Since inkjet printers came onto the market in the late 1980's they have predictably fallen in price and risen in popularity, particularly in the home market, but could more businesses benefit from this technology? Linda Endersby investigates.
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Printer technologies used to be split into two categories. Impact and non-impact: those where the print head makes contact with the paper to produce the print, and those where it doesn't.
The impact types such as dot matrix and character have now fallen behind in a market which seems to be split between two non-impact categories; laser and inkjet.
Inkjet uses cartridges of liquid ink forced through tiny nozzles that produce droplets on the paper thinner than a human hair to form the image. The nozzles, which used to be part of the print head mechanism, are now part of the cartridges themselves and so are replaced each time the ink is renewed, lengthening the life of the print head itself.
Laser printers 'draw' an electrostatic image on a charged drum that attracts dry ink, or toner, and is transferred to the paper. This toner image is then fused to the paper using heat.
The overall printing market is doing well. In April the International Data Corporation (IDC) released a report showing increase in sales for all the major print vendors in 2010.
Globally the printing market reported a 7% year over year growth and shipped 36.5 million units in the fourth quarter of 2010 (4Q10) which is the highest since the fourth quarter of 2007.
"After experiencing one of the most difficult economic periods in recent memory, the worst is over. It's time for the market to return to normal," said IDC.
"For 2011, we anticipate that the recovery will continue at a slow and steady pace. The return to growth will not be uniform across all countries and segments; developed regions are expected to show gradual or steadier activity, while developing regions are projected to show faster and higher growth levels."
Multi-function inkjet printers have continued to rise in popularity and now account for 67% of devices worldwide and that is an increase of 4 points over the previous quarter. Almost 24.5 million of these devices were shipped across the world in the final quarter of 2010.
IDC noted that the gadgets proved especially popular in Latin America, where year-on-year growth in the number of shipments went up by 16 per cent. The strong take-up of inkjet printers in this part of the world was one of several factors that helped the hardcopy peripherals sector expand worldwide towards the end of last year.
Laser printers shipped approximately 11 million units in 4Q10 and is the highest number of units shipped in a quarter ever; 83% (9 million) of those units sold were monochrome laser printers.
Research and consulting firm Infotrends has labelled the business inkjet market as a "bright spot" in hardware sales, predicting an increase in sales amidst an anticipated slump in revenue for most hardware.
"Whether it is based on liquid ink or solid ink, the inkjet imaging platform offers a number of compelling attributes to address barriers limiting the penetration of colour in the office," commented Robert Palmer, director of InfoTrends Digital Peripherals Consulting Service.
"Namely, ink-based systems could deliver colour at lower operating costs, which is without question the leading customer concern when it comes to the production of colour pages. As a result, we expect ink-based technologies to gain further traction through the forecast period."
Palmer continued: "Inkjet technologies not only bring the promise of lower operating costs, but also lower acquisition prices (compared to colour laser technology). This is a value proposition that resonates with small businesses looking for affordable quality colour devices.
"In addition, page-wide inkjet technology will further improve the price and performance value of inkjet, which will result in the increased penetration of ink-based printers and MFPs in the traditional workgroup space."
The other advantages are with the more mechanical method and less sophisticated moving parts in the inkjet printer, repairs are less complex and therefore cheaper.
Because of the lack of heat required in the inkjet process, warm-up time is minimal and materials other than paper can also be printed such as craft paper tee-shirt transfers and CDs.
Many more inkjet printers are also manufactured with more connectivity options such as wireless and memory card ports, meaning images can be produced without even connecting a computer.
The technology is also neater and can have a smaller footprint, including mobile printers, which are great for today's more itinerant business society.
For wider format printing, on rollers of paper, inkjet tends to dominate the market.
As well as the office printing market, inkjet is enjoying a surge in digital web presses, which are replacing offset printing for smaller print runs in some businesses.
Print runs in the hundreds in smaller than A3 format can be cheaper and provide greater consistency. The print can also be changed mid run, which is impossible with traditional lithographic plates.
Strategic Content Imaging (SCI) has installed an HP T300 Color Inkjet Web press as the centerpiece of its on-demand printing operation to service the increasing demand for four-color, short-run printing on coated media.
The 30-inch wide web press, which prints using a native resolution of 1,200 nozzles per inch and provides full-color variable-data printing at speeds up to 2,600 letter-size pages per minute, will help SCI offer new levels of value and service to its customers.
"This press is like a virtual warehouse for our clients because it allows them to access and retrieve printed products, in four-color or black and white, on-demand, in pre-sorted mail sequence, in the exact quantities they require," said SCI president Burt Scherman.
"Our clients are completely changing the way they look at printing and communicating with their customers, and this is exactly the solution they need not only for books, but also for magazine ads, transpromotional printing, personalized direct mail and other applications"
In a research announcement this week, market researchers at IDC released survey results showing strong customer interest in mobile printing solutions.
"We are on the verge of a mobile print expansion, and business users will demand and eventually expect print capabilities from their mobile devices," IDC analyst Jonathan Bees said in a statement.
"This shift away from dependence on desktop PCs and laptops for printing will provide users with the access and mobility they're looking for. Furthermore, mobility is driving print volume."
The IDC survey of 1,480 end users in the United States found that 52 percent of smart phone users want to print from their devices but currently can't. The survey also found that workers who travel moderately are more likely than heavy travelers to increase their print volume.
Although Laser still has a strong presence and makes good sense for high volume standard office printing, looking at the costs and the advantages it becomes clear that smaller businesses with lower printing requirements, particularly those prnting under 100 pages a day, with some colour needs are now better off with the inkjet technology.
The higher end printers tend to be a better investment and the cartridges tend to be a little more expensive than low-end equivalents but with more output capacity. Wide format users will have little choice but to choose inkjet.
Next month MicroScope investigates the advantages to small businesses in more detail, looking at the types of business to benefit and the use of colour to enhance the presentation of SME's.