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Archive for the ‘Digital Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: Future Directions for Digital Printing

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019

I read an interesting article today, sort of a State of the Union address but for digital printing rather than politics.

The article was entitled “10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019.” Written by Barbara A. Pellow, this article was printed online on 02/15/19 on www.piworld.com under the heading “Digital Success.”

“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019” comprises a number of assessments by three luminaries in the printing world: Marco Boer, vice president of IT Strategies at Green Harbor Publications, Jim Hamilton, publisher at Green Harbor Publications, and the author of the article, Barbara Pellow. The venue for this discussion was a Printing Impressions webinar.

(First of all, I have been reading Printing Impressions since I was an art director back in the early 1990s. I consider it a major source of commercial printing industry information. Much of what I now know about custom printing I learned from reading this magazine.)

So when I found this article and saw that it addressed future trends for digital commercial printing, I was excited.

What I Learned

Here are the ten considerations put forth by “10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019” and some of my thoughts in response:

    From Marco Boer

  1. “Skill Acquisition.” This implies the opposite of a tight labor market. Printing professionals are older than the average worker. That is, in all industries, according to Boer, the average age is 42, but in commercial printing the average age is 48. This means these printing professionals are approaching retirement age, when they will leave the workforce. Since commercial printing (whether digital, offset, flexographic, or any other technology) is highly technical, and since successful workers must have a deep understanding of a number of disciplines, it is essential that print service providers seek out individuals with a broad knowledge base. If they don’t, they will be caught short. From the point of view of the workers, this bodes well for job availability. Presumably, jobs are out there for knowledgeable, productive workers. And, yet, Boer also mentions automation. However, given the broad knowledge requirements in the field, I think well-trained individuals will still be in high demand.
  2. “Customer Demands Are Shifting.” Boer notes that it’s not enough to offer the lowest price and highest quality in digital printing. Print service providers who want to thrive must “provide customers with high value add with ultra-efficiency” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”). As I interpret this statement, providers need to help clients achieve their business goals (strategic and financial) in addition to just putting ink on paper. (This might involve helping clients coordinate marketing collateral with an online presence as well as printed signage for a convention, in order to help the client present a unified brand image across multiple chanels.)
  3. “Look at Page Growth Opportunities.” Boer notes that “Digital print versus conventional print still represents a very small percentage of the overall market. While there has been some traction with digital print in transactional print, direct mail, marketing collateral, books, and specialty wide-format graphics, the movement to customization and micro-runs will drive even greater activity in catalogs, magazines, and all forms of packaging” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”). To me, it’s very encouraging that digital printing of both periodicals and packaging has room to grow. This bodes well for print service providers and workers, and it implies that magazines and catalogs are not dead.
  4. From Jim Hamilton

  5. “Wide-Format.” Hamilton encourages print service providers to tie large format graphics, such as trade show graphics, into jobs they’re already printing for clients, such as brochures. Helping tie multiple printing products together in a unified campaign is a “value add,” to quote Boer (from #2 above). Hamilton notes that due to the “faster speeds, affordability, and convenience” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”) of the technology, the time is ripe.
  6. “Digital Packaging.” Hamilton notes that “digital printing is the next frontier for packaging production, and brands and package printers/converters are capitalizing on its efficiency, speed-to-market, and customization/personalization advantages” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”). What this means is that brands can produce much smaller press runs (no need for the huge carton-printing press runs required to offset print and then laminate liners to corrugated fluting). Smaller press runs can accommodate product runs for small artisan breweries, for instance. They also allow for direct communication with customers, since the digital packaging can be targeted to smaller groups or even individuals. Digital packaging eliminates the need for generic promotion that might be irrelevant (or irritating) to the customer.
  7. “Enhancing Print.” Hamilton addresses finishing in this point of consideration. Print service providers can add value to digital printing (monochrome and color) by including such services as “cutting/trimming, stapling/stitching, folding, binding, foil stamping, diecutting, embossing, laminating, spot and flood gloss” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”). In addition, Hamilton suggests widening the color gamut from traditional 4-color process ink by adding additional colors and focusing more on short print runs and personalization.
  8. From Barbara Pellow

  9. Pellow reiterates the importance of focusing marketing materials on individuals and not on a generic market, particularly since digital printing makes this cost effective. Moreover, she sees the importance of print service providers’ helping clients tie together a number of marketing channels to make sure the message is consistent, understandable, and relevant to potential customers.
  10. “All Channels On.” Pellow thinks print service providers should “support customers in moving seamlessly across all channels” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”). In this particular instance, Pellow, I think, is articulating the need to not only bring together print and digital communication, but also to do this in an aesthetically striking and persuasive manner. Repetition reinforces a buying decision. If a customer sees a brand message in a print brochure, and then in an online email advertisement (and if the information is relevant to her/him), there is a greater chance that she/he will respond to the brand message. Helping tie the brand messages together across multiple channels is a useful service printers can offer.
  11. “Print Drives Digital.” Pellow makes it clear that print is not going away. Print and digital enhance one another in promoting sales growth. They are not enemies. In fact, print products are very effective in driving customers to digital media to further the conversation with a brand. Therefore, Pellow notes that providers should “understand how to integrate print with Augmented Reality, QR codes, NFC tags, and social and mobile channels” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”).
  12. Finally, all three speakers in the webinar agree that improving the quality and efficiency of operations should be an essential, full-time goal of all print service providers. This includes “understanding your cost base [and] getting the workflow right” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”).

What You Can Learn from This Article

  1. This article is very heartening. It means there are jobs out there for knowledgeable and skilled designers, printers, and pre-press personnel, as well as print sales professionals. The field is growing.
  2. Always focus on improving your skills and knowledge base. This will keep you relevant.
  3. Help clients tie together multiple sales channels in ways that target the end customer directly, providing useful (not generic) information.
  4. Focus not on putting ink on paper but on helping clients with their overall marketing, production, and sales goals.

Custom Printing: The Rise of Production Inkjet

Monday, March 25th, 2019

About a month ago I wrote a blog posting about production inkjet, but I just read an article today that makes the case even more powerfully for this rising technology. Production inkjet is an unstoppable force. It seems to be the wave of the future not only for digital printing but for printing in general.

The article I found is called “Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption.” It was written by Marco Boer. I found it on 03/19/19 on www.piworld.com.

(I had also mentioned in an earlier blog posting that PI World–which I used to read religiously when it was Printing Impressions–has been my go-to trade publication on printing since the early ’90s.)

The Gist of the Article

Boer makes a lot of salient points, which I will share with you, and then he explains exactly why production inkjet digital custom printing (as opposed to toner-based digital printing, which includes huge high-end laser printing equipment such as the HP Indigo) is best suited to both short and long run (both static and variable) printing, in an environment where commercial printing in general has been a declining industry.

(Least you think that printing is a boat with a hole in it gradually sinking, the article also explains why printing will continue to be a viable force for print books, direct mail, and transactional printing, in spite of the overall reduction in custom printing volume in the United States.)

So here are some of Boer’s points of interest:

  1. Printing as an overall industry is declining. “The US Postal Service shows average declines in transaction mail pieces…of about 5-6% between 2015 and 2017” (“Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption”).
  2. Direct mail printing is declining, albeit more slowly than transactional printing. Boer notes that “…direct marketing mail pieces declined about 1.4% from 2017 to 2018” (“Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption”).
  3. Paper and postage prices are rising, which has forced printers to reduce manufacturing expenses to continue to make a profit.
  4. The labor pool for printing is decreasing. The average age range of offset printers is 48 to the mid to high 50s, and when they retire there may very well not be skilled pressmen to replace these workers. To quote Boer regarding the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ findings, “…the third-largest job losses across any industry in the United States will be in the printing industry during the next 10 years” (“Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption”).
  5. At the same time, customers want shorter turn-around times and smaller press runs. Trying to fulfill these needs on offset presses dramatically drives up prices (due to the increased need for labor to complete the multiple offset printing make-readies needed for more frequent versions of print jobs that are also smaller jobs with shorter press runs).

