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Printing Industry Exchange ( 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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Archive for June, 2012

Commercial Printing: Creative Ways to Save Money

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

If you’re really in a pinch and have no budget for your custom printing job, there are still ways to save money. This blog will primarily address smaller jobs, such as materials for a wedding or a small business, if you have one. I’ll also throw in a few ideas for big commercial printing jobs.

Saving Money on Paper

I had a print brokering client many years ago who needed business cards and hang-tags for items she planned to sell at a craft fair. Each business card or hang-tag included her business logo and some text. It was a simple custom printing job, but my client had no money to spend.

I went to a printer with whom I had developed a relationship over the years and discussed the job. I also went back into his paper supply room and looked for opened, old (but usable) 80# cover stock in a selection of colors (mostly muted neutrals like grey, off-white, light brown, and a subdued light green). Since these were already trimmed down to 8.5” x 11”, they would fit his smallest press (known as a duplicator), which also had the lowest hourly rate.

I planned to run black-only line art and text, and let the color of the paper provide the color for the job. Along with the consistent type treatment, the similar earth tone colors would provide a uniform overall “look” to the job. Not running any PMS colors would save money as would producing a one-color job on (essentially) free paper that would otherwise have gone to waste.

To save even more money, I laid out the whole job in InDesign to fit on a single 8.5” x 11” page. Along with crop marks to facilitate the post-press trimming process, I laid out a number of hang-tags and a number of business cards side by side on the sheet. I used up all the space I could, placing an extra hang-tag or business card here and there to fill out the press sheet (this is known as imposition, and is usually done by the printer).

I don’t remember exactly how many of each fit on a page: let’s say six business cards and two hang-tags. Since I had collected about 200 scrap 8.5” x 11” sheets with roughly equal amounts of the four tinted colors, I knew that, once trimmed, the single master imposed press layout multiplied by 200 sheets would yield 1,200 business cards and 400 hang tags.

The entire custom printing job probably cost a little over $100.00 for prepress, printing, and finishing for several reasons:

  1. I had collected the scrap press sheets myself that probably would have been thrown out eventually, even though they were perfect for an artist with a certain urban grunge look to her work.
  2. I had produced the imposition for the job (which only took a little math and not much work).
  3. I limited the job to one color on a very small press.
  4. And, most importantly, I had developed a long-standing relationship with the commercial printing vendor, who worked with me to meet the client’s budget.


Variations on the Theme

Here are a few options that are similar, and hopefully equally useful to you.

  1. The printer who did this job also printed my business cards at another time for almost nothing. Why? Because I said he could put them on any 80# white stock with any other job he was already printing–at his convenience, with no deadline.
  2. The approach I took for my business cards can be altered a bit to fit your situation if you are printing a few different jobs. You can lay out all of the jobs on the same press sheet. That way, all jobs can go through prepress and the press at the same time and then only become separate jobs at the trimming stage.

Note: This only works if all jobs can be produced on the same weight of commercial printing paper. If you need business cards and a thin paper brochure, you can’t do this. However, if you’re printing business cards and fold-over photo notecards, you can “gang” them (which is the printer’s name for this operation). You may note that ganging is what I did for my client’s business cards and hang-tags. It’s also a creative way to save money on larger jobs, and process-color work as well.

This is actually how quick printers and online business card shops can charge so little for business cards. If you take one business card to a custom printing vendor, he will do the prepress work and print the job by itself on a press. Therefore, you may pay $200 or more for the business cards. If you go to a printer that does gang runs of business cards, your cards may be on press with many, many other clients’ work. All clients for a particular run can then split the cost of the prepress work, press work, and finishing. In this case, your cards might cost $10 or $20.

One More Hint: the Odd-Lot Paper Market

Sometimes your commercial printing vendor can buy paper through the secondary market, also known as the spot market. Note: This may or may not be a good idea for recurring publications, since your paper may not be available when you need it. However if you are flexible (i.e., willing to accept substitutions), you may want to ask your printer if he has a relationship with an odd-lot vendor. Keep in mind that some of the paper lots also may be of less than optimal quality and runnability. Therefore, your printer may not want to do this. But it is a good way to get a remarkable deal.

