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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: A Trip to the Modern Printing Plant

I’ve been attending press inspections at commercial printing plants for almost thirty years. Each time, I learn something new, so even now I get excited when I get a chance to go on a plant tour.

I had lunch this week with a friend of mine who is the CEO of a large, local custom printing company with a number of offices in the local DC Metropolitan area. Before we ate, we went through the new plant he and his company had just acquired (he had bought another commercial printing supplier’s business). I found it to be a most intriguing and educational experience.

What I Saw: An All-Digital Workflow

First of all, I saw relatively few people and a lot of equipment. When I started in the commercial printing field as a graphic designer and photographer, there were many more people in prepress. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, men and women at light tables manually stripped together large negatives shot from pasted up “mechanicals.” The mechanicals held the type and patches (called windows) for the photos, and negatives for these page elements were combined into the large flats (usually a press form of eight pages for printing one side of a press sheet). Passing bright light through these negatives “burned” printing plates that could then be hung on the cylinders of offset presses.

Today, in this particular printing plant (as well as others across the country), I saw almost no one in this department because all of the manual activities were now performed on computers, and the files were directly output to platesetters. Lasers burned the images of each eight-page side of a press form right onto the plate material with no intermediate film-based step. In fact, my friend’s platesetters didn’t require chemistry to develop the plates; the printing plates could just be washed with water on press, and they would be ready to print.

Where the Most Activity Was

I saw a lot of activity in large format inkjet printing and in laser-based digital printing. Again, relatively few people operated the handful of huge flatbed and roll-fed inkjet presses. One of these was a Mimaki. It printed the large vinyl banners, building wraps, car wraps, and magnets, while another flatbed router cut out the decals, window clings, and any other irregularly shaped, digitally printed jobs. (I knew from experience that other Mimaki equipment could actually inkjet print decals and then cut irregular outlines around the printed material using the same machine.)

The router I saw could also cut thick metal letters for signage with a different cutting tool (a plotting knife was all that was needed for the vinyl, paper, plastic, and other, less rigid substrates). I noted to my friend, the CEO, that I had seen videos of lasers cutting through large format print signage, and we agreed that this seemed to be the wave of the future.

What I took away from my visit to the grand-format inkjet press room was that marketing materials were a large market segment for commercial printing sales within this company. I also saw that items such as magnets could be inexpensively printed on huge sheets of magnetic substrate that could then be easily cut down as needed. These seemed to be very popular, as were the hemmed and grommeted banners made of scrim vinyl. Clearly they could be inexpensively produced by only a few inkjet printing press operators, and these simple products could pack an effective and memorable marketing message.

Digital Flat Sheet Presses

The CEO and I then walked through a room with both a Kodak NexPress and an HP Indigo. (I’ve often written in these PIE Blog articles that I consider the HP Indigo to be a superior digital press, and clearly my friend the CEO would not have otherwise purchased it.) But it was interesting to learn that he could laminate press sheets printed on the NexPress but not press sheets produced on the HP Indigo. It was my understanding that the fuser oil used in the HP Indigo did not readily accept film lamination. I thought this was particularly interesting since I knew of (and worked with) another printer who was in fact successfully laminating Indigo press sheets. Perhaps there are differences in the laminating film used by the two vendors, or maybe there are other factors of which I am unaware. Nevertheless, this piqued my interest.

Other digital presses in this commercial printing plant were more focused on black-only text. These were also laser-based. Interestingly enough, my friend the CEO spoke of the upcoming transition from digital laser printing (also known as xerography or electrophotography) to digital inkjet printing. He noted that both web-fed (roll-fed) presses and cut sheet presses might replace the Indigo and other laser-based custom printing equipment for printed book work as well as large format graphics.

My response was to ask if the quality was there yet, in his opinion. The CEO noted that no, it wasn’t. However, most people could not tell the difference. Others thought “good enough” was good enough, as long as the marketing message came through. For high-end work, such as fashion, food, and automotive advertising, the CEO did say that higher quality (better color fidelity and higher resolution) was needed and that certain digital equipment could provide this.

Marketing Work

At this point I also found it interesting that marketing work was in such high demand. Apparently people still responded to direct mail pieces discovered in their mailbox. With hundreds of emails showing up every day in computer in-boxes, it seems that the handful of paper direct mail pieces in the physical mailbox have a more immediate appeal. They are tactile; real, as opposed to virtual (existing only on the computer screen).

This particular printer also had hybrid presses. He had mounted inkjet heads on offset presses, so it was possible to print variable data (inline, right on the offset presses) directly onto offset printed marketing materials. He also had inline inserting equipment that could collect a number of personalized, digital or hybrid-printed pieces, and insert them into a mailing envelope.

And to speed up the mailing process, the CEO had on-site US Postal Service personnel doing all of the presorting and labeling, as well as bagging, tagging, and paperwork, so the direct mail pieces could ship right from his commercial printing plant.

What I found especially interesting, though, was a room with two roll-fed, laser-based presses. A roll of printing paper went through the first, which printed one side of the paper. Then this roll fed into a second press (the exact same model). The ribbon of custom printing paper turned this way and that (using turning bars, or rollers that could reposition the moving paper at right angles).

When the paper entered the second digital laser press, the opposite side of the roll could be printed. Then the paper was wound up into another roll, a receiving roll that could then be folded, trimmed, and inserted into envelopes. To me this was especially interesting, since I had been used to either cut sheets coming off a sheetfed press or completed and folded press signatures coming off a web press, but not a roll of commercial printing paper at the delivery end of the press.

But apparently this was an efficient way to process all of this direct mail: feeding it from a roll of paper, printing it, winding it into another roll, and then finishing it (all of the sheeting, folding, and trimming steps) from a roll instead of from press sheets.

And all of this was happening on a digital level, so the printed marketing materials I was seeing could be personalized as they traveled through the two presses as a single ribbon of paper.

What You Can Learn from My Experience

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Everything is automated. Some of the equipment needs far fewer operators than before. Other equipment can be operated remotely (with no on-site operators), except for loading and unloading the machines.
  2. Some of the digital presses are being built onto sturdy metal frames. That is, the build quality of offset presses is being introduced into the digital presses.
  3. Marketing is the main focus, at least in this plant. Managing databases of customers and potential customers drives the process. With this in mind, the digital marketing data and the creative art files are fed into offset or digital presses and then sent directly into the USPS mail stream.
  4. Large format printing is also hugely popular. Marketers want to grab your attention by wrapping buildings and vehicles with their imagery and tag lines. This way they get you to see their marketing message first.
  5. Digital inkjet is the coming wave, and it may eclipse digital laser printing.
  6. Acceptable quality for a particular job may not be the highest possible quality. “Good enough” may be good enough. That said, for certain markets (such as fashion, food, and automotive) only perfect color matches and the highest image resolution will do.
  7. Everything is changing at a blinding pace. Printers need to buy the latest equipment to stay competitive, but this equipment often becomes obsolete quickly. What this means is that large printers will get larger, and many smaller printers that can’t keep up will disappear.

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