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Archive for the ‘Digital Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: Kodak’s New Production Inkjet Press

Monday, March 29th, 2021

Photo purchased from … www.depositphotos.com

I’m not a gearhead. I don’t get excited about car specifications or even computer specifications, but when it comes to custom printing, I’m actually getting very excited about the developments in digital printing. In this arena, I do get pumped about equipment specs.

Why? Because I remember the 1990s, when inkjet printer output was garish. We had an inkjet printer in the design studio, but we used it only to give clients a general idea of how the printed product would look. Now, digital printing is running neck and neck with offset printing.

Back in the 1990s when I was buying commercial printing and managing the art and production unit of a nonprofit foundation, I first heard a printer say, “Quality, Price, Schedule. Choose any two.” Well this has changed a bit in the ensuing years. There’s a print book I found several years ago called Free, Perfect, and Now by Robert Rodin. I think this motto is closer to the demands of today’s print buyer, given the ability of digital printing to produce short runs of variable-data work immediately. Customers expect this now because it can actually happen. Maybe not always. But most of the time.

Background on the KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press

In this light I was pleased to read “An Interview with Randy Vandagriff, Senior VP of Print on the New KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press.” It’s a press release from Kodak dated 03/10/21, and it has a number of far-reaching implications.

To quote from the press release, “Offset print volumes are in decline, yet offset remains the benchmark for quality, speed, paper choice, and long runs. But offset cannot print variable content and struggles to economically print small quantities as press runs have become shorter and more targeted” (“An Interview with Randy Vandagriff, Senior VP of Print on the New KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press”).

This press release touches all the bases:

    1. Current shorter runs (and the need for some longer runs)

 

    1. Variable data capability

 

    1. Substrate (paper) flexibility (as it pertains to both overall image quality and the tactile differences between various papers)

 

    1. Speed (digital presses run much more slowly than offset presses)

 

  1. And, most importantly, quality. This means everything from the nuances of tone in photographs to ink holdout on printing paper to the breadth of the color gamut (or how many distinct colors a press can print).

Hitting all of these targets at once has been difficult. Quality of digital output hasn’t matched offset quality. Some digital inkjet presses can’t print on glossy paper. Others can print on glossy paper but the inks are expensive and the process slows down the press (making digital even slower when compared to offset).

Kodak’s Answer: The KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press

So this is what Kodak has developed in response to client needs: the KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press, a digital inkjet press that runs at “production” speeds (which means the technology is gradually becoming fast enough to compete with offset printing). Moreover, as the speed increases, the point at which it becomes economically prudent to switch from digital to offset moves to longer press runs. In short, that means digital is becoming competitive with offset in terms of quality and speed, allowing printers to opt for digital technology (for its variable data capability, for instance) for longer press runs than heretofore.

To quote again from the press release: “In order to close the gap, we designed and built a revolutionary new inkjet press that offers offset quality at a speed of 500 fpm, (150 mpm), can print on glossy papers with high ink coverage at top speed, and achieves a higher run-length cross-over with offset for low cost production” (“An Interview with Randy Vandagriff, Senior VP of Print on the New KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press”).

This quote addresses one feature I had not mentioned above: heavy ink coverage. If you’re printing heavy solids on a marketing piece, for instance, you want the ink to dry quickly and sit up on top of the paper’s surface. This involves not only the printing equipment technology but also the ink formulation, the paper choices, and the ink drying technology.

Heavy (and perfectly even) coverage of solid inks has been one of the more important attributes setting offset print quality above digital print quality, as well as the source of many past digital printing limitations. Kodak has addressed all of these issues with the new KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press.

Kodak’s new press includes special drying units to cure the ink at production speeds. Kodak’s Ultrastream Inkjet Technology allows for 200 lpi image screening and press speeds of up to 500 fpm with high ink coverage on coated papers.

At the same time, Kodak has improved the inkjet printing process, allowing for smaller inkjet drops, less random spraying around these inkjet dots, higher image resolution (600 dpi x 1800 dpi), thinner ink films provided by the nanoparticulate, water-based inks, and a wider color gamut (able to match 93 percent of PMS colors, which is particularly useful for printing corporate brand colors), all with superior ink drying capability.

In addition to these advances, the precision of Ultrastream Inkjet Technology allows for thinner, straighter lines, crisp details in type and images, consistency from press run to press run—all with a single array of print heads (which allows for much faster print speeds than prior technology).

The faster drying capability allows for thicker ink films (heavy coverage) on glossy printing stocks, which are capable of drying quickly and thus speeding up the entire print production process (and making the process even more competitive with offset commercial printing).

