Monday, 16 Jul 2018 11:15 GMT

Litho vs Inkjet

With equipment suppliers introducing higher productivity inkjet products, we thought it was time to put ourselves in the position of the investor. Russ Hicks asks: should we choose inkjet or offset litho?

Exploring your options

In the real world, of course, you will already have some constraints. A budget that has been fixed for one or more reasons; maybe there will be space restrictions or limitations; the quality and previous experience of your staff might have an impact on your choice; and last but by no means least your own preconceptions and knowledge of the processes. In addition to these issues, the work that you are already producing—its formats, its urgency, and its run-lengths—for customers that you have built a relation-ship with over many years may also help to dictate your choice of equipment. We cannot, of course, shape our thoughts or every business in this one article, but hopefully the following contributions will provide food for thought for readers who are themselves considering this very question.

The cases for

Possibly the strongest case put forward from the inkjet lobby, exampling some of the issues cited above, comes from Screen with its Truepress Jet520HD product. Senior vice president of sales, Bui Burke explains: “Although a reel-fed device—not always instantly appealing to the commercial sheet-fed printing company—this is probably the closest true challenger to conventional presses in the market for mainstream commercial applications. The benchmark qualities, as set by modern litho presses, are well understood. These are listed simply as print quality, printing speed, reliability, running costs, and range of substrates.

This is probably the closest true challenger to conventional presses in the market for mainstream commercial applications

“Running at a maximum speed of approximately 2,000 full colour A4 sides per minute—equivalent to 15,000 B2 duplex sheets/hour—our running speeds are not dissimilar to the maximum actual running speeds of current B2 sheet-fed presses.” Importantly, due to the digital nature of the machine, these pages can of course be fully variable—something impossible to replicate on a litho machine. Digital can also offer the ability to collate the output as sections, assisting post-press operations. Pricing would appear to start at £1.5m.

Burke adds: “Printing with the latest greyscale print head technology and a maximum resolution of 1,200dpi, our print quality is fantastic—easily comparable with good quality litho print.”

Koenig and Bauer’s Craig Bretherton says its customers have invested in digital but have certain types of work that still require litho

The case for litho is put by Koenig and Bauer’s product and marketing manager, Craig Bretherton: “Our customers have invested in digital but they have certain types of work that still require a litho capability. There doesn’t appear to be a digital product capable of the all-round performance and cost effectiveness in our key markets of commercial print and packaging.

“Litho has fought back with automation that has seen makeready times slashed to around three minutes using technologies such as Koenig and Bauer’s AutoRun, where the press is pre-programmed to produce a number of jobs without operator involvement. Our feeders are highly reliable and are capable of printing at speeds of up to 20,000 sheets per hour on pretty much all stocks. This creates a very powerful production device capable of producing in excess of 80 million sheets per year on an average run of 3,000 sheets. A customer with these kinds of volumes would require several digital devices to match this kind of performance.

Koenig and Bauer’s Rapida 106 offset press has production speeds up to 20,000sph


Certainly one victory regularly claimed by the litho sector over all forms of digital is with regard to productivity. However, as instanced by the Screen comments above, things are beginning to change.

The Fujifilm Jet Press 720S has no upper limit on usage aside from the physical number of sheets you can print at 2,700 sheets per hour

Fujifilm’s comments on productivity, courtesy of digital printing and press systems product manager Mark Stephenson, also suggest a stronger reliability than many might perceive: “The Jet Press 720S has no upper limit on usage aside from the physical number of sheets you can print at 2,700 sheets per hour.

Some Jet Press users run three eight-hour shifts, seven days a week at busy periods, while a summary of an eight-hour shift recently recorded the equivalent of 122 makereadies across 28 jobs with a total of 18,117 printed sides. All Jet Press customers attest to its remarkable levels of uptime.” That’s 2,264 sheets per hour for the full eight-hour shift, with 15 job changes per hour, just to save you reaching for your calculators. Also consider that digital means zero plate or plate creation costs, no platesetter, and no pre-press operator to manage plate production. In other words, view productivity from a slightly different angle. Similar cost savings can of course be attributed to all digital players.

