you produce ten today, hundred tomorrow, and hundred fifty next month, the price is most likely way more competitive in digital print, and at the same, you save the warehousing cost.
I believe that we will see a rapid move toward digital print in commercial print as the pandemic has changed customer behavior quite a lot – and maybe pushed an already going trend to the next milestone.
Another trend supporting the digital print agenda is how binding equipment today offers opportunities that support the demand from customers – and PSPs will be able to produce faster, better, with fewer touch-points, and finally with fewer people in the process.
Hunkeler offers well established and state-of-the-art finishing solution for any digital print finishing application in continuous feed and now with the new DocuTrim also for cut-sheet digital printers.
Exciting times, ladies and gentlemen.
About the author
Morten B. Reitoft
Morten Reitoft is the editor of INKISH News and INKISH TV. INKISH TV is a TV-channel for and about the print industry.
Through his numerous posts and videos around the printing industry, Morten has a broad expertise in digital printing and knows both the companies and technologies behind them.