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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 October, 2018

Book Printing: High-End, Case-Bound Look-Books

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

My fiancee found two print books at the thrift store this week that together weighed about twenty pounds. They are perfect-bound art books. One is a “look book” showcasing street art in both New York City and Barcelona (four-color throughout, with bleeds and minimal text).

The other is a catalog of art prints. This one really needs its own table, it’s so heavy. Its contents have been broken down into photography, still life paintings, floral paintings, figures, etc. While it doesn’t cover all art periods, it really does provide a visual survey course in art history.

My fiancee picked these up as a resource for our art therapy work with the autistic: idea books to help us come up with new and thought-provoking art projects that will challenge our students. But as a print broker, I also noticed the superior print book production values these two case-bound books display.

The Street Art Book

Street art–as the book NYCBCN, by Louis Bou, suggests through its imagery—is a reflection of urban life applied to all manner of canvases, ranging from the sides of trucks to ramps in skating parks, from posters plastered over windows to walls emblazoned with graffiti. All of this is art. All of it tells a story about what it’s like to live in New York City or Barcelona.

I see a number of qualities in the book printing work that will affect the reader on a subconscious level:

  1. The paper stock is substantial (probably 100# text). This not only prevents show-through from one side of a page to the other. It also gives a sense of importance to each page. A thinner press sheet would feel flimsy.
  2. The paper is almost invisible. The ink coverage is just that thick, and every page bleeds on all sides. However, here and there you can see the specular highlights (i.e., areas with no halftone dots, or very tiny ones). The paper is an exceptionally bright blue-white shade. Granted, in contrast to the surrounding heavily saturated colors, the white would naturally stand out and seem whiter than usual. However, the bright blue-white press sheet does still increase the brilliance of the colors, since process colors are transparent. That is, the whiteness of the press sheet enhances the intensity of the ink colors.
  3. The book is more than 600 pages in length. No other binding method I can think of would be appropriate for such a long print book as the case binding chosen by the book designer. Perhaps a perfect bound option would have worked. But for such a large and heavy book block, case binding does make this book seem a lot more durable. After all, the case on which the book block has been “hung” has to support approximately five pounds of weight.
  4. In addition to the case binding, the book has been Smyth sewn. You can see the stitches holding the book signatures against one another now and then as you page through the print book.
  5. The book cannot lie completely flat since it is a case-bound book (and not a lay-flat bound book). Nevertheless, it is a loose-back book (the fabric “crash,” to which all book signatures have been glued, has itself not been glued to the spine of the book-binding cases). Therefore, the book almost lies flat, or as flat as one can expect a 600-plus-page book to lie. Since the spine is loose and the book is large—and clearly designed to be used a lot and last a long time—it is clear that the thickness of the crash and the thickness of the paper work together to ensure the print book’s durability. You can see the attention to detail. Bookbinding clearly is an art.
  6. Given the gritty nature of the subject matter, it seems fitting that the cover is made of 4-color-printed litho paper laminated to the chipboard of the binding. (Or, rather, this is not a cloth-bound book in a dust jacket.) The intense color of the cover art is augmented by this treatment. And adding the title of the book in large foil-stamped letters (both reflective and textured) provides an even more intense and edgy tone to the print book.
  7. While I’m not certain about this, the intensity of the interior art and cover art would suggest the following: either the printer added fluorescent ink to some of the process colors, or the printer used touch plates (additional colors beyond the usual cyan, magenta, yellow, and black).

The Fine Arts Book

The cover of this book just says Art. It’s a catalog. In fact, the price list is printed right on the interior front cover. Like the first book, this book is case bound. Unlike the first book, which I would consider to be an art book meant to showcase street art, this is a book used to sell printed reproductions of fine art prints. Nevertheless, it will give the careful observer a good education in a number of contemporary styles and approaches to the fine arts.

