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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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A Case Study on Replacing a Commercial Printing Supplier

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A long-term, mutually beneficial business relationship with a printer sometimes ends. Perhaps the printer goes out of business or starts to not be as responsive as in prior years. Maybe their prices even rise dramatically, making the company no longer an option. What can you do?

In this light I have a case study to share. One of my commercial printing clients produces a color swatch book on a regular basis. These tiny, screw-and-post books are like PMS swatch books for those looking for make-up and clothing colors that will complement their complexion and hair color.

Along with this set of color swatch books, my client prints larger chin cards with a die cut for the person’s neck. These 8.5” x 11” chin cards allow the user to hold a large color swatch under her chin to see how a particular hue will look with her skin tone and hair color.

The cards are 8.5” x 11”, 14 pt. in thickness, with a semi-circle die cut for the chin, and with lamination on both sides. One side of each card is a big swatch of color bleeding on all four sides. The other side is text in black ink only. The total set comprises 72 pages (35 colors with information on the back of each, plus one single-page (front and back) set of instructions.

Losing a Printer

My color-swatch-book and chin-card client recently lost her printer based on issues with management. This particular printer had produced 50 sets of her chin cards every other year or so. The colors had been faithful to her expectations, and there had been no banding or artifacts in the solid, digitally printed colors, so it had become an easy reprint on a periodic basis. A boon to the printer (it was regular, straightforward work) and to my client (the end result was predictable).

So losing the commercial printing vendor was unfortunate. I had actually gone through a similar loss of a printer for my client’s color swatch books for a different reason several years prior. This vendor had upgraded the software on their HP Indigo digital laser press, and for whatever reason a number of the colors of the (smaller than 2” x 3”) swatch books were no longer accurate. This was a harder problem to solve, and it also came down to finding a new printer.

Digital vs. Offset

One of the challenges with replacing the custom printing supplier for the color swatch books (and this will also be true for the color chin cards) was to ensure color accuracy and smooth, even color laydown (compared to offset printed solids). All colors are percentage builds made from the four process colors. There are no PMS colors (since there may be a total of over 100 distinct hues that show up in some of, or in each of, the 28 master copies of the color swatch books).

This would be prohibitively expensive to produce via offset lithography, since it would require multiple passes on an offset press for what would in many cases be only a few copies at a time of the individual swatch books (so many copies of each of the 28 master versions).

For the color chin cards, the same would be true since my client only prints about 50 copies of the 72-page set at a time.

In both cases the limited press run for the individual sets, plus the use of so many colors, requires an accurate and consistent digital press. In my mind that includes the HP Indigo plus perhaps a Konica Minolta plus a Kodak NexPress, although I’m sure in the last several years other vendors have stepped in with equally accurate color digital printers.

With the loss of the color swatch book vendor, and in the most recent case the loss of the color chin card vendor, selecting a replacement has been and will be dependent on a physical proof of all pages.

So I have requested pricing for (in the case of the chin cards, since it’s the current job needing custom printing vendor replacement) a full hard-copy proof from the digital press in question, whether it is a digital laser press or a digital inkjet press (depending on the new vendor).

The color proof will ensure that the color builds (percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) that my client had specified in her art file (she had kept a digital copy of her chin cards from the prior print run) match her expectations.

This is not always the case for all colors for all commercial printing vendors using a variety of digital presses. And soft proofs (PDFs on screen) of the color swatches (2” x 3” color swatches or 8.5” x 11” color chin cards) would not necessarily present the colors as they will eventually look when actually printed. After all, in the case of a computer monitor proof, the colors are created with red, green, and blue phosphors, whereas on a proof made on the actual press, the colors will have been created from the actual cyan, magenta, yellow, and black toners or inkjet inks.

In my client’s case the die cut and the lamination will be irrelevant, and not including these elements on the printer’s proof will keep the price down ($75.00, approximately, from two of the vendors I’ve approached). I think the cost of such a proof (rolled into the total manufacturing cost by some printers) is an investment, not an expense.

Banding and Artifacts

In my experience, some digital presses also produce solids (in this case up to 8.5” x 11” for the chin cards) that may not be as even a laydown of pigment as with oil-based, thick, offset-printed ink.

Sometimes there are artifacts (stray marks or lines) or banding (usually but not always in gradations from a light tint to a darker shade of a color). I’m not sure whether the banding is a reflection on the number of steps in the gradation (not an issue in the case of my client’s chin cards) or the PostScript (page description language) code of my client’s art file, or even in the nature of the process (spraying ink through nozzles—which sometimes clog) for the inkjet option or using toner particles suspended in fuser oil for the digital laser option.

Regardless, heavy ink coverage can cause problems. And nothing will be as effective in allaying my client’s concerns (and mine) as a hard-copy proof. It will ensure color fidelity (some colors seem to be more problematic than others) and the absence of banding. And once the new printer has proved it can provide an acceptable printed product, my client will have a home for this repeat job for many years going forward.

The Die Issue

Unfortunately, my client will need to have the die for the semi-circular cut out (for the user’s chin) remade. Granted, she paid for it once (approximately $275.00) and it was then used for successive runs of her job. And strictly speaking it is hers (according to commercial printing trade customs). But you could argue that it is only a component of the overall manufacturing process and therefore it belongs to the original printer. Struggling over this for $275.00 may not be worth it.

Availability of Materials

One of the things I’m finding is that not every printer can get the same lamination film for some reason. The job was originally produced on 14 pt. cover stock with 3 mil laminate on both sides of the chin cards. In the cases in which printers have only been able to get 1.2 mil laminate, I have asked for thicker cover stock for the chin card boards.

There is usually a work-around. This is mine.

Other printers may have different approaches. In my case, I think my client will be happy with the printed product as long as the total thickness of the base stock and the laminate on both sides of the cards feels about the same as samples from the prior press runs.

The Takeaway

So there are ways to get around losing a commercial printing supplier, even for a printed product that is a repeat job with colors that may not be easy to match (several of the printers “no-bid” this job outright, concerned that my client would not accept potential color banding or less than perfect colors).

If you have a job like this, it’s worth collecting bids from a number of prospective vendors. The PIE website (I have found) is always a good way to get new printers. Referrals from other clients or other printers that can’t for whatever reason do the job for you would be another option.

But in all cases I feel very strongly that checking an actual, physical proof will put your mind at ease, proving whether the vendor can or cannot provide your required level of quality. Granted, in some cases like these (multiple color builds produced on a digital press), you may need to have some flexibility. Not everything will be 100 percent perfect. Fortunately, my client understands this as long as the hues are reasonably close to the intended color.

But again, all of this will be visible in a good hard-copy proof, and this can help you develop a new long-standing, mutually supportive business relationship with a new printer. It’s a little bit like a marriage. It takes work, but the benefits make it worth it.

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