One final word on paper from such a source: I’d suggest this only if you are producing a long run of a multi-page publication. In other words, it is only a prudent way to save money if you have a large job that requires a lot of paper.

The Moral of the Story

Think outside the box, and consult your custom printing supplier early and often.

Book Printing: Self-Publishing in Print Is Still Alive

Monday, June 25th, 2012

I read a PrintWeek article today that bears out my experience as a commercial printing broker selling book printing (and other custom printing services). The article is called “From Blog to Book: the Art of Self-Publishing,” and it was written by Jenny Roper (

Over the last several months I have helped five new clients who are publishing print books of poetry, fiction, and photography. I had thought these clients would prefer the lower prices of online vendors such as Lulu and CreateSapce, but I was mistaken.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe online self-publishing venues serve an important purpose. In fact, I love the idea that people of modest means who write can distribute their work in this way. We don’t all have to be John Grisham to get our work out there.

That said, I had expected most people to choose the lower prices and limited hand-holding of the online self-publishers.

But in the case of my five new clients, I am seeing a desire in certain clients for the personalized service of a printer, or custom printing broker. An organization with only an online presence may give you a good deal, but they will not send a representative to your house to show you paper samples, discuss various binding options, or show you how spot gloss varnish on a book cover can contrast with spot dull varnish in subtle and artistic ways.

The Print Week Magazine Article

Back to the article. Jenny Roper notes that “we are now in an age of feverish self-publishing.” People want to make their voices heard.

The article goes on to say that some book subjects lend themselves more than others to physical print books. She includes poetry, novels, and photo books, and says that computer books lend themselves more to the ebook format. (I would think that technology and business tomes don’t require a tactile—or emotional—component but do require the immediate upgradeability of content for which ebooks are ideal.)

Reasons to Self-Publish a Print Book

Jenny Roper notes that people self-publish for a number of reasons:

  1. Some people start with ebooks to gauge the interest in a piece of fiction or nonfiction (it’s cheaper than print) and then roll out a print version if the interest is high (because people still seem to want print books, interestingly enough).
  2. Others write blog posts and eventually either collect them into a print book format or someone else collects their posts and publishes them in print.
  3. Still others want control over the distribution, pricing, proceeds, and rights for their book. Roper notes that this “inevitably involves a print element as well as an online one.”
  4. As noted above, self-published books focusing on art, photography, and cooking lend themselves to print books in large part due to the higher resolution of print images when compared to 72dpi on-screen images.
  5. Self-publishers often choose print books for volumes of local or personal history. According to the article, books of memoirs seem to be printed first rather than published first as ebooks. This is counter-intuitive, since ebooks cost less to produce, store, and distribute (and self-publishers are bearing the cost themselves). However, for a product that focuses on “a culmination of a lifetime’s expectation and many years’ work,” people often choose to produce a print book first. To them, there’s something about having a permanent item they can hold in their hands, even if the book will be read by only their friends and family members. It’s more “personal,” as Roper notes.

Back to My Print Brokering, and to Print Sales in General

My experience bears this out in spades. I have five clients who have paid slightly (or a lot) more to publish their life’s work in print, and they have been a delight to work with. Furthermore, most of them know each other.

Printers should keep alert. A little hand-holding in the arena of self-publishing goes a long way. In fact, printers who can offer such ancillary services as editing, design, marketing, storage, distribution, and procurement of ISBN numbers, in addition to custom printing, will have an edge in this niche market.

What Can We Learn from This?

Print books are not dead. At worst, they are becoming more specialized. Certain people still prefer print on paper for certain items. Most of their reasons focus on its personal, tangible, tactile, and unchangeable nature.

Commercial Printing: High-End Packaging Reflects Artistry and Luxury

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

I’d like to describe the packaging of a straightening iron my fiancee just bought. Perhaps “gush about it” is a better phrase, since this box really impressed me in its design and custom printing work.