It is also especially heavy: perhaps five times as heavy as the first book. When you open this case-bound book, the crash does not come away from the spine. Unlike the other (“loose-back”) book, the crash of this case-bound book has been glued to the spine of the binder’s case to increase the durability of the print book. (This is called a “tight-back” book.) After all, it is especially heavy, and it has to last a long time and be used regularly as a reference. I firmly believe that a loose-back book block of this weight might otherwise tear away from its case after numerous uses.

Here are some further thoughts about the production values of this book:

  1. There are numerous index tabs inserted between press signatures. If you look closely, it is clear that they were folded in (maybe two inches from the face trim of the print book) and then opened so the thumb tabs would extend past the trim of the book pages. This is why. If the tabs had not been folded in, they would have been trimmed off as the guillotine cutter came down to flush cut the face (outer vertical side) of the book. To avoid this, a bookbinder folds in the tabs, trims the book block, and then opens the tabs for final use.
  2. As with the other book, the designer has chosen an especially bright white (blue white, since it appears even whiter than usual) press sheet to showcase the images. Since this is a case-bound catalog, to be used to sell art prints, the images of the fine art prints are relatively small. Positioning a small number of images on a page and then surrounding them with a lot of white space make reading the 800-plus-page book less daunting. The commercial printing press sheet seems to be matte (not gloss or dull). This makes reviewing the imagery easier on the eyes. But to make the images “pop,” the designer has also apparently varnished the photos.
  3. As I consider the length of the book and its weight (maybe ten pounds), it is clear that all of the elements of the case binding add to its durability. These include the tight-back case binding and presumably Smyth sewing (everything is glued too tightly for me to see the stitching, but Smyth sewing would add additional durability), plus the exceptionally heavy end-sheets and flyleaves (the papers to which the book block is attached and which are in turn glued to the interior front and interior back covers).
  4. The goal of this print book is to present to the reader a huge number of images. These have to be attractive (a number of images per page but with ample white space). It looks like the colors in the prints may have been augmented (either with fluorescent ink added to one or more of the process colors or touch plates with additional inks beyond the usual CMYK palette). But beyond everything else, this book is meant to last. It is clear to me that the artistry of the binding has both a functional component and an aesthetic one.

Custom Printing: Thoughts on Brochure Folding

Sunday, October 21st, 2018

I get a lot of promotional mail in the course of a week, and I try to be mindful of which pieces spark my interest and why. Granted, since I get a lot less physical mail than email, I am far more likely to take the time to look closely at the print mail: its design, its format and folding, and the paper. It’s a tactile experience. Internet mail, ads, and anything else on the Internet lack one important quality for me: the sense of touch.

When I think about it, one quality of a good direct mail piece, one that piques my interest, is how it folds. Not just the physical experience of folding the paper, but the use of a unique fold to convey a message that’s congruent with the text, images, paper selection, and color usage in the brochure. After all, a good mail piece has to do more than just look attractive. It has to use all the elements of aesthetics to underscore its tone, its message, its purpose.

I went online recently to look for special folds for this blog article. First of all, that in itself is ironic: using the Internet to research commercial printing. Not long ago, I would have pulled out my sample boxes in which I store examples of print books, brochures, boxes, and all number of other printed paper products. But I wanted to collect some ideas quickly, so I checked Google Images.

What I Found and What I Learned

I was looking for a few golden rules of folding to share in this PIE Blog posting. Here are some thoughts that came to mind:

Do Something Different

I found an interesting fold based on a triangle. Most brochures are rectangles. You fold them up and they are tall rectangles, and you open them up and they’re wide rectangles. But they’re still rectangles. In contrast, the sample I found, when unfolded, had a tall left trim margin and a short right trim margin. It was a triangle.

The brochure comprised ten panels, five on each side. Overall, this was a “Z” fold or accordion fold brochure. Each panel zig-zagged back and forth. Every other panel had a large grey ink solid extending the length and width of the panel. The front and back panels on the far right were very small; the front and back panels on the far left were very tall. When you stood the open and unfolded brochure on its side, it had an almost architectural look, like a multi-level building with sloping roofs.