None of this bodes well for commercial printing. However….

Enter Digital Printing

Digital printing offers some unique characteristics that make it ideal in such a market:

  1. There’s far less make-ready. While setting up the various processes for a digital print job does take time, there’s nothing like the make-readies, wash-ups, or spoilage that you find in traditional offset commercial printing.
  2. Short press runs are no problem. You can even print one copy.
  3. Since paper and postage costs are rising, it is becoming increasingly important to precisely target marketing messages. Return on investment is becoming more important than cost per copy, according to Boer’s article. That is, if the variable-data capability of digital printing can allow marketers to direct each message to individual potential customers, marketers get a better return on the money they spend. More specifically, they can be more successful in acquiring customers, and they can pay less to convert each prospect into an actual customer. Digital printing is ideal for this.

In my own print brokering work, my clients’ needs have led me to printers with digital toner presses such as the Kodak NexPress and the HP Indigo (as opposed to inkjet presses). However, in reading Boer’s article I’m beginning to see that production inkjet presses, built on the heavy iron frames similar to past generations of offset presses, will most likely be the future of commercial printing. Here are some thoughts as to why production inkjet is set to surpass all other options, based on Boer’s “Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption.”

  1. You can print longer, multi-page documents like print books efficiently, even with mid-range press runs (let’s say 2,000 copies of a book). Toner-based digital presses cannot do this as efficiently or cost-effectively (i.e., presumably a mid-run book job produced on an HP Indigo would cost more than the same product produced on inkjet equipment).
  2. The color fidelity, resolution, and overall quality is there. It used to be that no printed output was as good as offset. Now, with extended color sets (and in some cases just the traditional process inks) you can print spectacular inkjet output.
  3. Better ink chemistry and paper coatings allow production inkjet to accept more paper substrates. Back when I started reading about digital inkjet printing, I was not (personally) satisfied with the color or the range of tones in printed pieces. It seemed to me that the amount of liquid in the inkjet ink back then just made the printed images muddy. I could see the difference. Offset was better. Now this is rapidly changing, as Boer’s article notes.

Where Are We Now?

To quote from “Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption,” “…about one-third of the growth of inkjet pages can be attributed to a transfer from digital toner to inkjet technology. Another one-third can be attributed to replacement of offset pages (mainly in books), and one-third can be attributed to the creation of new pages—pages that couldn’t be printed before because offset wasn’t able to vary the information on the page and toner was not productive enough to print sufficient pages with variable data” (“Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption”).

I think this says it all. People haven’t stopped reading print books. In fact, “printed book pages have increased for the past three consecutive years,” according to “Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption.” People also haven’t abandoned direct mail marketing. Marketers are finding that a multi-channel approach (mixing print and online marketing) is far more effective than just online marketing.

But things have to change, and based on the quality of the color, the durability of the equipment, and the efficiencies not available in offfset printing (and also not even available in toner-based digital printing), production inkjet is at the sweet spot of the commercial printing industry. Granted the number of “overall pages printed” has been lower than in the past, but for those printers who commit to production inkjet technology, the future seems very bright.

What We Can Learn

  1. Don’t give up. Printing isn’t going away. Your skills are needed.
  2. The better you understand all kinds of printing (offset, digital, large format, gravure, flexography), the more relevant your skills will be.
  3. If you can help clients increase their return on investment (that is, if you can help clients make money), you’re golden. This means not only understanding the varieties of commercial printing technology and their uses but also understanding consumer psychology, motivation, and behavior. It also means understanding how to coordinate both online advertising and print-based advertising to attract new customers.

Commercial Printing: Printing Your Driver’s License

Monday, March 18th, 2019

I spent three hours in the Maryland Department of Transportation today (mostly waiting) to renew my driver’s license. As a student of commercial printing with time on my hands, I took the opportunity to read the driver’s license replacement brochure to see what I was getting.

Needless to say, when I compared the new design to the one I had had for the past seven years, I was struck by the complexity of the custom printing. The brochure I was reading launched my education into new digital printing methods for drivers’ licenses.

Qualities/Attributes of the Card

First of all, it was clear to me that this could have been any type of card, including a credit card or medical card. The specific custom printing techniques and the substrate of the card itself could ostensibly be useful for all card printing.

Moreover, a few more things were immediately evident.

The card is rigid and durable. I know because I’ve had my current driver’s license for seven years, and everything is still readable. It’s scratched up a bit, but it has lasted. The brochure describes the card as having a “polycarbonate card body” that is “more durable, secure, and tamper resistant” (“Maryland Protected and Proud” brochure).

There was a lot of information encoded in my prior driver’s license, as evidenced by a single two-dimensional code. On both my prior license and the new one there is an “identity barcode” composed not of vertical lines (as with a UPC code or a US Postal barcode) but a pattern of tiny squares (not unlike pixels on a computer screen). These tiny squares link up to create patterns within a rectangle approximately 2” wide by 3/4” high.

This pattern, which I Googled online and found to be a PDF-417 (I believe), reminded me of a QR Code (quick response code).

The key here is that such a code can contain a wealth of information about the individual driver. Presumably this can be used as a repository for information the Maryland Department of Transportation needs for its operations but also as a means for confirming the identity of the card holder.

Based on my understanding of the process, such a code is digitally generated from digital data. And in addition to the identity code, the new drivers’ licenses described in the brochure have an “inventory control number” and accompanying barcode (vertical lines, in contrast to the 2D identity barcode). Again, I assume this is digitally generated, in this case just from the unique control number.

When I compare this card (I actually just found my fiancee’s driver’s license as well, and this matches the brochure image in every detail) to a credit card, it seems to have much more detailed image content. Plus, it has no chip (at least no chip recognizable by the universally accepted “chip logo”).

At the top right of my fiancee’s driver’s license is a small image of my fiancee. When I tilt the card vertically (back and forth), the image changes to her birthdate. So, this means the Maryland Department of Transportation has printed a “lenticular image” (composed of incredibly small plastic lenses that present two images when tilted).

From what I see (and since I know that utilitarian goals trump aesthetics in such a card), the purpose of the lenticular image is to make counterfeiting the driver’s license that much more difficult–as a deterrent to identity theft.

If you run your fingers over my fiancee’s driver’s license, you will notice that some of the lettering is raised. The brochure describes this as “tactile text” or “laser engraving on the card … [that] raises the print making it difficult to tamper or modify” (“Maryland Protected and Proud” brochure).

On the back of the card is a miniature 4-color image of my fiancee (noted in the MDOT brochure as “another barrier against fraud”). There is also a partial 4-color image of what looks like a statehouse (apparently the Annapolis, Maryland, statehouse). The center of the building is in color (a yellow) and the left and right sides of the statehouse are black ink only. There is a gradual shift (like a vignette) from the black to the yellow and back to the black. The brochure refers to this as “rainbow printing.” My assumption is that it is also an anti-counterfeiting measure.

Over the front of my fiancee’s driver’s license seems to be a textured coating. The front of the card is a little glossier than the back, and there is the word “Maryland” and equal-armed crosses from the Maryland flag produced with texture but otherwise invisible (as a laminate or other coating might be).