This box exemplifies the value manufacturers place on product packaging to sell a luxury item. Depending on the length of the press run, my guess is that the box may have cost several dollars or more to produce each unit. Since it contained a $30.00 professional hair care tool (marked down from over $130.00), the money that went into the packaging was not an inconsiderable portion of the total cost.

The Physical Dimensions of the Box

The box is about 3” high, 12” long, and 6” deep. The hinged box top comes forward, and a flap extending beyond the front of the box snaps shut on the cardboard. Upon close examination, I saw two magnets under the printed paper.

The bottom, back, top, and front are all of one piece, extending slightly beyond an inner box. The cover looks like a case-side produced by a hardcover book printer. Built over thick binder’s board, the cover comprises an outer press sheet with turned edges extending into the inside of the box cover. In much the same way as an endsheet of a case-bound book covers the turned edge paper covering the print book, an additional press sheet covers the inside of the flat iron box cover, extending almost to the turned edges of the exterior paper.

Inside the box is a molded plastic tray for the ceramic flat iron, hair straightening tool. The visible side of the tray is coated in something like a soft-touch UV coating. It ‘s soft and fuzzy, like the skin of a peach.

Finally, there are three, tri-fold brochures in the box, printed on heavy, film-laminated text stock (one in English, one in Spanish, and one in French).

The Custom Printing (Inside the Box)

The interior press sheet, laminated to the cover paper where it folds over the turned edges and extends into the box is printed in a metallic ink in faux zebra stripes. The metallic silver ink stands out against the matte black background. Both inks are very thick.

Initially, I thought this was a sample of custom screen printing. However, using my loupe I saw halftone dots under the black ink. At this point (without knowing for sure), I assumed that the pressman had printed a screen of black and then a second hit of solid black to increase the density of the black ink. Furthermore, I thought he might have done the same with the silver (perhaps a double hit of the ink).

The interior of the innermost box seemed to be a slightly mottled, matte black. I thought it might be flexographic printing.

I also saw where the dull exterior press sheet (maybe 80# text) had been turned over the edge of the box, extending an inch or so into the interior before being glued flat against the binder boards that comprise the box.

The Custom Printing (Outside of the Box)

The outside of the box is matte black (perhaps a double hit of black plus a dull UV coating or varnish). Black metallic foil cut with a die and applied with heat and pressure comprises a text-only design of words related to beauty. The evenness and sheen of the black, hot-stamped words suggest that they are made of foil rather than ink. A similar effect could have been produced with gloss UV coating over a matte black ink, but the intensity of the contrast makes me think this is hot stamping foil.

White, silver, and yellow type and graphics adorn the exterior of the box. The silver is clearly hot stamping foil due to its reflective metallic sheen, but I’m not sure about the yellow. It’s so rich. Maybe it includes some fluorescent ink or some opaque white mixed into the PMS yellow (there are no halftone dots, so it’s not a color build). Or maybe it’s a double hit of yellow. The dull silver zebra stripes are more subdued than the silver type, so I would assume the stripes have been created with ink rather than hot stamping foil.

What Can We Learn from This?

Product packaging is going strong. Even in the midst of a sea change in magazine printing, book printing, and newspaper printing, the sale of product packaging is actually growing.

The flat iron straightening tool was a $130.00 piece of hair stylist’s equipment until it was put in a discount store. The box designer (and the marketing people backing her or him) assumed that a $5.00 (just a stab at the price) box would sell a $130.00 straightening iron. That’s a fair commitment of money as well as design and production time.

My personal belief is that until a material can be invented that will encase products in a screen onto which digitally projected images can be projected, we will have both high-end and low-end product packaging. Tiffany & Co. and other luxury stores will provide shopping bags that are works of art. Even the boxes in the grocery stores containing microwavable dinners will be around for the foreseeable future.

Book Printing: Short Folds Are Cheaper Than Die-Cutting

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

This is a case study showing how a judicious use of folding rather than diecutting can save you money in your print buying work.

