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Archive for the ‘Digital Printing’ Category

Book Printing: Color Shift Problems in the Book Proofs

Monday, August 28th, 2017

Sometimes things go horribly wrong. I think there’s nothing worse than “hearing” the exasperation of a loyal client in her email, knowing that a multi-year working relationship is on the line.

I recently heard back from a client for whom I had been printing a small color swatch book for years. The swatch books pertained to make-up and clothing color choices appropriate for a woman based on her complexion.

The small color books, bound with a screw and post assembly, are essentially PMS books for the fashion industry. I have written many articles about this project, which my client reprints every few months. All 22 original print books had been produced without incident until just recently. They had been direct reprints of between one and ten copies of each of the 22 original master books. The books had been printed, laminated, round cornered, and drilled for the screw and post binding. The book printer produced the color books on an HP Indigo. The color was dead on. Reprints of the print books went like clockwork. Until they didn’t.

The Change in the Job Specs

The change in the job specifications that precipitated the problem was a small one. My client would print 100 copies of the 22 master books (various numbers of copies of each to equal 100 total color books) to fulfill orders for her clients. However, this time, in order to have more colors to bind into some of the print books, my client had created a single sheet containing an additional 30 colors. Some colors matched pages already included in the 22 master copies; many did not.

The goal was to print these at the tail end of the job, once the other books were complete, and then run them through the same finishing operations: lamination, round cornering, drilling, and such, but then to deliver them loosely packed in a carton (not bound on screw and post assemblies). This would cost an additional $200+ instead of the (almost) $3,000 price tag for producing the 15 copies of the single page as a stand-alone job. Why the difference? Because all of the makeready costs that would comprise the almost $3,000 would also cover all of the finishing work for the reprinted 100 copies of the older print books.

But there were problems with the color accuracy—for the first time in the history of the numerous direct reprints. Five of the colors in the 30 extra (master) color chips (the 30 loose chips of which 15 copies would be printed) were already included in the original 22 print books, and the proofs of these colors did not match the colors in the original books.

Fortunately, all the other colors (new ones and colors that had to match the original colors in the 22 master books) were ok.

What Caused the Problems?

Keep in mind that the clock was ticking. My client had clients who wanted books. Their shipments had to be back-ordered. My client also had a new financial backer who understandably also wanted accurate colors.

Fortunately, the sales rep at the printer had a complete set of printed and laminated copies of the original books plus a set of unlaminated proofs of the additional 30 loose color chips. So a list of the five problematic colors gave her a good starting point to resolve the color matching problem.

The sales rep had her plant manager check the HP Indigo color calibration. To be safe, he ran a second set of proofs on a higher-end HP Indigo digital press. He sent second proofs to my client’s financial backer (at my client’s request, assuming the problems had been resolved), but my client’s financial backer said the revised proofs were identical to the first set, with the same five problematic colors still off target (specifically too light). Ouch.

Where Do We Go Next?

Fortunately, since my client sees that the printer is taking this very seriously and trying to make things right, she has given us more time to correct matters. Here are some of the things we have learned and/or have considered relevant to resolving the problem:

  1. The first digital press had been upgraded from a prior model. Apparently, this particular HP Indigo had been altered to improve it, but the color calibration was not yet accurate. This affected primarily the blues, reds, and purples in my client’s color book. That is, the color problems were localized. They did not affect all hues.
  2. When the plant manager moved the job from the first HP Indigo to the larger, higher-end HP Indigo, the problem didn’t go away. Assuming the revised proof was correct (which to his eyes it was), the printer sent the second set of proofs to my client’s financial backer. My client herself didn’t see them. So I asked my client to have her financial backer cut each color swatch in half and send her a complete set of proofs (so both my client and her financial backer, who live in different cities, would each have her own complete set to facilitate communication). Why? Because two people will always see color differently (in this case three, or even more, since the printer also had a set of the same proofs).
  3. I also asked both the book printer and the client (and her financial backer) to look at the colors in different lighting conditions. Why? Because color will look different in sunlight, incandescent light (the traditional light bulbs with filaments), and fluorescent light. Presumably color will also look different under LED light.
  4. I asked everyone to cover each eye (one at a time, back and forth) and check the color. (For some people, including me, colors appear slightly different when they are seen by one eye and then the other.)
  5. I asked the book printer whether any of these colors might be especially problematic when reproduced with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black toners. This is because my client’s financial backer had selected PMS colors, and the HP Indigo simulates PMS colors using process color builds. Granted, extra colors can be used on the HP Indigo (up to seven), and these will expand the overall color gamut, making it possible to match more PMS colors. But not all of them.
  6. The book printer noted that the lamination would darken the colors (some more than others) and make them more intense. This might be perceived as a color shift by either my client or her financial backer. (Keep in mind that color has three properties: 1) hue, or the named color, like “blue”; 2) lightness/darkness, or value; and 3) intensity or purity. Laminating the color chips would affect two of these three variables.) That said, the reason this was a problem is that the proofs were not laminated, but the color pages in the original 22 master print books had been laminated. So if my client or her backer were matching the proofs of the 30 loose color chips (unlaminated proofs) to the master books (laminated pages), the colors would not look alike. In some cases the difference would be minimal, but in other cases—apparently—the color shift would be more dramatic.
  7. The printer also noted that if the five problematic colors were adjusted (by the prepress department) to make them accurate, this would affect all other colors on the 30-color digital press sheet (my client could wind up with five correct colors and 25 colors that were “off,” the opposite of the current situation).
  8. My client told me that she still had the proofs (unlaminated) from the first printing of all 22 master books. I asked her to send these immediately to the printer. He would be able to more easily adjust the colors of the 30 new, loose color chips to match the colors in the original books because he would be matching unlaminated color pages to unlaminated color pages.

This is where we are now. We’ll see what happens.

