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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, 2022

Custom Printing: Increase Your ROI with Tchotchkes

Monday, October 31st, 2022

Photo purchased from …

When I was a baby, my father spoke to me in French, Yiddish, and German, as well as our native-born English. Perhaps that is why I have always been intrigued by words. So when I first heard the word tshatshke (Yiddish) or tchotchke (Slavic, as per Google), it piqued my interest. The word means (among other things) “trinket.”

Over the years, the word tchotchke has been appropriated by the promotional-item custom printing market. In this context it refers to everything from branded cups and mugs to clothing such as caps, to branded pens, to the fold-up fabric chairs that come in canvas carrying bags. As diverse as these may be, they all share one attribute. They all include a company’s logo, corporate color scheme (usually), and tagline.

Why are these so popular? Why do marketers adore these items?

More Bang for the Buck

Promotional items are useful. Therefore, when they are handed out for free (at a convention, for instance), the recipients usually use them for a long time. So when you take the starting point (the cost of the entire printing run of perhaps $2,000 for 10,000 ballpoint pens) and divide the overall cost by the press run, each pen costs $.20.

But when you consider that a potential client who likes the heft and writing style of this pen uses it for a year (or, as research shows, even up to four years according to Industry Today as well as Robert at and sees the branded corporate colors and logo 1,000 times in that year, then the cost per impression (each time the potential client sees the marketing message) is $.0002. (These are entirely fictitious numbers, but you get the point—you get more bang for the buck.)

Moreover, this is addressed in popular marketing theory regarding how people become aware of a new company. Apparently it takes five to seven exposures to a new brand to ensure “recognition” and “conversion” (buying something, asking for more information, leaving your email address online, etc.) in the mind of the potential client. So in both cases (cheap unit cost and repeated exposure), there’s nothing like a tchotchke.

Popular Tchotchkes for 2022

In this light I did further research online and found an article by Patric Black, president and CEO of It is entitled “Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022” (01/19/2022). It’s quite a good starting point, since it also explains why the particular promotional items are so popular.

Embossed Apparel and Outerwear

According to Patric Black, apparel is at the top of the list, especially embossed apparel, because embossing provides a unique feel and appearance, and because it suggests high quality. (This perception of product quality also enhances the perceived quality of the brand the apparel displays.) The embossing is done with a raised seal, heat, and pressure. It gives a sculptural look and feel to the canvas (of the sports cap, for instance).

Black’s article notes that apparel is so popular because it is useful and because (if it’s of a high quality) it projects an image of status. Think about branded items from Gucci and similar designers. And if the embossing is done on “cotton, polyester, leather, pleather, fleece, and polar fleece fabrics” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”), the items will provide an “upscale look with a fresh alternative to traditional decorating techniques” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”). Moreover, unlike some commercial printing techniques (such as inkjet custom printing), embossing “will not fade or wash away” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”).

Wooden Kitchen Utensils

I was surprised that these are so popular, actually, but it does make a lot of sense. Many people (myself included) enjoy cooking as a hobby and way to relax. It seems to me that in this frame of mind a potential client may be more open to absorbing the marketing messages they see repeatedly as they are cooking with branded wood utensils.

Furthermore, unlike metal utensils, wooden utensils don’t conduct heat (you don’t accidentally get burned), they don’t melt, and they don’t scratch expensive pots and pans. They also “will not react chemically with the acids in food and won’t leave a metallic aftertaste,” and they “will not release harmful chemicals into the food you prepare” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”). They are durable, resistant to breakage, and far less likely than metal or wood to spread bacteria (some woods like bamboo are even antimicrobial). And for those who are environmentally conscious, wood is a good choice because it is “biodegradable, renewable, and non-toxic” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”).

Dyed Caps with Patches

“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022” notes that caps (headwear) are #3 in the list of ten top promotional items (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”). The bright color grabs the attention of the viewer, while the marketing message on the patch seals the deal. The article specifically references adhesive patches which can be easily applied and removed, although I have also seen very attractive embroidered patches sewn onto the caps.

Vibrant Drinkware

This category, as noted in Black’s article, would include cups and mugs of various kinds. Since we’re usually drinking something (even water or juice), these are very useful, as well as a way to add bright color to one’s presentation (i.e., it’s fun as well as useful). As I recall from prior research, this kind of item can also be imaged with custom screen printing or dye sublimation. A logo on such a bright product can be very effective.


“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022” includes wearable blankets, weighted blankets, socks, and spa kits in this category.

Here’s why they are so popular. Wearable blankets and weighted blankets (even the right kind of socks) can make you feel warm, comfortable, and pampered. They wrap you up. In a world that has been especially anxiety producing of late, the idea of feeling safe and protected is very appealing. This is also especially true of the spa kits Patric Black includes in his list (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”). For a number of years, people have missed the pampering that comes with such beauty products as “bath bombs, bath salts, and some essential oils” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”). These spa kits can also provide items for re-gifting and allow recipients to try new products.