A print brokering client of mine, who is a designer, wants to produce a print booklet for an event her client is hosting. She envisions six 2-page spreads plus some introductory material and some follow-up material. She has therefore requested a 16-page, self-cover, 6” x 9” booklet with a press run of 3,000 copies, to be printed in 4-color process inks on 80# cover stock. A simple job. So far, so good.

Here’s the Catch: The Divider Tabs

In order to distinguish among the six 2-page spreads, my client initially suggested tabs. She had heard that thumb tabs (the kind that stick out beyond the face trim of a booklet) would need to be folded in to avoid being cut off during the trimming process. This is usually true for a multi-page book, but in this case, each page spread would have a thumb tab (so there would be no text pages between thumb tabs and presumably no need to fold the tabs in prior to trimming).

When he heard about the proposed design, the printer I had initially approached for an estimate was concerned for two reasons. On a design level, thumb tabs might be inelegant or unsightly. And on a custom printing level, they would require a die (which would cost multiple hundreds of dollars) and die-cutting time on other equipment (possibly a letterpress).

My client suggested tip-on tabs instead, but this too would be a separate process involving gluing additions onto the booklet pages.

My client then asked about designing the print booklet with staggered, diagonal cut-outs in the top right-hand corner of each page. The first page with the diagonal (triangle) cut-out would be slightly smaller than the next, which would be slightly smaller than the one after that. Printed colors could further distinguish between the diagonal cut pages. (Basically this would be a diagonal version of the thumb tab.)

The Alternative the Printer Suggested

The commercial printing vendor proposed an alternative: to do the same thing with horizontal, staggered pages. Each of the four 4-page spreads in the 16-page booklet would have a slightly shorter fold in the front of the book (the low-folio side), while the back pages (the high-folio side) would all be flush.

That is, the back eight pages of the print book would all be 6” x 9”, while the eight pages moving from the front of the book to the center spread would each be 1/2” shorter in width than the following page.

Again, a different ink color for each vertical strip could further distinguish between the page spreads.

One Printer’s Savings in Avoiding Die-Cutting

The booklet with the vertical short-folds would be the cheapest version by far. Why? Because it would not involve any dies or die-cutting on separate equipment.

The bids actually both arrived today, and the pricing of the printer with whom I had discussed the job reflected an additional $600.00 for the die cutting of the diagonal step-down corner tabs.

Interestingly enough, the second printer charged much less (about $200.00 less for the vertical step-down folds but almost $600.00 less for the diagonal version). Apparently he could do the diagonal trim on the cutting equipment without creating a die or doing any die-cutting.

What We Can Learn from this Case Study?

I think there are four lessons to take away from this custom printing scenario.

  1. First of all, all printers have different skills and equipment. Although the norm for a job like this would be to die-cut the diagonal corner step-down tabs, the second printer has offered to do the job without the surcharge for the die and die-cutting. If he does not succeed and has to manufacture a die, it will be at his expense.
  2. The second lesson is to see how helpful it is to approach a commercial printing supplier early. The first vendor I approached offered his knowledge of the cheaper vs. more expensive ways to produce a print booklet. He could have produced any of the four options, but he wanted to save my client money.
  3. The third lesson is that a custom printing job requiring die-cutting gets expensive. The printer has to create the metal die (even if it’s just one diagonal trim that’s repositioned for each of the 4-page spreads) and then take the time on other equipment (usually not a rotary offset press) to die-cut all the press sheets. This adds both time and cost, sometimes without providing a more compelling print book design. (Again, the second printer’s offer to trim the diagonal pages without a die is unusual.)
  4. The fourth lesson is that the cheapest book printing option is not necessarily a bad one in terms of design. In fact, the bold vertical lines of the successive short folds could be quite dynamic, particularly if set off from one another with contrasting colors.

Newspaper Printing: New Orleans Times-Picayune to Print Fewer Days a Week

Friday, June 15th, 2012

I am a fan of print in general (and, more specifically, newspaper printing). I must acknowledge my bias. So I pay particular attention to news articles about the death of print.