Goals of These Various Attributes of the Driver’s License

Identity Protection

In its own way, this driver’s license reminds me of some of the new larger-dollar-denomination bills in the US currency, with their holograms, metallic strips, and contrasting-color threads. In both cases, it seems that the goal is to deter fraud. Since there are an increasing number of brilliant but immoral people stealing identities, the state governments need to work harder and harder each year to develop commercial printing techniques to thwart such theft. A close observation of the driver’s license reveals many of these.

Durability

Between the coating on the front of my fiancee’s driver’s license and the thickness and overall strength of the polycarbonate card substrate, it is clear that durability is of paramount importance. The card must be readable in the seventh year of its existence as well as the first. None of the custom printing can be allowed to degrade as the license rubs against other cards in one’s wallet.

Infinitely Variable Data Storage

Unlike most other cards (with the possible exception of a credit card), the driver’s license must contain a wealth of information on only one person. This makes it an ideal candidate for digital commercial printing. No analog process could produce such infinite variability for any reasonable price.

So How Is It Done?

I went online to research the process for printing a driver’s license. I also looked closely at my fiancee’s license with a 12-power printer’s loupe. And I reread the MDOT brochure.

Through a loupe the image appears to contain the minuscule spots of inkjet printing, particularly visible in the color builds of the typescript. The dot pattern in the halftones is not the regular line upon line of halftone dots I see in laser printing. These dots are random, like those of FM screening or stochastic printing. So my educated guess at this point would be that some kind of inkjet printing process was used.

The brochure also mentions laser engraving (as opposed to laser printing) for some of the typescript. So I’m assuming some kind of burning process with a laser was used during printing.

For protection, there seems to be some kind of gloss coating over the polycarbonate card substrate. Given the images I found online of the driver’s license printers, my educated guess would be that they incorporate some sort of heated lamination process following the application of liquid ink (unless it really is a toner-based process, which I doubt).

Since dye sublimation would be the third digital custom printing option, I looked for any indication of changes in color tones not achieved with different sized halftone dots. This is because to the best of my understanding you can actually create different shades of a color with continuous tones using dye sublimation technology. Therefore, I’d assume that this printing process is either inkjet–perhaps UV inkjet (first guess)–or laser printing (second guess).

What You Can Learn From This Case Study

I personally think that card printing not only is a lucrative field currently but that it will only continue to grow. After all, companies and governments have both the desire and the technology required to parse vast amounts of data and to encode it on cards used to identify the holder. This may be for medical reasons (medical cards). It may be for carrying or transferring money (credit and debit cards). Or it may be for identification purposes (drivers’ licenses).

Until all of this information can be biometrically held (fingerprint or retina scan) or held on chips inserted into people (as they are now inserted into rescue animals at the pound), designers and printers will have an increasingly lucrative market in printed plastic cards.

Moreover, this will be a recurring purchase. As the technology improves, people will need new cards. New digital tricks will be invented to foil identity thieves, and this will require replacement cards made with all manner of 2D and 3D commercial printing techniques.

Commercial Printing: The New Fujifilm Digital J Press

Monday, March 11th, 2019

Digital custom printing is stepping up into the big time. No longer are plastic photocopy machines on steroids the norm for new generation digital presses.

About a week ago a printing rep I work with told me his plant had a Fujifilm J Press. I didn’t know what that was, but it intrigued me, so I did some research online. I have a lot of confidence in this particular sales rep’s commitment to quality, and after reading some of the sales literature for the Fujifilm J Press, I understood the sales rep’s confidence.

The Technology

Here are some of the things I learned from the Fujifilm sales literature and the ramifications for digital commercial printing.

To begin with, the J Press is a production inkjet press. That is, unlike the HP Indigo, which has been my digital press of choice, and which is based on an electrophotographic process (i.e., it’s a laser printer), the J Press uses inkjet print heads and pigment-based ink to spray images on paper. It is meant for both competitively-priced short and long press runs.

The Build Quality of the J Press

First of all, the photos indicate that the J Press 720S is not a photocopier. It “features an offset paper handling system—and is based on an incredibly robust chasis” (Fujifilm).

To me this means two things:

  1. Fujifilm has been learning from old guard commercial printing suppliers, who buy second generation presses and then use them forever because they are durable and reliable. Printing is not just about putting ink or toner on paper. It is about moving press sheets through a physical process. Glorified photocopiers break. I’ve watched a lot of digital presses being repaired. I’ve even known printers who lease two of them so one can be operative when the other is being fixed. In contrast, the J Press looks like it was built to last.
  2. Along with durability, digital presses like the J Press are built for precision. Keeping printed sheets in register on some of the early digital presses owned by printers I used to work with was a challenge. More specifically, there was not the tight tolerance in some digital presses that you could find on an offset press. What this meant was that “backing up a sheet” was a challenge. You couldn’t be sure images on the fronts and backs of press sheets would line up exactly. In contrast, building a production inkjet press from the ground up on an offset press chasis reflects a commitment to not only the longevity of the press but also its precision.

Fujifilm’s Commitment to Color

Fujifilm claims that the J Press can match 75 percent of Pantone colors with its CMYK inkset. In contrast, most offset printers can match 50 to 60 percent of Pantone colors.

(By combining process colors: that is, in offset lithography by printing screens of the four transparent process inks over one another at different screen angles, and in digital inkjet printing by spraying minuscule dots of CMYK colors side by side, you can simulate the colors in the Pantone Matching System color gamut.)

What surprises me is that Fujifilm can exceed the color gamut of offset printing with only four specially developed inks. In my experience of digital inkjet printing, it usually takes supplemental colors beyond cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to meet and even exceed the wide color gamut indigenous to inkjet custom printing.

Moreover, the J Press uses pigment inks (minuscule bits of color material suspended between water molecules). Based on my experience, this makes for longer lasting printed output, less likely to fade in sunlight than are dye-based inks.

In addition, the Fujifilm J Press has achieved the Idealliance Digital Press Certification and Idealliance ISO/PAS 15339 Certification. What this means is that Fujifilm, which has been known for decades as having an impeccable commitment to accurate color, can both measure and replicate to an incredibly precise degree the color of a print job. This is essential when you’re reprinting a job six months after the initial press date. Color specification and measurement, as reflected in the Idealliance certifications, are essential to this kind of repeatability.

(You may want to research similar certifications for offset commercial printing, such as the GRACoL and SWOP standards. The Fujifilm product literature also references the ISO 12647-2 standard for offset printing. In fact, having benchmarks for color in the J Press workflow means you can offset print a long run of a job and then later produce the same job digitally–perhaps a shorter run or a press run with variable data–and you can still achieve a spot-on color match using two totally different technologies: offset and inkjet. Up until recently, this was impossible.)

Finally, according to Fujifilm’s product literature, the J Press has closed-loop color feedback. They call this XMF ColorPath cloud-based color management, and the literature refers to an In-Line Sensor. What it really means to me is that the computer that controls the J Press can measure the color of the press output on a constant basis during a print job, feed this information back into the press, and make any adjustments needed to ensure color accuracy (and also to ensure color consistency in future press runs).

Paper Handling Capabilities

In addition to the paper handling capabilities mentioned above, based on the sturdy build quality of the J Press, this production inkjet press can handle more paper sizes and surfaces than prior generations of digital inkjet technology.

More specifically, the J Press can accept sheet sizes ranging from 21.3” x 15” to 29.5” x 20.9”. In terms of traditional offset printing, this means you can buy and use cut sheet stock that is 17.5” x 23”, 19” x 25”, 20” x 26”, and 20” x 28”.