What You Can Learn from This Fiasco

  1. I always say that when you buy commercial printing, you are not buying a commodity. You’re buying a process. At a time like this, it helps to have a long-term working relationship with the printer. Only a long-term partner will take the time to resolve a problem like this. Keep this in mind as you choose printers for your own work.
  2. Color on laminated, digitally printed pages does not look the same as color on unlaminated pages.
  3. If you make a color change in part of a job, this may adversely affect the color in another part of the job. This is true for offset printing as well as digital printing.
  4. People see color differently, depending on their gender (women see color better than men) and on many other variables, and color can look different depending on the lighting conditions and the surrounding colors. (Red paint in a closed paint can is actually black, since color is a function of light and the physical action of the cones and rods in your eyes. That’s why red cars look gray under street lights at night.)
  5. The time comes when “good enough” is good enough. Only you can make this call. In my case, only the client who devised the color chip product for selecting make-up and clothing can say whether the colors in the proofs are close enough to the original colors she chose for her fashion system.
  6. When in doubt, start with the obvious, and start at the beginning. For instance, I asked my client to check the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black color builds in the InDesign art files to make sure the color builds in the original books and the 30 extra loose colors were identical. I may also ask the printer to make sure the printing paper for the proofs is the same as it was for the original 22 books (whiteness and brightness). I already asked whether there’s any chance that the PDF files or InDesign files for the same job could be “off” (damaged, inconsistent, etc.).

As you can see, this is not an exact science. A lot of people at the book printer have been working hard to make this right so my client will be happy. And she has been patient. We’ll see what happens.

Commercial Printing: “On-Shoring” Color Printing

Friday, July 7th, 2017

I am currently working with a print brokering client who produces a number of East Coast beach resort advertising print books, which are manufactured in China because it’s unbelievably cheap. However, she has to deal with a longer lead time, which cuts off her ad sales earlier than she might like. In addition, her print book production schedule falls during Chinese New Year, so book production slows down during this time. Also, there is always the potential for dock strikes, necessitating the rerouting of her books to another port for entry into the United States. Also, if something goes wrong, well, China is far away. So my client pays a lot for the discounted book printing prices.

In light of this, a situation that affects many of her fellow book publishers in the East Coast beach area and presumably a huge number of other publishers across the United States, I read an article the other day about inkjet color printing for trade books. I found it intriguing.

The Premise of the Article

I found the article on the AmericanPrinter.com website on 2/6/17. It appears to be a press release from Xerox, since I cannot find the name of the writer. If you Google the article, it’s entitled, “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home.”

Even the title makes me feel warm inside. Here’s the premise of the article:

  1. Trade book publishers have been inkjet printing the text pages of black-ink-only trade books for some time now. This has improved inventory control. That is, publishers don’t run out of books, but neither do they need to buy books to cover the highest sales expectations. This means fewer inventory overruns and less waste, plus less overhead expense for inventory. Longer runs of the books are still best suited for offset printing. (Keep in mind that this pertains to the black-only text blocks, presumably not the covers.) (If you want to research this process, the technical term is “production” ink jet printing. This distinguishes it from inkjet products that are not trade books, educational books, and the like.)
  2. For books with 4-color interiors, inkjet color printing has not caught on. This is disappointing news, since it would be an ideal response to the seasonality of much of the 4-color book interior work. For instance, the American Printer article, “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home,” notes that cookbooks are in demand around Christmas and Mother’s Day, color textbooks for higher education are in demand at the beginning of the school year, and children’s books sell well around Easter and Christmas.
  3. When a book publisher produces process-color print books overseas to fulfill expected orders at these specific times of year but runs out of inventory, he or she can’t just order more books from Far East printers and receive them in a timely manner. At best, it would take weeks for a reprint, not just a few days. This can mean either needing to over-order books initially or running out of books and losing sales later on.
  4. This short-run, inkjet-printed text-block paradigm for interiors of 4-color books would be ideal for solving the problem of seasonality in four-color book interiors. However, to date, there have been problems. Pretreated paper for currently available inkjet production presses has cost more than off-the-shelf coated paper, and there have been fewer paper options available. In addition, the quality of the printed product has not been of the same caliber as offset printed four-color work.

The Potential Solution

As I noted before, this article is most likely a Xerox press release. The article, “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home,” goes on to list the benefits of the upcoming release of High Fusion Inks for use on its Trivor 2400 platform. This will “enable high-quality color inkjet printing on untreated commodity offset coated stocks with no pre- or post-print coatings.” “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home” continues, noting that “These stocks often cost 15 to 20 percent less than specialty inkjet treated stocks and can help providers standardize on fewer paper stocks to better manage costs.”

Clearly this is sales literature. However, it also has far-reaching implications. When the price of the inkjet-printed books drops due to lower paper costs, and when the quality of the printed product improves (which is directly related to the paper, since the color inkjet printing process can already exceed the color gamut of 4-color offset printing if you use the right expanded ink set), then the case for bringing production inkjet for color book texts back home improves significantly.

Color quality aside, along with the cost of the paper, there are still a number of additional benefits to bringing the commercial printing of color books back home. “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home” notes:

  1. Lower freight charges compared to shipping costs from the Far East.
  2. Minimized administrative and handling costs (to this I would add the elimination of the complexities and stresses of importing goods).
  3. The ability to control costs by more tightly controlling the supply chain.
  4. The ability to fulfill those orders that would be lost to a several-weeks-long reprint schedule compared to a few days’ reprint schedule for a locally-sourced ink-jet book.
  5. To this I would add the reduced cost of inventory.

Overall Impressions

Once production inkjet can compete with offset commercial printing in terms of image quality and printing paper price, this will be a game changer. I have looked closely at some inkjet printed color books, and I have seen the difference between these products and offset-printed color books. But I have also seen spectacular color inkjet work. I know we’re close. This might just be the right equipment at the right time. If so, it might just make the business case for bringing this commercial printing work home again.

Custom Printing: Direct to Object Inkjet Printing

Monday, February 27th, 2017

I read an article today in Print+Promo magazine about direct to object custom printing, and then I followed up with further research online. The idea intrigues me: printing directly on an object, like a mug, or a metal water bottle, or, as the article notes, even a football helmet. Label-less printing. The idea is not completely new to me. After all, I’ve seen videos of mugs and bottles (essentially regular cylindrical shapes) being spun around in a jig while images are screen printed onto the products. I know you can also use flexographic technology to print directly on objects.

However, Xerox’s direct to object inkjetting leaves room for endless personalization. After all, with a silkscreen or flexo press, you print the same image again and again, but with an inkjet printer, you can vary each and every image.

