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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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Custom Printing: Vetting Digital Print Samples

A print brokering client of mine wants to produce about 100 copies each of almost twenty color print books. I have mentioned this in past blogs, and I have noted that due to the variable-data nature of the job (different books with different colors), digital printing is the best way to approach the job. If you can envision a PMS swatch book, you’ve got a mental image of this product.

Selecting a Printer by Selecting a Custom Printing Process

For this job, the goal was not just to get the cheapest price, although this was a consideration. Getting the best product was equally important, and this actually involved choosing a particular custom printing process (digital, which would include either toner on paper or inkjet). Moreover, it really went beyond the process to the more specific choice of the custom printing press itself.

I had initially chosen an HP Indigo press as the target equipment, because I felt it was superior to other digital electrophotographic (laser toner) equipment on the market at present. I had not considered inkjet because I was not sure the heavy ink coverage of the color swatches in my client’s print book would fare as well as with a laser toner process.

With this in mind I approached all the vendors I knew and trusted that owned HP Indigo equipment. I solicited estimates, but they were higher than expected. I wasn’t pleased. One of the more expensive aspects of the job was the off-line coating process. The HP Indigo presses owned by the vendors with whom I work do not yet coat jobs inline.

Considering A New Option

I was visiting a friend at a local offset and digital printer, and he showed me a new press of his, a Kodak NexPress, which could add a gloss coating inline. His pricing was spectacularly low compared to the other vendors’ bids since all processes up to the drilling and round cornering (diecutting) would be done right on this press.

I had been cautious, since I don’t automatically trust electrophotography. Over the years I have seen uneven laydown of colored toners producing banding in solids, and I have not always liked type I have seen reversed out of laser-printed solids. After all, toner placement is less precise than ink placement in offset custom printing, so final output can look fuzzy or uneven.

That said, I tried to keep an open mind, and I was floored by the quality. Unfortunately, this printer could not find and send me a sample of the job I had seen that day, but it was stellar. It was a multi-panel brochure with metallic inks (or toners, actually) and a gloss coating that looked like gloss UV. Wow.

So after I had received prices, and once I felt this printer could do a great job on this press, I requested printed samples for my client. They arrived tonight. (I needed to see and vet the samples before passing them on to my client in the Midwest.)

What I was Looking For

As soon as I opened the box, I pulled out the samples, but I also grabbed my loupe and sat under a strong light. This is what I saw under the high magnification:

  1. The colors were brilliant, very bright and vibrant.
  2. The text was crisp. There were very few random particles of toner around the text letterforms. So the letters looked like offset printed text.
  3. Color builds reflected tight register. Overlapping colors were precisely positioned.
  4. The gloss coating made the photographic images look crisper than usual (i.e., the resolution looked higher than than I expected). In fact, the images looked like high-end inkjet photo prints.
  5. I saw that the solid areas of color were even. There was no banding, no sense that toner had been used instead of offset ink.
  6. Next I looked at a large area of type reversed out of a heavy coating of blue toner (apparently a mixture of all process colors). The letterforms of the reversed type were all clean with no stray particles of toner. Granted, the type was a sans serif face, but it was very small. It would have been interesting to see if the Kodak NexPress could hold the detail in a serif typeface at this small point size.
  7. The only thing I’m concerned about (and I expect there will be a work-around) is the rub resistance, or scratch resistance of the toners, with and without the additional gloss coating. Once this custom printing supplier can assure me that the color swatch book will be durable, I’ll be completely sold.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

First of all, if you’re vetting a printing technology, or a printing press that’s new to you, ask for printed samples. Then look at heavy coverage ink, reverses, the toner laydown at the folds (look for cracks), gradations, the scratch resistance of the coating, etc.

Then look for color fidelity of memory colors (like flesh tones and grass). Sometimes digital printing (especially toner-based processes) can look unnatural or waxy. Granted, the technology has been improving in leaps and bounds, so the product really is close to offset quality now. But nothing will help you decide how to proceed more effectively than seeing a handful of printed samples.

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