Inkjet versus silver: horses for courses

John Swainston recently caught up with Ron Kubara, worldwide spokesperson for Noritsu, the company that pioneered minilabs and is now following a similar path with retail inkjet printers.

PhotoCounter: Noritsu’s heritage is firmly in silver-halide based processing. You have lined up a defiantly non-silver halide product family for 2017. Does this mark a break with the past?
Ron Kubara: Noritsu has a breadth of product, be assured, we are not forgetting our roots. We have our QSS-3801 HD lab (pictured right), delivering 640dpi silver halide product, with a much smaller footprint than in the past, still capable of outputting 420 prints/hr for 10×8, right up to 12×36 inch print (30x 91cm). Indeed its big sister (The QSS-3704G series) can do over 2100 regular prints per hour. Silver halide is still the lowest cost delivery means for quality print and many areas of the world it’s still a very important part of the mix. So silver halide has never gone away, and in some niche areas we are even seeing a resurgence.

PC: How should one look at the investment and cost for print today?
RK: I’d say a 25 percent lower cost for silver halide is a good number to use. But, it depends on YOUR volume. Many people look at chemistry and paper and compare that to paper and ink. It’s a broader discussion. You can’t forget the amount of heat energy of some printers, typically incurring air conditioning costs of some $3000 a year in your electrical bill. So if you have high volume, that cost gets amortised widely, but there is a crossover point where ink and paper becomes lower cost for some operators because of these added factors that really are critical to each individual investment decision.

PC: What about the quality issues?
RK: Silver halide is continuous tone and produces much smoother gradations for skin tones; but if we are looking at detail, then inkjet can reproduce that sharper and more cleanly. For faces that’s not always an advantage. So, in Noritsu’s platform using inkjet, we have an emulator for skin tones. That’s particularly important on images sourced from smartphones, which perform poorly in low light. Noritsu calls this algorithm ‘Super Grain Suppression’. Most printers can produce a really nice print from a real good file. The acid test is what sort of print can be achieved from average or poor quality files – with noise, colour hue shifts, under-exposed, ultra-high-compression jpeg and the like.

PC: So in the real world what are the issues for retailers to look at in printer purchase?
RK: Of course initial capital cost, then running cost related to your volume, and of course reliability. Many markets worldwide are moving to inkjet due to the lower capital cost once they learn that most general consumer captures look better on inkjet than on AgX. Labs with high volumes and/or a focus on portraiture prefer an AgX print and its lower media costs.

PC: Thermal dye sublimation appears to have a huge installed base in retail chains providing local print output, despite its significant cost disadvantage per square metre and life issues in high temperature environments. Does this vary much around the world?
RK: In Asia dye-sub really is not accepted simply because of cost, but in part for reasons of life and material stability in high temp-high humidity environments. In Australia, by contrast, dye sublimation has been a popular retail offering until recently.

PC: From various international data, it seems the market has bottomed and slightly improved for some operators. Does Noritsu see this too?
RK: Actually we really don’t know the square metres of media now used for photo printing due to the combination of AgX, inkjet, dye sublimation and toner printing. The only thing we sort of have is an idea of 6×4 print – that remains down and trending further down. However by contrast, enlargement and art prints are way up. Poster printing is way up; duplex printing is way up. And print in photobook continues to grow. So you have to decide what part of the growth areas you’ll make your mark in.

PC: You mentioned duplex print, by which I assume you mean printing on both sides of the paper. What sort of products does that enable a retailer to offer?
RK: Noritsu now offers a lay-flat binder for calendars without the standard spiral bind system in a simple unit that sells for under $2000 (Noritsu SPB-1 binder, pictured right). And of course a lay-flat double-sided photobook is the other major output. Given that we can hook this up to user-created content in store, or, if you wish online, the flexibility is obvious and attractive. The ability to do a 30x30cm in-house book, typically in volumes of 5 or 6 a day, should be highly appealing and profitable.

PC: Dry output is now common throughout your range of products?
RK: Inkjet technology has enabled us to make print from digital sources entirely free from chemicals. Four-colour dye inks enable a large colour gamut similar to Adobe RGB, a broad tonal range and a much more eco-friendly process.

