Inkjet versus toner – the debate evolves

It’s not easy to draw a line between inkjet and toner, as each technology has its pros and cons. However, we consider some of the key elements that differentiate them

Inkjet versus toner - the debate evolves

Digital printing in the commercial print market has come a long way in the last twenty years, with toner-based technologies having had the most success in delivering high quality, on demand print. Despite this success, however, the majority of commercial print is still produced using traditional offset presses, largely because toner-based presses have been limited in terms of quality, speed, format size and cost per copy.

Inkjet, on the other hand, is still at the early stages in terms of its impact on commercial printing.  According to Smithers Pira (the worldwide authority on the packaging, print and paper supply chains) the inkjet printing market was valued at $33.4 billion in 2011 and forecast to grow to $67.3 billion in 2017. Part of the reason for this forecast growth is that over the last ten years, inkjet deposition technologies have evolved to such an extent that single pass printheads able to deposit ink at the speeds and quality levels required by the discerning consumers of commercial print have now become a reality. It is inkjet systems that combine these printheads with sophisticated control systems and paper handling technologies that are now set to challenge toner-based presses in the quest to meet the evolving demands of commercial print customers.

It’s not easy to draw a line between inkjet and toner, as each technology has its pros and cons. However, here we consider some of the key elements that differentiate them.

Toner presses are based on a mature technology and it’s often hard to differentiate between the output of one press and another. At this stage, development of toner devices is evolutionary rather than revolutionary and the limits of speed, quality and format size are slowly being reached. The more exciting developments are happening with inkjet technology, and although still early days, the potential to transform commercial printing is significant.

Fast job turnarounds and print-on-demand are all standard requirements in today’s fast moving world, and toner presses remain hugely attractive for their ability to meet these requirements.  But there is also a resurgence of interest in very high quality, short run print, particularly where the physical, emotional and tangible benefits of print can win over online information delivery, and inkjet systems provide a compelling solution in this market area.  As technologies evolve, forward-thinking printers should ensure they are prepared for the future and position their businesses with the appropriate technologies to be at the forefront of these developments.

Run length and uptime
It is a common assumption that toner-based digital printing systems are ideal for ultra-short runs, with litho for longer runs and inkjet for everything in between. However, this is an over simplification. Toner devices are sold on their ability to handle a particular duty cycle, and this relates to the design of the press, the components that are used and its expected reliability. Some toner devices may only be able to fulfil a duty cycle of up to three hours per day. The design of toner presses is also inherently more complicated, so maintenance regimes and system uptime need to be factored in. So toner presses may be perfect for ultra-short runs, but if the volume of these runs is high, then the reliability and uptime need to be factored in.

Inkjet presses are typically built with offset paper handling systems and are inherently much simpler in their design, so tend to be much more reliable and able to handle a much larger throughput of work, with 2 or 3 shifts per day being typical. From a financial perspective, however, the capital cost of an inkjet press is likely to be much higher than a toner press, so the strategy in terms of production capacity needs to be carefully considered before a decision is made.

Print value and quality
Digital print produced using toner technologies has always been inferior to offset from a quality perspective. In the early days, the difference was very obvious and pronounced. However, in recent years, the gap has closed significantly, with the quality difference now often being insignificant, and the speed of job turnaround being the more critical factor. The fast job turnaround can often have significant value for a print buyer, and this value has been one of the major factors in the huge growth in the number of toner presses in the market.

Inkjet presses have the capability to produce print of a higher consistent quality at faster speeds than toner presses, so the potential for inkjet is significant. Indeed inkjet technologies have already reached a point where they surpass offset print quality in a number of areas, not least their ability to produce superb flat tints and print images with a greater colour gamut. So inkjet presses are likely to be used for more discerning high quality print applications, particularly where short runs are the norm rather than the exception. The combination of ultra-high quality digital print produced very quickly has an even higher value for a print buyer, and there are opportunities here for printers to grow this part of their business.

Stock cost
Some inkjet presses can print on standard offset stocks. The Jet Print 720S, for example, boasts an integrated Rapid Coagulation Primer (RCP) system that primes the sheet with an ultra-thin, invisible layer that provides a consistent environment for the coagulation of ink droplets, one of the main reasons why the print quality is so high. The ability to print on a wide range of paper stocks means many new applications can be printed digitally (for example using uncoated paper) – something that was impossible with toner presses, where special paper has always been required to achieve the best results. What’s more, standard offset paper is more cost-effective and allows printers to minimise their stock holdings.

Finishing
The finishing possibilities offered by an inkjet press are also limitless, as the water-based ink used performs much better than traditional fused toner in its ability to be folded, laminated, spot coated and finished in a multitude of ways. This is because the properties of some fuser oils affect the adhesion during the lamination and coating process.

The future
Toner presses are based on a mature technology and it’s often hard to differentiate between the output of one press and another. At this stage, development of toner devices is evolutionary rather than revolutionary and the limits of speed, quality and format size are slowly being reached. The more exciting developments are happening with inkjet technology, and although still early days, the potential to transform commercial printing is significant.

Fast job turnarounds and print-on-demand are all standard requirements in today’s fast moving world, and toner presses remain hugely attractive for their ability to meet these requirements. But there is also a resurgence of interest in very high quality, short run print, particularly where the physical, emotional and tangible benefits of print can win over online information delivery, and inkjet systems provide a compelling solution in this market area. As technologies evolve, forward-thinking printers should ensure they are prepared for the future and position their businesses with the appropriate technologies to be at the forefront of these developments.