The Economics of Ink: How Inkjet Technology is Reshaping Color Printing

The print industry is constantly evolving. Often, that change is driven by technological innovations — smart, networked MFPs, for instance, and cloud technology’s effect on enabling cloud printing. Other times, the causes are external — while technology may have made cloud print possible, the pandemic sped its adoption. It’s the latter type of effect we’re looking at when we talk about the adoption of color. Technology has made it possible, but it’s customer demands that drive the ways it’s used. So why are we currently seeing a surge in demand for color inkjet?

Understanding the landscape

At the core of the printing industry’s evolution is a fundamental sales principle: identifying and solving problems creates opportunities (problem + solution = opportunity if we want to put it into mathematical terms). For decades, the production of marketing materials like brochures and presentation folders has taken precedence, with the marketing department’s graphic artists creating colorful, creative and high-quality documents. While once printed on offset, today most marketing collateral is printed with a production toner device. At no point do the marketing people question if the material is to be printed in color or black and white — that ship sailed 20 years ago. Today, anything that reflects the company’s image is printed in color, and creative departments will send the files to a print shop to be printed on high-quality paper. Reprographics budgets are set with this in mind. 

Now consider material printed by these same organizations that is considered disposable in nature. Instruction manuals, price books, billing and invoicing forms, legal, compliance, healthcare, government and education documents. We call these transactional documents, and they are, for all intents and purposes, disposable; they will end up in a filing cabinet or recycling bin within minutes of being used. Like quality marketing material, transactional documents have a purpose; they just play a completely different role. 

Transactional documents allow a business or organization to function on a daily basis. Shipping cannot function without a truck driver distributing one signed copy of the three-part NCR form to the receiver, one to the administration office and another to the shipping dept. Grade school students (K-7) require written tests and homework material. Trade school students need their course material in color to differentiate color-coded electrical wires or plumbing diagrams. Monthly statements and invoices from a bank, credit card, ISP, cable company or cell phone company are all transitioning to color — and although many customers request online-only statements, many still prefer a printed statement. The people who make budget decisions will look at these transactional documents and, unlike marketing work, deem them not color-worthy, instead preferring to print them as cheaply as possible, in black and white.

The problem of perception and cost

The resistance to adopting color printing for transactional documents stems from a perceived trade-off between cost and necessity. While marketing materials are seen as investments in a company’s image, transactional documents are viewed as expendable and not necessarily revenue drivers. This perspective, however, overlooks the increasing relevance of color in enhancing comprehension, engagement, and functionality across various contexts, from legal and financial communications to educational content.

Consider, for example, a 7-year-old child who, having been raised with color displays on phones, iPads, monitors and TVs, heads to a school where color printing was deemed a luxury. School districts are aware that the quality of education suffers when course material is printed in monochrome. According to studies, color print improves reading comprehension and retention by up to 80%, helps students better understand new ideas, and helps them remember ideas more easily. In fact, students performed better in standard pattern recognition tests using color compared to black and white, are more likely to read a document that contains color, and are more likely to focus on important information, remember key facts and information, and be more interested in their work — all just from using color documents instead of monochrome. But buying monochrome print from print shops costs about 3 cents per page while color is sold for about 15 cents, and if the school district has an in-plant, their cost of 1 cent for monochrome increases to 5 cents for color. If the school budget doesn’t allow for this 400% increase in reprographic costs, they simply cannot move to color. 

The economic barrier is real: historically, color printing has been significantly more expensive than its monochrome counterpart, creating a budgetary dilemma for institutions and businesses alike. This cost dynamic has been a critical obstacle to the broader adoption of color in all printed materials, leaving a gap between the potential benefits of color printing and its practical implementation.

Inkjet printing: a solution emerges

This brings us back to the sales formula we referenced at the start of this article: problem + solution = opportunity. In this case, the need to convert low-impact documents to high-impact color is a problem that can only be addressed by a technology that offers color for a price similar to monochrome: inkjet. It may not look the same as toner, but inkjet color is just as effective for transactional documents with a short life span. Inkjet technology is a game-changer, offering a viable solution to the cost-quality puzzle. It provides the ability to produce color documents at a fraction of the cost associated with traditional color printing methods and makes it an attractive option for producing transactional documents where color adds significant value.

Moreover, inkjet technology’s versatility and efficiency present a compelling case for its adoption in both commercial print shops and in-house printing facilities. As the industry faces the phasing out of older technologies and the rising costs of color printing on digital devices, inkjet stands out as a sustainable, cost-effective alternative.

Opportunities for office equipment dealers

For office equipment dealers, the rise of inkjet technology represents a significant sales opportunity. The ability to address and solve the problem of costly color printing for transactional documents opens up a new market segment ripe for development. By positioning inkjet solutions as the answer to this longtime challenge, dealers can tap into a demand for more affordable, high-quality color printing solutions.

The transition to inkjet is not just a technological upgrade but a strategic move that redefines customer relationships. In a market dominated by price competition and commoditization, offering a solution that directly addresses a customer’s operational pain points can differentiate a dealer from the competition. It’s an approach that goes beyond selling a product to solving a problem, fostering loyalty and establishing long-term partnerships.

Redefining needs and closing sales

The key to unlocking the potential of color inkjet printing lies in understanding and redefining customer needs. Good salespeople know that successful sales are not just about responding to expressed needs but about uncovering and addressing underlying challenges. In the context of printing, this means identifying the hidden costs of not using color — such as decreased engagement, lower retention of information, and missed opportunities for branding — and presenting inkjet printing as a solution that offers both economic and qualitative advantages.

The market for color inkjet printing is not just an emerging trend but a significant shift in how organizations approach their printing needs. As the demand for high-quality, cost-effective color printing solutions grows, inkjet technology is poised to play a pivotal role in meeting this need. For office equipment dealers, the opportunity is clear: by leveraging inkjet solutions to solve the real-world problem of expensive color printing for transactional documents, they can open up new avenues for growth and strengthen their relationships with customers. The future of printing is colorful, and inkjet technology is leading the way. 

Andre D’Urbano is director of RISO’s dealer channel and corporate marketing department. He has been in the business a little over 30 years, having spent 18 years with RISO and five years each managing sales branches for Konica Minolta and Canon.