The flexibility of digital printing and its ability to suit modern print workflows will shape the next few years within the printing industry. But will inkjet printers be able to shake off their longstanding perception as inferior to offset assets and become the go-to technology for print service providers? This constant struggle between digital and analog hardware, with an occasional cameo appearance by hybrid solutions, has gone on for years. As always, the development of new systems by original equipment manufacturers presents momentum and change.

The overall movement of print demand toward customized items, short print runs and special projects has forced this focus on digital presses into the center of industry discussion. Providers that have all-analog workflows may be unable to keep up with what potential customers want – and in an era defined by falling demand for traditional, high-volume commercial print contracts, a failure to adapt isn't a feature any print service provider wants.

Time for sheetfeed inkjet?
According to ProPrint, industry insiders have begun pondering an emerging generation of inkjet printers with sheetfeed technology. The hardware currently emerging and in development is being pitched to companies that want it for large-format specialized jobs in addition to more traditional products. Inkjet printers, by their digital nature, promise speed and efficiency beyond the levels possible with traditional presses.

The last hurdle OEMs need to cross to truly make their case to commercial printers is print quality. Once the products of digital presses become indistinguishable from those made with offset assets, the prospect of easy digital workflow integration, speedy preparation for jobs and unparalleled flexibility will make digital technology the industry standard.

Printing business CEO Ken Williams told ProPrint that sheetfeed inkjet has now passed from the realm of the speculative to become a trusted technology. He opined that his shop would be acquiring such a printer in the future and praised the technology's ability to create favorable costs per unit for medium-sized print runs. Williams sees the value in purchasing an inkjet printer to handle personalized marketing campaigns that require medium-to-high volumes of customized items.

Will a surge in orders for these new, capable inkjet printers weaken the market for other offerings? Perhaps not, according to Williams. He told ProPrint that the new marketing collateral that print service providers will be able to make with sheetfeed inkjet is a unique niche within the market. Instead of shifting work from other digital printers – or analog assets – shops may be able to unlock new sources of revenue.

How is inkjet adoption going?
Predictions that inkjet adoption will hit new heights are one thing – on-the-ground insights from the current progress of this movement makes the trend more tangible. Printing Impressions recently shared the results of a Specialty Graphic Imaging Association and NAPCO Research study into the usage of inkjet technology in production settings. This research focused on non-wide-format presses, and revealed that there is indeed an appetite for new digital assets within the printing business: Four-tenths of respondents stated they are likely or very likely to buy an inkjet press within a year.

As for the benefits experienced by companies that already have these types of digital presses on their production lines, the top benefits experienced include new business generation, cost reduction and increased speed. These improvements play to the natural strengths of inkjet technology, as the lack of potentially slow and costly analog features, such as the need for plates, have long served as digital's main selling points.

Getting up to speed with a new inkjet deployment can have a few challenges, and the study addressed those as well. The most common issue observed by new users of inkjet presses involved determining which paper stocks are compatible with the new asset and how those materials perform. The paper that has served companies well for years may no longer be a good choice, and it's worth testing large print runs – the performance of a material may change as a long run goes on.

A flexible industry in focus
There's no surprise to the current focus on inkjet. The printing business is in search of ways to make its production processes more digital, which should help shops stay open in an era defined by customization, short print runs and online ordering. While there are methods to combine traditional processes with digital workflows, high-quality inkjet printers resolve the tension and give a clear next step. The technology has come a long way in a short time, with a constant presence in industry reports and discourse. New opportunities are beckoning for printers that can make the needed changes.