PC: What about print materials? Are we going to see anything dramatically new there?
RK: We think our new pearlescent paper offers a point of difference and enhances the user experience on viewing and receiving these pictures. It certainly gives a premium look and feel and is a durable and exciting way to present special pictures. It closely matches the luminescence the user sees on their later model mobile devices.

PC: So what’s next in print?
RK: We think there’s a lot of improvement yet possible in the consumer interface involved in getting pictures from a phone or camera to print. Our customers ask us why we have offered various components – printer, binder, software, but some elements such as kiosks we have had to partner outside, with consequential integration issues. We have started working with software developers outside of Japan and in addition to full kiosk offerings we are showing early steps in the use of Android and Apple iOS-platform products for phone and tablet input. We call it the Smart Picture Creation platform; the main focus is that it is user-friendly and intuitive. With a fairly flexible back-end, ease of use in the interface is no mean feat. Our software interface expert, Luke Stutters, has ensured that no matter what device you choose to work with – tablet, computer, kiosk, the interface is pleasingly similar. So look out for more news on this later in 2017.

On screen, we give people an idea of the relative size or scale of their prints by showing an iPhone to scale beside the print size they selected. We offer them the unusual (but of course highly popular, thanks to Instagram.) square format for print. And by the way, we will take the small resolution of that Instagram square image and produce, through advanced algorithms, a very attractive high quality 8×8-inch (20x20cm) print.

PC: In a world where 360-degree viewing and experience is growing in popularity, can print still survive? 
RK: Even with OLED and many other new means of viewing, ultimately you have to leave the digital world. A reflective-surface print is analogous to nature – we relate to it better and we can touch it and share it, a fundamental human behaviour. Now a stitched 360 panorama can be printed and viewed and retained as permanent, whether created by a specialised device, or simply in your phone camera. It’s an exciting new direction.

PC: So finally, what new inkjet technology will Noritsu be rolling out in 2017?
There are two additional upgraded printers to the product lineup: QSS Green II Simplex and the D705. QSS Green II Simplex is a dedicated 12-inch roll printer based on the successful QSS Green II Simplex/Duplex model. The D705 is a 1440 x1440 dpi dual roll 10-inch roll printer based on the earlier D703 printer.

Ron Kubara shows the QSS Smart DS-14, scheduled for release this year.

The smaller QSS Smart DR08 and DR12 printers were shown at Photokina 2016 and are the first Noritsu printers utilizing user-replaceable low cost thermal head technology and inks. The response to QSS Smart both during and after Photokina has been overwhelmingly supportive for Noritsu to continue with development of the series. We will be demonstrating the DR12 at the Photo & Electronics Imaging Fair in Beijing, April 21-24.

Double-sided printing continues to increase in consumer demand for photobooks, cards, calendars and other products, and at Photokina we also showed the concept printer DS14. This future member of the QSS Smart family will print double sided sheets up to 14-inch as well as handling 12-inch roll printing.
© Copyright John Swainston, 2017


7 thoughts on “Inkjet versus silver: horses for courses

  1. “if we are looking at detail, then inkjet can reproduce that sharper and more cleanly”
    He is joking, isn’t he?

    “Silver halide (…) and many areas of the world it’s still a very important part of the mix.” I’ve got it! You want us to go inkjet. Why don’t you say it clearly?

  2. Silver halide is king, until the printer/processor you have is not serviceable, we were in no hurry to change until that moment arrived.

    Noritsu maybe great but since 1990 I can’t ever remember having contact with them. Noritsu may have been first with drylabs but the “new” guys wanted to talk to everyone. Noritsu to my mind was if you had one of their wetlabs then you were only worth talking to.

    Do we need high speed anymore, sadly no, do we need flexibility with paper sources yes. Do we need doublesided, yes but we don’t have the volume to justify the added expense of an all in one machine.

    Watch out for the new Epson double sided printer, not here yet but from what we are told the output is exceptional and the price is right.