The Xerox Press Release and the Printer Specs

The article was entitled “Xerox Introduces New Direct to Object Inkjet Printer.” It seems to be a press release from Xerox. However, if you go searching for the article online you will also find useful product literature from Xerox to amplify your knowledge. The articles make some intriguing claims:

  1. The printer can “spray ink on objects as small as bottle caps and as large as football helmets.”
  2. The Xerox equipment can print on plastic, metals, ceramics, and glass.
  3. “The machine is able to print on smooth, rough, slightly curved or stepped surfaces at print resolutions ranging from 300 to 1,200 dpi.”
  4. The equipment is “compatible with virtually any type of ink chemistry, including solvent, aqueous, and UV inks.”
  5. The design of the object “holder” is such that it can be easily adjusted for different sized objects, up to one cubic foot in volume (irregular shapes, too).
  6. You can print an area 2.8” x 13” in dimension using ten inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, black, white, plus five specialty inks).
  7. You can print up to 30 objects per hour.
  8. And as the final benefit, this is a “complete packaging solution [that] can eliminate the need for labels.”

(All quotes are from “Xerox Introduces New Direct to Object Inkjet Printer” or Xerox’s website.)

So, What Does This Mean For Printing?

Granted, this is relatively new technology, but the specifications promise a lot:

  1. The variance in the size of objects the printer can accept, along with the flexibility and ease of adjustment of the object holder, should make this printer easy to quickly configure for a multitude of objects.
  2. Since the printer will accept any kind of ink, you can eliminate problems with ink drying on a slick surface by using UV inks. Therefore, you can quickly print, dry, and hand off to customers items like mugs and water bottles—while they wait. This would be ideal for promoting a brand at a trade show.
  3. At 2.8” x 13”, the image print area is rather large, so your logo or message will be big and visible.
  4. This process can eliminate labels. This is a big one. On the one hand, everything I have read says that the growth areas in commercial printing are labels, packaging, and large format printing. Demand for these services is growing quickly year over year, and yet this technology might eliminate the need for custom labels. I’m not sure this would be true in all cases, but the technology is ideally positioned in a growth industry. In addition, this equipment will benefit the aesthetics of custom label printing, since printing directly on an object with no label leaves an integrated, elegant, and organic impression. The printed image becomes part of the object, not just a sticky piece of printed paper affixed to a product.
  5. In all the instances where I’ve seen custom screen printing used to decorate objects, the print surface has needed to be mostly flat (even if it is the round surface of a mug, you can still roll the cylindrical mug to provide a flat surface for the custom screen printing). However, according to Xerox’s product literature, the longer distance from the inkjet print heads to the substrate will allow for printing on irregular surfaces (the article references curved and slightly stepped surfaces). This will greatly expand the number and kinds of items onto which this direct to object inkjet equipment can print.
  6. The ability to use ten inks will extend the color gamut dramatically, presumably allowing designers to match almost any PMS color.
  7. The speed is respectable. Compared to screen printing (once the time has been spent to set up the process), digital printing can be rather slow. However, the ability to print 30 objects per hour makes this equipment more appropriate for longer digital production runs.

Time will tell, but I do think this may be a game changer.

Book Printing: Reap Savings with HP’s T410 Inkjet Press

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

I was helping a client recently with a high page count print book with a short press run: 500 copies of a 488-page, 8.5” x 11” perfect-bound book. The inside text was to be 4-color throughout. I assumed that due to the short run length, this would be a perfect fit for a digital press. Since I had worked closely with a printer with an HP Indigo, I approached my sales rep with the specs, but I was surprised by her answer.

She said the print book would be cheaper to produce via offset lighography due to the 4-color process work on each page. She said the “click charges” would be a killer when you factored in four clicks per page (C, M, Y, and K) for 488 pages. So she bid the book for me on her commercial printing company’s offset equipment.

What Are Click Charges?

Most printers lease their digital printing equipment. They don’t own it. Therefore, digital press manufacturers charge printers a fee (a per-click charge) to cover the cost of maintenance (repairing equipment on-site to keep “down-time” to an absolute minimum) and sometimes consumables (liquid toner, for instance). This click charge is usually added on a per-page and per-color rate (i.e., the number of impressions made by the digital press). Therefore, the commercial printing supplier passes this cost on to the customer.

So the printer to whom I had bid my client’s job was saying that assuming 500 copies of a 488-page book with four click charges per page for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, the price would actually exceed the cost to print the job via offset lithography.

How Does Digital Printing Compare to Offset Lithography?

A digital press (the HP Indigo in the case of the commercial printing vendor I was working with) produces four individual images (layered on top of each other) to create the full-color image on a blanket cylinder and then transfers the image from the blanket to the printing paper. Electrostatic charges hold the liquid toner (ink) on the blanket until it is transferred to the paper.

In a similar manner, an offset press prints an image, color by color, as the paper travels through the press, from inking unit to inking unit. The four printing plates (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) produce an image on each press blanket, and the blankets transfer the four process images onto the substrate (one on top of the other). Once the press sheet has traveled through all four inking units, the paper has received images in all process colors laid over one another. (Keep in mind that process colors are transparent, so the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black images don’t obscure one another. Rather they work together to create and enhance the full-color images.)

You could say that digital and offset commercial printing are similar in that both transfer the final printed image onto a blanket and from the blanket onto the printing paper. Therefore, it didn’t surprise me that a bid on the HP Indigo digital press for my client’s four-color, 488-page book would be high and would actually cost more than an offset lithographic press run of the job.

What’s the Alternative?

With this in mind I was pleased to hear from a colleague that custom printing work priced for the HP T410 digital press was based on the actual use of printing ink rather than on a per-click charge.

So I did some research. The HP T410 is a large-format, roll-fed book press. Essentially it is a web press (much like an offset web press). But in this case instead of using printing plates, the digital press prints book pages via its array of inkjet print heads (like a huge, roll-fed version of a desktop inkjet printer).

When you compare the literature describing these two presses (HP Indigo and HP T410), you will see that the drying of the ink is handled differently on each machine. On an electrophotographic digital presses (the HP Indigo, for example), the image is already dry when it is transferred from the blanket roller to the substrate (all four colors transferred at one time). Therefore, there’s a lot of flexibility in what printing substrate you can use, because the dry image won’t seep into the paper fibers.

