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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) 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 the ‘Digital Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: Choosing a Printer for Chin Cards

Monday, May 13th, 2019

A commercial printing client of mine has been producing fashion color swatch books for a number of years through various printers with whom I have professional relationships. Recently she has expanded her product offerings beyond these small books (akin to PMS swatch books but for choosing fashion colors and make-up based on one’s complexion). She now wants to produce “chin cards.” These are similar to the color books but much larger (8” x 10” rather than the approximately 1.5” x 3” format of the swatch books).

My client’s chin cards are 14 pt. laminated stock with half-circle die cuts in the center of one 10” side. The goal is to be able to hold them up under the chin of a fashion client. The half-circle die cut allows the cards to be placed that much closer to the person’s face. This makes good sense, since the goal is to match the client’s skin tone and hair color to specific colors for clothing and make up. Unlike my client’s color swatch print books, which are bound with a metal screw-and-post assembly, these will be loose (with no binding at all). There will be 50 colors per set. Each set will just be printed, laminated, die cut, and collated.

Choosing a Printer

My client gave me the specs for this job recently and asked me to find a custom printing supplier. She wanted to know what it would cost to produce one full set (as a prototype with which to sell her concept) and how many copies she could get for $1,000.00.

This is what I learned from two of the three printers I approached. (The third printer’s prices were much higher than the prices of the other two.)

One printer could produce one set as a prototype for $101.00. Actually, this really surprised me, since I knew the die for the chin cut-out should cost about $300.00. I can only assume this printer has a similar die from another job.

The other printer would charge $433.00 for a single copy, more than four times as much as the first printer. To put this in perspective, the third printer, which had been high overall and higher in general on many other jobs, didn’t even bid the single prototype but did estimate a five-set press run (50 copies x five sets) for slightly over $1,000.00.

These were my thoughts in response to this information:

  1. The $101.00 price could be wrong, or, as I mentioned, it could be based on the printer’s already having the metal die. Plus, if the price is in fact wrong (I will probably ask, to avoid surprises), then the revised price may still be much lower than the second printer’s price of $433.00.
  2. Reviewing the pricing for the multiple sets (from all printers) was very instructive. The same printer that offered to produce the prototype for $101.00 could produce 20 sets of 50 chin cards for $1,000.00. In contrast, the printer that would produce the prototype for $433.00 could produce 25 sets of 50 chin cards for $826.00 ($174.00 less than the first custom printing vendor would charge for 20 sets). So this was a good deal. Unfortunately, it also meant that if my client wanted a single prototype and then shortly thereafter wanted a full press run (presuming the chin cards were a hit with her clients), she would be printing one job at one printer’s shop and the follow-up 25 sets at another. That is, to keep costs at the lowest level, this would be the prudent choice.
  3. I didn’t think this would be a deal breaker, however. My client needs “pleasing color,” not “critical color.” This means she will tolerate a little variation. Since both printers have HP Indigo digital presses, there would be a good chance that the initial prototype colors would be very close to the follow-up press runs, even if the two jobs were printed on different digital presses by different printers. I also knew I could make color matching easier for the follow-up printer by handing off the prototype (once it was no longer needed for sales) as a “proof” for the commercial printing supplier to match.
  4. As a side note, to put the pricing in perspective, the third printer would charge over $1,100.00 for ten sets of 50 cards, so their pricing was much higher than that of the other two printers.
  5. I thought about why the low bid (which was actually from a book printer and not a commercial printing supplier) would be so low. Based on the specifications for the job, I assumed that the book printer would have die cutting capabilities on their premises for book production (their bread-and-butter business). I knew that if they had in-house die cutting, this would not eliminate the need for a metal die, but it would keep the prices low and their control over the process (and turn-around time) high.

The next steps are to wait for my client to review the pricing (which I just sent her) and then to share my thoughts, as noted above, and see how she wants to proceed. She may in fact want to have one printer do both components of the job (the prototype and the final press run). We’ll see.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. If you are doing a commercial printing job and you have a book printer with whom you’ve developed a close professional relationship, you may want to request a bid even if the job isn’t a print book. You may be surprised by the price, as I was. However, if your commercial printing job is complex, make sure the printer can handle it. Ask for samples.
  2. Even within the realm of commercial printing, not all printers are equally skilled in all kinds of work. Personally, I have a go-to printer whom I approach first if a client of mine is beginning a unique marketing project. After all, this is their bailiwick. None of the other printers I work with know more about this specific realm of printing. I also strongly believe in referrals from printers, if the printer I approach is not equipped to do the specific work I need done. Keep in mind that almost no printers have all equipment.
  3. On that note, think about the specific equipment that will be used for your job. My client’s job needs to be die cut. Many printers do not have this capability in house. If you can find a printer who does, the prices will be lower, and the schedule will be tighter.
  4. If you need critical color, it is usually wise to have the same printer do all components of a job, such as all elements of a marketing campaign. Others may disagree with me. After all, color has become more controllable and consistent over the years. That said, I personally am conservative in my approach. If you do want multiple printers (two or more) to participate in a multi-item print job, then provide a hard-copy proof as a color matching tool.
  5. If your job includes die cutting, keep in mind that if you reprint the job (or a successive year’s update of the job), you can use the same die (if next year’s version will be the same design as this year’s version). Therefore, you can back this price out of the total cost for successive years (although the cost for the actual die cutting will still be an expense, just not the cost for the die itself). And this could be a significant cost savings ($300.00 in the case of the die for my client’s chin cards, as priced by one of the vendors).
  6. Set aside time to do all of this preliminary cost comparison in a measured, thoughtful manner. Don’t rush. You could save yourself a lot of money while still ensuring a quality product.

Custom Printing: Future Directions in Digital Printing

Sunday, May 5th, 2019

I read a lot about commercial printing every day. I find it interesting, and it supports my work in print brokering, graphic design, and, of course, my blog writing for PIE. Once in a while I find an article that encapsulates what I’ve been seeing on my own, particularly regarding industry trends.

I found just such an article this week, entitled “Reimagining Print: Five Key Trends in the Digital Printing Industry,” written by Kuldeep Malhotra, Vice President Sales, Konica Minolta Business Solutions, India Pvt. Ltd. I found it on the www.deccanchronicle.com website on 04/19/19.

Digital Printing Trends

“Reimagining Print: Five Key Trends in the Digital Printing Industry” captures in relatively few words the trajectory of digital commercial printing. This article specifically addresses digital fabric printing, but it applies, I think, to all digital custom printing.

To begin with, Malhotra’s article notes a striking statistic: “The global market for digital printing is projected to grow at a CAGR of 4.48% to reach USD 28.85 billion by 2023; digital fabric printing alone is expected to grow at a CAGR of 25%” (“Reimagining Print: Five Key Trends in the Digital Printing Industry”). That is significant growth when you think back several years to articles about the death of print. Without a doubt, custom printing is growing again.

Malhotra’s article highlights the position within the printing arena of newly developed technology (artificial intelligence, machine learning, the Internet of Things, data analytics, and automation), and then goes on to explain how digital printing will benefit from these new technologies.

More specifically, Marhotra identifies five trends in digital custom printing that allow it to produce unique, personalized products quickly and cost-effectively:

  1. “Booming demand for personalization”
  2. “A shift toward sustainable operations”
  3. “User convenience and optimized operations through cloud connectivity”
  4. “Short-run and on-demand execution”
  5. “Elevated print-led brand marketing experiences”
    (“Reimagining Print: Five Key Trends in the Digital Printing Industry”)

Here is the gist of Malhotra’s findings:

Demand for Personalization

Personalization enhances “customer experience, loyalty, and retention” (“Reimagining Print: Five Key Trends in the Digital Printing Industry”). Customers expect brands to address them directly and to provide a unique, personal experience. In other articles, marketers use the term “unboxing” to describe the experience of opening a package of a particular product. If customers feel valued and understood by a brand that reflects the same values they themselves espouse, these customers reward the brand with their loyalty. They buy the product, or other products, again and again. And marketing wisdom holds that retaining a customer is much easier than acquiring a new one.