Fujifilm’s Mark Stephenson says all Jet Press customers attest to its “remarkable levels of uptime”

Konica Minolta’s AccurioJet KM-1 B2 inkjet press is offering some 3,000 sheets per hour. 2018 announcements regarding inline finishing options again illustrate the ability to reduce production stages, potentially enhancing overall productivity. The addition of a bridge option means that users could direct work either to the bulk stacker or, via the bridge and a t-section, to two connected finishing lines.

The commercial world

One further argument levelled at the digital world is that machines are great if you are producing one standard format of work, book production or label printing for example. Mark Hinder, head of market development, Konica Minolta Business Solutions Europe, examines that angle: “Let’s look at the commercial aspects of UV inkjet to move jobs from offset to UV inkjet. Dot Freeze ink technology enables us to print on standard offset materials without the need for specialist coating or primers, potentially a barrier for someone considering implementing an inkjet strategy. Commercial printers can now offer UV inkjet without having to revamp and renegotiate with media suppliers. The larger than B2 sheet allows for optimum productivity for small- to medium-run length jobs ganging perfectly without the need to run and set-up expensive pre-press. It enables the commercial printer to profitably compete and target companies that are only looking for minimum quantities of fliers, posters, and other marketing collateral.

Konica Minolta’s Mark Hinder says commercial printers can now offer UV inkjet without having to revamp and renegotiate with media suppliers

“The technology combines the hybrid benefits of offset technology, such as sheet handling and registration, with a full duplex capability that is highly stable thanks to consistent inkjet technology. Another benefit is an exceptionally wide colour gamut that addresses the majority of pantone colours. CMYK gain means that commercial printers can easily run this technology in busy environments by moving work to finishing and fulfilment without a waiting period for drying. 

Offset will still always be a technology that will be able to cope with higher demands and longer run lengths

“Offset will still always be a technology that will be able to cope with higher demands and longer run lengths. But UV inkjet now really gives the print industry a true alternative to sustain profitable business in an ever-evolving climate where the only thing constant is change.”

Stuart Rising of Canon says transitioning from an offset press to digital inkjet press enables improved time-to-market and greater job flexibility

Also championing inkjet is Stuart Rising, Canon UK’s head of commercial printing: “Transitioning from an offset press to a digital inkjet press enables improved time-to-market, greater job flexibility and run lengths, dramatically increased personalisation opportunities, and reduced waste. While able to do a great job, toner devices could typically not exceed productivity levels greater than 150 pages per minute.  Now, with inkjet, customers can enjoy all the benefits of a flexible cut sheet operation but at double the speed and half the costs of traditional toner devices. Other advantages of inkjet are additional savings through improved automation, operational cost reductions, less warehousing, and just in time manufacturing.

“Return on investment is also a key driving force. That is why we have introduced digital inkjet solutions such as the Océ ProStream series—a new breed of fast, high-productivity continuous feed inkjet presses combining the vibrant colours of offset with the variable-data versatility of digital printing. Our inkjet portfolio also includes the Canon VarioPrint i200 and i300 cut-sheet inkjet production systems for white paper solutions.”

ProStream, with the capacity to process some 35 million A4 pages per month, is out of reach for the average commercial printer, but the i200 and i300, at up to 300 A4 pages per minute respectively and costing in the region of £750,000 dependant on configuration for a B3 format machine, would certainly be in the frame pricewise, though they were originally targeted at transactional and direct mail work.

Litho still rules?

Murray Lock, joint managing director of RMGT press distributor M Partners, argues the commercial print case for litho: “In our opinion, the inkjet challenge to litho is focused on specific areas of print. For general commercial print production sheet fed litho still has the upper hand. The flexibility of substrates, the wide range of press formats—from B3 through to B1 and above—which means that print shop owners can buy the right size of press for their client base, the familiarity of operators with the process, and the overall print quality of the process, combined with the high productivity levels offered by litho, all mean that the commercial printer would struggle to find an alternative technology to meet all of their production needs.