As many of you may know, the New Orleans Times-Picayune will now publish their print edition only three days a week. This is necessary to save money according to Advance Publications, Inc., the newspaper printer/publisher.

On this topic, I recently read an article called “What Happens When a Newspaper Is Just Another Digital Voice?” and I wanted to share with you some of the concerns and implications raised. For those who wish to read the article and comments, I encourage you to go to the following Gigaom website:

The Thesis of the Article

“What Happens When a Newspaper Is Just Another Digital Voice?” questions whether a newspaper has a duty to be a consistent voice, analyzing and critiquing the power structure within a community (i.e., a watchdog). Furthermore, when newspaper publishers cease to produce a daily print version, and instead move their news to the Internet, can they still provide a powerful, credible voice, or is their “brand” diluted by this shift?

The article and the comments that follow encourage the reader to think about these questions and their implications without providing definitive answers. This is far too complex an issue for a simple answer. However, I think the article does raise some cogent questions about the future of newspaper printing.

Here are some of the questions posed. Most of them address the purpose of a newspaper, as well as its power, reach, voice, and credibility:

  1. Does a newspaper serve a public purpose? Does it have a responsibility to provide credible information and analysis of community life and organizations? That is, is a newspaper responsible for being a watchdog that protects the interests of the community?
  2. If a newspaper has this responsibility, can it be as effective within a digital-only platform as it is through a physical printed product? Does it still have the same effectiveness, or is it less accessible and therefore less effective (keeping in mind that not everyone has Internet access, but, on the other hand, not everyone subscribes to a community newspaper)?
  3. Does the daily nature of a newspaper (in contrast to the reduced frequency of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and other, similar newspapers) provide the consistency that sustains its critical voice? Does a reduced frequency mean the editors and writers aren’t paying attention all the time? Or that the newspaper printers and publishers aren’t as committed to being a reliable source of information?
  4. Is cost cutting a reflection of a diminished intent? Is the purpose to inform the community, make money, or do both? If advertising revenue declines (as it has in newspaper display and–particularly–classified advertising), and if there is less money to pay investigative reporters, will this loss of editorial expertise and analysis diminish the quality of both the print version of the newspaper and its digital version?
  5. Since print is a tactile medium (with a physical presence), does a print newspaper have more credibility than a digital version (which has no physical presence)? Does a print newspaper stand out within a sea of digital news sources?

The Final Outcome?

According to “What Happens When a Newspaper Is Just Another Digital Voice?” declining print advertising leads to less money in hand to pay for print publishing and less money to pay for quality reportage and editorial services. This leads to the diminishing quality and therefore the diminishing authority of a newspaper, in print or online. People look to the newspaper as less and less of an authority.

The article proposes that “once your newspaper has been stripped of the magic of print—the same magic that makes you far more appealing to advertisers than the amount of time spent with your medium would seem to indicate—you become just another digital voice among thousands or even millions of other voices.”

Here’s My Opinion

Is this really true? Or can a newspaper put enough resources into making both the digital and print versions of the newspapers credible authorities? A lot of this comes down to money or, rather, finding ways to make money within a new business model.

I do believe that a printed newspaper is more consistent than a digital version. A physical copy of a newspaper is the same for each reader. Everyone gets the same news, whether they like it or not. I think this creates a consensual reality, a body of facts and opinions to agree with or challenge.

In contrast, if you can pick and choose what news you will get, creating your own digital news feed using a news aggregator, then you, I, and everyone else will get slightly (or completely) different news. And then the whole body of facts and opinions will start to get muddy. (This is already happening with promotional pieces couched as hard news, advertorials, and such.)

Also, a printed copy is more permanent. It cannot be altered once it has been distributed, whereas a newspaper that exists on the Web can be changed or rewritten entirely.

In addition (and the article actually does not address this topic), some people think that democratized reporting is enough. That is, if everyone has access to the Internet and can blog about areas of interest, criticizing and correcting each other to improve their accuracy, isn’t this enough? Do we really need the editors and other experts to curate information, valuing some sources more highly than others?