So when marketers pair artificial intelligence, machine learning, the Internet of Things, data analytics, and automation with the variable-data nature of digital commercial printing, they can target each printed product to a particular customer in a far more efficient manner than would be possible with traditional analog printing (offset printing, flexography, etc.).

Feeding all of the data gathered through new computer technologies into digital printing processes makes marketing far more efficient (lowering the cost of acquiring new customers) and at the same time fosters “the robust growth of the digital printing industry” (“Reimagining Print: Five Key Trends in the Digital Printing Industry”).

A Shift to Sustainable Operations

Malhotra notes customers’ increasing focus on the sustainability of everything from the manufacturing to the marketing of the products they buy. This is particularly true for millennials, a huge and growing market.

Digital printing uses renewable resources and consumes/produces far less toxic material than traditional analog printing methods. But it goes beyond this. By merging the computer data systems and faculties noted above with digital commercial printing, it is possible to reduce the volume of printing while increasing the effectiveness of each brochure or catalog (for instance). Digital printing based on comprehensive data makes marketing more efficient, and this reduces both emissions and waste. (For example, there’s no obsolescence in printed matter when it can be digitally produced as needed. There’s also only a limited need for storage and warehousing of digitally printed products.)

One area in which this is particularly evident is ink production for digital printing. UV inks are environmentally friendly and cure (dry) instantly under UV light. They are therefore suitable for printing on everything from fabric to plastic (i.e., both porous and non-porous substrates) while retaining their vibrant color. This allows printers to “meet their sustainability goals and reduce their carbon footprint” (“Reimagining Print: Five Key Trends in the Digital Printing Industry”).

Cloud Connectivity

More and more of the data-acquisition, data-management, and even print production functions have been digitized and have also migrated to cloud computing. This means everything is accessible from most devices, and communication among participants in data management, marketing, and custom printing can be seamless and not based on time or location.

Marketers can update print materials from any computer at any time (even with multiple people collaborating on the same document simultaneously) and then send the jobs seamlessly to press.

This allows printing processes to be automated and to occur around the clock as needed, enhancing work flow efficiency as well as print product quality.

Short-Run, On-Demand Printing

Marketers are finding that they can send fewer print marketing materials to fewer prospective customers while at the same time increasing their response rate. They are marketing more efficiently, spending less (and creating less waste) to make more money. Because of this, customer demand has driven down the average print run. This is also true because marketers are finding it more effective to marry Internet marketing and print marketing, producing cross-media campaigns rather than just print- or Internet-based promotions.

Digital printing is ideally suited to these shorter runs. Since there is only minimal make-ready in digital printing, printers can reduce set-up costs and waste. At the same time, the marketing writers and designers can make last-minute changes far more easily on a digital printing platform, and this makes it possible to send customers the relevant, time-sensitive material they need.

Print-led Brand Marketing Experiences

According to “Reimagining Print: Five Key Trends in the Digital Printing Industry,” “new-age consumers do not just consume; they tend to rate products or services based on the entire experience, from ownership to usage.” To current and prospective customers, the buying experience is important, and they tell others when they’re happy or displeased with this component of their purchase.

To benefit from this awareness of current consumer behavior, marketers are incorporating AR (augmented reality) into their marketing materials. A consumer can scan a print ad and go to a brand’s Internet site that provides an experience of “virtually” using their products. This technology can work seamlessly with both the immediacy and the personalization capabilities of digital custom printing. And marketers are learning that providing the same brand message across multiple channels (print, Internet, signage, podcasts) both enhances and reinforces the message for potential buyers.

What You Can Learn from This Article

  1. The better you understand how information technology, big data, marketing, consumer behavior, and digital printing work together, the more likely you will be to find your own niche in this expanding, profitable world. This is true whether you are a designer, a print buyer, or a printer.
  2. Therefore, the best thing you can do is to read everything you can get your hands on regarding these individual subjects and the ways they interact.
  3. I personally have found that Internet aggregators (Google has one) provide a broad selection of articles on whatever interests you. Every night Google sends me one group of articles on digital printing and another set on offset printing. Even if you just read the headlines each day, you’ll learn something. And as they say, knowledge is power.

Book Printing: Prices for Short Runs of Long Books

Monday, April 29th, 2019

A print brokering client of mine is a husband and wife publishing team. Usually they print one or two new titles a year, mostly books of poetry, fiction, and essays. I’ve written about them in these PIE Blog articles before. They both appreciate the finer points of a physical print book, so all of their projects include French flaps (extensions on the front and back covers that are folded inward toward the inside front and back covers). They also have soft-touch laminated covers (a coating that gives a nice rubberized feel to the matte cover), a press score running parallel to the spine, and faux deckled edges on the text block (actually a “rough front” trim).

This client team appreciates quality.

Another way they show this commitment to quality is to initially print 50 or 75 copies of a “galley” proof of each print book (prior to the final run with the French flaps and such). The galleys go to “readers,” who review the books and make suggestions, which can then be incorporated into the final print books.

The Pricing (and Then the Revised Pricing) for the Print Books

Just recently, I requested pricing for 75 copies of each book and provided this to my clients as a benchmark prior to the actual design and layout of the books. Keep in mind that these are 5.5” x 8.5” format, perfect bound books: relatively standard, with standard 70# offset text paper inside and 12pt. covers. The text blocks are black ink only without bleeds. The covers are 4-color process with bleeds.

After I provided my clients with their pricing for the three galley books, their book designers (a different designer for the text and the covers) produced the book art files. In all three cases, the page counts increased significantly (upwards of 100 pages in one instance), and the press runs dropped from 75 readers’ copies to 50 readers’ copies.

I collected this new information, revised the specification sheets, and went back to the book printer’s sales rep for revised estimates. When the prices arrived, the sales rep and I were both surprised by how much the prices had jumped. In fact, the unit costs were almost double those of the first estimate.

Why Did the Prices Go Up So Much?

After the initial shock, this is what I did. I took one of the three book estimates and analyzed the pricing. I multiplied the initial press run (75 copies) by the number of pages (256 pages) and came up with 19,200 pages total. Then I multiplied the revised press run (50 copies) by the the revised page count (382 pages) and came up with almost the same number of pages (19,100 total book pages printed).

This was a bit of a happy accident, because it showed that even though the book was much longer, the total amount of digital press work needed would be about the same. Almost exactly, actually.

Then I compared the initial price ($462.00) to the revised price ($727.00), and determined that the first estimate for 75 copies would cost $.024 per page while the revised price based on the lower press run and higher page count would be $.038 per page.

At this point I asked the sales rep to have his estimating department explain the discrepancy (to his credit, the sales rep had initially called me and offered to do this). We agreed that we wanted to know whether the pricing was accurate (or a mistake). And, if it was accurate, why was it so much more than the initial bid? All of this would occur before I went back to my client with the revised pricing.