In contrast, on the HP T410, an inkjet press, the specification sheet references float infrared (IR) scalable dryer zones as the drying method. So basically a specific frequency of light will cure the ink (presumably instantly, as with UV inks, which are cured under UV light).

Why Does This Matter?

My colleague noted that there were no click charges for this digital printer, that clients only had to pay for color by the square inch. With this information, I did more research. I verified his claim (the product literature confirmed that you only pay for the ink you use).

Now this is a novel and rather dramatic claim for the following reason. In offset lithography, if you put any process-color images on even one page, you are still paying for 4-color on all pages on that particular side of a press sheet. (This may be 8 pages of a 16-page press form or 16 pages of a 32-page press form.) In short, you’re paying a lot to “open” a side of a press form to process color. So if you’re wise, you’ll take advantage of the expense and put process color on (many) other pages of this particular side of the press “form” (one side of a press sheet that will eventually be folded into a press “signature”) in order to distribute the cost.

In contrast, on the HP Indigo, if you print any process color on any individual page of a book, you’re charged for all four colors (four click charges). This is true even if your 4-color image is a small logo.

But based on HP’s literature, if you’re using the HP T410, your charge for the same process color distribution will be higher or lower depending only on the size in square inches of the color printed image.

For my client’s print book, pricing the job based on the amount of color rather than on the number of color pages may yield a huge savings. We shall see.

What I Would Need to See First

My assumption is that not all printers have the HP T410. In fact, I would assume that relatively few printers do. After all, the concept of printing books on a web press using inkjet technology is relatively new.

However, if I can find such a commercial printing supplier, and if the samples of inkjet printed work produced on coated paper compare favorably to the electrophotographic digital printing of the HP Indigo, I will be pleasantly surprised.

And the cost may just make the difference for my client.

Custom Printing: Digital Signs, Posters, and NFC Chips

Monday, January 2nd, 2017

My fiancee and I were in the car at a stoplight today, and I noticed a large digital sign on the side of a building. It was promoting a local campus of a major metropolitan university. I thought about what I liked and didn’t like about the sign, and about whether offset or digital custom printing could be used to achieve a similar effect.

A Description of the Sign

First of all, the digital sign must have been about thirty feet wide and twenty feet high. Obviously from where I was (sitting in the car), I couldn’t measure the digital sign, but I will say that it was large enough to stand out from all other distractions. It was about twenty feet up on the side of a university parking building.

What I remember the most is the effectiveness of the sign’s illumination and the drama of its constantly changing imagery. Since I’m used to static signage, the first thing I noticed was that the digital sign provided a number of messages, from a general tagline for the university plus the university logo, to a Facebook icon sending you to the Web for further information, to a list of some courses of study the university offers.

Although there was no sound, the movement and visual variety plus the bright colors and the backlit screen grabbed my attention.

What Didn’t Work for Me

Unfortunately the side of the parking building was exactly perpendicular to the road. Therefore, anyone driving by the sign would need to turn her/his head to read the message, and this would put their safety at risk. (I was lucky. I was a passenger at the time, so I could look at the sign for as long as I wanted.)

Granted, a less-traveled road intersected with this main road creating a “T” at the parking building. Drivers coming up to the intersection and about to turn left or right could look directly at the sign. They would not need to turn their heads. Moreover, since the sign was bright, drivers would be engaged with the presentation and the message of the sign for a while, from the time they first caught sight of the digital image until they turned left or right at the intersection.

How About the Print Version of a Sign?

I thought about how a few years back I would have seen a large format print sign hanging from the building and been equally surprised and engaged if the sign were large and dramatic. To a certain extent we have become so accustomed to static signage that advertisers can increase our “engagement” with their message with the bright lights and movement of digital signage.

However, there are new technologies that can add an extra dimension to large format print signage as well. A technology called “Near-Field-Communication,” or NFC, will allow you to tap your phone against an NFC-chip enabled poster and be directed to an online interactive experience.

Much has been written in recent years about the power of multi-channel marketing, and a large format print poster that can send a viewer to a website for further information, to do research, to sign up for text messages or emails, to see a video, or to respond to the poster and leave a message, can be a powerful marketing tool. This NFC chip technology can create a more personal connection with a prospect and even initiate a dialogue.

Granted, if the digital sign on the side of the parking building had been a static, large format print image instead of a series of changing digital images, you could not have tapped your phone against the print signage. However, you could have achieved the same result with a large QR code printed on the large format poster. Scanning the QR code with your phone camera and a downloadable phone app could send you to a website for similar interactive content, videos, or a place to request further information.

What We Can Learn from This Experience

Here are some random thoughts:

  1. Anything that captures your entire field of vision will draw you into an advertising experience. (Think about the large size of a movie screen in a theater compared to the much smaller TV in your house.) Also, the darkness of the movie theater helps you lose yourself in the experience. For an advertisement outside in bright sunlight, you can increase its attention getting power by making it huge. In fact, a grand-format inkjet image wrapped around a building could actually attract more attention than the digital sign I saw on the parking garage building. The building wrap’s sheer size could make up for its static nature.
  2. Movement trumps static imagery in attention getting power. Back-lighting also trumps reflected light illuminating a poster. However, you can overcome these limitations by using QR codes and NFC chips to bring the viewer of the poster or other large format print signage into an Internet-based experience.
  3. Such a transition from the print poster to the website can do a few things even digital signage might not achieve. For instance, once a marketer has brought a prospective client from the poster to the website, she/he can request contact information from the prospect. The web-based portal can also track the online experience of the prospect. In this way a marketing executive can collect marketing data regarding the effectiveness of the signage: who is viewing it and when, as well as whether the prospects are responding to the offer and requesting further information. Print signage enhanced with NFC technology or QR codes can facilitate two-way communication between the company and the prospect.
  4. Field of vision is important. If you’re designing static posters, digital signage, or posters with NFC chips, you need to capture the viewer’s full attention. The digital signage on the side of the building, perhaps, would have been more effective if it had had two angled screens (one facing either side of oncoming traffic). For a static poster, it’s important to locate the image where it will be seen. Make sure it is large enough to completely fill the viewer’s field of vision. Either increase its size, or put it closer to the viewer.
  5. Since a conventional large format print poster usually consists of only a slogan, an image, and a logo, adding NFC chip technology to direct the prospect to the Web can give the viewer much more information than a large format print poster by itself.