Or here’s another one. Several rectangular cards were wrapped in an outer sheet. No big deal. But in this case, the outer wrap had been set at an angle to the interior cards before being wrapped around them. This slanted treatment created an almost floral pattern of petals around the central stack of cards. This made it unique.

Again, do something different, and people will notice.

Make Sure the Fold Supports the Message

The accordion fold (zig zag) noted above might have been ideal for a building company or an architectural firm. (Online I couldn’t see in the small image exactly what the brochure promoted. I’m sure such a fold would be appropriate for a number of situations.)

But on a more basic level, it’s important to use the folds and treatment of the brochure panels in a functional way. The step-down accordion fold brochure had alternating gray panels (and white panels) with type reversed out of the gray panels. These obviously (even in a thumbnail-size image) contained a particular kind of highlighted text that differed (in terms of content) from the main text of the brochure. The gray panels highlighted this text and set it apart from the other brochure text (on the white panels) because of its different design treatment.

Approaching the design in this way helped group the copy in the brochure into digestible chunks. People have more to do these days, so they have less time to read brochures. They usually need to skim (or even just glance at) the text. Good design involves using folds in a brochure (and the panels it creates) to lead the reader through the content of the brochure. The reader appreciates this guidance, and you can ensure that your copy is read.

Another way to approach this is to consider how the folded brochure opens and what panels the reader will see first, second, third, etc. In my opinion, making such a decision online is not wise. Use the online thumbnail images to get ideas, but make paper folded mock-ups as you design brochures to see how the actual, physical brochure will fit in the hand of the reader, and what she/he will see first, second, etc. This is also a good time to check your swipe file (all the custom printing samples you liked over the years and kept for future reference). You can even call your commercial printing vendor or paper merchant and ask for ideas (and printed samples). Remember that, above all else, print is a physical medium. Make your design decisions using physical samples.

Consider the Physical Requirements and the Cost

Remember the cards wrapped in the paper that had been folded at an angle around the card stack (noted above)? This was stunning, but depending on the equipment and skill level of your custom printing supplier, it might have been either very expensive or impossible. Therefore, involve your printer early, and ask what he can and can’t do. Better yet, make a paper mock-up and share it with a number of print vendors.

If you have multiple panels in a brochure and these panels wrap inward (called a barrel fold or wrap fold), ask your printer how to size each panel. That is, the inner panels must be narrower than the outer ones, or the fold won’t work. If you make all panels the same size and then position copy and art on these equal-sized panels, once the brochure has been trimmed and folded by the printer, the copy and text will no longer be centered on each panel. Avoid this nightmare. Once you have confirmed the overall design, ask the printer for the exact width of each panel (remember, the height will presumably be the same).

Collect Samples/Get Ideas

Here are a number of ways to get ideas for current and future projects involving folds:

  1. Start a swipe file. Keep every piece of folded promotional mail that you find in your mailbox and really like. But go beyond that. Be able to explain (to yourself) why the design decisions (folds, format, trim size, paper, typeface, images) support the message.
  2. Ask all printers and paper merchants you work with for printed samples. Then keep what intrigues you in your swipe file.
  3. Check online. Google “brochure” and “folding.”
  4. Look up Foldfactory. They have good videos accessible through YouTube. They regularly highlight intriguing folds and explain how to do them and why they are effective. What’s nice about an online video is that you see exactly how the folded brochures work when unfolded. This is akin to what I was saying earlier about making physical mock-ups. Something may look good in an online photo, but unless it can be physically created and easily operated (and your printer can produce it for you within your budget), it’s not right for you. You can get a good idea of all of this through Foldfactory videos. There are probably other, similar videos you can find online as well.

All of this should give you a good start. The take-away? Involve your commercial printing supplier early and throughout the process (to get intriguing ideas, prices, and suggestions for how to make the novel ideas work).