Possible Answers

Here are some possible reasons that the increased cost per page might not be either an accident or an unreasonable charge:

  1. Due to the short press run, these three books will be printed digitally, as opposed to by offset lithography. This is true even though the text block of the example discussed above (one of three books) is almost 400 pages. In spite of this book length, the press run is only 50 copies for initial reader review.
  2. Offset commercial printing requires a huge amount of make-ready: that is, preparatory work to get the printing, binding, and any other operations in print book manufacturing ready. For each process, the make-ready precedes the actual run. It contributes to the overall cost, but since offset printing runs are usually very long (perhaps 5,000 or 10,000 copies or more rather than 50 copies), this larger amount of money attributable to make-ready can be spread across the 5,000; 10,000; or even 100,000 copies of the press run. In fact, the longer the run, the less each copy costs, and the less impact the make-ready charges have on the cost of each print book.
  3. In contrast to offset printing, digital printing has relatively little make-ready. But it still has some. The prepress operators and pressmen still have to set up each individual step in the process: everything from producing the digital proofs (if they are printed on an inkjet or laser device) to printing the actual run of pages to all binding, trimming, and packing operations.
  4. This make-ready expense is increased if multiple finishing operations are necessary (anything that follows putting ink or toner on paper). In addition, there is the spoilage that occurs during these extra steps. For instance, after the pages have been printed, the books need to be perfect bound. And to complete all manufacturing processes with a total run of exactly 50 books, more text blocks and covers must be produced to allow for spoilage (in this case, books damaged during the perfect binding process). The same potential for spoilage exists during all printing and finishing operations, and addressing this inevitability (by initially starting with enough copies to accommodate the loss) drives up the overall print book manufacturing cost.
  5. In my client’s case, the page count for each of the three print book titles went up, but the press runs dropped from 75 copies to 50 copies. What this means is that the cost of make-ready (time spent setting up all pre-press, press, and post press operations) and spoilage (books damaged during production) is above and beyond the cost of the actual 50-copy press run (referred to as “make-ready” vs. “press run” on some estimates).
  6. In my client’s case, this cost of preparation or make-ready will now be spread over 50 books, whereas this cost initially (on the first book production estimate) was to be spread over 75 books. When you compare this process to a 10,000 copy press run (or more) of an offset printed book, you can see that a much greater portion of the make-ready cost gets allocated to the unit cost of each of the 50 copies (produced digitally) vs. each of the 5,000; 10,000; or 100,000 offset-printed copies.
  7. This is a hypothesis (albeit a legitimate, potential reason for the increased cost). Plus, the books will be significantly longer than initially expected.
  8. That said, the only way to know for sure is to have all three revised estimates re-checked, which is what the print sales rep has offered to do.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. The initial human response to something like this is disbelief and possibly anger. But that’s not productive, so if this happens to you, just ask for a check of all specs and pricing and an explanation of the increased unit cost. After all, your printer is a business partner, not an adversary.
  2. The more additional operations you must do (prepare files in prepress; print the job; fold, trim, and bind the job; etc.), the more money will go into make-ready. If you need die cutting as well, or foil stamping, this make-ready portion of the job will increase even more.
  3. The more steps in the process, the more spoilage will occur (and the more copies will be needed to compensate for this spoilage). Some processes, like perfect binding, may also cause more spoilage than others.
  4. When in doubt, ask your printer to break down your cost by “make-ready” and “cost per run.”
  5. Without printing more copies than you actually need, requesting a higher (vs. lower) print run will reduce the cost per unit of the make-ready portion of the total expense.

Custom Printing: Future Directions for Digital Printing

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019

I read an interesting article today, sort of a State of the Union address but for digital printing rather than politics.

The article was entitled “10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019.” Written by Barbara A. Pellow, this article was printed online on 02/15/19 on www.piworld.com under the heading “Digital Success.”

“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019” comprises a number of assessments by three luminaries in the printing world: Marco Boer, vice president of IT Strategies at Green Harbor Publications, Jim Hamilton, publisher at Green Harbor Publications, and the author of the article, Barbara Pellow. The venue for this discussion was a Printing Impressions webinar.

(First of all, I have been reading Printing Impressions since I was an art director back in the early 1990s. I consider it a major source of commercial printing industry information. Much of what I now know about custom printing I learned from reading this magazine.)

So when I found this article and saw that it addressed future trends for digital commercial printing, I was excited.

What I Learned

Here are the ten considerations put forth by “10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019” and some of my thoughts in response:

    From Marco Boer

  1. “Skill Acquisition.” This implies the opposite of a tight labor market. Printing professionals are older than the average worker. That is, in all industries, according to Boer, the average age is 42, but in commercial printing the average age is 48. This means these printing professionals are approaching retirement age, when they will leave the workforce. Since commercial printing (whether digital, offset, flexographic, or any other technology) is highly technical, and since successful workers must have a deep understanding of a number of disciplines, it is essential that print service providers seek out individuals with a broad knowledge base. If they don’t, they will be caught short. From the point of view of the workers, this bodes well for job availability. Presumably, jobs are out there for knowledgeable, productive workers. And, yet, Boer also mentions automation. However, given the broad knowledge requirements in the field, I think well-trained individuals will still be in high demand.
  2. “Customer Demands Are Shifting.” Boer notes that it’s not enough to offer the lowest price and highest quality in digital printing. Print service providers who want to thrive must “provide customers with high value add with ultra-efficiency” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”). As I interpret this statement, providers need to help clients achieve their business goals (strategic and financial) in addition to just putting ink on paper. (This might involve helping clients coordinate marketing collateral with an online presence as well as printed signage for a convention, in order to help the client present a unified brand image across multiple chanels.)
  3. “Look at Page Growth Opportunities.” Boer notes that “Digital print versus conventional print still represents a very small percentage of the overall market. While there has been some traction with digital print in transactional print, direct mail, marketing collateral, books, and specialty wide-format graphics, the movement to customization and micro-runs will drive even greater activity in catalogs, magazines, and all forms of packaging” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”). To me, it’s very encouraging that digital printing of both periodicals and packaging has room to grow. This bodes well for print service providers and workers, and it implies that magazines and catalogs are not dead.
  4. From Jim Hamilton

  5. “Wide-Format.” Hamilton encourages print service providers to tie large format graphics, such as trade show graphics, into jobs they’re already printing for clients, such as brochures. Helping tie multiple printing products together in a unified campaign is a “value add,” to quote Boer (from #2 above). Hamilton notes that due to the “faster speeds, affordability, and convenience” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”) of the technology, the time is ripe.
  6. “Digital Packaging.” Hamilton notes that “digital printing is the next frontier for packaging production, and brands and package printers/converters are capitalizing on its efficiency, speed-to-market, and customization/personalization advantages” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”). What this means is that brands can produce much smaller press runs (no need for the huge carton-printing press runs required to offset print and then laminate liners to corrugated fluting). Smaller press runs can accommodate product runs for small artisan breweries, for instance. They also allow for direct communication with customers, since the digital packaging can be targeted to smaller groups or even individuals. Digital packaging eliminates the need for generic promotion that might be irrelevant (or irritating) to the customer.
  7. “Enhancing Print.” Hamilton addresses finishing in this point of consideration. Print service providers can add value to digital printing (monochrome and color) by including such services as “cutting/trimming, stapling/stitching, folding, binding, foil stamping, diecutting, embossing, laminating, spot and flood gloss” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”). In addition, Hamilton suggests widening the color gamut from traditional 4-color process ink by adding additional colors and focusing more on short print runs and personalization.
  8. From Barbara Pellow

  9. Pellow reiterates the importance of focusing marketing materials on individuals and not on a generic market, particularly since digital printing makes this cost effective. Moreover, she sees the importance of print service providers’ helping clients tie together a number of marketing channels to make sure the message is consistent, understandable, and relevant to potential customers.
  10. “All Channels On.” Pellow thinks print service providers should “support customers in moving seamlessly across all channels” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”). In this particular instance, Pellow, I think, is articulating the need to not only bring together print and digital communication, but also to do this in an aesthetically striking and persuasive manner. Repetition reinforces a buying decision. If a customer sees a brand message in a print brochure, and then in an online email advertisement (and if the information is relevant to her/him), there is a greater chance that she/he will respond to the brand message. Helping tie the brand messages together across multiple channels is a useful service printers can offer.
  11. “Print Drives Digital.” Pellow makes it clear that print is not going away. Print and digital enhance one another in promoting sales growth. They are not enemies. In fact, print products are very effective in driving customers to digital media to further the conversation with a brand. Therefore, Pellow notes that providers should “understand how to integrate print with Augmented Reality, QR codes, NFC tags, and social and mobile channels” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”).
  12. Finally, all three speakers in the webinar agree that improving the quality and efficiency of operations should be an essential, full-time goal of all print service providers. This includes “understanding your cost base [and] getting the workflow right” (“10 Important Considerations Print Service Providers Should Think About in 2019”).