Custom Printing: Consider the Cost of Digital vs. Offset

Monday, December 26th, 2016

I had a conversation today with the director of operations and the sales manager at a local printer. We discussed options for a digital print job for a print brokering client of mine.

A client had requested pricing for 500 copies of a full-color, 488-page print book. She had specifically asked for offset printing, assuming that the quality would be superior to that of the same job printed digitally on an HP Indigo press.

The director of operations at the printer had noted that he’d be pleased to take the (approximately) $30,000.00 (his “off-the-cuff” guess) required to print the job via offset lithography, but he wanted to remind me that the digital option was closer to $10,000.00 (again, his initial guess), and the quality of the final print book would be just as good.

A Momentary Discourse on Price

To be fair, this $30,000.00 price for offset printing is very high. It is only one price from one vendor, reflecting his particular equipment (sheetfed offset presses) and his print shop’s pricing structure. I had bid this job out to a number of other printers, some with web-fed offset presses and some with sheetfed offset presses. For shorter-run options, I had also requested prices for digital printing.

In various options addressed over almost a year’s time, the press run for this job ranged from 500 copies to 10,000 copies.

Pricing for offset-printed versions of the same job never came in below $18,000.00 for 1,000 copies. This low price was for a job printed via offset lithography on a full-size heatset web press. Pricing for sheetfed offset lithography was higher. And again, the “off-the-top-of-the-head” pricing from the director of operations noted above was high at $30,000.00. His presses were all sheetfed offset presses. So the overall collection of estimates from all printers did have a surprisingly large range.

(On another note, two of the web-fed offset vendors would not print fewer than 1,000 copies via offset lithography. But assuming the cost for the 1,000-copy range, and factoring in the percentage of the total cost that would be attributable to make-ready, I would assume no less than a $16,000.00 or $17,000.00 approximate price for 500 copies printed via web-fed offset lithography–from most other vendors. And, to reiterate, the greater portion of this amount would be for set-up costs.)

Why Is It So Expensive?

First of all, the issues related to this print book would be equally relevant if the job were a magazine, a booklet, or any other signature work (4, 8, 16, or 32 pages laid out on a press sheet, printed, and then folded and trimmed into a bindable stack of consecutive pages).

In this particular case what had driven the cost up was the “full-color throughout” specification. Each of the four plates (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) would be necessary for all 488 pages plus cover. Even if the book signatures were 16-page forms (with eight pages on either side of the press sheet), there would be more than 30 press runs comprising the 488 pages (actually 30 16-page signatures plus one 8-page signature, with four plates each).

This would involve a huge amount of plate-making and press wash-ups. That’s why the director of operations at the printer I spoke with had floated an initial ballpark estimate of $30,000.00. For a press run of 40,000 copies, this (or even more) might be worth it. (After all, the high price would be spread out over a substantially longer press run, yielding a lower cost per copy.) But for 500 copies, the price was staggering. And it was due to the plate-making and plate-handling expenses.

Options to Reduce the Price

During our phone conversation, the printer’s director of operations and sales manager suggested that we go back to the HP Indigo digital option with 4-color throughout the book. (To initially keep prices low, we had included only 60 pages of color. Many of the pages my client had designed to be black with a highlight color of blue had become black only.) My client liked the 4-color-throughout option, and she now had new funding for her project, which is why the budget for the print book had expanded.

The discussion with the printer’s director of operations and sales manager yielded the following options for me to share with my client:

  1. Printing the entire job via offset lithography with 4-color ink throughout
  2. Printing the entire job digitally on the HP Indigo with 4-color ink throughout
  3. Printing the cover via offset lithography and printing the text digitally

To this we would add an option for a soft-touch laminate on the cover. This would make the print book feel good in the reader’s hands, which is why someone would choose a print version rather than a digital version of this book in the first place.

I did, however, note that my client’s request for 4-color offset printing prices reflected her assumption that digital printing was of a lesser quality. So the printer offered to send me samples of the same job printed digitally on the HP Indigo and also via offset lithography on a traditional press. He believed this would convince my client that no quality would be lost in choosing the digital option.

(To put this in perspective, if the initial guess by the printer’s director of operations holds true, and the job estimate is for $10,000.00, the unit cost would be $20.00. Digital pricing from other vendors have ranged from $19.00 to $34.00 per book for a 500-copy press run. Ironically the highest price came from a popular online vendor. Again, ironically, another printer would charge closer to $26.00 per book for a digital version—and, based on this printer’s specific digital press, I think it would be of lower quality than the Indigo-printed job.)

How About Larger Offset Presses and Automated Plate Hanging?

Some printers do have much larger offset presses. This means that instead of 16-page press signatures, some printers can produce 32-page or larger signatures. This means a 488-page book can be produced with fewer press runs. In addition, newer offset presses have incorporated increased automation into the workflow. This includes automated, closed-loop color control and automated plate hanging. Such improvements have made short-run offset printing more competitive with digital printing.

What We Can Learn from this Case Study

This case study offers a wealth of information:

  1. Consider the press run when deciding on digital printing vs. offset printing. In this case a 500-copy, 488-page book was more appropriate for digital printing due to its short press run, high page count, and extensive 4-color ink coverage.
  2. Choose a printer who actively makes suggestions to give you the best product for the best price. This particular printer acted as a consultant and partner, making suggestions to help my client.
  3. Get samples. Nothing will convince my client that her print book will look just as good produced digitally as seeing a sample job printed both digitally and via offset lithography.
  4. Exploit the benefits of the technology you select. For instance, there will be an oversized, folded insert in the print book. In a digitally produced product, the insert can be placed anywhere (it will need to go between pages 18 and 19 to be ideally placed relative to the text). On an offset press it might not be possible to easily place an insert here. It might not fall between press signatures. More specifically, on an offset press you print 4-page, 8-page, 16-page, or 32-page signatures, but on a digital press you can print and bind in increments of only two pages. This is a benefit of digital printing. It’s wise to take advantage of it.
  5. Not all digital presses are of this high quality, but there are more and more out there. I used to only like the HP Indigo press. Now the Kodak NexPress and some other digital presses are matching or exceeding offset print quality. But to be safe, always request printed samples.
  6. Remember this approach is prudent for all signature work, including magazines, books, or any other multi-page job.
  7. There is a sweet spot (an ideal combination of color, page count, and press run) for economical and efficient digital, web-fed offset, and sheet-fed offset work. Ask your printer what he thinks would be appropriate for your particular job.
  8. New automation of offset presses is worth watching closely. This includes automated color control, automated plate hanging, etc. Such improvements will reduce costs (and probably also printing prices), making offset lithography more competitive with digital printing for shorter press-runs.

