When it's time for a technological transformation in the printing industry, service providers will have to hop on board or risk behind left behind, unable to meet client expectations. There is a complication, however. Considering the printing business's evolutions over the past few years, with narrow margins and short-run orders becoming facts of life in the industry, there is little room to gamble on a tech upgrade and be wrong. The upfront costs of changing out printers will be a difficult pill for any print shop to swallow unless they lead to true, positive transformation.

Therefore, it's time for print service providers to look very closely at high-speed digital inkjet printing. The latest generation of inkjet technology could take on new roles in the printing sector. Gatherings such as the recent Print 17 conference give industry thinkers a chance to exchange ideas in person and see the products and processes that could drive their businesses in the near future.

A familiar pattern
WhatTheyThink contributor Heidi Tolliver-Walker sees one very compelling argument in favor of digital color inkjet presses becoming an integral part of the printing sector: The progress of these assets is following the path taken by toner-based printing presses. For this reason, she issued a challenge to the owners of digital-based print shops, questioning whether they believe they won't need inkjet presses in the years ahead. She noted that there is historical precedent that suggests the technology will indeed become strong enough to be an industry mainstay.

What is this pattern that Tolliver-Walker is seeing for the second time? First, printers are skeptical that they'll use the new kind of press. Next, they debate the costs and benefits. Then, applications appear that favor these printers and move them into a more mainstream role, until they're everywhere.

The current injket changes mirror the previous evolution of the digital printing market, with color replication getting better and more print stock options becoming available. Even impressive effects have become possible. Now, specialty jobs are being carried out with printers that were previously written off. If it happened once, it can happen again. For this reason, Tolliver-Walker has put her faith in the ability of full-color digital inkjet presses.

One of the industry thinkers whose take made Tolliver-Walker come to this conclusion is Caslon General Manager Dave Erlandson. His observation that digital inkjet printers are being used for transactional documents, direct mail and books coincides with a general growth in inkjet usage.

Tracking new applications
For a more detailed look at the way digital inkjet usage is evolving, one of Erlandson's posts for Printing Impressions makes a great starting point. He explained that since some catalogs are being printed on inkjet and others on offset presses, it's easy to see whether there is a gap in quality between the two printing methods. The two methods are intertwined because inkjet printing supports personalization. He reported that yes, there is still a slight difference in print quality for inkjet printers to make up, but it has become smaller.

Now, with image quality getting higher and printers able to use many more substrates, the use cases are increasing in number and importance for digital inkjet printing. An ongoing decline in ink prices for inkjet presses will help them move ever closer to the mainstream. Considering that early users of these assets are already having success with specialized applications such as customized deliverables driven by data, the increasing affordability and flexibility will simply expand the range of situations where inkjet may be a good option.

The middle of evolution is an interesting and exciting point on any technology's development timeline. According to Erlandson, that's where digital inkjet printing is now. Today, it's all about uncoated stock, as well as a lack of imagery, or at least imagery that has to be replicated in perfect quality. As for the future of the market, the costs are coming down and the ability to print good-looking images on multiple types of stick is increasing. Per Erlandson and Tolliver-Walker, the signs are there that this is a technology in a growth phase.

Receptive to change
A print service provider wondering when to change to a new technological framework won't find any easy answers. It's tough to exist in a market that has gone through so much change in a relatively short time. However, by keeping an eye on the latest developments affecting the market, these individuals can be ready for what comes next, whatever form it may take. Digital inkjet presses represent one of the rising tech areas worth watching as the future of the printing business approaches.