Seed Paper

There are actual seeds bound within the fibers of these papers. You can plant them and they will grow. Such promotional products as seed paper project a brand’s environmental awareness, given that they can be printed “on 100% post-industrial, recycled paper and dyed with all-natural vegetable-based pigments” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”). These promotional products provide a sense that “the world can be restored” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”).

Personal Protectant

“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022” includes branded pepper spray and personal alarms in this category. Presumably with the rise in crime over the past few years, these will potentially be useful safety devices as well as a brand statement.

Packaging and PR Boxes

This category overlaps a bit with spa kits. The whole idea of kits is to expose recipients to new items they might like. Also, people like to open gift boxes. They call this the “unboxing experience.” A savvy marketer who includes quality, unique products in aesthetically appealing packaging, and who adds a personalized note to the recipient, all in the coordinated brand colors of the supplier, with prominent logo, phone, and web information, can go a long way towards a sale (called a “conversion” in marketing parlance). People like pampering and (good) surprises. Such promotional products can also create a bridge between physical marketing materials and online marketing, each of which will enhance the other. And such PR boxes can encourage the recipient to share items with friends, increasing the reach of the promotional product (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”).


“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022” addresses sporting events in this category (including foam fingers, for instance, and inflatable “thunder sticks” you bang against one another at an event or match). These and even cowbells (which are the right shape to emblazon with a logo) are perfect for a marketing message. And they will get used repeatedly. Or, you could print a logo and tagline on a resistance band. At the gym or even at one’s office desk, such a product will remind the potential customer of the brand image.

Outdoor and Leisure

Finally, “Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022” notes items that pertain to having fun outside, which is particularly understandable after more than two years of COVID lockdowns. This category includes can “koozies” (to keep your beverages cold) and on a larger scale the full-size beverage coolers themselves.

You can even print on a matchbook, “great for indoor fireplaces, outdoor fire pits, and even a classy way to light candles” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”).

The Takeaway

Tchotchkes just work. Put your marketing message on any or all of the items Patric Black noted in his list. It’s an inexpensive, especially effective way to market your business.

And here’s another option, which Black didn’t mention: USB sticks. Everyone needs them these days. You’ll get your message out repeatedly to your prospective clients.

In terms of design and custom printing, it’s important to keep your branding consistent (colors, logo, and layout). Also, make it easy for your prospect to contact you. Include your website and phone number on everything.

These products rely on a number of commercial printing technologies, from custom screen printing to inkjet printing to dye sublimation to pad printing. Some are even embossed or embroidered. Discuss all of these options with your commercial printing supplier.

Keep in mind that promotional item printing is a specialty. Not all printers do this kind of work. Approach the printers you trust, and if they can’t meet your promotional product printing needs, ask them for suggested vendors they trust.

Custom Printing: Marrying 3D Printing with Lost-Wax Casting

Monday, October 24th, 2022

Photo purchased from …

In these PIE Blog articles I haven’t discussed 3D custom printing very often because I have had trouble wrapping my brain around the technology involved. While I still do not really understand how these printers work, I recently became more interested when I read about how 3D printing has been used increasingly to marry the 6,000-year-old technique of lost-wax casting with the precision and relative ease of digital CAD (computer aided design).

The process is faster and less labor intensive than traditional injection molding, so the prices for the casting component of manufacturing can go down, while the precision of the “geometry” (the structure of a digitally produced graduation ring, for instance) can go up.

What Is 3D Printing?

First of all, as a general overview, 3D custom printing is a type of additive manufacturing (insofar as the material used is built up layer upon layer rather than ground away from a solid block of metal or plastic). There are various ways to do this using powders or filaments (like plastic string from a spool), but essentially the raw material is expelled through a heated jetting device (like inkjet printing) to create a three dimensional object on the moving build plate of the printer.

Depending on the technique and the substance used, this material can be hardened, or cured, by exposure to a laser, chemicals, or even UV light (just as UV commercial printing inks will cure when exposed to UV light). Or, powdered particles can be fused together (called sintering) by exposure to a laser to create the material for the final product. The constant thread through all of this is that the final item is more or less complete, more or less detailed, and more or less durable depending not only on the raw materials but also on the method used to combine them layer by layer into a physical object.

What Is Injection Molding?

Prior to 3D custom printing, manufacturing shops that needed to create a part (either plastic or metal) had to create an injection mold. The designer had to produce a 3D model (usually by carving it), then reproduce the inverse image of the model (i.e., a mold with an empty cavity in the shape of the final object).