Custom Printing: New Orders For Nanography at drupa

Monday, October 17th, 2016

An associate just gave me a link to an article about drupa 2016 and Nanography. This time it seems to actually be a real, ready-for-primetime technology, and the proof is in the actual commitments at drupa by purchasers of the presses.

First of all, the press release from Landa is entitled, “Landa Announces Beta Sites and Major Orders.” You may find it interesting, and I’m sure it can be accessed online. It is dated 5/31/16.

Secondly, drupa is touted as, “the largest printing equipment exhibition in the world, held every three years (4 years in the past) by Messe Düsseldorf in Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.” (From Wikipedia).

Thirdly, in the simplest terms, Nanographic Printing involves inkjetting special nanographic ink onto a heated conveyor in a Nanographic press. The drops of ink quickly flatten and lose their water content, forming an ultra-thin polymer ink surface image on the conveyor. From the conveyor, the image is then transferred to the commercial printing paper. (Unlike inkjet, the ink is not jetted directly onto the paper.) By the time it is transferred to the substrate, the ink film is completely dry. This allows for superior ink holdout (the ink sits up on top of the paper fibers). Halftone dots are especially crisp (since there is no dot gain), and the thin film of ink not only cuts ink costs but also provides an especially wide color gamut. And due to the nature of the process (the ability to use off-the shelf printing stock), paper costs can be controlled.

So how do drupa, the Landa press release, the pre-orders for the new commercial printing equipment, and Nanographic Printing all relate to one another?

According to the press release, at drups 2016, the following heavy hitters committed to the Landa Nanography process:

  1. Quad/Graphics, “the largest publication printer in the US” (Landa press release), will bring Landa Nanography to the short-run, versioned publications market (magazines and journals). This will involve “magazine quality” (Landa press release) work on light-weight coated and uncoated press sheets.
  2. Cimpress, “the global leader in mass customization and web-to-print” (Landa press release) will buy and install up to 20 presses “upon completion of successful testing.” Cimpress “aggregate[s], via the Internet, large volumes of individually customized orders for a broad spectrum of print, signage, and other products.” (Landa press release).
  3. Landa will install its presses at beta sites across Europe and the United States in 2017.
  4. These beta sites will include such vendors as colordruck Baiersbronn (“Germany’s leading folding carton specialist,” according to “Landa Announces Beta Sites and Major Orders”). colordruck will install a Landa S10.
  5. Another beta site will be Elanders, “the Sweedish headquartered global print and packaging supplier” (as per the Landa press release). Elanders will install a Landa S10P Nanographic Printing press with perfecting capabilities.
  6. Imagine! (noted in the Landa press release as “North America’s leading provider of large-scale point-of-sale displays and in-store signage”) will beta test the Landa S10 B1 press, which is ideal for point of purchase and point of sale work due to its 41-inch format.

The Implications

Here are my thoughts:

  1. Granted, “Landa Announces Beta Sites and Major Orders” is a press release. You could say it is just promotional literature. However, I think it speaks volumes that such prominent vendors as Quad/Graphics, Cimpress, colordruck, Elanders, and Imagine! have gotten behind the technology. They are putting their reputations on the line, and this says a lot about their belief in Nanography.
  2. The technology will reduce make-ready times, allow for large-format printing, and maintain offset quality, which will establish Nanography as viable competition for offset lithography.
  3. The specific configurations of Landa’s Nanographic presses (the Landa S10 standard; the S10P for double-sided printing; and the W10P, a Nanographic web press that can print 656 feet per minute of publications, catalogs, and direct mail work) address the main growth sectors of commercial printing (general commercial printing; short-run, highly versioned periodicals; large-format point of purchase and point of sale displays; and folding cartons and flexible packaging).
  4. The short-run, variable nature of Nanography allows packaging printers to print smaller runs in response to market trends and economically alter the packaging for promotions or individualized messaging campaigns.
  5. In short, Benny Landa’s presses (Benny Landa is chairman of the Landa Group) will provide offset quality and speed while offering mass customization capabilities, the option of smaller press runs and versioned press runs, and even economical mock-ups and test marketing initiatives.
  6. If all of these beta sites are satisfied with their Landa Nanographic presses, this will establish Nanography as a mainstream, affordable alternative to the more traditional commercial printing technologies such as offset lithography and flexography.
  7. As an added bonus, Landa has developed “Nano-Metallography” for these presses, a replacement for hot foil stamping at half the price.

High quality, quick turn-arounds, and economical costs: You just can’t beat that combination.

Digital Custom Printing: With Indigo, Seeing Is Believing

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

I read a lot about commercial printing. I mean, a lot. But nothing ever helps me understand a new technology quite like seeing it in action.

A while ago I described three new digital acquisitions by a local custom printing firm I’ve been working with for about a year as a broker. I have known the principals of the firm for over a decade, and I have a high level of trust in them. So when they invited me to an event to showcase their new HP Indigo 10000, Horizon Crossfolder AFC, and Horizon Stitchliner-SPF, I signed up immediately. I even talked my fiancee into coming—to meet people, eat good food, and see some terrific technology.

The HP Indigo 10000

I have written about this digital press a number of times in the PIE Blog, but a few things really impressed me when I actually saw the press sheets coming from this new commercial printing equipment:

I could no longer tell whether the output was offset or digital.

In fact, when I pointed this out to the owner of the company, instead of telling me how to distinguish one from the other, he just said, “That’s right. You can’t tell.” Then he explained to me why I was beginning to see the rosette patterns I had heretofore considered the hallmark of offset printing. He had been able to adjust the screening angles to match the “irrational tangent screening” of traditional analog halftones (that is, the angles at which the four plates—cyan, magenta, yellow, and black–are set relative to one another).

The colors were breathtaking.