If your print job is a calendar or a pocket folder, you will appreciate the fact that the printed product will fit on a J Press press sheet. Prior to the current generation of inkjet presses, only jobs closer to 13” x 19” (approximately) could be digitally printed. Anything larger, like a flat pocket folder with flaps and glue tabs, would be too large for the press sheet. But not anymore.

These sizes reflect the influence of old-school printing on the new digital inkjet presses. What it really implies is that you can image a sheet on the J Press, back it up (print, in precise register, on the back of the press sheet) and then finish the sheet (fold, trim, bind) as though it had come off a traditional offset press. In fact, Fujifilm will send out a sample magazine printed via both offset lithography and digital inkjet technology to commercial printing vendors to show them just how close a match they can achieve.

Beyond the size, Fujifilm is positioning the J Press to accept standard coated and uncoated offset papers. In the past, inkjet printing has been adversely affected due to the amount of water in inkjet inks (when compared to the viscosity of the oil-based offset inks). To remedy this, many older inkjet papers had to be specially treated. (That is, they either were specialty papers or they had to be treated prior to use.)

I find it especially encouraging that the Fujifilm J Press can accept a wide range of standard coated and uncoated offset printing papers for three reasons:

  1. The inks have been improved such that they can dry quickly and sit up on the surface of the paper (i.e., they have better hold-out). This makes for crisper, more vibrant color. (Without having seen the output yet, this would be my expectation.)
  2. Standard paper is less expensive (per unit cost) because more of it is made by the paper mills.
  3. Designers will appreciate the wide range of substrates they can specify for their commercial printing jobs.

So, again, it is clear to me that Fujifilm is working to bridge the gap between offset printing and digital injket printing. Since the much larger arrays of print heads and the overall improved paper handling capabilities of these larger presses allow for faster printing, it seems to me that the gap between offset and digital technology will close. It will no longer be necessary to print only short runs on digital equipment (due to their former, slower speed). You will be able to print one copy or thousands of copies of a job cost-effectively and efficiently.

What This Means for You

In short, this means that you will have multiple options for printing your jobs. You will no longer need to choose digital over offset based solely on print run length. This will make it easier for you to produce variable data jobs with no concern over color fidelity, color register, or press operating speed.

Custom Printing: Press Release Reflects New Digital Trends

Monday, March 4th, 2019

Sometimes you can actually learn a lot from a press release. It’s a bit like reading the tea leaves to divine the future.

A close friend and colleague recently sent me a press release about the Hunkeler Innovationdays 2019 printing and finishing trade show coming up in Lucerne, Switzerland (entitled “Hunkeler Innovationdays to Showcase the Next Generation of High Performance Digital Printing and Finishing,” by Hunkeler). If you know how to read between the lines, you can get a lot of information about custom printing from this simple, approximately 250-word press release.

The Specifics (and the Takeaways)

First of all, this trade show highlights “high-performance technology for the next generation of digital printing and finishing” (“Hunkeler Innovationdays to Showcase the Next Generation of High Performance Digital Printing and Finishing”).

What You Can Learn

Digital custom printing has been around in some form or another since the 1980s and 1990s, when my office had a laser printer to produce hard-copy proofs of our jobs prior to sending them to press. We also had an inkjet printer for color proofs. The color fidelity was abysmal, but prior to that we had used colored markers to indicate color placement on tracing paper overlays that went on top of the base art “mechanicals.” At that time, any computer-applied color was a huge step forward.

Since the 1980s and 1990s, color fidelity has improved dramatically, but “finishing” has lagged. What is finishing? Finishing is anything after the printing step (digital or offset). That is, finishing includes cutting, folding, binding, etc. For a long time, it was all about putting toner or inkjet ink on paper, but there were not a lot of digital options for completing a printed job. Now there are.

The trade show in Lucerne, Switzerland, will address these. And that is a fantastic opportunity to see both the products in operation and all the discrete elements of the workflow. More specifically, this means that trade show attendees will see how an actual job travels from a digital press through the following steps of the finishing process.

And this brings me to the second point noted in the press release: “40 live production solutions” (“Hunkeler Innovationdays to Showcase the Next Generation of High Performance Digital Printing and Finishing”). It sounds like an advertisement. But that’s exactly what a press release is, really. But it’s still useful.

The Hunkeler press release notes that trade show attendees will see “40 live production solutions running a highly diverse lineup of applications focused on commercial printing, book production, brochure and mailing production, transactional printing and more.” This includes “the latest updates to Hunkeler’s Generation 8 roll finishing, featuring plowfolding and the capability to stack 30” (B2+) sheets in-line with high-speed inkjet presses” (“Hunkeler Innovationdays to Showcase the Next Generation of High Performance Digital Printing and Finishing”).

What Else You Can Learn

If you parse out this information, you can learn two things. As noted above, the equipment doesn’t just sit there at the trade show. You actually get a bird’s-eye view of a commercial printing environment, with live jobs traveling from machine to machine, showing exactly how a job might travel through a real commercial printing shop. A prudent trade show attendee will see whether there are any bottlenecks in the workflow, and will be able to ask about any potential issues while the jobs actually progress through the “live production solutions” (“Hunkeler Innovationdays to Showcase the Next Generation of High Performance Digital Printing and Finishing”).

In addition, the press release notes the specific, growing areas of digital custom printing: “commercial printing, book production, brochure and mailing production,” and “transactional printing.” Commercial printing usually pertains to marketing jobs, jobs that are not books, large format printing, etc. I personally consider an annual report to be a commercial printing job (the definition varies). For instance, you would take a book printing job to a different kind of printer than you would an annual report: a printer with different printing and finishing equipment.

Moreover, this quote from the press release reflects one key benefit of digital printing: its variability. “Brochure and mailing production” and “transactional printing” reflect the increasing ability of digital custom printing to target small groups and even individuals with their message. Unlike offset printing, digital printing output can be varied from one printed item to the next.

(Transactional printing, as noted above, is a particularly good example of this trend. When you get a statement or invoice in the mail, this document is often not only directly targeted to you, but it also—increasingly—includes promotional information as well as the bill. This promotional information or advertising can now be digitally produced and inserted into the billing information. The two data streams can be combined, and the printed transactional package can reflect both what you owe the vendor and what else you might want to purchase. And all of this is made possible by the current data-collecting and data-mining capabilities marketers can employ. They can pretty much know exactly who you are and exactly what you buy, and they can use this information to target their transpromotional printed material.)

Here are some other key words noted above: roll finishing, plow folding, and 30” (B2+) sheets.

All of these reflect the increasing speed of digital commercial printing operations. Roll finishing is based on printing toner or inkjet ink on webs of paper (rolls as opposed to sheets). Roll-fed presses print a lot faster than sheetfed presses. For jobs like transpromotional printing, you can even print a whole roll of variable data marketing and billing information, and then move this roll to finishing equipment for final folding, cutting, and inserting into customer envelopes. What this means is that more work can be done much more quickly than in the past.

Plow folding (also noted above) involves running a length of paper from a roll (as opposed to sheetfed) through folding equipment before it is cut. Again, this reflects speed. In prior printing generations, you would find a plow folder on a web offset press. There it did one of the “finishing” operations for an extremely long magazine press run (for instance).