At this point, molten metal or plastic could be poured through an access hole to fill the empty mold. Then, after opening the mold, the designer could remove the final product. This could be done multiple times as needed. As with all analog printing processes (to which you might draw an analogy), all of these injection molded (because the material had been injected into the mold) pieces were identical.

This took a long time (and therefore cost a lot) because the molds had to be tooled and ground to create each part (of, for example, a motor, with a large number of individual parts that had to be injection molded and then assembled). Also, the process was not as precise as it might have been, so it was necessary to grind or tool the component parts, removing any extraneous material (imagine a perfect metal bolt, but with little pieces of metal sticking out that must be ground off before it can be used).

What Is Lost-Wax Casting?

This is very similar to injection molding. A figure or model is created (carved, for instance) and then covered in wax (to the desired thickness of the resulting statue (let’s say a bronze sculpture). If the metal sculpture will be hollow, then a core can be added inside the wax model. On top of this model the designer slathers a thick layer of heat resistant plaster. Wax tubes like the limbs of a tree (these are called sprues) are added. These will create pathways through which the final metal can enter the mold and noxious gases can exit the mold. When the mold is inverted and then heated in a kiln, the wax turns to liquid and runs out of the mold through the pathways, leaving a negative (or inverse) image of the initial model.

Then, molten metal can be poured into the empty cavity in the mold. When this has solidified, the mold can be opened and the metal statue removed.

As with injection molding, some final grinding and machining work must be done on the final bronze casting.

3D Modeling, and the Marriage of Injection Molding and Lost-Wax Casting

Now, with the advent of 3D digital printing, the 6,000-year-old lost-wax casting technique can be used to make products (and especially prototypes and molds) accurately, efficiently, with precise detail, and with far less post-mold machining work on the final component pieces (let’s say a graduation ring, since it may include raised portions and incised lettering, or whatever other complex, multi-layered “geometry” or design work).

Using CAD (computer aided design) software, which in this case has been simplified and is therefore more user-friendly than complex, traditional CAD/CAM software, the designer can produce wax models on a 3D printer that can be covered in a mold-making material, heated to let the wax run out, and then poured with metal to produce the final molded components.

This is a much faster process than traditional injection molding. The process, from model-making to mold-making to final metal product or component item, can take days rather than weeks (often up to 12 weeks the traditional way). In addition, the process is much more precise (think about the multi-level design, filigree, and lettering in a graduation ring, for instance), so post-molding processes such as grinding are minimized when compared to more traditional “investment casting,” the contemporary version (without 3D printing technology) of lost-wax casting. Plus, you can easily make changes to the wax model (perhaps various iterations of the graduation ring design) with the CAD software and 3D print a number of wax images quickly.

Furthermore, it’s possible to produce prototypes quickly and then incorporate any revisions into the final model. Speed equals lower costs. And the resulting items are more detailed and precise, as well as significantly faster to produce using the marriage of lost-wax casting and 3D custom printing.

The Takeaway

For those of you who entered the commercial printing or graphic design trade because you’re artists, you may very well find it enjoyable to learn about processes that cross over from the fine arts to the graphic arts. (Keep in mind that Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec was a poster designer and illustrator as well as a painter, and Andy Warhol was an illustrator as well as a painter.)

Discovering ways in which traditional methods, such as lost-wax casting, have been incorporated into modern graphic design (and product design) can enrich your understanding of what you do in your day-to-day design work and why.

There are many more areas in which the fine arts and commercial arts overlap. These include collagraphy (adding various collage materials to build up a paper custom printing plate, then varnishing the composite whole to make the plate waterproof, and then printing the plate). And they even include carving a design in a styrofoam plate (the kind used for saran-wrapped pork chops in a grocery store) and then printing this as a plate (as my fiancee and I have done with our art therapy students).

In all cases, commercial printing depends on aesthetics, the appreciation and creation of beautiful items, as well as the selection of the quickest and most technically effective approach to making multiple copies of something—whether it is a two-dimensional print book page or fine arts etching, or a three-dimensional component part of a toy automobile engine, using lost-wax casting models produced on a 3D printer run by CAD software.

Custom Printing: The Many Faces of Functional/Industrial Printing

Thursday, October 20th, 2022

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I had an “Aha” moment this week when I read that 3D printing was one of the fastest growing venues for functional or industrial printing.

I hadn’t really thought about it before. But producing objects with 3D print equipment exemplifies the definition of functional printing.

Functional (or industrial) printing is a component part of manufacturing. Its essential quality is that what is printed helps make the product useful, that the printing is part of the intended functionality of a device. Whether it’s a clock face, a circuit board in a computer, or the dials on a clothes dryer, printing is integral to the process.

Within this context I recently found an article online entitled “Key Areas in the Functional and Industrial Print Market” ( This article lists nine segments of the current printing environment that fit this description. All of them are growing.

