Ink costs are key to high-speed inkjet

By Jo Francis, Monday 28 July 2014

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It’s a regular staple of the tabloid press, a shock-horror headline stating that consumers are paying more for their desktop printer ink than they’d pay for vintage champagne.


While not, perhaps, in the £3,000-per-litre range cited by the tabloids, recent comments by Landa Digital Printing founder and chairman Benny Landa about anticipated ink revenues when his Nanography presses start shipping caused a similar hubbub in the industry. In an interview with Israeli finance paper Globes he said ink revenues on Landa presses would reach $25m (£14.7m) per machine over five years.

Landa vice-president of marketing Ila Bialystok subsequently clarified the remarks, but the price still looks peppy. A basic analysis results in Landa appearing to be twice the $0.005/A4 consumable cost per page cited by Kodak for its latest Prosper 6000 press. 

“I would not expect the Landa machines to have a cost edge on other types of inkjet (in the foreseeable future), it will come down to the features of the press,” says Infotrends director Ralf Schlözer.

The challenge facing printers when it comes to high-speed or high-speed sheetfed inkjet presses is this: a basic analysis simply won’t do. It is an incredibly complex area when comparing rival systems.

And there’s a bigger picture beyond the sort of ink price that’s enough to turn someone to drink. 

Ian Browning-Smith, chief operating officer at book group CPI UK, says the company’s capex investments are increasingly about the whole supply chain. “It’s not just about the ink costs in isolation. We are looking at the buying behaviour of customers and the whole supply chain. When you look at it like that the model completely changes. 

“For the print aspect, we could be trading off makeready time, waste, labour and printing plates involved in litho printing against high ink costs on an inkjet system that doesn’t have those set-up charges. Each product has a different break point.”

Unlike an all-inclusive digital print click charge, there are complexities with inkjet that need to be looked into closely, says Browning-Smith. “The other really important factor is coverage on the page. If it’s high coverage than that can kill the economics of doing it inkjet.”

As Browning-Smith points out, while some jobs, such as textbooks, are relatively predictable, illustrated colour books are an entirely different kettle of fish. 

“If you don’t have visibility of the final files, and you’ve estimated for 10% and then it comes in at 20%, then you could effectively end up doing the job for nothing,” he warns. “No one has created a safe model for working this out – it’s a real technical challenge.”

And of course, nine times out of 10 print companies will be tied into the press manufacturer for ink, so it’s vital to get those sums right. Not every printer will have the buying clout of a large group like CPI, which has multiple HP T-series inkjet webs across its European platform, along with cut-sheet digital devices, sheetfed litho, and specialist Timson book presses.  

In all cases it’s important to make the most of the tools available. Canon, which claims market leadership in high-speed inkjet kit in EMEA, has sophisticated tools for calculating ink consumption. 

“We have a tool for ink estimation. We can do a pre-calculation on the job before it’s printed, and counting is also available on the press, so you can get a post-job calculation. Our experience of units in the field is that this is very exact down to picolitre consumption,” explains Reinhold Frech, director of European sales and marketing at its commercial printing group. 

“Our ink price is only for the ink. Other components are covered by the user [click] charge. We think it is very fair pricing.” 

What about third-party inks? These are pretty commonplace in wide-format inkjet, but not for high-speed production systems. Could that change? Chris Rogers, vice-president at ink manufacturer Collins Inkjet, thinks it will. “We are getting calls every day from people saying ‘can you supply ink for this thing, it’s way overpriced’,” he states. 

“High-priced ink limits how much the people you’re selling it to are able to use it. We’ve been trying to tell manufacturers that’s not the smart thing to do for a long time.

“By pricing at a lower margin eventually you’re going to make more money by growing the use of the technology through ink pricing.”

Rogers says that the expanding use of inkjet printing in a host of different industrial applications is also resulting in a new type of equipment purchaser, with more clout than the average printing company. 

“Some of the people buying inkjet now are so big, they seek out the ink manufacturers before they even look at printheads or printers. Some customers have it written into their contracts that they can source ink elsewhere, if needed. It is possible to buy a machine and not get tied in.”

However, it’s also true that in the world of complex multi-colour print there are advantages to the end-user of having a system where the equipment, heads, fluids and inks have all been tailored to work together optimally by the kit supplier. 

“Our complete set is fully integrated, tested and certified,” says Canon’s Frech. “I would say there is more risk to the customer than benefits, with third-party options.”

Ultimately the TCO and ROI has to stand up to scrutiny, now and on future products. Woe betide any manufacturer whose ink pricing results in a magenta mist before the customer’s eyes. As CPI’s Browning-Smith notes: “We are talking to several manufacturers about breakthrough inkjet technologies and we are very clear with them about different pricing models that will work. And what won’t.” 

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