What You Can Learn from This Article

  1. This article is very heartening. It means there are jobs out there for knowledgeable and skilled designers, printers, and pre-press personnel, as well as print sales professionals. The field is growing.
  2. Always focus on improving your skills and knowledge base. This will keep you relevant.
  3. Help clients tie together multiple sales channels in ways that target the end customer directly, providing useful (not generic) information.
  4. Focus not on putting ink on paper but on helping clients with their overall marketing, production, and sales goals.

Custom Printing: The Rise of Production Inkjet

Monday, March 25th, 2019

About a month ago I wrote a blog posting about production inkjet, but I just read an article today that makes the case even more powerfully for this rising technology. Production inkjet is an unstoppable force. It seems to be the wave of the future not only for digital printing but for printing in general.

The article I found is called “Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption.” It was written by Marco Boer. I found it on 03/19/19 on www.piworld.com.

(I had also mentioned in an earlier blog posting that PI World–which I used to read religiously when it was Printing Impressions–has been my go-to trade publication on printing since the early ’90s.)

The Gist of the Article

Boer makes a lot of salient points, which I will share with you, and then he explains exactly why production inkjet digital custom printing (as opposed to toner-based digital printing, which includes huge high-end laser printing equipment such as the HP Indigo) is best suited to both short and long run (both static and variable) printing, in an environment where commercial printing in general has been a declining industry.

(Least you think that printing is a boat with a hole in it gradually sinking, the article also explains why printing will continue to be a viable force for print books, direct mail, and transactional printing, in spite of the overall reduction in custom printing volume in the United States.)

So here are some of Boer’s points of interest:

  1. Printing as an overall industry is declining. “The US Postal Service shows average declines in transaction mail pieces…of about 5-6% between 2015 and 2017” (“Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption”).
  2. Direct mail printing is declining, albeit more slowly than transactional printing. Boer notes that “…direct marketing mail pieces declined about 1.4% from 2017 to 2018” (“Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption”).
  3. Paper and postage prices are rising, which has forced printers to reduce manufacturing expenses to continue to make a profit.
  4. The labor pool for printing is decreasing. The average age range of offset printers is 48 to the mid to high 50s, and when they retire there may very well not be skilled pressmen to replace these workers. To quote Boer regarding the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ findings, “…the third-largest job losses across any industry in the United States will be in the printing industry during the next 10 years” (“Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption”).
  5. At the same time, customers want shorter turn-around times and smaller press runs. Trying to fulfill these needs on offset presses dramatically drives up prices (due to the increased need for labor to complete the multiple offset printing make-readies needed for more frequent versions of print jobs that are also smaller jobs with shorter press runs).

None of this bodes well for commercial printing. However….

Enter Digital Printing

Digital printing offers some unique characteristics that make it ideal in such a market:

  1. There’s far less make-ready. While setting up the various processes for a digital print job does take time, there’s nothing like the make-readies, wash-ups, or spoilage that you find in traditional offset commercial printing.
  2. Short press runs are no problem. You can even print one copy.
  3. Since paper and postage costs are rising, it is becoming increasingly important to precisely target marketing messages. Return on investment is becoming more important than cost per copy, according to Boer’s article. That is, if the variable-data capability of digital printing can allow marketers to direct each message to individual potential customers, marketers get a better return on the money they spend. More specifically, they can be more successful in acquiring customers, and they can pay less to convert each prospect into an actual customer. Digital printing is ideal for this.

In my own print brokering work, my clients’ needs have led me to printers with digital toner presses such as the Kodak NexPress and the HP Indigo (as opposed to inkjet presses). However, in reading Boer’s article I’m beginning to see that production inkjet presses, built on the heavy iron frames similar to past generations of offset presses, will most likely be the future of commercial printing. Here are some thoughts as to why production inkjet is set to surpass all other options, based on Boer’s “Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption.”

  1. You can print longer, multi-page documents like print books efficiently, even with mid-range press runs (let’s say 2,000 copies of a book). Toner-based digital presses cannot do this as efficiently or cost-effectively (i.e., presumably a mid-run book job produced on an HP Indigo would cost more than the same product produced on inkjet equipment).
  2. The color fidelity, resolution, and overall quality is there. It used to be that no printed output was as good as offset. Now, with extended color sets (and in some cases just the traditional process inks) you can print spectacular inkjet output.
  3. Better ink chemistry and paper coatings allow production inkjet to accept more paper substrates. Back when I started reading about digital inkjet printing, I was not (personally) satisfied with the color or the range of tones in printed pieces. It seemed to me that the amount of liquid in the inkjet ink back then just made the printed images muddy. I could see the difference. Offset was better. Now this is rapidly changing, as Boer’s article notes.

Where Are We Now?

To quote from “Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption,” “…about one-third of the growth of inkjet pages can be attributed to a transfer from digital toner to inkjet technology. Another one-third can be attributed to replacement of offset pages (mainly in books), and one-third can be attributed to the creation of new pages—pages that couldn’t be printed before because offset wasn’t able to vary the information on the page and toner was not productive enough to print sufficient pages with variable data” (“Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption”).

I think this says it all. People haven’t stopped reading print books. In fact, “printed book pages have increased for the past three consecutive years,” according to “Strong Case for Production Inkjet Technology Adoption.” People also haven’t abandoned direct mail marketing. Marketers are finding that a multi-channel approach (mixing print and online marketing) is far more effective than just online marketing.

But things have to change, and based on the quality of the color, the durability of the equipment, and the efficiencies not available in offfset printing (and also not even available in toner-based digital printing), production inkjet is at the sweet spot of the commercial printing industry. Granted the number of “overall pages printed” has been lower than in the past, but for those printers who commit to production inkjet technology, the future seems very bright.

What We Can Learn

  1. Don’t give up. Printing isn’t going away. Your skills are needed.
  2. The better you understand all kinds of printing (offset, digital, large format, gravure, flexography), the more relevant your skills will be.
  3. If you can help clients increase their return on investment (that is, if you can help clients make money), you’re golden. This means not only understanding the varieties of commercial printing technology and their uses but also understanding consumer psychology, motivation, and behavior. It also means understanding how to coordinate both online advertising and print-based advertising to attract new customers.

Commercial Printing: Printing Your Driver’s License

Monday, March 18th, 2019

I spent three hours in the Maryland Department of Transportation today (mostly waiting) to renew my driver’s license. As a student of commercial printing with time on my hands, I took the opportunity to read the driver’s license replacement brochure to see what I was getting.

Needless to say, when I compared the new design to the one I had had for the past seven years, I was struck by the complexity of the custom printing. The brochure I was reading launched my education into new digital printing methods for drivers’ licenses.

Qualities/Attributes of the Card

First of all, it was clear to me that this could have been any type of card, including a credit card or medical card. The specific custom printing techniques and the substrate of the card itself could ostensibly be useful for all card printing.

Moreover, a few more things were immediately evident.