  1. Decor and laminates
  2. Ceramics
  3. Electronics (including displays and photovoltaics)
  4. Glass
  5. Aerospace and automotive
  6. Biomedical
  7. 3D printing
  8. Inkjet printed textiles
  9. Promotional and miscellaneous items

I don’t believe I’ve seen as comprehensive a list before. When we look more closely, we see that many of these depend more on analog technology than digital technology for various reasons. However, we can also see that some of the items are actually quite appropriate for digital technology.

Digital Options

Let’s start with textiles. From time immemorial people have been custom screen printing bolts of fabric that have then been cut and sewn into finished garments. This works well for producing huge runs of fabric, but the initial set-up activities as well as clean-up activities are labor intensive and therefore not conducive to short runs. So smart clothiers have played it safe. Once they have had a reasonable certainty that a specific product will sell, they have produced large manufacturing runs. All the way down the supply chain the manufacturers have then stored excess inventory (some of which, presumably, eventually became obsolete, not to mention expensive to store). This entire production process had also been time consuming. Producing only one item quickly (such as a prototype) had not been practical.

However, with the advent of digital inkjet technology, it has become quite reasonable even to wait for a clothing order before inkjet printing the patterned fabric that can then be cut and sewn into a single (or five or ten) garments. Smaller fabric inkjet print shops closer to the clothing buyer have been able to replace some of the larger shops that had depended on custom screen printing bolts of fabric.

Digital printing is also ideal for certain 3D objects. In addition to component parts of shoes, jewelry, and even houses, which are jetted (or extruded) layer upon layer into a 3D solid using spools of plastic filament wire, this technology is being used to produce body parts for medical use as well as food. In addition, metals of various kinds are increasingly being used in the 3D manufacturing process.

According to “Making Functional and Industrial Printing a Part of Our Daily Life,” (Johnny Shell, 05/09/2022), ceramic tile printing has been another venue for digital technology. Initially, custom screen printing was the preferred technology for long runs of ceramic printed tiles, but as consumers demanded more personalized designs produced within tighter schedules, inkjet custom printing has taken over much of this work.

Analog Processes

For some uses, analog is still best, depending on two things: the length of the press run and the required durability or special qualities of the commercial printing inks.

Consider computers. Shell’s article mentions the explosive growth of “printed batteries, RFID tags, circuit boards, membrane switches, thin film transistors, capacitors, coils, and resistors” (“Making Functional and Industrial Printing a Part of Our Daily Life,” Johnny Shell, 05/09/2022). The growth of printed electronics has “facilitated widespread, very low-cost electronics for applications such as flexible displays, smart labels, and smart textiles that monitor an athlete’s respiration rate and heartbeat” (“Making Functional and Industrial Printing a Part of Our Daily Life,” Johnny Shell, 05/09/2022).

These functional printing applications depend more on analog technologies. This is due to the exceptional variety of analog inks in contrast to digital inkjet inks. More specifically, analog inks are not only more durable, but they also can be formulated with “conductive silvers, resists, dielectrics, ceramics, silicones, epoxies, etc.” (“Making Functional and Industrial Printing a Part of Our Daily Life,” Johnny Shell, 05/09/2022).

Sometimes even the printing technology itself makes a difference. Apparently, screen printing is better suited than digital inkjet for “producing the fine lines needed for printed circuitry” (“The 2022 State of the Functional and Industrial Printing Segment,” by Dan Marx).

Utility Is Key

In all of these cases, a few general approaches (or mindsets) and an incredible amount of specialized knowledge are essential, not to mention equipment (which can create a high cost of entry into functional and industrial printing).

First of all, in terms of approach to the custom printing work, flexibility and repeat testing are key. If a particular ink must withstand both high heat and intense cold, depending on the location of the product (let’s say an automotive dashboard in a car sold in both Florida and Alaska), the ink must be formulated for maximum durability. Or if the ink must adhere to an unusual substrate, or if it must be a conductive ink, all of this must be taken into account. And everything must be repeatedly tested under appropriate conditions.

Unlike graphic commercial printing, industrial printing depends on consistent use over time in diverse conditions. (For instance, my fiancee and I were given a computer keyboard a few years ago. The keys were backlit, with clear keyboard letters to allow the interior light to come through. The effect was stunning, especially in the dark. However, the ink used to print the keys was not very durable, and as the paint flaked off and the letters changed shape, I was not happy. I replaced the keyboard just recently when it started malfunctioning electrically as well. The replacement keyboard is less flashy. But it seems to be much more durable. Little things matter.)

The Takeaway

If you are a graphic designer, art director, print buyer, or production manager, how can the aforementioned information help you? Maybe you’re a print designer, and you only produce books or maybe only marketing materials.