Custom Printing: Revising a New Asphalt Paver Logo

Monday, October 15th, 2018

A short while ago I wrote a blog posting about a new logo I’ve been designing for a local asphalt paver. I described its genesis as a coroplast sign that morphed into a logo commission and then into cups, hats, and finally a large format print vehicle wrap. With my fiancee’s input, I provided three options a few days ago and then heard nothing back from the client. I started to get nervous. I assumed he had hated them. Then I reviewed the logos again, and I wasn’t so sure anymore either.

So today I shared the PDF of the three options with a friend and client of mine who designs print books. Interestingly enough, she used to be an editor, and I started her down the path of design, and since then I have consulted with her on the design of many of her print books, which are for such high-profile clients as the World Bank.

Turning the tables and having the student educate the teacher was humbling but very instructive. It is a lot easier to tell someone how to improve a design than to come up with a good one yourself.

That said, this is what she suggested, what I learned, and what I created for the revised, new logo. As with the initial batch of logo options, we can only wait and hope the client will be either pleased or at least articulate about what he likes and dislikes. Fortunately he called me this morning, and since then we have been playing phone tag.

What I Had Initially Created

As a recap, this is what the first three logo options looked like:

  1. Option #1 was a background rectangle picture box containing a photo of asphalt. Over this I had placed type in Gill Sans, flush right, with the name of the state in all caps and the word “asphalt” below in lowercase letters. I made the first line white and the second line a darker gray than the background asphalt photo. I also added a black and red stylized road above the state name, with a dashed line in the center.
  2. The second option was the same type treatment over the state map (both color and black and white versions).
  3. The third option was the irregular outline of the state map with the type superimposed over the map image. I made the “A” in the word “asphalt” red to provide drama and immediately grab the viewer’s attention.

What My Friend and Client Said, and What I Did in Response

My fiend/client said the road would be more recognizable with a yellow line down its center rather than a red one. I had initially chosen red because of its impact. My friend was absolutely right. I should choose a color that is relevant to the logo, and the line down the center of the road is not red. It is either white or yellow.

She also suggested putting the asphalt image within the outline of the letterforms. I tried this with both the name of the state and the word “asphalt.” It seemed to be too much, so I made the name of the state red and then reduced its size and increased the size of the word “asphalt.” Because of this, the rocks in the image of asphalt (within the outlines of the letterforms) were more visible. Moreover, the image of asphalt was really only pertinent to the word “asphalt,” so it made sense to only have the image within this one word.

In addition, I used the colors of the state flag, rather than the flag itself or the outline of the map. As noted before, I replaced the red in the stylized road with a yellow dashed line. I also made the all-capitals name of the state red (the other color in the flag). So the color palette now reflected the colors of the state flag without my directly including imagery of the map or flag, and at the same time this simplified the overall look of the logo considerably.

Finally, my friend and client had suggested simplifying the overall design by making the top line and bottom line justified rather than flush right. I had resisted this idea. I felt that flush right would be more unique (less expected) than flush-left type, and that justified type would only create an undifferentiated rectangle (the shape of the exterior boundary of the logo). There would be no drama.

Therefore, as a compromise, I enlarged the word “asphalt” (as noted before), reduced the size of the state name, positioned the type with a flush-right alignment, and then added a stylized road (with the yellow, dashed line in the center) immediately to the left of the state name.

Because of these graphic decisions, I had created a continuation of the rectangle on top (the shape of the state name rendered in all capital letters) with the simulated road extending (to the left) to the same vertical axis as the left edge of the “a” in “asphalt.” On the right, I vertically aligned the final letter in the state name and the final letter in the word “asphalt.”

The gist of what I just said is that I had a rectangle. All visual elements of the logo nestled tightly into one another: the simulated road, the state name, and the word “asphalt.” Everything was tight, simple, and airy (in that the logo was not superimposed over a rectangular image). Moreover, the logo includes the texture of the asphalt within the word “asphalt.” So it has a humorous tone.

This is a viable fourth option for my client. We’ll see what happens.