The final notation above is the 30” (B2+) sheet. This addresses the size of the paper that can now flow through both digital printing and digital finishing equipment. It wasn’t that long ago that digital presses accepted (approximately) 8.5” x 11”, or more recently 13” x 19”, paper. In contrast, offset presses accepted sheets closer to 25” x 38” or 28” x 40” paper. Granted, on an offset press, you would print a 4-page, 8-page, or 16-page “press signature,” which you would then fold and trim to the final size (let’s say 8.5” x 11” book pages). On a digital press, in contrast, you might print 2-page or 4-page signatures.

When you can print on a 30” (B2+) press sheet, this means you have an (approximately) 20” x 28” format (actually 19.7” x 27.8”), which is much larger than prior generations of presses could accept. So you can print larger products (pocket folders, for instance), or more copies of the same product, on a press sheet. Or you can even print more book pages (presumably even book signatures).

Newer inkjet publication presses can now print these larger sheets, and this means a digital print job can run much more quickly. (Or you can print a much larger job, which means that digital printing equipment can begin to compete with the longer runs of offset printing.) A custom printer would appreciate this efficiency because it would allow him to take in more work, and this would yield a higher operating profit.

The Larger Takeaway

On the much larger (macro) level, this means that increased customer demand for faster printing and more intricate finishing of digitally produced, (often) variable-data driven, custom printing jobs has led OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to innovate. They have produced equipment that will print on larger press sheets, equipment that will run faster and print color more accurately, and equipment that can produce infinitely variable output. This you can see at trade shows like Innovationdays in Lucerne, Switzerland.

However, if, like me, you can’t afford to go to Switzerland, you can still learn from these press releases. In fact, what I do is look for articles that analyze the new technology I first learn about through the promotional releases.

As a final take away, I encourage you to use the Internet as a learning tool, as I do, and to tap into the power of article aggregators. Every night Google collects and presents to me a handful of online articles about all aspects of digital and offset printing based on specific parameters I have specified. Even if I do nothing more than read the headlines and then dip into a few of the articles, I learn something new each night about printing.

You may want to do the same thing.

Custom Printing: Direct Digital Printing on Bottles

Sunday, November 4th, 2018

I was reading the trade journals online this week, keeping abreast of trends in commercial printing, and I came upon an article written by Pat Reynolds in Packaging World (www.packworld.com) entitled “Direct Digital Printing on Rigid Containers.” It was published on 4/3/18.

I know this sounds somewhat dry as a subject, but as I read the article, I saw the implications for packaging, marketing, and digital commercial printing in general. Plus, it was interesting to see just how printing can be done on a bottle without using a label. So I did further research.

The Background

First of all, I think you will appreciate the concept more if I first give you some background on how this would have been done before digital custom printing. The options would have been as follows:

Label printing. This would have worked fine, printing on matte crack ‘n peel label stock and then affixing the labels on the bottles. However, there would have been a number of steps involved. It would not have been a direct process, and presumably all of the labels would have been identical. Granted, in more recent times, a printer could have produced digital labels, which could easily have included variable data. But the labels still would have had a border. That is, the packaging art would have been limited to the dimensions of the label.

Screen printing. A printer could have used screen printing technology to image the packaging information right on the bottle without needing a label. This would have been less confined in its design than a rectangular label. Printed imagery could have extended onto any portion of the bottle accessible to the custom screen printing equipment. More than likely, the screen and the squeegie used to force ink through the screen printing mesh would have been stationary, and the bottles would have been spun around on their vertical axes to bring each bottle’s surface into contact with the printing screen.

Presumably, since custom screen printing ink is very thick and tacky, there would have been limited resolution in any photographic images (which probably would have been too challenging to attempt anyway), and since a new screen would have been needed for each color, the majority of screen printed imagery would have been limited to a few colors.

But more than anything, this process would have required extensive make-ready. Therefore, for the job to be competitive in price, a long press run would have been necessary. Also, variable data printing would have been out of the question. All art would have been static. All images would have been identical. Moreover, since screen printing make-ready is so labor intensive, the process would have taken a long time.

Pad Printing. Another option would have been pad printing. This is great for printing on golf balls and computer keys. Even if a surface is rounded, like a bottle, successful screen printing requires the screen to come into direct contact with the printing substrate. This alone would make screen printing on many shapes of bottles impossible. That said, a gravure printing process called pad printing, or tampography, would be an option. In this process, a gravure plate is covered with ink that quickly becomes tacky as it dries. Then a silicone pad is brought down onto the inked plate, where it picks up the tacky ink image as the pad compresses briefly. Then the pad can be positioned over the substrate (which can be concave, convex, or any other shape that would otherwise be difficult to print). Finally (due to the nature of the silicone pad and the ink) the silicone pad releases the tacky ink image onto the substrate.

However, like screen printing, pad printing artwork cannot be changed for every image, and, given the make-ready involved, pad printing also lends itself to longer press runs.

Enter Direct Digital Printing

Reynolds’ article describes the new process of direct digital printing on PET plastic and glass bottles used for the food and beverage industry. Within the context noted above, being able to print on irregularly shaped surfaces (as you might do with pad printing) while constantly varying the imagery is rather exciting.

Moreover, you could conceivably create only one printed bottle if you needed a prototype. Then, you could make any design changes required and print the entire run with the new design. And you could do this with FDA compliant, low-migration, food-safe inks.

To give you an idea of the technology involved, a system of feedscrews and a starwheels brings each cylindrical bottle in front of the digital inkjet printheads, using a carousel system to move the bottles through the system and out again. Reynolds’ article, “Direct Digital Printing on Rigid Containers,” describes transport systems that can be built to accommodate more bottles at a time (increasing the speed and efficiency of production depending on the run length).

The article also describes two printing processes, one that involves inkjetting the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink colors sequentially, and another that deposits the inks all at once. To make all of this work, certain bottle shapes will be more successful and certain shapes will not work.

Addressing the needs of both PET plastic bottles and glass bottles can be tricky, due to the different heat requirements for the two substrates, but Reynolds’ article explains how each can be accommodated.

The process uses UV-cured inks, which will set instantly upon exposure to ultraviolet light (provided by LED bulbs). This allows for printing on non-porous substrates (such as PET plastic and glass) and makes the bottles immediately usable without any drying time. In addition to the usual process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black), the technology uses white inkjet ink and also a clear primer to make the ink adhere better to the substrate.

Why This Is Special

Direct printing on PET and glass bottles provides several benefits for the food and beverage packaging industry.

  1. You can produce an edition of one. This is useful if you’re making a prototype for a bottle. The mock-up will look exactly like the finished product.
  2. When you have confirmed your initial design, you can still make each bottle different, so each customer who buys the product can have unique personalization (such as their name).
  3. Although there are some limitations in the substrates (the bottles have to be a certain shape that will allow access to the inkjet heads: cylindrical but not oval, for instance), I’m sure the ability to print digitally on uneven or irregular surfaces will improve in the near future. (For example, I have read about inkjet equipment that can already print directly on a football.)
  4. The UV inks are “low-migration” inks that won’t contaminate the food products in the bottles.
  5. On a design level, you have a larger area for the custom printing. You are not limited to the rectangular dimensions of a label. The imagery and text can be positioned on any part of the bottle’s surface accessible to the print heads.
  6. Unlike screen printing and pad printing, digital inkjet custom printing allows for high resolution photographic imagery. This could make the look of a direct digital printed bottle far more dramatic than that of a screen-printed or pad-printed bottle.

More than anything, this is a good, solid step in the direction of printing almost anything on almost any substrate.

Commercial Printing: Inkjet Printing for Interior Design

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

I found a most interesting article on www.inkworldmagazine.com on 7/18. I had been reading articles on the growth of inkjet printing as a tool for interior design, and I was aware that, like package design, corrugated board printing, fabric decoration, and large format printing, the use of inkjet technology in building interiors has been a growth industry within the overall commercial printing universe.