Kodak’s drying system involves infrared technology to dry the low-humectant inks. (To explain this term, “A humectant is a molecule that holds on to water and can prevent evaporative loss from the nozzle. As a result, they are important for nozzle health”–from “Inkjet Ink and its Important Additives,” by Mark Bale, 10/19/18, published on www.inkjetinsight.com.) This allows for faster drying, a quicker overall production process, and heavier ink coatings.

The KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press allows for up to a 20.5” image area, placing the technology in direct competition with B1- and B2-format offset printing press sheets. Larger press sheets (than the older digital inkjet technology could accommodate) yield larger press signatures, fewer press runs, and, again, overall faster throughput. What this sheet size capability also means is that printers can use their current post-press finishing equipment to more easily and quickly cut, fold, and bind the commercial printing press sheets.

Flexibility with paper substrate choices is another benefit. The equipment can print on standard inkjet substrates and, using inline pre-coating equipment, the KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 can print on standard offset printing press sheets as well. All of this allows printers to keep their paper costs down when using the KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520.

Finally, using Kodak’s Intelligent Print System allows printers to constantly monitor color fidelity and consistency as well as to ensure accurate back-to-back registration of inks (positioning of images on both sides of the press sheet), thus minimizing paper waste.

What You Can Learn from This Press Release

Granted, this is just one press release from Kodak. It will be fascinating to see if the process lives up to the promises. But I am very encouraged, based on Kodak’s reputation for the highest quality output. Also, I’m seeing the physical proof on a regular basis. Inkjet commercial printing quality is getting better and better, as are its speed and cost. Now, with paper size increasing and coated papers available, I think inkjet is the wave of the future, possibly even more so than electrophotography (laser printing).

Granted, I’m also seeing good things in the realm of offset custom printing, including quicker make-ready technologies and automated quality control that allow for cost-effective short press runs. So offset printing is moving toward convergence with digital printing as well. And it’s still great for long-run print work of static (non-variable-data) commercial printing.

So the upshot is that you should read everything you can get your hands on, online, about digital commercial printing (sheetfed inkjet, web-fed production inkjet, large-format inkjet, nanography, laser printing). Everything. Don’t get left behind. This is revolutionary in scope.

Custom Printing: Designing for Digital Printing

Monday, November 30th, 2020

Photo purchased from … www.depositphotos.com

Designing for digital printing is a subject that needs regular attention these days. Digital and offset printing are not the same. While each has its benefits, they both have potential drawbacks that you can minimize based on your approach to the design of your custom printing project.

Moreover, between the quick turn-around requirements, versioned printing and variable-data printing requirements, and ultra-short print run requirements of recent years, it behooves you to study the various ways to minimize the visibility of the flaws inherent in digital commercial printing.

Sooner rather than later, you most probably will need to address these issues.

An Example

Here’s an example. In my commercial print brokering business I currently have a client who is designing a floor sample box. It is a die-cut, fold-up product with 32 separate samples of flooring (1” x 2” x .5” wood chips) inset and glued into wells in the interior panels. On the liner for the interior of the box/book, the names of the wood products are printed (or reversed out of the background). The exterior panels are printed (photos, marketing text, company address information, etc.).

For a while during the design process, all exterior, visible panels of the book/box, including the front and back covers and the spine, were to be printed in 4-color process ink. Inside the box, the liner (which covers the chipboard box structure and surrounds the die-cut wells for the wood chips) was first white with black type, then black with white type, then 4-color process to match the dark bluish-black within the front cover photo. (That is, the design of the box is an evolving process.)

All of this would have been fairly uneventful in an offset print run, barring the need to adequately dry and then laminate the heavy coverage ink. However, both the prototype for the box (a one-off sample that will convince the client to either go forward with the printer or go elsewhere) plus the extremely short press run for the box (100 or 200 copies) will necessitate digital custom printing.

Offset vs. Digital Printing

At this point it may be helpful to review the differences between offset printing and digital printing:

  1. Offset printing involves applying ink from an on-press reservoir to rollers, then to a printing plate, then to a rubber blanket, and then to the paper substrate.
  2. Digital printing involves the building up of an electrostatic charge on a drum to attract toner particles (dry toner or toner suspended in a liquid or oil), apply them to a blanket or belt, and then deposit them onto the paper substrate.
  3. For the most part (and to a lesser extent with coated paper than with uncoated), with offset printing at least some ink seeps into the paper fibers as it dries or is cured with UV light.
  4. With digital printing, most of the ink sits up on the surface of the paper.
  5. Offset printing is static. It cannot apply different information (such as different addresses) to each copy printed. Digital printing can.
  6. For very short runs, offset printing is cost prohibitive (all of your money goes into preparation for the short press run). However, since there’s almost no prep work for digital, you can print as few as one or two copies of a digital press run.