What You Can Learn From This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. I hadn’t thought of this until just now, but not having either a map or the image of the flag (or the image of the asphalt) behind the logotype will make the overall logo more flexible. It will be easier to coordinate the design of the business card and the vehicle wrap (at vastly different sizes) without a background image. The shape of the words will also be more evident and therefore more immediately recognizable (since the viewer will more readily see the descender of the “p” and the ascender of the “h” in the word “asphalt”). Plus, the slanted letterform of the letter “t” in “asphalt” will also be more visible. The take-away is that you should check your own logo design in a similar manner. Think about what is all uppercase and what is all lowercase. The eye will immediately identify a lowercase word (or one in uppercase and lowercase letters). It will recognize the shape of the word (without needing to read all the letters). If you put part of the logo in all caps, it’s shape will be just a rectangle. This will slow down the viewer’s reading speed. This doesn’t have to be a problem. You just have to be aware of it.
  2. Think about where the reader’s eye enters the image of the logo. In the case of the logo I just created, the eye enters along the simulated road with the dashed line. The yellow grabs the reader’s attention. Then the horizontal line of the road leads the viewer’s eye to the all-caps name of the state (in red). Since the final word, “asphalt,” is larger than anything else, that’s where the eye goes next. It would go there first if not for the yellow in the simulated road and the red in the state name. In your own work, be able to articulate how the viewer’s eye enters the design, where it goes next, and where it goes after that. Make it easy for the viewer’s eye to travel comfortably through the entire logotype and image.
  3. Finally, see what the logo looks like when you make it very large and very small. After all, it may be reproduced on both large format print signage and a business card. Also see how it looks in black and white as well as color. In the case of my project, a black-and-white-only logo directs the viewer’s eye to the word “asphalt” first, not to the yellow line in the middle of the road.
  4. Then put the mock-ups away, and don’t look at them for a day or so. When you see your work again, you will have more objectivity. You will see both the good points and the flaws.
  5. Finally, show the logos to other people, particularly other designers. You don’t have to take their advice, but it will help to get different points of view on your work. It may even give you new ideas to pursue. Then show your logos to your client.

Book Printing: Unique Book Binding/Finishing Formats

Monday, October 8th, 2018

My fiancee recently brought home from the thrift store two intriguing books for the grandchildren. The first is The Slant Book, written by Peter Newell, and the second is How Does the Show Go On?, written by Thomas Schumacher.

What makes both of these books particularly interesting to me is their unique binding methods. Both are striking. I’ve never seen anything quite like them before. In addition, the uniqueness of each reinforces the theme of the print book. That is, the special effect is not gratuitous. The form reinforces the meaning.

The Slant Book

One of the attributes of every print book I’ve read until now has been the quality of squareness or rectilinerarity. Abutting edges have always been set at a right angle: 90 degrees. Trimming knives I’ve seen at book binderies have also been set at a right angle. It has been a given, an expectation.

That said, I was intrigued to see that The Slant Book is more of a rhombus. Opposite sides are equal and parallel (the bind edge and face trim; the head trim and foot trim), but the angles themselves are not 90 degrees. The book tilts upward. The top of the spine is at an an angle greater than 90 degrees, and the bottom of the spine is at an angle less than 90 degrees.

This brings up a lot of questions for me, and the Internet was not forthcoming with answers. First of all, I wondered how you would put it in a bookcase. Since I am somewhat obsessive compulsive, this would be the first question that comes to mind for me. The second was, How did they do that? After all, trimming knives are set at right angles to one another on all of the finishing equipment I’ve seen.

The first question was easy enough to answer, assuming that the face trim margin of the book would stick out above the line of equally tall books, while the spine was flush with the spines of the other books on the shelf.

To answer the second question, I had to make assumptions based on experience. After all, Google came up dry. To start with, opposite sides of the book were parallel. Therefore, it seemed to me that to cut both the print book block and the binder’s boards (The Slant Book is a case-bound volume), either a single guillotine cutter or two parallel knives of the three-knife trimmer could be used.

