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Archive for February, 2017

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.

Custom Printing: Laser vs. Rotary Die Cutting

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

I watched a video recently on YouTube. It showed a laser cutting machine producing a series of “kiss-cut” labels and then winding up the roll of labels while removing the scrap, or waste. I felt like it was the mid-’60s again and I was watching the original Star Trek TV show. The laser really has come of age.

First of all, a point of information. “Kiss-cutting” is cutting through the matte label stock while leaving the backing paper intact. To do this with a laser, which essentially burns rather than cuts the substrate, is impressive.

The YouTube Laser Cutting Video

Here’s a short description of the video, which can be found online. (I’m sure a number of laser cutting manufacturers have their own version.) First, a wide roll of preprinted labels unwound through tension rollers into a glass-covered tower in which a laser darted across the printed press sheet to trace the outline of all of the labels. You could see the bright flame as the laser burned through the paper stock, while a vacuum immediately pulled the smoke and paper dust out of the enclosure. (For the video, the cover of the laser console had been removed so you could see exactly how the laser worked.)

As the web of litho paper left the laser enclosure, it passed through more rollers, which removed the unprinted waste paper surrounding the series of labels. The rollers then wound up the web of paper onto the take-up reel.

I encourage you to find this or any other video demonstrating laser cutting. It’s really rather impressive.

Old and New Die-Cutting Processes

Prior to the advent of laser cutting, printers used rotary dies or dies on flatbed letterpresses. Metal rules inserted into wood on one side of the die cutter punched through the paper substrate and came to rest on the wood or metal beneath the paper. Then the waste material (anything not needed) was removed.

You could make anything from pocket folders to business cards to wine bottle labels this way. However, it took time and cost money to make the metal dies. Therefore, you couldn’t economically make a die for a single prototype. It was only cost-effective for long print runs of die-cut products.

Then, with the coming of laser cutting, commercial printing vendors could use digital data controlling a laser beam to cut anywhere from one copy to an unlimited number of copies of their finished product. Since laser cutting didn’t require metal dies, there was no need to pay for the dies, wait for them to be made by specialists, and store them carefully after their use.

Laser or Rotary Die Cutting: The Pros and Cons of Each

As with TV and radio, the advent of laser cutting has become more of an issue of options. Rotary dies are still used, and they offer benefits lasers do not. Here’s a rundown of when to use one vs. the other:

  1. Lasers can cut intricate patterns. Metal rotary dies cannot. So if you are die cutting a snowflake into a business card, for instance, you would want to use a laser.
  2. Lasers can cost-effectively cut one product, since no money goes into making the die. Therefore, if you want to produce a prototype of a fancy cologne carton with die cuts, laser cutting would be the technology of choice. If you then want to roll out a huge run of the same cologne carton, rotary die cutting might be advisable, since it is much faster than laser cutting. And at that point, you can spread the cost of the metal die across the entire press run.
  3. Speed to market is usually important for new products. If this is the case, a laser cut job is ideal because there’s no wait time for a die maker to create a die for a rotary press or flatbed press.
  4. Lasers don’t get dull like metal cutting rules. If you’re using metal rotary dies, they will eventually get dull and need to be replaced. This takes time and costs money. Laser cutting avoids this problem.
  5. Lasers are slower than rotary die cutting, particularly when cutting thick material. Thick paper (or any other substrate) slows down a laser cutter but has no effect on the metal dies of rotary or flatbed die cutting.
  6. If you’re using a laser cutter for 100 different cutting patterns, there’s no storage space, since the die specifications exist only in digital form on a computer. On the other hand, if you’re doing rotary die cutting and then storing 100 dies, you will need extra storage space to keep them safe and sharp.
  7. Not only the crafting of metal dies but also their use on rotary or flatbed presses requires skilled labor. In contrast, once you know how to use a laser cutter, the overall operation of the equipment is easier than rotary die cutting since it requires far less hand work.
  8. Laser cutting equipment costs much more to buy than rotary die-cutting equipment.
  9. Laser cutting equipment can be set up and then reconfigured for a new job far more quickly than rotary die-cutting equipment.

So a quick answer to the question of which to use is probably both: laser for prototypes and short runs where making quick changes is necessary, and rotary or flatbed (traditional metal die cutting) when the substrate is hard to cut and/or when you have a long run of die cutting to do. Ideally you would have access to both technologies.

Another Option: A Knife Plotter

I failed to mention one other option I have come across, which incorporates both metal cutting tools and the digital information of laser cutting. The machine is called a “knife plotter,” and some large format inkjet presses are configured with such a tool.

Basically a vertically held knife handle travels around a sheet of vinyl (above the preprinted labels, for instance), using digital information from the computer to precisely trace the perimeter of each label. Then the operator can peel off the scrap, leaving the “kiss-cut” printed label on the backing sheet.

The plotters I have seen online (Mimaki makes some of these) are small, slower than metal rule die cutting, but ideal for a small run produced by a small shop. In fact, it would be ideal for a commercial printing vendor who doesn’t want to commit to full-fledged rotary die cutting, has short-run jobs, and doesn’t want to subcontract the work.

Implications for the Custom Printing Trade

All of these options actually say a lot about the state of commercial printing, specifically:

  1. Creating labels is a large and quickly growing component of the world of custom printing. It’s big business, and there’s ever-increasing demand. Otherwise, manufacturers would not be scrambling to provide digital options for die cutting.
  2. The particular size of the die-cutting presses on the market (plotters and laser cutters) seems to precisely fit the requirements for label creation.
  3. It is clear that short, personalized runs are now the norm for labels, stickers, and such. The size, format, and economics of laser cutting all support the small formats, short runs, and personalization requirements of label and sticker production.