  3. John , I really look forward to your indepth commentaries. Usually thought provoking and stimulating . This is not one of them. More of a survey prompting structured replies which are not debated by yourself. Where is the visionary questioning we have enjoyed in interviews past.
    I have an interesting subject for exploration. The Future of Nikon, a brand we have both admired.
    I feel that they have erred in tearing up the blueprints for the DL series of cameras. The brand has been engulfed in an entry level, low margin marketing war with Canon to its detriment. How we would have loved to see the Nikon badge on the Fuji X series range.
    Earthquakes aside the Nikon DL series of quality bridge cameras could have regained some profitability for the company at the same time creating a niche market and reclaiming its reputation for quality and innovative products. How about an interview John ?

    • Hi Paul. To be fair to John, this particular interview had several authors and a long gestation! Still, I think there is enough here to warrant publication.

    • Paul, sorry the interview didn’t meet your expectations. Print is in significant transition right now and not to talk to a significant player in the evolution in print would be remiss. You make the assumption everyone knows what you know. For more than half our retailers who came into the industry since 2003 print is relatively unknown ground, except as an outsourced service. We tried to explore each avenue to give a glimpse. When read in conjunction with the earlier CEWE interview a relative newcomer can begin to understand the issues better. To Jorge’s comment, well inkjet IS better at detail, but it’s generally not so good at Skin tone. Ron explained the software solution to further improve that particular aspect of inkjet. Dye sub is pretty terrible in heat and it’s costly per square metre. But if volume is low and for specific uses the package can still work for some users. Good photo books will need double sided print. The variables are what I tried to explore. No one supplier has the perfect single product or service for everyone.
      As to whether I’ll be seeking Answers on Nikon direction, I’d rule myself out on the grounds of partiality and as a public company only CEO comments to investors or the Tokyo Stock Exchange will answer that. As someone who represented the brand for a quarter of a century and still owns 3 excellent current Nikon bodies, whatever I asked I would be accused of bias by some. So it won’t be happening anytime soon. And like you I wish them well in what is clearly a challenging period. Our collective focus should remain on growing the overall pie, with innovation and enhanced services and using the comments of vendors in these columns to try and shed some light on what the factors determining investment may be.

  4. Having read the article, having been involved in the introduction of Noritsu AgX labs in the 1980s and having been deeply involved in digital imaging/inkjet/toner since 1990 – and now nanography; I’d like to say the content is factual, well articulated and helpful. Show me any Photobooks printed by silver-halide? They are all done on HP Indigos, Xerox iGens, Epson etc. Photobooks represent a much larger market than straighforward D&P or reprints. The best Photobooks in the world are created by Momento Pro in Sydney – and you won’t find AgX in there.
    As for 2-sided (duplex) AgX – forget it. To my knowledge there is only one factory in the world. Duplexed AgX was tried by a UK company called Lumejet. Fantastic looking results but had to back-fold the sheets or glue back-to-back to get duplex because double-sided coated AgX paper was not readily available. Lumejet went broke and has resurfaced as a professional print provider using its S200 engine with Fujifilm paper. The aesthetics of AgX can not be denied – neither can the lower costs of production. But industrial scale Inkjet inks are reducing in price and improving in quality along with the printheads, which can now deliver droplet sizes as small as 1.9 picolitres (billionth of a litre). And inkjet, because its CMYK ++ can deliver sharp text, something AgX struggles with. One of the world’s largest manufacturers of inkjet printheads is Fujifilm after its 2005 purchase of Dimatix. Also the world’s largest manufacturer of aqueous and UV inks. Why?
    All I can say is that Noritsu’s renewed move into inkjet-powered labs makes complete sense. To my mind, there is no ‘photo printing’ vs ‘printing’ anymore – it’s all just printing, and inkjet (even some toner solutions, particularly liquid toner) is winning hands-down. If you need any convincing and business intelligence, get along to PacPrint May 23-26 at Melbourne Exhibition Centre. Not a plug; just common sense.

  5. Nice products….if you can get to see them or more importantly get them serviced by a tech. i know of many early adopters of the Noritsu drylabs and as far as service…..your on your own!

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