In addition, and to keep control of the precise placement of the book during its trimming, perhaps a wooden jig of some kind had held these print books in exactly the same position for each trim. As to the printed litho paper laminated to the boards and turned over the edges, plus the fabric covering the spine and extending about an inch onto the front and back covers, this might have been done by hand.

Granted, the work would have required precision. After all, I’ve seen badly bound books that neither open nor close easily because of imperfections in the binding angles, paper grain direction, or any number of other reasons. Because of this, I was very impressed—as well as perplexed.

From the point of view of the content, I was also more than a little bit amused. The illustrations, and even the backward slanted type on the left-hand pages, made the format look not only intentional but also most appropriate. Starting on the cover, the characters of The Slant Book go slip sliding down the incline, from a runaway baby carriage to a police officer knocked off his feet to a push cart full of trinkets. Even the cover expresses this slantedness, with the characters seeming to run forward quickly due to the inclined cover surface.

The book format and the cover and text content work together perfectly, hand in hand.

How Does The Show Go On?

The second book is aimed at an older audience. You could say that adults might appreciate it as much as children, given the full-color treatment both on the cover and throughout the text, along with the flashy photos of Broadway, the playbills, and the tickets.

Again, what sets this print book apart is its binding. Like the first book, the second is case bound. This is also a square format, but with a vertical split right down the center of the front cover. I’d call this a “barn-door” effect (similar to a gatefold but with equal emphasis given to the left and right panels that both open outward). The photo on the cover is a theater stage, and the panels opening to the left and right reveal the first page of the book, much as a rising theater curtain reveals the scene of the play being presented.

How was this done, you might ask. The left panel of the case-bound cover is a shortened front cover binder’s board with the litho-printed stock laminated to the chipboard. It begins at the half-way point and extends to the left, toward and around the spine and then fully across the back of the book. Then it continues vertically (another small binder’s board) up across the face trim of the book. Finally it comes back to the center of the print book, where it vertically meets and abuts to the first half-panel.

So the entire cover creates a wrap. A little box with no top or bottom. Just sides. It’s absolutely perfect for a print book whose contents are all about revealing and then showcasing what’s on the stage. Interestingly enough, even the full-bleed photo immediately under this unique cover creates a sense of movement. Half of this photo is the pasted down endsheet for the cover (a photo of wooden running and jumping creatures with horns–perhaps gazelles), and the other half is the loose flyleaf (a continuation of the image on the left) covering page one of the text. Again, form follows content. The image is revealed, but it is also made up of two traditional print book binding components: the endsheet and the flyleaf.

True to form, the interior of the book (even though this is an article on binding) also includes some striking finishing techniques. For instance, a full-size, bound theater playbill is tipped onto a hanger and glued to a book page. It looks exactly like one you would receive when shown to your theater seat. Later in the book, and also tipped onto a hanger glued to a book page, is a small pocket folder containing theater-related drawings. There’s also an acetate sheet–with printed hair and moustache–attached above an image of a man without the hair and beard (that is, you lay down the clear acetate, and the actor’s costume facial hair is attached to this face). And the list of intriguing finishing operations goes on. Each provides access to an element of theater. Each is a discovery.

In all cases, the physical approach to the book and the binding and finishing techniques used complement the content of the book.

What We Can Learn From These Print Books

  1. In your own design work, use both the page design (type, color, and imagery) and the physical properties of book design (materials, folding and cutting operations, tip-ons) to reinforce and enhance the meaning of the book. These should be intrinsic to the design and theme, not pretty add-ons.
  2. Always involve your commercial printing supplier early. For books like these, choose your printer first and then work with him to realize your vision.
  3. Expect to pay a lot for these enhancements.
  4. Remember that there’s a reason books are still with us, even if we have access to eReaders. None of these special treatments could have been done on a digital, screen-only product. All of them are tactile, and all engage the reader actively and physically (for instance, you have to pull the inserts out of their pockets to read them).

Custom Printing: A Trip to the Modern Printing Plant

Monday, October 1st, 2018

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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