Personally, I think that it helps to expand one’s view of commercial printing by understanding the different facets of a huge industry. I know that I used to think of printing as putting ink on paper, and then toner or inkjet ink on paper, in order to educate readers or to persuade them to do something. I really didn’t even consciously see all of the printed information on cars, computers, and household appliances as part of the custom printing arena. But they are, and very much so. And then I really didn’t realize that the various layers of silicone in computer touchscreens could also be “printed.”

On the one hand, if you are a graphic designer, you may want to know that your skills are transferable from what you’re currently doing to functional or industrial printing, just as design skills for print can be transferable to on-screen design for the internet. (After all, products as well as publications need to be designed.)

On the other hand, understanding which technology to use for various functional printing goals may benefit you as well. (For instance, based on the need for durability and the required press run, either an analog process like custom screen printing or a digital process like inkjet printing may be preferred. Understanding this approach may serve you well in whatever segment of commercial printing that you pursue.)

So my final suggestion is that you keep studying, keep reading about all the various segments of commercial printing. It will empower you in whatever you do.

Custom Printing: Thoughts on the Current Paper Shortages

Sunday, October 16th, 2022

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About two months ago I received a call from a large printing consolidator asking if I could help them with a job they couldn’t do in a timely manner. It was a series of six kiss-cut forms (bond laser paper forms, perforated, and then glued to a backing sheet and die cut around the labels for easy removal).

After the printing, perforating, and die cutting steps, these forms would be imprinted with variable information on a Lexmark laser printer. The press run for each of the six components of this job ranged from about 60,000 to 200,000 copies per form, at least twice a year. It was a sweet job.

This was a relatively easy print job, and the consolidator, which had multiple plants scattered across the United States (and at least one in China) had come to me as a printing broker for only one reason. They couldn’t get paper for the job, anywhere (including their China plant). Because of the paper shortage, this commercial printing consolidator could only offer their client a sixteen-week turn-around on a job that probably should have taken less than a month including shipping.

My initial response was that in a sixteen-week schedule, I could probably print the job myself and then perforate and die cut it in my garage using a pizza cutting wheel. Needless to say, my hubris didn’t serve me well.

I checked any number of printers across the United States, plus my sources in China, Canada, South Korea, and India. There was no paper to be found. At the time (this was two months ago, as noted above), the paper shortage was contained (i.e. , certain grades of paper could be easily purchased and others—the heavier stock the printing consolidator’s client required—could not). So the printing consolidator and I lost the job and fortunately parted as friends. But the process of searching for commercial printing stock over the course of a month was truly sobering.

What Caused the Paper Shortages?

This experience motivated me to do some research into what was happening. I had spoken to colleagues who said that the shortage was worldwide, generalized across multiple kinds of paper, and apparently not ending any time soon; however, it was less dire for existing customers. The last point surprised me, but I have found that a lot of my existing customers have been able to print their jobs—albeit over a much longer schedule—based in part on existing relationships with printers. Apparently printers have specific allocations (but no extra stock beyond this) from the mills, although sometimes they don’t even receive the full allocation of the custom printing stock they expected.

After talking with my contacts at various printers, I went online and found some intriguing articles describing a perfect storm including a number of events (some of which actually started before COVID but were affected by it) that caused the shortages. Here are some of the things I learned:

  1. According to the Ironmark website (in the article “Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage”), “several North American paper mills closed because they simply couldn’t compete while contending with increased labor costs, stricter environmental laws, and older equipment.”
  2. Because of this, these paper mills changed from offering commercial printing and writing papers to manufacturing high-margin premium grades and packaging board (since the packaging industry had been growing exponentially). With fewer North American sources for custom printing and writing papers, overseas vendors stepped in to fill the supply needs. In addition, there had been a recent business-process-shift among printers from stocking paper inventory to buying paper “just in time” (called JIT, sometimes hours or days before needed), thus leaving their paper inventories at a low point (“Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage?”).
  3. Then COVID hit. This cut back available labor for paper mill production and also slowed shipping of finished paper to paper merchants and other distributors. COVID actually came in waves, so paper production went through fits and starts, as demand for paper surged when each wave of COVID abated. But papermaking is a demanding process that takes months to ramp up again after each successive slowdown. And at the same time, paper consumers were back in business, using up accessible inventory and seeking to manage the surging demand for commercial printing. Again, this was within the context of a pre-COVID shift at the paper mills from manufacturing custom printing and writing stock to making paperboard packaging (“Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage?”).
  4. The paper shortage has affected paper manufacturers around the world, “currently contending with labor shortages, shipping delays, and increased prices” (“Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage?”). (For offshore vendors, the shipping delays have also been affected by long lines waiting for access to US ports—with ships’ sometimes being staged 150 miles offshore waiting to unload their goods. There have even been shortages in shipping containers, since most have been in use on ships waiting to enter US ports or ports in other countries.)
  5. Printers the Ironmark article referenced have noted paper price increases from 20 percent to 40 percent over the past six to nine months. Ironmark also noted that the shortages are affecting all grades of paper, not just the coated stocks initially impacted by the slowdown. Cover stocks have also been affected as well as text stocks and uncoated paper (“Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage?”).