If newspapers cannot afford to pay reporters and editors, and all news becomes crowdsourced (sent to news aggregators as blogs and tweets), there will be no experts to provide commentary.

Whether you agree with the pundits or not, at least they challenge you to think.

Book Printing: Compromising to Gain a Price Advantage

Monday, June 11th, 2012

They say that everything is negotiable. As a commercial printing broker, I would agree, but I would also add that sometimes negotiating involves compromise. If the three variables are quality, cost, and schedule, it stands to reason that you may choose to compromise on one of these to attain the others.

Case Study: The Backstory

I recently negotiated a contract for a short book printing run for a client. The requested press run was 500 copies of a 202-page “zine,” a perfect-bound book with a 5.5” x 8.5” trim size. The cover would be 4-color (4/0), and the text would be black only.

When I learned that the book would be a “zine,” I did some online research. I wanted to get an idea of what kind of “look” my client might want.

Wikkipedia defines zine as “a small circulation publication of original or appropriated texts and images. More broadly, the term encompasses any self-published work of minority interest usually reproduced via photocopier.” Furthermore, Wikkipedia notes that “topics covered are broad, including fanfiction, politics, art and design, ephemera, personal journals, social theory, [and] single topic obsession.”

From the online description, and from samples I had seen, I sensed that a zine should look “edgy” and “raw.” So I suggested an uncoated cover and text stock to my client for a softer, more environmentally conscious feel. I specified a 100# Finch Opaque cover as an alternative to the more common 10pt C1S. I also specified 60# Finch Opaque text for the interior, and asked for hard-copy proofs.

Sending Out Bid Requests and Vetting Estimates

I chose three custom printing vendors with appropriate press equipment. I chose companies based on my prior working relationships with them. Pricing fell into a range from $3,500.00 to $4,000.00, expensive for 500 copies, but since the commercial printing suppliers would produce the print books via offset lithography, I was not surprised. In addition, the bids were reasonably consistent from vendor to vendor. (This is always a good sign that the specs have been accurate, and that the vendors have considered all specs in computing their estimates.)

Based on the short press run, I asked about digital printing as an option to lower the overall cost. One of the printers has an HP Indigo. Another has a Canon digital press. Neither could do the job economically on their digital equipment due to the length of the run (202 pages of text multiplied by 500 copies or 101,000 pages).

The Third Custom Printing Vendor Offered Digital Output at a Sweet Price.

The third printer is huge. It’s actually an organization, not an individual vendor in a single building. It has various shops all over the country and one in Mexico. I go to this printer for good pricing and high quality, knowing that they have access to pretty much all printing and finishing equipment in existence.

The third printer offered to produce the job via offset lithography. Their pricing fell in line with the other vendors. However, this printer also offered a digital printing option for approximately $1,000.00.

That said, there were stipulations:

  1. The cover would be 10pt C1S. There was no option for 100# Finch Opaque Cover.
  2. The text would be of a slightly lesser quality: an offset sheet (not opaque). It would be 50# Thor Plus Offset rather than 60# Finch Opaque.
  3. The book would be 208 pages, not 202, since this printer’s digital press works with 8-page signatures.
  4. The proof could not be hard-copy. It would be a soft-proof (on-screen PDF image).
  5. The cover coating would be UV coating, not varnish.

Why the Stipulations?

This custom printing supplier could do anything for a price. However, to provide the $1,000.00 estimate that severely undercut everyone else’s price, this printer had to avoid special order paper stocks (hence the 10pt. C1S cover rather than the 100# Finch Cover, and the 50# Thor offset rather than the Finch Opaque text sheet).

The printer also had to use the available equipment. That is, the particular printing plant through which this printing organization could offer such low prices could not run 100# text in their digital press, and their in-house capabilities excluded cover varnish but included UV cover coating (which actually would have been glossier and more durable than the varnish, so I was happy and didn’t argue).

I requested printed samples, which both I and my client reviewed and thought were quite good. My client chose this option due to the price. I chose to include this commercial printing vendor in the bidding process due to its stellar past record of providing quality work for my clients. Therefore, my client and I chose to accept the limitations to meet the budget.