The card is rigid and durable. I know because I’ve had my current driver’s license for seven years, and everything is still readable. It’s scratched up a bit, but it has lasted. The brochure describes the card as having a “polycarbonate card body” that is “more durable, secure, and tamper resistant” (“Maryland Protected and Proud” brochure).

There was a lot of information encoded in my prior driver’s license, as evidenced by a single two-dimensional code. On both my prior license and the new one there is an “identity barcode” composed not of vertical lines (as with a UPC code or a US Postal barcode) but a pattern of tiny squares (not unlike pixels on a computer screen). These tiny squares link up to create patterns within a rectangle approximately 2” wide by 3/4” high.

This pattern, which I Googled online and found to be a PDF-417 (I believe), reminded me of a QR Code (quick response code).

The key here is that such a code can contain a wealth of information about the individual driver. Presumably this can be used as a repository for information the Maryland Department of Transportation needs for its operations but also as a means for confirming the identity of the card holder.

Based on my understanding of the process, such a code is digitally generated from digital data. And in addition to the identity code, the new drivers’ licenses described in the brochure have an “inventory control number” and accompanying barcode (vertical lines, in contrast to the 2D identity barcode). Again, I assume this is digitally generated, in this case just from the unique control number.

When I compare this card (I actually just found my fiancee’s driver’s license as well, and this matches the brochure image in every detail) to a credit card, it seems to have much more detailed image content. Plus, it has no chip (at least no chip recognizable by the universally accepted “chip logo”).

At the top right of my fiancee’s driver’s license is a small image of my fiancee. When I tilt the card vertically (back and forth), the image changes to her birthdate. So, this means the Maryland Department of Transportation has printed a “lenticular image” (composed of incredibly small plastic lenses that present two images when tilted).

From what I see (and since I know that utilitarian goals trump aesthetics in such a card), the purpose of the lenticular image is to make counterfeiting the driver’s license that much more difficult–as a deterrent to identity theft.

If you run your fingers over my fiancee’s driver’s license, you will notice that some of the lettering is raised. The brochure describes this as “tactile text” or “laser engraving on the card … [that] raises the print making it difficult to tamper or modify” (“Maryland Protected and Proud” brochure).

On the back of the card is a miniature 4-color image of my fiancee (noted in the MDOT brochure as “another barrier against fraud”). There is also a partial 4-color image of what looks like a statehouse (apparently the Annapolis, Maryland, statehouse). The center of the building is in color (a yellow) and the left and right sides of the statehouse are black ink only. There is a gradual shift (like a vignette) from the black to the yellow and back to the black. The brochure refers to this as “rainbow printing.” My assumption is that it is also an anti-counterfeiting measure.

Over the front of my fiancee’s driver’s license seems to be a textured coating. The front of the card is a little glossier than the back, and there is the word “Maryland” and equal-armed crosses from the Maryland flag produced with texture but otherwise invisible (as a laminate or other coating might be).

Goals of These Various Attributes of the Driver’s License

Identity Protection

In its own way, this driver’s license reminds me of some of the new larger-dollar-denomination bills in the US currency, with their holograms, metallic strips, and contrasting-color threads. In both cases, it seems that the goal is to deter fraud. Since there are an increasing number of brilliant but immoral people stealing identities, the state governments need to work harder and harder each year to develop commercial printing techniques to thwart such theft. A close observation of the driver’s license reveals many of these.

Durability

Between the coating on the front of my fiancee’s driver’s license and the thickness and overall strength of the polycarbonate card substrate, it is clear that durability is of paramount importance. The card must be readable in the seventh year of its existence as well as the first. None of the custom printing can be allowed to degrade as the license rubs against other cards in one’s wallet.

Infinitely Variable Data Storage

Unlike most other cards (with the possible exception of a credit card), the driver’s license must contain a wealth of information on only one person. This makes it an ideal candidate for digital commercial printing. No analog process could produce such infinite variability for any reasonable price.

So How Is It Done?

I went online to research the process for printing a driver’s license. I also looked closely at my fiancee’s license with a 12-power printer’s loupe. And I reread the MDOT brochure.

Through a loupe the image appears to contain the minuscule spots of inkjet printing, particularly visible in the color builds of the typescript. The dot pattern in the halftones is not the regular line upon line of halftone dots I see in laser printing. These dots are random, like those of FM screening or stochastic printing. So my educated guess at this point would be that some kind of inkjet printing process was used.

The brochure also mentions laser engraving (as opposed to laser printing) for some of the typescript. So I’m assuming some kind of burning process with a laser was used during printing.

For protection, there seems to be some kind of gloss coating over the polycarbonate card substrate. Given the images I found online of the driver’s license printers, my educated guess would be that they incorporate some sort of heated lamination process following the application of liquid ink (unless it really is a toner-based process, which I doubt).

Since dye sublimation would be the third digital custom printing option, I looked for any indication of changes in color tones not achieved with different sized halftone dots. This is because to the best of my understanding you can actually create different shades of a color with continuous tones using dye sublimation technology. Therefore, I’d assume that this printing process is either inkjet–perhaps UV inkjet (first guess)–or laser printing (second guess).

What You Can Learn From This Case Study

I personally think that card printing not only is a lucrative field currently but that it will only continue to grow. After all, companies and governments have both the desire and the technology required to parse vast amounts of data and to encode it on cards used to identify the holder. This may be for medical reasons (medical cards). It may be for carrying or transferring money (credit and debit cards). Or it may be for identification purposes (drivers’ licenses).

Until all of this information can be biometrically held (fingerprint or retina scan) or held on chips inserted into people (as they are now inserted into rescue animals at the pound), designers and printers will have an increasingly lucrative market in printed plastic cards.

Moreover, this will be a recurring purchase. As the technology improves, people will need new cards. New digital tricks will be invented to foil identity thieves, and this will require replacement cards made with all manner of 2D and 3D commercial printing techniques.

Commercial Printing: The New Fujifilm Digital J Press

Monday, March 11th, 2019

Digital custom printing is stepping up into the big time. No longer are plastic photocopy machines on steroids the norm for new generation digital presses.

About a week ago a printing rep I work with told me his plant had a Fujifilm J Press. I didn’t know what that was, but it intrigued me, so I did some research online. I have a lot of confidence in this particular sales rep’s commitment to quality, and after reading some of the sales literature for the Fujifilm J Press, I understood the sales rep’s confidence.

The Technology

Here are some of the things I learned from the Fujifilm sales literature and the ramifications for digital commercial printing.

To begin with, the J Press is a production inkjet press. That is, unlike the HP Indigo, which has been my digital press of choice, and which is based on an electrophotographic process (i.e., it’s a laser printer), the J Press uses inkjet print heads and pigment-based ink to spray images on paper. It is meant for both competitively-priced short and long press runs.

The Build Quality of the J Press

First of all, the photos indicate that the J Press 720S is not a photocopier. It “features an offset paper handling system—and is based on an incredibly robust chasis” (Fujifilm).

To me this means two things:

  1. Fujifilm has been learning from old guard commercial printing suppliers, who buy second generation presses and then use them forever because they are durable and reliable. Printing is not just about putting ink or toner on paper. It is about moving press sheets through a physical process. Glorified photocopiers break. I’ve watched a lot of digital presses being repaired. I’ve even known printers who lease two of them so one can be operative when the other is being fixed. In contrast, the J Press looks like it was built to last.
  2. Along with durability, digital presses like the J Press are built for precision. Keeping printed sheets in register on some of the early digital presses owned by printers I used to work with was a challenge. More specifically, there was not the tight tolerance in some digital presses that you could find on an offset press. What this meant was that “backing up a sheet” was a challenge. You couldn’t be sure images on the fronts and backs of press sheets would line up exactly. In contrast, building a production inkjet press from the ground up on an offset press chasis reflects a commitment to not only the longevity of the press but also its precision.