You may also want to search online for “Where Has All the Paper Gone?” by Matt Marzullo (12/21/2021), also from Ironmark, and “Paper Shortages: What’s Behind the Problem and What Can We Do?” by Lou Caron (03/30/2022), from All of these articles will give you a good overview of the confluence of disparate causes that began before the COVID-pandemic slowdowns and are continuing to wreck havoc with the supply chain. And when papermaking finally catches up with demand, paper prices will drop. Margins will drop. And this will be within the current environment of inflation in general and higher labor costs in particular (“Paper Shortages: What’s Behind the Problem and What Can We Do?”).

So What Can We Do About This?

All of the articles I have read have noted three ways to address paper shortages if you are a buyer (graphic designer, production manager, art director, etc.):

  1. Plan ahead. Assume there will be much longer production times for jobs based on paper availability, so start early.
  2. Keep in constant contact with your commercial printing suppliers. (In one case I waited a little too long between emails, and overnight one printer I was working with changed his schedule for a print book for a client of mine from 12 to 16 weeks. Needless to say, I had to find another vendor.)
  3. Be very flexible regarding paper specifications. (Usually, I say that you should specify paper for your printers based on specific qualities rather than based on its brand. Now I encourage buyers to consider coated vs. uncoated, premium vs. commodity paper, different paper weights—anything your printer can accommodate. Better to have different paper than you’d especially like than to not have any paper for the print job at all.)
  4. One thing I did recently to address paper shortages was to split a job between two vendors. One version of a client’s print book was a lower-quality, laser-printed version. I went to a digital supplier that proofed the book through an InSite portal. This vendor was set up specifically for this kind of work. They had the paper, the schedule, and the expertise. The same client also needed a higher-value version of the print book, produced with French flaps via offset lithography. Most vendors offered a 12- to 16-week turn-around time. But for this job I found one (actually a commercial printing vendor rather than a book printer) that would do the job in five weeks for a premium. Since my client absolutely needed to deliver finished copies to the book distributor by a certain date, she was willing to pay the higher amount.

Custom Printing: Update on PRINTING United Expo

Sunday, October 9th, 2022

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I was excited to notice recently (in one of the press releases and articles Google Aggregator feeds me every day) that PRINTING United Expo will occur later this month in Las Vegas.

I realize I’m a printing nerd, so I will endeavor to explain what this means for the industry in general and AGFA in particular, and more specifically what it means for graphic designers, production managers, and art directors.

PRINTING United Expo

First of all, after the Covid lockdown, I think it’s encouraging to have any general convention in any industry physically open to the public. It allows the free exchange of ideas again via a more personal, immediate venue than the Internet, particularly since you, or any other potential convention-goers, will be able to also physically see all of the new commercial printing equipment. (Personally, I think it’s great that you can view YouTube videos of any printing and finishing operation, but it does help, immeasurably, to actually see these in person and be able to ask questions.)

So, according to a PRINTING United Expo article entitled “PRINTING United Expo” (at, “PRINTING United Expo is the only all-segment expo in the Western Hemisphere in 2022.” Another PRINTING United Expo article entitled “PRINTING United Las Vegas” (at notes that “PRINTING United…presents new ideas, applications, and markets for specialty imagers—whether you’re interested in graphic(s) or garments, digital or screen. See the leading suppliers showcasing the broadest range of specialty printing and imaging technology.”

What this means is that experts in the field, general practitioners of the various print-related disciplines, and current and new equipment will all be in the same place at the same time. People will learn from each other, make connections, and presumably even buy equipment for their print shops.

More importantly, as the first article notes, this is an “all-segment expo.” What that means is that you won’t just learn about the separate, new pieces of equipment, but you will be able to see them operating together. This is unusual, since at other conventions you might see a particular press by itself but not see how it can be connected to appropriate finishing equipment to create an efficient workflow.

Agfa’s Participation in PRINTING United Expo

Agfa is a huge player in this market, and the third article in particular, “Agfa to Demo Latest Inkjet Technology at PRINTING United” (found at, will give you a comprehensive listing of the innovations you’ll see if you attend the trade show.

First of all, Agfa is focusing on packaging and textile printing, which are especially active venues within the commercial printing field, growing exponentially year over year.