What We Learn from This Experience?

In your own print buying work,

  1. Consider large commercial printing organizations as well as small local printers. They have the economy of scale and in some cases can therefore be extremely cost-effective.
  2. But get samples and develop a relationship with the printer over time. It’s easy to get lost at a big printer.
  3. Consider compromising. Be willing to adjust your specifications to get a better price.
  4. Realize that different specifications are not necessarily worse specifications. Thor Plus 50# text is a bulky sheet. It mics to 440 ppi (pages per inch). Finch 60# Opaque mics to 426 ppi. Therefore, the thickness of a 208-page book printed on Finch would be .49” and the same book printed on Thor Plus would be .47”–just slightly thinner.

The key word is flexibility.

Commercial Printing: Advances in Product Packaging

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

In a world where offset and digital custom printing are struggling for a place among digital-only communications media—such as e-books, Yelp, and Facebook–product packaging work is actually growing.

Advances in Digital Packaging Presses

Until recently, the main focus of digital custom printing within the packaging arena had been custom labels. For flexible packaging beyond custom label printing, the options included offset printing and flexography. However, this has started to change.

The drupa commercial printing trade show highlighted the HP Indigo 10000 (a B2 press, accepting sheet sizes up to 29.5” x 20.9”) that will be ideal for the folding carton and flexible packaging market.

Why is this such good news:

  1. The ability of the press to accept a 29.5″ x 20.9” press sheet allows operators to either produce larger printed products or impose more units on a press sheet. Prior iterations of the Indigo had accepted press sheets closer to 12” x 18”. Accommodating larger press sheets will allow HP Indigo to potentially compete head to head against sheetfed offset presses.
  2. Sustainability of both product and packaging is a deciding factor for many people when purchasing consumer goods. The ability to produce more environmentally sound packaging via digital custom printing is a major selling point, particularly in terms of the waste reduction and productivity enhancing qualities of digital printing.
  3. Mass customization of data and images has become essential as well. The new, larger-format digital presses allow for combining packaging with variable data coupons, tickets, and surveys, thus integrating dialogue marketing with product packaging work.
  4. The variable data capabilities of digital presses such as the HP Indigo 10000 allow commercial printing vendors to add individual barcodes or QR codes to packaging. This helps in tracking individual products, coding and controlling inventory, and identifying counterfeit products.


Advances in Offset Lithography

KBA, Rapida,Heidelberg—these are the heavy hitters in offset custom printing, and these companies have been expanding their offset printing options for product packaging, as evidenced at drupa and elsewhere.

For instance, one particular press, the Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105-8+LLYLX3 offers eight printing units and coating units, as well as UV-ink printing capabilities. It allows for in-line printed dull and gloss varnish effects, and the use of opaque white, metallic inks, and substrates such as aluminum coated cardboard.

Why is this such good news:

  1. As with other commercial printing arenas, packaging faces cost, quality, and turn-around pressures. Being able to print multiple design effects in-line speeds up the manufacturing process and controls costs. Increasingly, such eye-catching effects as printing on metallic foils can be produced efficiently, allowing packaging to really stand out on store shelves.
  2. Press automation improves make-ready times, reduces waste, and improves overall efficiency. For instance, the Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105-8+LLYLX3 includes automated pile changing at the feeder and delivery ends of the press. It is increasingly possible to provide eye-catching packaging faster and more economically.
  3. Many of these packaging presses are hybrid, including both offset and inkjet capabilities. This means that variable data can be added during the press run rather than in a separate pass. Printers can use such capabilities for adding QR codes, barcodes, and other variable data, or for error detection.
  4. Closed loop, electric eye devices constantly monitor the color density on press, making adjustments as needed to match preset color data. This leads to faster throughput and less waste, as well as improved color fidelity.
  5. Presses such as the KBA Rapida include automated process synchronization. For instance, 41” Rapida presses can change plates automatically while the press automatically washes blankets, cylinders, and rollers. Again, speed translates into cost-savings and improved turn-around times.
  6. The production of flexible packaging consumes vast amounts of power due to long press runs and high heat requirements (the ovens for drying ink on web presses, for instance). With energy-reduction in mind, KBA has developed VariDryBLUE, which captures heat from the initial drying units and reuses it for subsequent drying processes, reducing heat, saving energy, and lowering carbon emissions.