Fujifilm’s Commitment to Color

Fujifilm claims that the J Press can match 75 percent of Pantone colors with its CMYK inkset. In contrast, most offset printers can match 50 to 60 percent of Pantone colors.

(By combining process colors: that is, in offset lithography by printing screens of the four transparent process inks over one another at different screen angles, and in digital inkjet printing by spraying minuscule dots of CMYK colors side by side, you can simulate the colors in the Pantone Matching System color gamut.)

What surprises me is that Fujifilm can exceed the color gamut of offset printing with only four specially developed inks. In my experience of digital inkjet printing, it usually takes supplemental colors beyond cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to meet and even exceed the wide color gamut indigenous to inkjet custom printing.

Moreover, the J Press uses pigment inks (minuscule bits of color material suspended between water molecules). Based on my experience, this makes for longer lasting printed output, less likely to fade in sunlight than are dye-based inks.

In addition, the Fujifilm J Press has achieved the Idealliance Digital Press Certification and Idealliance ISO/PAS 15339 Certification. What this means is that Fujifilm, which has been known for decades as having an impeccable commitment to accurate color, can both measure and replicate to an incredibly precise degree the color of a print job. This is essential when you’re reprinting a job six months after the initial press date. Color specification and measurement, as reflected in the Idealliance certifications, are essential to this kind of repeatability.

(You may want to research similar certifications for offset commercial printing, such as the GRACoL and SWOP standards. The Fujifilm product literature also references the ISO 12647-2 standard for offset printing. In fact, having benchmarks for color in the J Press workflow means you can offset print a long run of a job and then later produce the same job digitally–perhaps a shorter run or a press run with variable data–and you can still achieve a spot-on color match using two totally different technologies: offset and inkjet. Up until recently, this was impossible.)

Finally, according to Fujifilm’s product literature, the J Press has closed-loop color feedback. They call this XMF ColorPath cloud-based color management, and the literature refers to an In-Line Sensor. What it really means to me is that the computer that controls the J Press can measure the color of the press output on a constant basis during a print job, feed this information back into the press, and make any adjustments needed to ensure color accuracy (and also to ensure color consistency in future press runs).

Paper Handling Capabilities

In addition to the paper handling capabilities mentioned above, based on the sturdy build quality of the J Press, this production inkjet press can handle more paper sizes and surfaces than prior generations of digital inkjet technology.

More specifically, the J Press can accept sheet sizes ranging from 21.3” x 15” to 29.5” x 20.9”. In terms of traditional offset printing, this means you can buy and use cut sheet stock that is 17.5” x 23”, 19” x 25”, 20” x 26”, and 20” x 28”.

If your print job is a calendar or a pocket folder, you will appreciate the fact that the printed product will fit on a J Press press sheet. Prior to the current generation of inkjet presses, only jobs closer to 13” x 19” (approximately) could be digitally printed. Anything larger, like a flat pocket folder with flaps and glue tabs, would be too large for the press sheet. But not anymore.

These sizes reflect the influence of old-school printing on the new digital inkjet presses. What it really implies is that you can image a sheet on the J Press, back it up (print, in precise register, on the back of the press sheet) and then finish the sheet (fold, trim, bind) as though it had come off a traditional offset press. In fact, Fujifilm will send out a sample magazine printed via both offset lithography and digital inkjet technology to commercial printing vendors to show them just how close a match they can achieve.

Beyond the size, Fujifilm is positioning the J Press to accept standard coated and uncoated offset papers. In the past, inkjet printing has been adversely affected due to the amount of water in inkjet inks (when compared to the viscosity of the oil-based offset inks). To remedy this, many older inkjet papers had to be specially treated. (That is, they either were specialty papers or they had to be treated prior to use.)

I find it especially encouraging that the Fujifilm J Press can accept a wide range of standard coated and uncoated offset printing papers for three reasons:

  1. The inks have been improved such that they can dry quickly and sit up on the surface of the paper (i.e., they have better hold-out). This makes for crisper, more vibrant color. (Without having seen the output yet, this would be my expectation.)
  2. Standard paper is less expensive (per unit cost) because more of it is made by the paper mills.
  3. Designers will appreciate the wide range of substrates they can specify for their commercial printing jobs.

So, again, it is clear to me that Fujifilm is working to bridge the gap between offset printing and digital injket printing. Since the much larger arrays of print heads and the overall improved paper handling capabilities of these larger presses allow for faster printing, it seems to me that the gap between offset and digital technology will close. It will no longer be necessary to print only short runs on digital equipment (due to their former, slower speed). You will be able to print one copy or thousands of copies of a job cost-effectively and efficiently.

What This Means for You

In short, this means that you will have multiple options for printing your jobs. You will no longer need to choose digital over offset based solely on print run length. This will make it easier for you to produce variable data jobs with no concern over color fidelity, color register, or press operating speed.

Custom Printing: Press Release Reflects New Digital Trends

Monday, March 4th, 2019

Sometimes you can actually learn a lot from a press release. It’s a bit like reading the tea leaves to divine the future.

A close friend and colleague recently sent me a press release about the Hunkeler Innovationdays 2019 printing and finishing trade show coming up in Lucerne, Switzerland (entitled “Hunkeler Innovationdays to Showcase the Next Generation of High Performance Digital Printing and Finishing,” by Hunkeler). If you know how to read between the lines, you can get a lot of information about custom printing from this simple, approximately 250-word press release.

The Specifics (and the Takeaways)

First of all, this trade show highlights “high-performance technology for the next generation of digital printing and finishing” (“Hunkeler Innovationdays to Showcase the Next Generation of High Performance Digital Printing and Finishing”).

What You Can Learn

Digital custom printing has been around in some form or another since the 1980s and 1990s, when my office had a laser printer to produce hard-copy proofs of our jobs prior to sending them to press. We also had an inkjet printer for color proofs. The color fidelity was abysmal, but prior to that we had used colored markers to indicate color placement on tracing paper overlays that went on top of the base art “mechanicals.” At that time, any computer-applied color was a huge step forward.

Since the 1980s and 1990s, color fidelity has improved dramatically, but “finishing” has lagged. What is finishing? Finishing is anything after the printing step (digital or offset). That is, finishing includes cutting, folding, binding, etc. For a long time, it was all about putting toner or inkjet ink on paper, but there were not a lot of digital options for completing a printed job. Now there are.

The trade show in Lucerne, Switzerland, will address these. And that is a fantastic opportunity to see both the products in operation and all the discrete elements of the workflow. More specifically, this means that trade show attendees will see how an actual job travels from a digital press through the following steps of the finishing process.

And this brings me to the second point noted in the press release: “40 live production solutions” (“Hunkeler Innovationdays to Showcase the Next Generation of High Performance Digital Printing and Finishing”). It sounds like an advertisement. But that’s exactly what a press release is, really. But it’s still useful.

The Hunkeler press release notes that trade show attendees will see “40 live production solutions running a highly diverse lineup of applications focused on commercial printing, book production, brochure and mailing production, transactional printing and more.” This includes “the latest updates to Hunkeler’s Generation 8 roll finishing, featuring plowfolding and the capability to stack 30” (B2+) sheets in-line with high-speed inkjet presses” (“Hunkeler Innovationdays to Showcase the Next Generation of High Performance Digital Printing and Finishing”).

What Else You Can Learn

If you parse out this information, you can learn two things. As noted above, the equipment doesn’t just sit there at the trade show. You actually get a bird’s-eye view of a commercial printing environment, with live jobs traveling from machine to machine, showing exactly how a job might travel through a real commercial printing shop. A prudent trade show attendee will see whether there are any bottlenecks in the workflow, and will be able to ask about any potential issues while the jobs actually progress through the “live production solutions” (“Hunkeler Innovationdays to Showcase the Next Generation of High Performance Digital Printing and Finishing”).