Here are some highlights noted in the article. They address new inkjet equipment, new dye sublimation equipment, robotics being used with the new equipment on the pressroom floor, web-to-print solutions, automated preflight solutions, workflow software (such as Apogee) that control all aspects of the production process on a “meta” level, developments that increase control over (and the accuracy of) tight ink register, and waste reduction.

So in terms of the benefits of Agfa’s new products for suppliers, the new offerings will improve overall print job planning and management, reduce paper and ink consumption, increase accuracy of color and register, and reduce make-ready times. All of this will boost quality and efficiency, allowing print vendors to do more in less time. And their customers will benefit from all of this.

The Specifics

Dye Sub

Based on its description in the article, “Agfa to Demo Latest Inkjet Technology at PRINTING United,” the new product that interests me the most is the Agfa Avinci CX3200. This is a dye sublimation printer. That means you can print on polyester fabric, which is noteworthy for two reasons.

First, digital fabric printing is very hot at the moment. You can print on garments (or fabric that can be cut and sewn into garments). But you can also print on fabric that can be incorporated into interior design work. Everything from wall coverings to bedding. To date the rule of thumb, as I have understood it, has been to use direct inkjet printing for cotton fabric and dye sublimation for commercial printing on polyester (let’s say for a promotional flag). Until recently, the only way to do dye sublimation was to first print the ink on a transfer sheet and then, as a second step, to transfer the image from the transfer sheet to the fabric substrate using high heat and pressure.

In contrast to this approach, which required extra time and equipment (when compared to direct inkjet custom printing), the new breed of dye sublimation printers (such as Agfa’s Avinci CX3200) can print directly on the final polyester substrate. That said, this printer can also print on a transfer sheet, if you want to use the printed product for backlit applications with deep, rich black pigments, or if you need to keep stretch fabrics from moving during the custom printing process.

So now you have more options.

Flatbed Inkjet

The next Agfa product I want to highlight is Agfa’s Inca Oncet X3 inkjet printer. Agfa bought Inca Digital Printers, and it has improved this Inca product in the following ways:

  1. The Inca Onset X3 HS is faster. It can now print 15,600 square feet per hour (“Agfa to Demo Latest Inkjet Technology at PRINTING United”).
  2. The Inca Onset X3 is more reliable, with “a virtual lack of downtime” (“Agfa to Demo Latest Inkjet Technology at PRINTING United”) and the ability to run 24/7.
  3. The Inca Onset X3 can be prepped and ready to go faster. According to “Agfa to Demo Latest Inkjet Technology at PRINTING United,” it takes only 30 seconds to set up a job.
  4. The flatbed Inca Onset X3 press incorporates robotics into the production process.
  5. The number of acceptable substrates have increased, including corrugated board (a good omen since packaging is such a high-growth venue in the commercial printing industry).

Again, all of this points to improved efficiency and quality and therefore increased revenue for suppliers.

Roll-to-Roll Printing

The third and final product I want to highlight is the Jeti Tauro H3300 UHS LED.

This is a roll-to-roll printer that can accept up to 1,500 lb. paper rolls for “unattended automated double-sided roll printing” (“Agfa to Demo Latest Inkjet Technology at PRINTING United”). The Jeti Tauro uses an “integrated camera system [that] reads QR codes, generated by the user interface of the printer, to identify the exact location of the image and adjust the print position at the start of every job, ensuring front-to-back accuracy of +/-3mm over 300 feet” (“Agfa to Demo Latest Inkjet Technology at PRINTING United”).

What this means is that the precision of the equipment has improved to the extent that ink placement can be controlled precisely (presumably coming very close to or matching the precision of offset printing), and this can be done without operator intervention. The Jeti Tauro camera system keeps everything right (this is presumably analogous to the closed-feedback-loop, electric-eye mechanisms that automatically ensure the precision of offset presses). And automation drives up throughput without sacrificing quality.

The Takeaway

If you are a designer, you may be asking yourself how this will affect you. This is my answer. If Agfa is developing and improving dye sublimation and inkjet printing to support the packaging and fabric commercial printing industries, these are the venues that will demand your design skills.

If you’re a production manager or art director, the same holds true for you.

And if you’re a printer, Agfa is helping you chart a course for the expansion of your business and an increase in your profits.

Custom Label Printing: Thoughts on Packaging, Boxing, and Labeling

Monday, October 3rd, 2022

Photo purchased from …

My fiancee loves Amazon. She can push a button on the computer, and one box or several boxes will come to the door. Amazing.

So when my fiancee makes a comment about packaging, boxes, and custom labels, I listen closely.

What Is Branding?

This is really a case study about branding. Then again, everything is about branding. Even when a company’s only touch point with a client is a box arriving at their door, a vendor must provide an enjoyable experience and must then repeat this experience in successive purchases. It’s part of their brand.