The inkworldmagazine article is entitled “Mimaki: Five Ways to Improve Interior Decoration with Digital Printing.” It was written by Mark Sollman, application manager at Mimaki.

The article references five separate areas of interior décor design that can benefit from inkjet printing, which is one of the strengths of Mimaki. The five areas referenced in the article are wallpaper, upholstery, glass, tiles, and wood, and all together they provide enough printable surface area within a building interior to dramatically distinguish one company (or even a personal residence) from another.

(I also have used Mimaki’s digital, knife-cutting equipment, through a commercial printing vendor, for a custom printing client who needed digitally printed and diecut stickers, which can be produced all at once on the same Mimaki equipment, without the need for a separate metal cutting die.)

Wallpaper

Sollman’s article distinguishes past eras of wallpaper–which could be simple and perhaps even boring in their generic qualities–from the current version of wallpaper, which can be produced on any number of substrates (with or without texture). These can include any number of patterns provided by the wallpaper company or even by the client himself/herself, affording an uniquely personalized approach. (For instance, a client can choose a particular color scheme or even base a wallpaper design on a personal photograph.)

Given the nature of inkjet printing, particularly on these substrates, wallpaper decoration can be especially fast and easy, leading to reasonable costs for highly individualized interior design.

Upholstery

I had mentioned above that fabric decoration has been appearing in the articles I’ve been reading (albeit mostly in terms of clothing design). However, in “Mimaki: Five Ways to Improve Interior Decoration with Digital Printing,” Sollman broadens this to include everything from sheets and drapes to the covering of chairs and couches.

Again, the nature of inkjet custom printing allows for easy and affordable decoration of these items, making a person’s interior environment completely unique, and involving not only patterns but also the different textures available. For instance, inkjet printing can be applied to everything from silk to the thicker fabrics used on chairs and couches. In addition, Sollman’s article notes that, depending on the fabric substrate, sublimation printing can be used to achieve brilliant coloration, even including tropical colors. And, as with the other products in the Mimaki article, upholstery printing can be done even for a single item or select products in an environmental design while still being cost-effective.

Glass

Sollman’s article then moves on to glass decoration, noting that UV inks can be applied successfully to non-porous substrates, since UV light will cure UV inks instantly and adhere them to the base material, all while retaining the intensity of their coloration.

What this does is allow for personalized and intricate decoration of windows. (For example, you can create a memorable window treatment for a conference room that will provide both privacy and also an aesthetic appearance. Or, you can decorate the windows in a large hotel lobby in an artful way.) And due to the nature of printing with UV ink, the inks will be durable and resistant to scratching and water, unlike prior generations of inks.

Floor Tiles

Just as the new technology in inkjet printing can produce striking results on glass, Sollman’s article notes that printing on floor tiles is now a viable option for interior decoration. Due to the precision of inkjet custom printing, it is possible to produce an intricate design that extends across multiple tiles and creates a large mural effect. This can be used for a wall treatment or even a swimming pool, given the water resistant nature of UV inkjet inks. (In addition, I have read other articles that describe top-coating products that will increase the rub resistance of tile surfaces, protecting the inkjetted imagery in spite of heavy foot traffic.)

Wood

Finally, Sollman’s article, “Mimaki: Five Ways to Improve Interior Decoration with Digital Printing,” addresses inkjet printing on wood. What I find interesting about printing on wood is twofold. First of all, it is thick. Fortunately, as Sollman notes, some large-format flatbed inkjet presses can accommodate thick substrates, including doors. So you can basically print right on the object itself rather than on an adhesive substrate that you would then affix to the wood.

Or, depending on your design, you might want to print on wood panels, which can then be attached to walls. Or, you could just print on wood objects, depending on the kind of inkjet printer you use.

In addition, I would think that without any kind of barrier coating (like a shellac or varnish), the wood would provide an unevenly porous surface for the inkjet ink. Fortunately, as Sollman points out, UV inks can sidestep this issue. The inks will sit up on the surface of the wood, rather than seeping into the wood, because of the instant-curing nature of UV inks when exposed to UV light.

The article does not address laminates, but I have read other articles that describe interesting effects that can be achieved by printing on wood that is later coated (like laminated surfboards and such). So there might be similar applications in the realm of interior design.

What You Can Learn from This Article

  1. Inkjet custom printing makes all of this possible and affordable. Prior to the advent of inkjet printing (and UV inkjet printing in particular), such alternatives as screen printing would have been too labor intensive and costly, and therefore would not have been appropriate for a “one-off” interior design treatment. Inkjet printing makes this possible and affordable.
  2. The growth of inkjet printing for interior design is apparently quite dramatic. If you are a designer, it’s wise to take note. This could be your future in a world where many printed products such as print books, newspapers, and magazines are becoming less prevalent.
  3. UV inks allow you to print on almost anything, while keeping the ink up on the surface of the substrate. They are also very durable in terms of rub resistance and water-fastness.
  4. Practically any kind of interior you can imagine, you can create. In addition, it’s much easier and cheaper to change what is essentially the “skin,” or surface treatment, of an environment. (Wallpaper can be changed much more easily in a hotel lobby than interior walls can be torn down, moved, and rebuilt.)
  5. Non-porous substrates are printable (such as glass). This is new, and it is the result of advances in UV-curable inkjet printing.
  6. Thick substrates are not a problem. If you can print on a door, you can print on practically anything.

It’s wise, and potentially very profitable, for you to keep abreast of this technology.

Commercial Printing: Ricoh’s Advances in Inkjet Printing

Thursday, July 5th, 2018

I received a press release from a colleague and friend this week about new developments at Ricoh in production-level digital inkjet printing. I found this intriguing. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago that an inkjet printer sat on my desk and printed somewhat muddy colors on uncoated laser paper. The product was good enough for a color mock up. It would help me visualize the final printed results of a job if I used a little imagination. I didn’t need, or expect, much more.

Now the press release from Ricoh, “Ricoh Changes the Inkjet Game, Introducing Additional Inks and the New RICOH Pro VC70000,” (Ricoh USA, Inc., 6/25/18) addresses some of the issues in the new and expanding realm of production inkjet.

As I understand the term, “production inkjet” refers to the evolution of inkjet commercial printing from my initial memories noted above to a technology that is seeking to rival the speed (efficiency) and quality (resolution and color gamut) of offset printing on the huge offset lithographic presses that run 24/7.

Implications of Ricoh’s Advances

Volume and Speed

Ricoh’s press release notes that the CV70000 was built to “accelerate the transfer of offset print volumes to digital.” (“Ricoh Changes the Inkjet Game, Introducing Additional Inks and the New RICOH Pro VC70000,” Ricoh USA, Inc., 6/25/18).

So a lot of what’s happening is a dramatic growth of inkjet press efficiency.

Not that long ago, you would choose an inkjet printer or digital color laser printer if you wanted to produce 500 brochures (or another, low press run), because all of the make-ready (preparation work) to get an offset lithographic press up to speed would put the initial entry point (cost) of the short job at the same level as the cost of a much longer offset run. Another way to say this is that you would pay a bit less for 500 digital copies than for 1,000 offset copies, but the unit cost would be higher. Plus, you could personalize them.

Now, the efficiencies of production inkjet allow for much longer runs on a digital platform. For instance, the press release notes that the RICOH Pro VC70000 can produce “nearly 130,000 A4/letter impressions an hour” (492 feet-per-minute).