“Add to that the high reliability of machines from RMGT and you have a package that is hard to beat. The lowest cost of ownership in operating RMGT equipment makes price a significant advantage for litho. Inkjet technology is improving undoubtedly. Run lengths on inkjet equipment still lag behind litho for sure, but then print runs are generally decreasing as well, meaning that the speed of a press is no longer the critical factor that it once was.”

For Printers Superstore, suppliers of litho equipment from Hans Gronhi and Shinohara ranging from B3 to SRA1, Graham Moorby, joint managing director, gave a strong focus for litho: “It is hard to find any aspect where litho has a disadvantage. The stock flexibility of litho remains far superior. A Shinohara press with a packaging spec can print up to 0.8mm.

“Instant finishing is no longer a plus point for digital. Our machines are available with LED-UV curing, which means sheets come off the press ready for immediate work-and-turn or finishing.

“It’s true that litho machines require a higher skill level than push-button digital presses, but the days of printing as a ‘dark art’ are long gone; our machines have superb colour management to ISO standards where colour control is automated to a high level of precision, and automation also makes makereadies extremely fast and simple.

“Digital manufacturers often claim ‘litho quality’ which shows they recognise litho still sets the standard. If it’s not broken, why try to fix it?

“We keep hearing that digital printing will mean the end of litho, first with toner based machines and now with inkjet, but in all but a few niche markets we see a healthy future for Hans Gronhi and Shinohara machinery.

Synergy with the two production processes has been very successful, but still today the vast majority of printed sheets are produced on litho presses.”

Best of both

Whilst the premise of the feature was inkjet vs offset, some suppliers still prefer to pair the technologies. For a company with a foot in both camps, Heidelberg is unsurprisingly a little guarded in its promotion of one technology over the other. “Today we have to talk about litho and inkjet rather than litho or inkjet,” says Matt Rockley, product manager for presses at Heidelberg UK.

As we know, last Drupa saw a number of traditional litho manufacturers announcing new products or new partnerships with digital manufacturers so that they can offer both technologies. For Heidelberg that meant a partnership with Fujifilm and the launch of the Primefire XL 106, an inkjet press that has commercially launched and is being installed, primarily at packaging operations, who see its potential for bespoke and very short-run jobs and for creative sampling. 

Heidelberg’s Primefire 106 is relevant for packaging firms who want to prototype a design

Gary Wilkinson, key accounts, packaging and VLF executive for Heidelberg, says: “The Primefire is relevant and appealing for packaging firms who want to trial a sheet or prototype a design. It frees up time on the main machine, especially if dealing with a very demanding creative job where potentially new plates could be needed if the initial test run isn’t successful.”

It has been suggested that the B1-format simplex seven-colour inkjet press is intended primarily for folding carton work in runs of one to about 1,500 sheets. With speeds of between 2,500 and 4,500 sheets per hour it most definitely is not going to be the product for long-run work. At something over £2.5m it is unlikely to be the immediate choice of the commercial printer at this moment.

O Factoid: The Rapida 106 from Koenig and Bauer has printing speeds up to 20,000sph (18,000sph in perfecting mode), making it a highly productive sheetfed offset press for medium formats.  O

Rockley adds: “The good news is that both technologies continue to provide a positive spur to each other’s developments. Heidelberg’s expertise in paper transfer with litho presses was a critical element in the development of the Primefire, for example. Conversely digital technology has pushed litho to increase its efficiency and the Speedmaster press of today is hugely more productive than a ten-year-old machine. Industry 4.0 and the Push to Stop concept means that the latest generation press can autonomously work through job after job and, with inline register and colour control, the quality is measured, predictable and repeatable.”

Whichever kit you opt for, do your research, and you cannot go wrong.