Product packaging seems to be immune from the encroachment of digital-only media. That said, digital technology has been instrumental in improving the speed, quality, cost, and environmental impact of this custom printing work.

Custom Printing Solid Physical Objects

Monday, June 4th, 2012

What exactly are the limits of commercial printing? What constitutes printing and what does not? About a year ago, I wrote a PIE Blog posting about a clock based on the coordinated release of jets of water from a hose. As the volume of water fell with precise timing, it created an image of the time of day in mid air.

Since this may be hard to envision, here’s a link to a video:

I would consider this a custom printing device, since it used digital information to create an image, even if that image was ephemeral. I would also go beyond this and say that the new generation of 3-dimensional printers fits the definition of custom printing as well. I’ve recently started to study this arena of printing because I believe it stands poised to transform commerce.

In an online article from The National entitled “How the Future Will Be Printed,” the author references a quote by Michael Dosier of the American University of Sharjah, saying that 3D printers “[are] set to revolutionise manufacturing, retail, distribution and employment.”

The Economist echoes this prediction, noting that “three dimensional printing…may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did.”

How Does It Work?

Currently the American University of Sharjah has three 3D custom printing devices. One of these uses powder, and two use plastics. The print heads deposit glue in repeated passes, horizontal layer upon layer, based on digital information, with the powder or plastic also added layer after layer. The base support within the machine descends as the layers are printed, and when the desired shape has been formed, the object is dug out of the surrounding residue of powder. Then the unused powder can be collected and reused.

The solid, three-dimensional object that results has a high resolution (level of detail, just like resolution in inkjet commercial printing).

It is also more than you might expect. In the United States at Cornell University, 3D printers have produced edible food, according to The National. Other groups have created furniture and car parts. In still another case, an 83-year old woman with an infected lower jaw received a 3D printed replacement jaw. Other groups have created a replica of King Tutankhamun’s mummy by performing a CT scan and then using the digital information to drive a 3D printer.

Taken to its extreme, notes The National, the process has the potential for printing replacements for human organs (after all, if they can grow human ears on mice, this doesn’t seem that far fetched).

Transforming the Manufacturing Process

Custom printing physical objects, even if they are just the component parts that are assembled into finished products, contrasts with the prior manufacturing model, which involves either creating objects within molds (pouring lead or plastic into molds, for instance) or by removing surrounding material (cutting something out of wood or milling metal, for example). The precision of such a process would also exceed that of the prior manufacturing model. It might also allow for the use of stronger, but lighter, materials for the 3D printing of objects.

What this process (referred to as “additive manufacturing” in the R&D Magazine article “The Fine Print: How Additive Manufacturing and Bespoke Products Are Changing the Way We Make Things”) implies, though, is multifaceted:

  1. As 3D printers proliferate, this will affect the current, vast supply chains that move products around the world as they are produced, assembled, and distributed. This could dramatically alter employment in factory settings. Instead of large manufacturing plants, we might have 3D custom printing devices at home or at much smaller commercial printing and assembly plants.
  2. Digital information can be tailored to individuals. Just as a marketing brochure print job produced on an HP Indigo can be mass customized so each recipient can receive a personalized mailing, each 3D object can be tailored to the recipient’s individual needs.
  3. The process will replace the enormous expense of manufacturing the tooling machinery that creates objects with the lower expense of building 3D printers.
  4. The process will probably also speed up manufacturing processes in general as well as their distribution supply chains.

GE is currently applying this new technology to it various businesses, from healthcare to energy, using a multitude of materials, from polymers to metals to ceramics.

The future of custom printing goes far beyond ink on paper.


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