And what a brand is, essentially, is all of the values and associations reflected in everything from the company’s ads and marketing materials to their packaging. Even the tone of the person you get on the phone when the company sends you the wrong item, and the good feeling they work to instill in you when they solve your problem in their first attempt, is part of the brand. Everything is part of the company’s brand. For Starbucks, not only is their two-tailed siren logo part of their brand, but by now even the specific shade of green in the logo is part of their brand.

The Unboxing Experience

I’ve discussed this in prior PIE Blog postings, but it bears repeating. When a box arrives at your door, the experience of opening it matters. According to my fiancee, Amazon has been sending a number of her packages in brown, recycled-looking boxes recently, presumably to remind consumers that the company is environmentally conscious.

My fiancee recently received a specific soil for a collection of rare succulents she is growing called Living Stones (as in “Dr. Living Stone, I presume”–sorry, I couldn’t resist). When I brought the package into the house, the weight prompted me to ask whether my fiancee had ordered bricks. But no, this is soil. Beyond the Amazon packaging, the succulent soil experience encompasses a number of other promotional qualities.

Flexible Packaging

The bag of soil is transparent and durable. You can see the texture of the potting mix (exclusively tiny stones of different colors, no actual dirt). You can also see that the plastic sack will not inadvertently rip open and dump the contents on your rug. You know what you’re getting, and you know the company that sent the bags values quality.

The Label

The label on the bag includes the logo (for immediate identification of the maker of the product), as well as the name of the product (“Premium Lithops Living Stone Potting Mix”), and a description of the product (“Natural Quartzite, Pumice, Sand, Granite Grit, Calcined Clay”). Plus, the custom label notes that the product is “100% natural and organic,” and that it “helps prevent pests, diseases, and contaminants” ( All of these statements are rendered in a tall, narrow gothic sans-serif typeface in all capitals, reflecting the no-nonsense tone of the information. Clearly the company wants you to buy and use the correct product for these fragile Living Stone plants.

Prominent Contact Information

Finally, and most importantly, the Rooting For You company included not only its logo but also a link to its website. This reflects a number of important things. You can contact the company. It’s like the catalogs I was designing in the 1990s, when I was an art director. I made sure the phone number was on every page spread. Don’t make the customer wait. When they want to contact you to reorder more product, you want that experience to be as “frictionless” (as marketers say) as possible. Customers shouldn’t need to look through the printed materials for contact information. It should jump out and bite them.

Why is this important? Among other things, I’ve been brokering commercial printing for over two decades. I have learned to love the sweet sound of an email arriving from a repeat customer (“ping”). Getting new customers is much harder than doing whatever it takes to keep existing customers happy. And having immediate access to a website (and from there, presumably, to a phone if desired) is part of that frictionless experience. Having all of this information immediately accessible on a simple, elegantly designed, custom printed label goes a long way in communicating the necessary information.

To go back for a moment to the website information, I am reminded of the power of multi-channel marketing, or cross-media marketing, or whatever the current terminology might be. Commecial printing augments the online experience, and online marketing reinforces the print experience. Together they are unstoppable. Having well-branded labeling with the company logo and all relevant information visible from four feet away leads the customer to the URL and the website. And the website gives the customer an opportunity to either order more of the same product or to buy additional products. This benefits the brand but only (and this is the beauty of the equation–absolutely only) if the customer values the product, the print collateral, the website, the assistance on the phone, the carton and the “unboxing experience,” and every other “touchpoint,” every other element of the producer’s brand.

The Thank-you Note

When we’re young, our parents teach us to express gratitude when something goes right. It makes a connection with the donor of the gift or experience and its recipient. Everyone gains something. Interestingly enough, in the package of Premium Lithops Living Stone potting mix my fiancee gave me to check out, there was an additional insert, a thank-you note printed on heavy cover stock. The stock is thicker than regular postcard material. It has “snap.” It feels substantial. You would assume the potting mix vendor had spent a little more to make the postcard feel opulent. After all, you’re worth it.

The thank-you note speaks right to you, “We hope you enjoy your purchase” (www.rootingforyou On the flip side is the logo: large, in nice earthy colors. The name of the company is in an informal script typeface, and the other words are in a funky sans-serif typeface. You get the sense that Rooting For You loves plants and wants to help you love and care for them as well. Moreover, you get the sense that they don’t take your business for granted. They are grateful for the opportunity to serve you.

Good Marketing

All of this can be–and in this case absolutely is–conveyed through simple type, a transparent and durable container (known as flexible packaging), and a simple thank-you note. And with all of the contact information immediately available, you know right where to go when (not if) you want to reorder.

Now that’s good marketing. And (given my fiancee’s satisfaction with the product), it’s based not only on effective marketing technique but more importantly on the producer’s genuine desire to make the customer so happy with the whole process that she or he will want to come back for more.


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