The printer obviously knew which kinds of photos constituted “critical color.” That is, he had created a 12-page, self-cover showpiece that included images of food, fashion, a black-and-white photo with clearly more depth of tones than you could normally achieve on an offset press, and some landscapes and glamor shots with heightened color. To start with the color, the reds, purples, blues, and model skin tones were almost surreal, they were so intense.

Technically, all of this was due to the extended color set. That is, instead of the press using four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) like most offset presses, the HP Indigo uses an up-to-seven-color inkset that can include green, orange, and violet along with the usual CMYK inks. Technically, what this means is a much wider color gamut than traditional offset printing will provide (unless, of course, you add offset “touch plates” to increase the offset printing color gamut—along with the price). But on a more visceral level, what this means is breathtaking color.

The images looked like they were continuous tone.

Most printing is done with halftone screens (I believe all but inkjet and some dye sublimation). Halftoning allows you to simulate varied color intensity, since the inks themselves cannot be lightened or darkened on a printing press. The size of the halftone dots will make the colors appear lighter or darker. However, on the HP Indigo the halftone line screens for the images I saw were 200 lines per inch (lpi). This is a very fine halftone screen ruling, and what it means is that the halftone dots are smaller than your eye can perceive without a printer’s loupe (i.e., without the dots being enlarged). On the glamor model shots and the images of food, this halftone line screen made the gradations of the skin tones creamy smooth and the food delectable. I had no awareness that these were images printed with halftone patterns.

The size of the press sheets was impressive.

I had grown used to viewing approximately 13” x 19” press sheets from digital presses, but these press sheets were closer to 20” x 29”. What that meant was that I was looking at stacks of large posters on the display tables this printer had set out for this gala event. They were no longer small but beautiful. The posters were so much bigger than I had grown used to, that I was really stunned, even though I was already familiar with the technical specifications of the HP Indigo 10000 digital press.

The Bottom Line

So the bottom line was that this printer’s evening event to showcase his new digital press made a huge impression on me, since I could no longer see a difference between offset and digital commercial printing output.

The Horizon Crossfolder AFC and Horizon Stitchliner-SPF

Recent advances in digital finishing show just how committed the industry is to doing “real” commercial printing work on digital presses. These are no longer glorified photocopiers. They are real presses.

I had read a lot about these two finishing machines before going to the event. But what struck me was twofold. Their “build quality” seemed more like the traditional analog machines I was used to and less like office equipment. And yet both machines had digital consoles that reduced make-ready to almost nothing. They had touch screens for all manner of pre-programmed folds (for the Horizon Crossfolder) and saddle-stitching configurations (for the Horizon Stitchliner).

In addition, I was pleased to see that the Stitchliner could take stacks of untrimmed press sheets, collate them, fold them, run them through a small saddle-stitching unit, and then trim the job to deliver a completely finished 12-page booklet. And all elements of the equipment fit together seamlessly into one small footprint, with all the quality I had come to expect from a handful of much larger analog machines.

I was very impressed—and anxious to see what the future will hold for digital printing and finishing.

Digital Custom Printing: Form Follows Function

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016

I was actually starting to write an article about a little book my fiancee bought for her grandson, a book about fish. I had planned to start with praise for the sophisticated use of white ink on clear divider pages to allow for opaque overlays with different art on either side.

This still holds true. And I plan to do it shortly. However, when I checked the printed page with my loupe, I was even more impressed with the color fidelity, the crispness of the images, and the overall color gamut when I realized it was a digital custom printing job.

Now I’ve seen quality inkjet. I’m used to that. But this is an electrophotographic print book—laser printing. It has all of the qualities of an outstanding offset print job, none of the “artifacts” of either inkjet or laser, and none of the waxy appearance of laser printing toner. Wow.

Granted, I am a firm believer in the link between appearance and utility. “Form follows function,” as they say. The press sheet is a dull coated paper, and the ink does have a sheen. My first thought was that the images had been varnished so they would “pop” off the page. But they absolutely do not look like waxy laser printed toner on paper.

How Do I Know This Was a Laser Printed Job?

The first thing I looked for under the loupe was the halftone dot structure and placement. I usually work by process of elimination. I didn’t see the minuscule droplets indicative of inkjet, so I first ruled out this particular technology.

Then I looked for rosette patterns in the color images. Halftone dots indicate either offset or laser printing, but an actual rosette pattern to me is a dead giveaway of an offset printed job. It reflects the “irrational angles” at which the four printing plates have been set (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black).

I saw no rosettes. Moreover, the black halftone dots were pretty much on top of each other in some places.

High quality laser printing would be my educated guess as to the method of reproduction: dot patterns but not at the exact angles that would create the signature “halftone rosettes” of offset; no minuscule (almost continuous tone) ink drops. So I’d say it’s probably electrophotography (xerography, laser printing). Perhaps it is even from an HP Indigo press, or even a Kodak NexPress (although I just compared it to a job I absolutely know just came off an HP Indigo 10000, and I saw a lot of similarities).

So what?

The technology is certainly light years ahead of the typical office color laser printer, with its waxy ink laydown, and it is moving forward with drama and determination. All of this bodes well for digital commercial printing in general.

Back to Form Following Function

Form should follow function. Even the ancient Greeks believed this. That’s why putting a Greek Revival column in front of a window is questionable architecture even now (in some government buildings). Windows are made to offer an exposed view of one’s surroundings, not a view of a supporting column.

In a similar vein, this print book actually uses the technology in smart ways, functional ways.