Back to My Client’s Flooring Sample Box

So, my client needed one initial copy (the prototype). It required heavy coverage of ink, 4-color process work, gloss lamination, die cutting, gluing, and assembly. And the final production run will need all of these processes for just 100 or 200 copies (well under a 1,000- or 5,000-copy run—for instance—that might be cost effective for an offset printing job). Therefore, digital custom printing is the way to go. And the potential pitfalls of digital commercial printing will be crucial for my client (the designer) to address.

Potential Problems

Uneven Toner Laydown and Problems with Gradients

Unlike offset printing, digital printing involves electrostatic charges—noted above—that may not be even across the entire press sheet. Therefore, the laydown of toner (toner deposit) may not be completely even. This can lead to artifacts (little bits of toner here and there, marring the precise, even deposit of color) and “banding” in gradient colors (visible bands of color across a press sheet when you’re transitioning from one color to another). The unevenness will be even more visible if you’re printing on a perfectly smooth, coated press sheet.

The Solution

To reduce banding and artifacts in tints or gradations, use Photoshop to add noise—i.e., a visible texture—to the graduated screen or tint. Or use Gaussian Blur on the background screen. Also, make tinted areas smaller, or keep them apart from one another in the design.

In addition, ask your commercial printing supplier about the best length for gradients (the physical length from the start of one color to the end of the transition to the other color) and the best starting and ending percentages for the transition (perhaps 80 or 100 percent gradually reduced to 15 percent across the length of the gradation). Ideal gradations may vary from one digital press to another, or one printing resolution to another, so discuss this with your commercial printing vendor.

Issues with Cracking Toner at Post-Press Folds

Since toner (whether dry toner or toner particles in viscous oil) sits up on top of the press sheet, printing heavy coverage of a 4-color process “build” and then folding the press sheet off-press can lead to cracking of the toner/ink.

Solution

Avoid heavy toner coverage over folds, or score the press sheet before printing and folding it.

Color Matching Problems

Most digital presses either have no accommodation for PMS match colors or only a handful of match colors you can choose (such as a the available mixed colors for the HP Indigo press). Therefore, if your cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink builds don’t match the particular corporate logo color you want, you don’t have the same options as with offset printing (i.e., printing PMS match colors using an additional inking unit on the offset press).

Solution

Keep your colors within the printable CMYK gamut (which is smaller—i.e., has fewer distinct colors—than RGB or PMS match colors). This is not a workable solution in all cases.

In general, to ensure color accuracy, ask your printer about color profiles (ICC profiles) and whether to save your images (photos) in TIFF or EPS format. The latter, EPS, will allow you to embed color profiles into the saved images.

Trapping Problems

In my own experience (and this may be in the process of changing), tolerance for movement within the digital press is not quite as precise as in an offset press. So if colors have to abut, any imperfections in paper transport can cause problems (visible white lines between colors that abut). In addition, trapping technology, in general, seems to be more comprehensive in offset lithography than in digital printing (again, this has been improving significantly). (Trapping is the intentional, slight overlapping of abutting colors to avoid white lines between them in case the ink or toner placement is not exactly right.)

Solution

Keep colors apart, where possible. Also, research trapping options for digital printing. Keep at least one common color (cyan or magenta, not black or yellow) within the two colors that trap. If you design with type printed on a solid or screened 4-color build, consider using black type on a light screen. Or reverse the type from a dark solid or screen.

Transparency Issues

Transparency (this pertains to opacity, glows, feathering, blending, and drop shadows) can cause problems (particularly when “flattening” the file).

Solution

Keep the transparency on the uppermost layer (research “stacking order” of elements in transparency). Flatten the files before handing them off to the printer. Proof the page early and often.

Issues with Bleeds

Bleeds can be a problem because digital press sheets are usually smaller than offset press sheets.

To achieve a bleed, your printed image has to extend past the end of the final-size printed page and then be trimmed off to give the illusion that the ink goes off the edge of the page. This often requires a large press sheet. Digital presses often accept press sheets that are closer to 13” x 18” than to the 25” x 38” or larger press sheets an offset press can accommodate.

Solution

Larger digital presses are being made. Ask your printer about the acceptable press sheet sizes for his press. As an alternative, find another printer with digital press equipment that can accept a “B2” press sheet (which is just under 20” x 28” in size).