(Keep in mind that if you want 1,000 copies of a 500-page book, that job involves custom printing 500,000 book pages. Of course, this number rises exponentially if you’re producing 100,000 print books.)

This takes time on any press. To put this in perspective, an offset lithographic web press might run at 3,000 or more feet per minute, which is much faster than a sheetfed offset lithographic press, which might run at 12,000 sheets per hour. So, while production inkjet is still slower than offset commercial printing, the increased efficiency still makes it a game changer. (And the speed will continue to improve as the technology matures.)

Quality of the Printed Product

As I noted at the beginning of the blog posting, inkjet custom printing used to provide marginal color fidelity and detail. (In fact, back in the day, I used an inkjet printer only to visualize color placement. For everything else I used a laser printer.)

Now, according to Ricoh’s press release, the RICOH Pro VC70000 provides “1200 x 1200 dpi resolution on uncoated, offset-coated, inkjet treated or inkjet-coated papers” (“Ricoh Changes the Inkjet Game, Introducing Additional Inks and the New RICOH Pro VC70000,” Ricoh USA, Inc., 6/25/18).

This tells me a number of things. First of all, the resolution and therefore the detail in the images printed on a Ricoh press are startlingly crisp.

Furthermore, the ability to print on so many different paper stocks means commercial printing vendors will have flexibility (and therefore more control over price) in choosing custom printing papers to stock.

In addition, since acceptable substrates include coated papers, Ricoh’s press release also implies that printers can now digitally produce crisp graphics in color on superior paper that will reflect the kind of detail and color vibrancy that didn’t exist a short while ago. And this is at production-level speeds.

More specifically, this implies that Ricoh has addressed issues of ink drying speed in its new press. (This is because the new production level inkjet presses need to be able to dry ink immediately on a coated press sheet, and since the ink needs to sit up on the coated surface of the sheet.)

This quick ink-drying ability will avoid the wet, rippling paper I used to experience on inkjet printers, while accommodating coated press sheets comparable to those used on an offset lithographic press. (Another way to say this is that you can now print high-end catalogs and magazines on an inkjet press.)

Color Gamut

Color gamut is also a function of quality, but I’d like to address this separately. As I’ve noted before, having access to more ink colors makes an incredible difference in the color range and color fidelity of a printed piece. And inkjet presses, in my experience, usually have the capability of expanding the color ink set by multiple hues.

This is not alien to offset lithography. Back in the 1990s I worked with a commercial printing vendor who offered High-Fidelity Color (which he also referred to as Hexachrome). These were probably proprietary names, as well, but the gist of the technology is that instead of separating images and text into the four process colors, this printer separated them into six: cyan, magenta, yellow, black, green, and orange—or occasionally purple, as I recall. By adding extra inks, he could match more PMS colors, and he could achieve more vibrancy in the images because the color gamut was larger.

Other commercial printing suppliers were doing similar things by adding touch plates, or kiss plates, that “bumped up” overall color in the offset lithographic CMYK spectrum by accenting specific areas of photo imagery with the ink on the touch plates.

Being able to do this on an inkjet press means that you can achieve the expanded color gamut without all the extra ink units, plates, wash-ups, blankets, and other expensive make-ready supplies and labor.

So the color quality enhancements within the production inkjet presses also make me optimistic.

Operating Cost

Having access to multiple paper stocks makes a huge difference. Inkjet papers used to need pre-treatment. Therefore, there were fewer of them a commercial printing vendor could purchase. This tied his hands in two ways. First, paper vendors could charge more for these specialty papers, and, second, clients had fewer options for custom printing substrates. They couldn’t page through practically any paper swatch book, choose what they liked, and ask the printer to purchase and print on it. Ricoh’s approach means printers will pay less and their clients will have more options.

What This Means to You

Here are two thoughts:

    1. If you’re designing for print, keep it up. Companies like Ricoh would not be pouring money into the development of presses that produce high-end catalogs and magazines if they thought print books and periodicals will cease to exist.

 

  1. Observe and study the technology as it develops, but go beyond the promotional literature and request printed samples. Then compare the crispness of the text and imagery (resolution) and the color accuracy and vibrancy (color gamut) to that of offset printed products you admire. Compare printed output on both coated and uncoated press sheets. And check the detail in the highlights and shadows of the photos. Then, going forward, watch the technological developments across multiple digital platforms from multiple press manufacturers.

This is a most exciting time.

Custom Printing: Entrepreneurial Digital Printing

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018

As a commercial printing broker, I look for trends. I’m always studying. Always observing all things related to custom printing. And over the last several years I’ve been noticing that the majority of my clients have been entrepreneurs. I think that’s rather exciting.

Here’s a rundown:

  1. I have one client with whom I’ve been periodically discussing a reprint of a public domain book located solely online. It is a book about the space program. She thinks she can sell it as a print book.
  2. I have another client who produces color books for fashion. She is a “fashionista.” Her print books are like small PMS swatch books. People use them to choose clothing and make-up colors based on their hair and complexion. She is expanding and adding a clothing line based on her color system. Therefore, I’ve been studying direct-to-fabric printing in order to help her prepare her initial Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. For this campaign she will only need a few digitally-produced prototypes.
  3. A few years ago I had a client who produced graphic novels. They were essentially perfect-bound print books. Their subject matter was an intensely emotional, dramatic, photographic portrayal (with limited text) of human relationships. To me it was a cross between high opera and an adult comic book. This client also crowdsourced her work, getting small donations from a number of people and drastically limiting her press runs.
  4. I had a recent client who wanted to produce a 500-plus-page book with heavy 4-color coverage and bleeds but only a 100-copy press run. My price was too high for him, so he first considered buying a Xerox color copier for the text and outsourcing the binding. Then he opted for a 30-copy press run produced by a local printer to test reader interest and secure funding for a longer run.
  5. I had two poets contract with me to produce very limited runs of poetry print books. In one case, my client only wanted 20 to 30 copies of a 32-page book (plus cover).
  6. I had another client who produced a 200-plus-page print book on the Holocaust for family members. If I recall correctly he produced only about 40 copies. I had a digital print book vendor produce the text digitally and then offset print the covers (to ensure their quality), since the press run was so small.

The list goes on.

A Learning Experience

That said, here are some things I learned from all of these experiences.

  1. It used to be that a writer would produce a book and then find a publisher. The publisher would pay to print, market, and sell the print book. Then he/she would pay the writer a percentage of the profits. This meant that only a limited number of authors would get published. Beyond the financial implications, this meant that only a limited number of writers would get their product to a wide audience—or to any audience.
  2. Then there came digital custom printing, the country-wide increase in freelancing, crowdfunding, the “sharing” economy (like Uber), etc. Writers realized they could “do it themselves.” They could produce a limited number of any kind of publication, shop it around, talk it up on the Internet, maybe sell it on Amazon, and get a percentage of the profits. If they also sold it themselves (rather than through Amazon or any other web-to-print site), they could keep significantly more of the profits.
  3. This redefining of publishing (which in the 1970s was called “vanity printing”: i.e., funding your own print job rather than convincing a publisher to do it for you) democratized the industry. It made everyone a potential publisher.