  1. The book is for young children. It happens to be bound using a combination of “Wire-O” mechanical binding and case binding. This is called “concealed Wire-O binding,” and you’ll find it on a large number of cookbooks. The binding is durable. The pages lie flat. The loops of the binding wire are less likely to come unhooked. And the overall product is attractive. It’s even harder to crush the wire loops because of the covering of the case-bound spine. For a children’s book, like a cookbook, this is perfect.
  2. Since this is a children’s book about fish, it’s helpful to have the transparent overlay pages in the center of the two-page spreads. These conceal a portion of what’s on the right-hand page, but they can be flopped over to the left to reveal something underneath. Kids love surprises. On one spread you see a school of fish swimming over a colorful sea formation, perhaps coral. When you flip the page over, you see a scary eel under the coral (or rock). I was even scared. What makes this effective (other than the ingenious use of the transparent sheet in the center of a two-page spread) is the opaque white printed on the acetate sheet under the colorful coral (or rock). The opaque white completely conceals the eel. The technology supports the editorial goal. Form follows function. Cool.
  3. On another page, the same technique is used to almost completely obscure a flounder lying on the seabed. (The flounder looks almost exactly like the sea floor. When the kids turn the page, they can see how mother nature hides fish in plain sight by making them look like their surroundings.) A hit of opaque white behind the image makes the difference here, too.
  4. On another page you can flip over the transparent acetate sheet to see a “before” and “after” shot of fish being hooked by a fisherman (or woman). On another spread you see the “before” and “after” images of a little bear pulling fish out of a stream for a meal. So in these cases the use of the overlay sheet, and the use of opaque white toner, can provide a time sequence, a sense of one thing happening followed by another. Again, the technology and custom printing techniques support the editorial intent of the author. Form follows function.

It almost makes me want to have kids.

Custom Printing: New Digital Equipment Is a Game Changer

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

A commercial printing vendor I’ve been working with for about a year just hit the trifecta. They installed three new pieces of digital printing and finishing equipment, and I think this will be a game changer for this firm. I just received their press release, and I want to share the information with you and then explain why each piece is a step forward, both for this particular vendor and for the industry as a whole.

The HP Indigo 10000

I have written many times about my high regard for the HP Indigo press. For the first time, I strongly believe that with this particular technology digital commercial printing can match or even exceed the quality of sheetfed offset printing. That said, up until recently the maximum sheet size for the Indigo was approximately 13” x 19”. This left out many jobs otherwise ideally suited for digital printing (such as short-run pocket folders).

In contrast, the HP Indigo 10000 that this particular printer just installed takes a B2 sheet. This makes the press competitive with other 29” sheetfed presses, allowing for digital production of short-run or versioned pocket folders, large-format brochures with multiple folds, etc.

In addition, due to the liquid toner technology of the HP Indigo, this digital press has no dot gain to worry about, and there are no problems with trapping (printing one color slightly overlapping another, in order to avoid gaps between colors). The ElectroInk dries instantly, so wet-trapping is unnecessary, and all trapping is dry-trapping.

And with the extended inkset (up to seven colors, including ElectroInk white), the Indigo can accurately match the greater majority of Pantone colors. Therefore, PMS colors used in corporate identity logos can be faithfully simulated.

The HP Indigo 10000 can print on substrates ranging from 45# text to 150# cover. The press will accept coated and uncoated sheets, as well as colored and metallic papers, and stock used for folding cartons. In addition, the Indigo 10000 will print both sides of the sheet at once (which is known as duplexing).

What This Will Mean for the Local Printer I Work With

  1. First of all, this commercial printer will now be able to compete with sheetfed offset printers using 29” presses. The trim sizes of their jobs can be much larger than with the prior generation of HP Indigo digital presses.
  2. This commercial printing supplier will be able to offer quality equal to or better than its competitors who are using offset equipment.
  3. Since the HP Indigo accepts a much wider selection of paper than many other digital presses, this commercial printing vendor will not be limited in choosing printing stock. If a designer specifies a particular press sheet, either the printer will be able to use the name brand stock or substitute a comparable press sheet.
  4. This commercial printer will be able to help its clients better target marketing prospects. Because every piece produced by the HP Indigo can be customized, it will be possible to personalize each product and tailor the content to a specific audience (or even to individual prospects). In the long run, this will save money in postage. It will also increase the effectiveness of marketing initiatives.

The Horizon Cross Folder AFC

The custom printing supplier I work with also bought a Horizon Cross Folder AFC, which is an automated folding and cutting machine. Here are some of its features:

  1. The folder has a 15-second set-up time. An operator can set up any of 17 pre-programmed folding patterns from a touch screen console.
  2. The Horizon Cross Folder AFC will accept a wide range of paper stocks and will operate at up to 42,000 sheets an hour.
  3. The folder will even set the paper roller gap automatically based on the thickness of the paper inserted into the machine.
  4. The folder rollers are made of steel and polyurethane, which will ensure both longevity and a good grip on the paper, which will produce accurate folds.

What This Will Mean for the Local Printer I Work With

Basically this translates into speed and accuracy. The equipment will do an excellent job, but it will do it faster than older folding equipment and with less operator intervention. This will therefore translate into lower production costs, and that will allow for shorter production schedules that will cost less money.

The Horizon StitchLiner

The printer I work with also bought a Horizon StitchLiner. According to the press release, this saddle-stitching equipment performs flat-sheet collating, scoring, folding, stitching, and three-knife trimming in line. What this means is that magazine and book signatures don’t need to be folded on one piece of finishing equipment and then taken to another for stitching and trimming into booklets. All processes can be done using one piece of finishing equipment.

Not only is the equipment comprehensive, but it is also fast. According to the press release, each station on the stitcher can be set up in less than 30 seconds (from 8.5” x 11” to 5.5” x 8.5”). The operator can do this on the touch screen by noting the sheet size and booklet size. Make-ready can be done in less than 60 seconds.

In addition, the operator console will save up to 200 different pre-programmed jobs, and the equipment can stitch and trim up to 11,000 two-up booklets an hour.

What This Will Mean for the Local Printer I Work With

As with the Horizon Cross Folder, this stitcher will speed up production, reduce operator intervention, and lower consumer prices. At the same time, the equipment will allow this commercial printing vendor to meet or exceed the quality of prior work.

A Few More Observations

Moreover, what I personally find interesting about this equipment is the recent move by equipment manufacturers toward digital finishing. Prior to this, jobs produced on digital presses had to go through traditional folding, stitching, and trimming equipment. This push to automate finishing and to group together multiple finishing operations bodes well for the industry.

All of this equipment is ideal for packaging work, and this alone implies good things for the packaging and folding carton arena of commercial printing.

As mentioned before, in the realm of digital printing, the move toward larger sheet sizes also positions digital printing to compete head to head with offset. Clients and printers will be able to choose the appropriate technology—digital or offset—based on the length of the press run and the need for personalization.

Finally, these advances have spurred new developments in equipment for traditional offset printing.

This is an exciting time for both digital and offset custom printing.

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