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: Making Car Parts with a 3-D Printer

Monday, February 6th, 2017

A close friend of mine is a car aficionado. He recently brought to my attention an article in the March issue of Motor Trend magazine that describes advances in 3-D printed car parts. I’ll have to admit that I was skeptical, as I was in the 1970s when I took a ride on my step-brother’s plastic motorcycle. But I was wrong then (it was a good bike), and in doing some reading now on 3-D printed car parts, I’ve become intrigued by the benefits.

The New Technology

The article my friend sent me was a column by Frank Markus entitled “3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars” (Motor Trend, March 2017).

The article addresses the work of Kevin Czinger, who researched the environmental impact of gas and hybrid automobiles due to his concern for the planet. He found that manufacturing the vehicles and the fuel accounted for more than 75 percent of the vehicle’s environmental impact (according to Argonne National Lab’s life cycle GREET model data). So he began to look for alternatives to metal stamping and welding car parts.

Czinger therefore founded Divergent 3D in Gardena, California, where he uses “off-the-shelf carbon-fiber tubing and sheet goods,” along with 3-D custom printing, to create an auto chassis that is cheaper to manufacture and significantly lighter in weight than a traditionally produced product. It will “accommodate any type of body, powertrain, and feature content” (“3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars”).

According to the article, Czinger’s process for a “prototype Blade uses 69 nodes, each of which are 3-D printed by laser sintering powdered aluminum to connect an intricate web of carbon-fiber tubes and honeycomb-aluminum or carbon-fiber sheer paneling—all off-the-shelf commodity parts” (“3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars”).

(As a point of interest, laser sintering is one of a number of processes, including direct metal laser sintering, selective laser sintering, and electron beam additive manufacturing, that use a laser or electron beam to melt and fuse powdered metal or wire into a usable—and stable—3-D form, building up the substance layer by layer from a 3-D computer aided design model.)

Frank Markus’ article then notes the bottom line: a “drastic drop in manufacturing cost and complexity.” And, by inference, if there’s a drop in the complexity of manufacturing, there will be a lessened effect on the environment.

The Effects of the New Technology

  1. As I read the article, I am reminded of the LEGO plastic building toy I had in the ‘60s that let children build practically anything with a limited number of interlocking plastic parts. What Czinger seems to be doing is identifying those parts that need to be unique, producing these via 3-D additive manufacturing, and then using these custom-built car parts along with standard (albeit simpler and lighter than usual) parts to complete the car chassis building process. Simpler equals cheaper and less damaging to the environment.
  2. If the chassis of the car is strong but much lighter than usual, it seems that fuel efficiency will increase. For performance cars (like those in Motor Trend magazine), this will equate to faster speeds. However, it will also equate to a dramatic increase in fuel efficiency. Less fuel, as Czinger found in his initial research, will combine with less complex manufacturing to reduce the impact of a vehicle on the environment.
  3. Czinger’s Divergent 3D process apparently sidesteps the need for painting car parts. Markus’ article notes that the “unstressed composite body panels get molded in color or wrapped” (“3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars”). Eliminating a painting step in car production will dramatically reduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs), further lessening the environmental impact of the manufacturing process.
  4. From the point of view of manufacturing in general (as opposed to the auto industry in particular), combining digitally produced unique parts with off-the-shelf commodity parts will streamline both research and development and the final production of vehicles. More specifically, a prototype can be made in-house quickly, and then changed any number of times in response to testing. In contrast, without 3-D manufacturing, the parts for the prototype would need to be sent out for injection molding, which would be a subcontracted process taking a lot of time and money. In short, additive manufacturing would make vehicle design more “nimble” and therefore quicker, cheaper, and more easily adjusted in response to testing.
  5. Applying 3-D custom printing technology to car production would simplify the manufacturing process, minimize inventory, and make the “assembly-line” paradigm obsolete. For instance, the traditional approach has been to rely on a limited number of manufacturing plants to produce all car parts. These parts are manufactured on an assembly line in bulk, and them shipped out and kept in inventory for their final use. (For the most part this is because it is cheaper to stamp out or injection mold a huge number of car parts at one time and then store them.) In contrast, using 3-D additive manufacturing, a car parts manufacturer can produce only those specific parts needed at the time, and presumably eliminate or dramatically reduce inventory as well as waste.
  6. It is much less expensive to install 3-D custom printing equipment than to build production facilities for metal stamping and injection molding. Another way to phrase this is to say that the entry cost for car parts manufacturers is lower if they use 3-D additive manufacturing than if they need to equip a traditional manufacturing plant with tool and die machinery. Presumably, this can lead to the growth of a multitude of small businesses across the country producing car parts on an as-needed basis. Instead of having a “hub” system, with all components being sent out from a central manufacturer, the manufacturing would be based on a “cell” system, with the nearest cell manufacturing the car parts as needed.
  7. This implies a paradigm shift from valuing the car parts themselves to valuing the digital information from which the car parts can be digitally printed. The car parts themselves would become a commodity, but the proprietary intellectual value of the digital manufacturing information would rise dramatically. Other than the decentralization of manufacturing, I think this may be one of the more far-reaching effects of 3-D custom printing, not only for the car industry but for any number of other industries as well.

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