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Digital Print Can be Vibrant and Variable at the Same Time

Mark VrunoMark Vruno

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Color still sells and customization increases response rates, which is why professional inkjet printing may be in your future.

Last week, the annual and always controversial Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue hit mailboxes and newsstands. For the 2016 edition, three different bikini-clad models grace the front cover(s). Last May SI printed a double cover (front and back) featuring both boxers for the “Fight of the Century” (which turned out to be a bust).

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Printing multiple covers is nothing new, but producing them via altogether different printing processes is as novel now as it was in August of 2006. Nine and a half years ago is when I worked on a special cover project for Graphic Art Monthly magazine. Hewlett-Packard, one of our big advertisers, wanted to prove a point: that the quality of digital printing is so good that even print firm owners and managers cannot tell the difference. So, half the press run was done via the traditional, offset lithographic process while the other half (some 40,000 copies) was run on a dual-engine HP Indigo W3250 Digital Press. The image chosen to reproduce was a vibrant close-up of a red-eyed leaf frog.CP3

Readers voted online at a microsite as part of an integrated marketing campaign that was quite sophisticated for its time. (The incentive: a chance to win an HP digital camera/printer combo.) It truly was difficult to see the
difference — and these were graphic arts professionals really trying to tell. I conducted a little, unscientific experiment of my own in the publishing firm’s office, which employed a slew of graphic designers and art directors. These skeptics thought they could spot the digitally produced cover from 10 feet away. After all, it would be obvious, right? Wrong. The color gamut from the digital press looked nearly identical to its offset twin.

This type of quality and color reproduction is taken for granted in 2016, as digital printing has gained wide acceptance in the passing decade. Consider that production inkjet printing in the form of digital web presses didn’t come on the scene until 2008. Now, inkjet digital has taken center stage in the production printing environment, too. Think of your desktop printer on performance enhancers. These production devices are heavy duty and industrial sized: bigger and faster. Sheetfed inkjet presses can run up to 2,700 sheets per hour. For larger volumes, roll-fed inkjet models now can output at speeds up to 800 feet per minute and beyond, with widths ranging from 22 inches to 42 inches.

Originally used only for on-demand book production and personalized transactional printing (i.e., bills and statements), inkjet technology has improved in quality. Over the past three years or so, it has encroached into the direct mail print segment using variable data and imaging. Variable-content brochures are on the not-too-distant horizon, some experts say. HP has introduced a production inkjet print-head technology it calls High Definition Nozzle Architecture that features 2400 nozzles per inch and provides support for dual drop weight per color. These new heads represent a breakthrough in the quality and performance of the manufacturer’s PageWide Web Presses.

Science and Chemistry

Oil and water don’t mix, especially in traditional offset printing. Hence, the vast majority of paper available for commercial printing has been optimized for oil-based lithographic inks. But inkjet printing uses water-based inks that can be up to 95 percent H2O, depending on the formulation. Just a bit of water sprayed on a regular piece of paper will make it distort or even come apart. That’s why uncoated inkjet papers require pre-treatment with a priming or bonding agent that prevents all that water from penetrating into the fibers. Even though such pre-treated papers cost more, they are essential when printing heavy ink coverage and color-critical work. Coated papers, however, have the opposite problem: ink beading up and literally rolling off the paper’s surface. The challenge for mills is to reduce the ink hold-out of coated papers.

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Paper had been inkjet printing’s primary problem, with users severely limited in their media choices. But that has changed in the past 12 to 18 months, as paper mills and inkjet press OEMs – which now include Canon, Fujifilm and Kodak as well as HP — are working closely together. New papers are being tested and certified all the time. In the cut-sheet (sheetfed) inkjet space, choices have broadened to include everything from copy paper to gloss and matte coated sheets in varying weights. For instance, in addition to its standard uncoated offset products, Appleton Coated has expanded its offering for uncoated inkjet products to include a 100% post-consumer recycled fiber offset sheet that is suitable for dye- or pigment-based inkjet printing systems.

This spring at the triennial drupa trade show in Germany, print firms expect to see more mainstream papers coming out with inkjet versions, allowing marketers to move from an offset job to an inkjet job to a toner job and use the same branding. Looking ahead, 27% annual growth is expected on the digital print side of the graphic arts segment, according to research firm I.T. Strategies’ projections. The ability to print on coated offset substrates simply is a matter of time, VP Marco Boer told Printing News, as is heavier ink coverage on inkjet output.

“And there are continuing increases in print quality and productivity, to the point where the offset quality level will be matched equally by inkjet,” Boer contends. He reported that a whopping $1+ billion was invested in non-consumer inkjet research and development in 2015. So ask your printing partner what inkjet might be able to do for your firm and its marketing efforts.

Mark Vruno is chief editor of Printing News magazine. Based in Chicago, he has reported on the commercial print industry for more than 20 years and also has written for related publications and websites, including Editor & Publisher, News & Techand Package Design. Previously, Vruno was executive editor of Graphic Arts Monthly and Graphic Arts Online. He has also spent several years in marketing, public relations and corporate communications, working for such firms as RR Donnelley, Banta, Agfa Graphics and Fujifilm Graphic Systems USA.

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