Printing and Design Tips: November 2023, Issue #256

The Current State of Inkjet Vs. Laser Technology

If you’re a commercial printing supplier, which do you choose: inkjet or toner-based digital? After all, digital printing equipment is expensive (even if you lease it), and you’ll need to have a steady stream of jobs to bring in revenue to offset the expense.

In this vein, I recently found a Printing Impressions article online that addresses this question for the moment. It’s entitled "Toner Versus Inkjet for Commercial Digital Printing Output: Is the Score Settled?" Written by Karis Copp, this article was published on on 10/24/2022.

Output Quality

The most basic issue is quality. After all, if the printed products are not up to par, customers won’t want them. In this specific case, according to Copp’s article, it wasn’t that long ago that laser printing (also called xerography or electrophotography) provided a much higher quality product, much closer to offset printing. Digital inkjet did not match the quality of toner-based equipment.

If you entered a commercial printshop at random, at that time, you might see four laser printers (including a black and white only machine) and maybe one inkjet press. Printing plant managers might select a laser printer for a high-profile job requiring a higher level of quality or if a certain printing substrate would be problematic for an inkjet printer.

Recently, however, the quality of inkjet has been improving. Part of this has been the inclusion of more colors in the inkset: perhaps CMYK (basic) plus light cyan, light magenta, a second black ink, green, orange, violet, or maybe red and blue. So the number of specific colors the inkjet press can match has improved significantly. (Compare this to the less extensive toner-based output of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black plus perhaps one or more extra toner colors on a high-end laser press like an HP Indigo.)

But the general consensus among those quoted in "Toner Versus Inkjet for Commercial Digital Printing Output: Is the Score Settled?" is that inkjet quality is still not quite on a par with toner-based laser technology. Nevertheless, some of those quoted expect inkjet to soon replace toner-based equipment entirely. Others noted in the article still expect there to be a place for toner-based equipment as inkjet technology matures.

Another way of saying this, according to "Toner Versus Inkjet for Commercial Digital Printing Output: Is the Score Settled?" is that toner-based digital printing has been staying pretty much the same, while inkjet printing has been improving in leaps and bounds.

The Benefits and Liabilities

Laser printing is a more complex process than inkjet, specifically because the paper has to travel through a more sinuous path to accept toner and have the toner fused to the paper with heat and pressure. This leads to more downtime than inkjet technology. Downtime cuts off all revenue generation for the affected digital press. Moreover, it means a client’s schedule may be compromised unless redundant equipment (i.e., a back-up press) is available onsite.

Overall, this means commercial printers must spend more on their toner-based equipment (maintenance, down-time, supplies), while presumably making money more consistently on the inkjet equipment, which has a simpler paper path and simpler technology, and which therefore is less likely to be down for repairs. Plus, for toner-based equipment, the paper has to go around rollers and drums for each of the four colors (unlike an inkjet press). And all of this becomes increasingly problematic with longer press runs.

Also, since inkjet printing is a simpler process, it is easier (and less expensive) to hire and train employees.

That said, the initial purchase of inkjet equipment is more expensive than toner-based equipment. According to "Toner Versus Inkjet for Commercial Digital Printing Output: Is the Score Settled?", a commercial printer might be able to buy laser toner equipment for $50,000 to $150,000, while inkjet equipment (presumably production grade cut sheet or roll-fed inkjet, rather than the large-format, roll-fed inkjet equipment used for printing banners) may cost $500,000 or more. But if the equipment runs more efficiently with less downtime, this can quickly change the cost-benefit analysis.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that printers are making decisions based on the specific jobs their customers bring to them on a case by case basis. This depends on quality, length of run, availability of equipment, and choice of substrate. At the same time, printers see that the future points to inkjet technology (perhaps with laser toner technology for occasional use) once a handful of issues with color matching, control over halftone dot saturation, print clarity, and such have been tweaked.

What’s a Press Score?

If you pick up a random perfect-bound book, you might see a vertical score parallel to the spine and inset about a half inch. What is this for?

During the binding of a perfect-bound book, the press signatures (perhaps 8-page signatures, or 16- or 32-page signatures) that make up the book (and that are stacked on top of each other during the binding process) are wrapped with a paper cover, which is then glued to the "book block" (the stacked press signatures).

If you ask your printer to include a press score, this is what you will get. The cover, having been scored, will open more smoothly (and evenly) than it would without a press score (i.e., you the reader are not folding the cover and breaking the paper fibers), and you will not see the binding glue. So the overall feel will be more like opening a door than folding back the front book cover, and the overall look will be cleaner and more pristine.

If you’re not the reader, the person who opens your book will (probably unconsciously) find opening the cover to be an easier process, and she or he will probably (unconsciously) think the book is of a higher quality.

Think of it as an investment. It’s not expensive, and some printers will throw it in for free.

Type Contrast in Design

On an entirely different note, my fiancee just bought a book at the thrift store. I’ll discuss it at length in the PIE Blog, but for now here’s one tip for you to consider while designing print books.

Consider contrast in type size when designing a two-page spread, and make the contrast in size a big one.

In short, the design of this book contrasts a simple, two-column layout of maybe 11 pt. serif type (Oldstyle, maybe Palatino) with much larger, slab-serif heads and callouts surrounded by lots of white space. Even though the heads are set in all capitals (which I usually rail against in the PIE articles), they are large (maybe 36 pt.), and page spreads are often interspersed with even larger (maybe 48 pt.) slab serif callouts spanning two pages and reversed out of a black background or surprinted on a white background.

There are many more little flourishes in the design, but the key idea you might want to consider is that all of this makes it abundantly clear (from across the room) what words are text vs. headlines, what is of paramount importance, and what is of a lesser importance. Even if the book has been written in another language I couldn’t understand, the visual contrasts would organize the content into manageable chunks, telling me exactly what to read right now. This is before any images have been added.

Use contrast as an organizational tool. And make the contrasts big ones. In short, tell the reader how to progress from item to item on a page, and from page to page throughout the book.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]