In addition, the press release notes the specific, growing areas of digital custom printing: “commercial printing, book production, brochure and mailing production,” and “transactional printing.” Commercial printing usually pertains to marketing jobs, jobs that are not books, large format printing, etc. I personally consider an annual report to be a commercial printing job (the definition varies). For instance, you would take a book printing job to a different kind of printer than you would an annual report: a printer with different printing and finishing equipment.

Moreover, this quote from the press release reflects one key benefit of digital printing: its variability. “Brochure and mailing production” and “transactional printing” reflect the increasing ability of digital custom printing to target small groups and even individuals with their message. Unlike offset printing, digital printing output can be varied from one printed item to the next.

(Transactional printing, as noted above, is a particularly good example of this trend. When you get a statement or invoice in the mail, this document is often not only directly targeted to you, but it also—increasingly—includes promotional information as well as the bill. This promotional information or advertising can now be digitally produced and inserted into the billing information. The two data streams can be combined, and the printed transactional package can reflect both what you owe the vendor and what else you might want to purchase. And all of this is made possible by the current data-collecting and data-mining capabilities marketers can employ. They can pretty much know exactly who you are and exactly what you buy, and they can use this information to target their transpromotional printed material.)

Here are some other key words noted above: roll finishing, plow folding, and 30” (B2+) sheets.

All of these reflect the increasing speed of digital commercial printing operations. Roll finishing is based on printing toner or inkjet ink on webs of paper (rolls as opposed to sheets). Roll-fed presses print a lot faster than sheetfed presses. For jobs like transpromotional printing, you can even print a whole roll of variable data marketing and billing information, and then move this roll to finishing equipment for final folding, cutting, and inserting into customer envelopes. What this means is that more work can be done much more quickly than in the past.

Plow folding (also noted above) involves running a length of paper from a roll (as opposed to sheetfed) through folding equipment before it is cut. Again, this reflects speed. In prior printing generations, you would find a plow folder on a web offset press. There it did one of the “finishing” operations for an extremely long magazine press run (for instance).

The final notation above is the 30” (B2+) sheet. This addresses the size of the paper that can now flow through both digital printing and digital finishing equipment. It wasn’t that long ago that digital presses accepted (approximately) 8.5” x 11”, or more recently 13” x 19”, paper. In contrast, offset presses accepted sheets closer to 25” x 38” or 28” x 40” paper. Granted, on an offset press, you would print a 4-page, 8-page, or 16-page “press signature,” which you would then fold and trim to the final size (let’s say 8.5” x 11” book pages). On a digital press, in contrast, you might print 2-page or 4-page signatures.

When you can print on a 30” (B2+) press sheet, this means you have an (approximately) 20” x 28” format (actually 19.7” x 27.8”), which is much larger than prior generations of presses could accept. So you can print larger products (pocket folders, for instance), or more copies of the same product, on a press sheet. Or you can even print more book pages (presumably even book signatures).

Newer inkjet publication presses can now print these larger sheets, and this means a digital print job can run much more quickly. (Or you can print a much larger job, which means that digital printing equipment can begin to compete with the longer runs of offset printing.) A custom printer would appreciate this efficiency because it would allow him to take in more work, and this would yield a higher operating profit.

The Larger Takeaway

On the much larger (macro) level, this means that increased customer demand for faster printing and more intricate finishing of digitally produced, (often) variable-data driven, custom printing jobs has led OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to innovate. They have produced equipment that will print on larger press sheets, equipment that will run faster and print color more accurately, and equipment that can produce infinitely variable output. This you can see at trade shows like Innovationdays in Lucerne, Switzerland.

However, if, like me, you can’t afford to go to Switzerland, you can still learn from these press releases. In fact, what I do is look for articles that analyze the new technology I first learn about through the promotional releases.

As a final take away, I encourage you to use the Internet as a learning tool, as I do, and to tap into the power of article aggregators. Every night Google collects and presents to me a handful of online articles about all aspects of digital and offset printing based on specific parameters I have specified. Even if I do nothing more than read the headlines and then dip into a few of the articles, I learn something new each night about printing.

You may want to do the same thing.

Custom Printing: Direct Digital Printing on Bottles

Sunday, November 4th, 2018

I was reading the trade journals online this week, keeping abreast of trends in commercial printing, and I came upon an article written by Pat Reynolds in Packaging World (www.packworld.com) entitled “Direct Digital Printing on Rigid Containers.” It was published on 4/3/18.

I know this sounds somewhat dry as a subject, but as I read the article, I saw the implications for packaging, marketing, and digital commercial printing in general. Plus, it was interesting to see just how printing can be done on a bottle without using a label. So I did further research.

The Background

First of all, I think you will appreciate the concept more if I first give you some background on how this would have been done before digital custom printing. The options would have been as follows:

Label printing. This would have worked fine, printing on matte crack ‘n peel label stock and then affixing the labels on the bottles. However, there would have been a number of steps involved. It would not have been a direct process, and presumably all of the labels would have been identical. Granted, in more recent times, a printer could have produced digital labels, which could easily have included variable data. But the labels still would have had a border. That is, the packaging art would have been limited to the dimensions of the label.

Screen printing. A printer could have used screen printing technology to image the packaging information right on the bottle without needing a label. This would have been less confined in its design than a rectangular label. Printed imagery could have extended onto any portion of the bottle accessible to the custom screen printing equipment. More than likely, the screen and the squeegie used to force ink through the screen printing mesh would have been stationary, and the bottles would have been spun around on their vertical axes to bring each bottle’s surface into contact with the printing screen.

Presumably, since custom screen printing ink is very thick and tacky, there would have been limited resolution in any photographic images (which probably would have been too challenging to attempt anyway), and since a new screen would have been needed for each color, the majority of screen printed imagery would have been limited to a few colors.

But more than anything, this process would have required extensive make-ready. Therefore, for the job to be competitive in price, a long press run would have been necessary. Also, variable data printing would have been out of the question. All art would have been static. All images would have been identical. Moreover, since screen printing make-ready is so labor intensive, the process would have taken a long time.

Pad Printing. Another option would have been pad printing. This is great for printing on golf balls and computer keys. Even if a surface is rounded, like a bottle, successful screen printing requires the screen to come into direct contact with the printing substrate. This alone would make screen printing on many shapes of bottles impossible. That said, a gravure printing process called pad printing, or tampography, would be an option. In this process, a gravure plate is covered with ink that quickly becomes tacky as it dries. Then a silicone pad is brought down onto the inked plate, where it picks up the tacky ink image as the pad compresses briefly. Then the pad can be positioned over the substrate (which can be concave, convex, or any other shape that would otherwise be difficult to print). Finally (due to the nature of the silicone pad and the ink) the silicone pad releases the tacky ink image onto the substrate.

However, like screen printing, pad printing artwork cannot be changed for every image, and, given the make-ready involved, pad printing also lends itself to longer press runs.

Enter Direct Digital Printing

Reynolds’ article describes the new process of direct digital printing on PET plastic and glass bottles used for the food and beverage industry. Within the context noted above, being able to print on irregularly shaped surfaces (as you might do with pad printing) while constantly varying the imagery is rather exciting.

Moreover, you could conceivably create only one printed bottle if you needed a prototype. Then, you could make any design changes required and print the entire run with the new design. And you could do this with FDA compliant, low-migration, food-safe inks.

To give you an idea of the technology involved, a system of feedscrews and a starwheels brings each cylindrical bottle in front of the digital inkjet printheads, using a carousel system to move the bottles through the system and out again. Reynolds’ article, “Direct Digital Printing on Rigid Containers,” describes transport systems that can be built to accommodate more bottles at a time (increasing the speed and efficiency of production depending on the run length).