Implications for Digital Custom Printing

The democratization of printing, which I would put up there with Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in Europe (as opposed to in China, where it happened earlier)–and which led to the democratization of information–also had implications for how print buyers bought printing. Here are some thoughts:

  1. I just received the first bid for my client whose 32-page book of poems I’m shopping around. The cost of 20 copies or 30 copies is almost the same (about $5.00 apart). What this means is that almost all of the money is going into preparation (no matter what they say about digital printing’s not having any prep work). My advice to her is to buy 40, 50, or 100 books and give them away through writing schools, her website, and other venues. She could consider it a marketing expense. The unit cost would drop precipitously, but the overall cost would rise only slightly.
  2. My client who printed the Holocaust book text via digital printing and the covers of these books via offset lithography benefited from the following technical “facts”: a) For heavy-coverage solids, offset printing is better than digital. b) For black-only text on a nice, textured, off-white printing stock, digital printing is fine, especially since the photos were old and of of marginal quality. c) And an offset printed cover with a film laminate coating, a press score, and a nice perfect binding can make a digitally printed book look spectacular. d) Plus, a press run of 300 covers is cheap when compared to a print run of 300 entirely offset printed books.
  3. There are online vendors willing to do any of these jobs. Personally, I’m more comfortable going to vendors when I know the management and can visit the shop if something goes wrong. You may have a different experience with online vendors.
  4. There are any number of vendors in the Far East who will do this kind of work. However, they’re far away if anything goes wrong. Also, if there are any problems with the shipping, customs, dock strikes, etc., what are you going to do? (You pay for your savings in other ways.) Also, they often have minimum runs—like 1,000 copies.
  5. In general, many printers have minimum runs. Most of my clients’ jobs could not meet these minimums. That means needing to find a printer who can. It also means (see item #1 above) that most of the ultra-short press runs will cost about the same even if you double or triple the run length. I always tell my clients that it’s cheaper to print too many copies and then give (or throw) them away than to print too few copies and need to go back on press. This is sometimes true for digital jobs as well as offset jobs (see item #1 above).

What You Can Learn From This Multi-Client Case Study

  1. Think outside the box. Don’t be afraid to blend technologies such as digital and offset printing in one project.
  2. Think outside the box with funding. Look at Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites online.
  3. Consider repurposing your product, as my client did by expanding from color books to garments based on the same colors.
  4. Always get samples. For any job with physical requirements (such as garments), test the samples. Wash the sample garments. See how they “drape,” how they fit and feel, how they respond to sun and rain.
  5. Look at samples side by side. See what a heavy coverage, full-bleed cover looks like printed digitally vs. offset printed. Can you see a difference? Does the difference bother you? Is it worth the extra money?
  6. Find print vendors you can trust, and then listen to their advice on all of these subjects.

Custom Printing: New Digital Print Technology from Kodak

Monday, March 19th, 2018

I was excited to see the new digital printing technology from Kodak, the NEXFINITY platform, referenced recently in the printing trade journals. I have been a devotee of Kodak’s competition, the HP Indigo, for years due to what I perceive as its superior color fidelity. However, I can’t help but believe that strong competition in the realm of digital printing technology will “raise all boats.” The new printing platform that Kodak has crafted will benefit all digital print buyers by encouraging the constant improvement of digital print technology in the marketplace.

The New Technology

The first article I read on the subject was a Kodak press release, “Kodak Launches the NEXFINITY Digital Press Platform,” published on 3/1/18. Here’s how they describe their new approach, called “Dynamic Imaging Technology,” which will be available in the spring of 2018.

The technology applies “algorithmic adjustments to specific areas of an image,” enhancing the quality and consistency of the content within each portion of the printed page. That is, it can produce high-resolution type, crisp lines, soft flesh tones, and clear skies on the same page. The technology maximizes the image quality of each, even though all of these require different treatment.

The press release notes that this improved technology will benefit package printing, commercial printing, direct mail production, and publishing.

Moreover, the NEXFINITY platform can do this by utilizing “the industry’s highest information density at more than 1.8 billion pieces of image information per square inch” (Kodak press release). This produces consistent, flat fields of color and detailed imagery. According to Kodak, the NEXFINITY “can reproduce fine details on the fly, like highlight areas and consistency in mid-tones by adjusting the exposure levels….” Kodak’s press release goes on to say that “The LED writing system provides 256 levels of exposure on the imaging cylinder, compared to laser systems that only are on or off.”

Furthermore, the new Kodak technology allows press operators to change the order or combinations of digital inks depending on the needs of the specific job. This, along with closed-loop color control, produces outstanding results.

More Digital Press Features

Here are a few more items Kodak touts in its press release on NEXFINITY.

  1. The new Kodak press can be seamlessly integrated into existing workflows, so finishing operations can be done smoothly and quickly.
  2. NEXFINITY is compatible with existing digital workflow software (including PRINERGY, among others). The printing unit can be operated in stand-alone mode, providing imposition; trapping; color management; and print job specification, management, and reporting functions. Or it can be integrated into existing software utilizing JDF and JMF data. All of this allows for a smooth transition of the new equipment into the pressroom as well as quick, efficient production of all print jobs.
  3. One operator can successfully control up to four NEXFINITY units simultaneously, using a Kodak Multi-Press Station to coordinate all printing activities from a single console.
  4. In terms of runability, the NEXFINITY press can accommodate stocks up to 24pt. in thickness and 48 inches in length, and it can print between 83 and 152 pages per minute. In addition, the technology allows for fast “RIPing” of detailed imagery and complex variable-data jobs.
  5. In terms of substrate coatings, the NEXFINITY press can efficiently and cost-effectively print specialized coatings (including dimensional coatings, security elements, and special finishes).

The Implications of the Technology

All of these features reflect the following benefits:

  1. Flexibility, in terms of the varied substrates the NEXFINITY can image.
  2. Much higher speed and productivity, in terms of the kinds of jobs that can be efficiently produced, from short-run jobs (hundreds of copies) to much longer ones (thousands or millions of copies). This makes these digital presses better able to compete with offset technology in longer-run jobs.
  3. Integration, in that the NEXFINITY can easily link to existing commercial printing and finishing equipment. Therefore, it will complement rather than disrupt the current workflow, making the custom printing supplier more efficient. It can even make current staff more productive or reduce the number of operators needed.
  4. Access to new markets, due to increased press sheet lengths and paper thicknesses. For instance, the 48-inch press sheet can allow commercial printing vendors to produce large lay-flat photo books, and the 48pt. paper thickness can give custom printing vendors access to the burgeoning packaging and signage markets.
  5. Differentiation from computer-display-only products. Since NEXFINITY can efficiently and cost-effectively print specialized coatings, such as dimensional finishes and security elements, it can set custom printing jobs apart from their non-tactile, computer-screen-only counterparts.

What Does This Say About Digital Printing in General?

I’ve given thought to the implications of Kodak’s new technology within the overall commercial printing market. Here are some ideas:

  1. The focus on enhancing digital custom printing technology suggests that Kodak and other equipment manufacturers expect physical printing to be around for some time. Instead of abandoning print, Kodak sees opportunities for developing those capabilities only available within the physical print process.
  2. Many of Kodak’s developments improve the efficiency of the digital printing process. This allows digital printers to compete with offset printers in increasingly longer press runs. My expectation is that digital printing technology will eventually marginalize offset printing, making it still essential for selected products but no longer as pervasive as digital printing.
  3. Kodak’s Dynamic Imaging Technology, which allows for adjustments to specific areas within a printed page, reflects a focus on image quality, as does the expansion of the color gamut through extended color sets. I think the goal is to not only match the quality of offset printing but eventually exceed it. At this point, the variable imaging capabilities of digital printing will make it more attractive for many jobs than the static nature (printing the same page again and again) of offset lithography. Only by making digital presses run at comparable speeds to offset presses (and therefore making them as efficient to operate for longer press runs) can this actually happen.
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