The article also describes two printing processes, one that involves inkjetting the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink colors sequentially, and another that deposits the inks all at once. To make all of this work, certain bottle shapes will be more successful and certain shapes will not work.

Addressing the needs of both PET plastic bottles and glass bottles can be tricky, due to the different heat requirements for the two substrates, but Reynolds’ article explains how each can be accommodated.

The process uses UV-cured inks, which will set instantly upon exposure to ultraviolet light (provided by LED bulbs). This allows for printing on non-porous substrates (such as PET plastic and glass) and makes the bottles immediately usable without any drying time. In addition to the usual process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black), the technology uses white inkjet ink and also a clear primer to make the ink adhere better to the substrate.

Why This Is Special

Direct printing on PET and glass bottles provides several benefits for the food and beverage packaging industry.

  1. You can produce an edition of one. This is useful if you’re making a prototype for a bottle. The mock-up will look exactly like the finished product.
  2. When you have confirmed your initial design, you can still make each bottle different, so each customer who buys the product can have unique personalization (such as their name).
  3. Although there are some limitations in the substrates (the bottles have to be a certain shape that will allow access to the inkjet heads: cylindrical but not oval, for instance), I’m sure the ability to print digitally on uneven or irregular surfaces will improve in the near future. (For example, I have read about inkjet equipment that can already print directly on a football.)
  4. The UV inks are “low-migration” inks that won’t contaminate the food products in the bottles.
  5. On a design level, you have a larger area for the custom printing. You are not limited to the rectangular dimensions of a label. The imagery and text can be positioned on any part of the bottle’s surface accessible to the print heads.
  6. Unlike screen printing and pad printing, digital inkjet custom printing allows for high resolution photographic imagery. This could make the look of a direct digital printed bottle far more dramatic than that of a screen-printed or pad-printed bottle.

More than anything, this is a good, solid step in the direction of printing almost anything on almost any substrate.

Commercial Printing: Inkjet Printing for Interior Design

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

I found a most interesting article on www.inkworldmagazine.com on 7/18. I had been reading articles on the growth of inkjet printing as a tool for interior design, and I was aware that, like package design, corrugated board printing, fabric decoration, and large format printing, the use of inkjet technology in building interiors has been a growth industry within the overall commercial printing universe.

The inkworldmagazine article is entitled “Mimaki: Five Ways to Improve Interior Decoration with Digital Printing.” It was written by Mark Sollman, application manager at Mimaki.

The article references five separate areas of interior décor design that can benefit from inkjet printing, which is one of the strengths of Mimaki. The five areas referenced in the article are wallpaper, upholstery, glass, tiles, and wood, and all together they provide enough printable surface area within a building interior to dramatically distinguish one company (or even a personal residence) from another.

(I also have used Mimaki’s digital, knife-cutting equipment, through a commercial printing vendor, for a custom printing client who needed digitally printed and diecut stickers, which can be produced all at once on the same Mimaki equipment, without the need for a separate metal cutting die.)

Wallpaper

Sollman’s article distinguishes past eras of wallpaper–which could be simple and perhaps even boring in their generic qualities–from the current version of wallpaper, which can be produced on any number of substrates (with or without texture). These can include any number of patterns provided by the wallpaper company or even by the client himself/herself, affording an uniquely personalized approach. (For instance, a client can choose a particular color scheme or even base a wallpaper design on a personal photograph.)

Given the nature of inkjet printing, particularly on these substrates, wallpaper decoration can be especially fast and easy, leading to reasonable costs for highly individualized interior design.

Upholstery

I had mentioned above that fabric decoration has been appearing in the articles I’ve been reading (albeit mostly in terms of clothing design). However, in “Mimaki: Five Ways to Improve Interior Decoration with Digital Printing,” Sollman broadens this to include everything from sheets and drapes to the covering of chairs and couches.

Again, the nature of inkjet custom printing allows for easy and affordable decoration of these items, making a person’s interior environment completely unique, and involving not only patterns but also the different textures available. For instance, inkjet printing can be applied to everything from silk to the thicker fabrics used on chairs and couches. In addition, Sollman’s article notes that, depending on the fabric substrate, sublimation printing can be used to achieve brilliant coloration, even including tropical colors. And, as with the other products in the Mimaki article, upholstery printing can be done even for a single item or select products in an environmental design while still being cost-effective.

Glass

Sollman’s article then moves on to glass decoration, noting that UV inks can be applied successfully to non-porous substrates, since UV light will cure UV inks instantly and adhere them to the base material, all while retaining the intensity of their coloration.

What this does is allow for personalized and intricate decoration of windows. (For example, you can create a memorable window treatment for a conference room that will provide both privacy and also an aesthetic appearance. Or, you can decorate the windows in a large hotel lobby in an artful way.) And due to the nature of printing with UV ink, the inks will be durable and resistant to scratching and water, unlike prior generations of inks.

Floor Tiles

Just as the new technology in inkjet printing can produce striking results on glass, Sollman’s article notes that printing on floor tiles is now a viable option for interior decoration. Due to the precision of inkjet custom printing, it is possible to produce an intricate design that extends across multiple tiles and creates a large mural effect. This can be used for a wall treatment or even a swimming pool, given the water resistant nature of UV inkjet inks. (In addition, I have read other articles that describe top-coating products that will increase the rub resistance of tile surfaces, protecting the inkjetted imagery in spite of heavy foot traffic.)

Wood

Finally, Sollman’s article, “Mimaki: Five Ways to Improve Interior Decoration with Digital Printing,” addresses inkjet printing on wood. What I find interesting about printing on wood is twofold. First of all, it is thick. Fortunately, as Sollman notes, some large-format flatbed inkjet presses can accommodate thick substrates, including doors. So you can basically print right on the object itself rather than on an adhesive substrate that you would then affix to the wood.

Or, depending on your design, you might want to print on wood panels, which can then be attached to walls. Or, you could just print on wood objects, depending on the kind of inkjet printer you use.

In addition, I would think that without any kind of barrier coating (like a shellac or varnish), the wood would provide an unevenly porous surface for the inkjet ink. Fortunately, as Sollman points out, UV inks can sidestep this issue. The inks will sit up on the surface of the wood, rather than seeping into the wood, because of the instant-curing nature of UV inks when exposed to UV light.

The article does not address laminates, but I have read other articles that describe interesting effects that can be achieved by printing on wood that is later coated (like laminated surfboards and such). So there might be similar applications in the realm of interior design.

What You Can Learn from This Article

  1. Inkjet custom printing makes all of this possible and affordable. Prior to the advent of inkjet printing (and UV inkjet printing in particular), such alternatives as screen printing would have been too labor intensive and costly, and therefore would not have been appropriate for a “one-off” interior design treatment. Inkjet printing makes this possible and affordable.
  2. The growth of inkjet printing for interior design is apparently quite dramatic. If you are a designer, it’s wise to take note. This could be your future in a world where many printed products such as print books, newspapers, and magazines are becoming less prevalent.
  3. UV inks allow you to print on almost anything, while keeping the ink up on the surface of the substrate. They are also very durable in terms of rub resistance and water-fastness.
  4. Practically any kind of interior you can imagine, you can create. In addition, it’s much easier and cheaper to change what is essentially the “skin,” or surface treatment, of an environment. (Wallpaper can be changed much more easily in a hotel lobby than interior walls can be torn down, moved, and rebuilt.)
  5. Non-porous substrates are printable (such as glass). This is new, and it is the result of advances in UV-curable inkjet printing.
  6. Thick substrates are not a problem. If you can print on a door, you can print on practically anything.

It’s wise, and potentially very profitable, for you to keep abreast of this technology.

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