If You Remember Nothing Else…

I personally like to walk away from a discussion of pitfalls with a general rule of thumb: a failsafe way to avoid problems. In this case, here is my advice. Proof early and often using the same digital process for the proof as for the production run (which you cannot do with offset commercial printing but you can do with digital printing).

If you review proofs before proceeding, you will see whether your work-arounds have minimized banding, artifacts, and other problems. If it looks right on the proof, the final run should match exactly.

Custom Printing: Bacardi’s Direct Digital Bottle Printing

Monday, July 27th, 2020


reproduction rights purchased from … www.depositphotos.com

When BACARDI does something, people pay attention. As a contemporary brand, BACARDI is stylish and sexy–on the cusp of the future.

So I paid heed when I read an article recently about BACARDI’s new bottle printing work done by O-I: EXPRESSIONS on Dekron digital equipment (“BACARDI Personalizes Bottles with Direct Digital Print,” Pat Reynolds, 07/02/2020). The article defines direct digital custom printing, addresses the benefits of this technology from a marketing design and sustainability vantage point, and then goes on to mention the improved marketing results of linking this technology to digital-only media such as the internet and AR (Augmented Reality).

What the Article Says

(Reynolds’ article is actually quite short. However, it includes links to other articles describing cutting-edge, direct-to-shape (related to direct-to-object) custom printing not only on bottles but also on cosmetics tubes and cans. So this is a quickly growing phenomenon with a number of exciting facets. I think you might find such articles inspiring if you are a designer or printer.)

First off, “BACARDI Personalizes Bottles with Direct Digital Print” describes BACARDI’s marketing initiative, mentions the technology used, and then lists the benefits of the process.

For this marketing campaign, BACARDI chose not to print paper or plastic labels or even shrink sleeves. Instead, BACARDI’s creative team at O-I: EXPRESSIONS used Dekron digital custom printing technology to image the marketing message directly on the bottle using organic, food-safe inks.

From a design/marketing point of view, this approach made for striking BACARDI packaging.

It also expanded the space for branding imagery far beyond the usual limits. For example, in the case of paper labels, the space available for commercial printing is small: some variant of a rectangle or other geometric form on the front and maybe the back of the beverage bottle. The key word is “small.”

In the case of shrink sleeves (while larger than a label), there are still size limitations. Can it be printed and then wrapped around and over the neck of the bottle and also the bottle cap, extending the marketing imagery over the entire surface of the bottle? Will the shrink sleeve, even in its much larger than label-size format, still have too limited a texture? Will it have just an overall gloss or matte surface with no localized, textured effects?

Well, BACARDI’s Caribbean experience initiative addresses all of these concerns/limitations and then goes much further. According to “BACARDI Personalizes Bottles with Direct Digital Print,” the beverage maker was able to produce limited-edition personalized bottles with “a much improved look and feel to the packaging [that] is a more sustainable alternative” (as per Simone Kockelmann, Customer Marketing Manager, BACARDI Europe, as quoted in “BACARDI Personalizes Bottles with Direct Digital Print”). This enhanced effect includes a spot tactile treatment of both the BACARDI bat logo and some palm leaves and tropical flowers printed on the bottle. Using the Dekron direct digital printing equipment, O-I: EXPRESSIONS was also able to print an entire 360 degree, full-color image on each bottle.

The overall effect? An enhanced “Wow” factor.

But the benefits of the direct-to-object commercial printing didn’t stop here. The imaging technology was paired with the internet, Snapchat lenses, and Augmented Reality. As the article notes, these cutting-edge technologies were able to “transport the user to the homeland of BACARDI, the shores of the Caribbean” (“BACARDI Personalizes Bottles with Direct Digital Print”). According to Reynolds’ article, a Snapcode on the bottle unlocks the Snapchat lens, and Augmented Reality creates an immersive experience for the customer.

The Key Benefits of This Technology

So from a marketing point of view, here are some key benefits:

  1. This was a limited roll-out. So a relatively small—and precisely targeted—group of people experienced this promotion. Presumably a loyal group of BACARDI afficionados. In addition, the marketing initiative was prepared specifically for them, using marketing research to make the experience relevant to their needs and preferences.
  2. The marketing initiative extended the BACARDI brand across multiple media: print (the labeling) and digital (both the internet and Augmented Reality). It also involved multiple senses, reinforcing the brand message in the minds of participants.
  3. The experience was immersive—sort of like watching a movie and forgetting you’re just in a theater watching a film—but going even further due to the three-dimensional nature of Augmented Reality. Again, the more senses a marketer engages, the stronger the branding message. Just as the more media the marketer employs (such as signage, radio spots, product packaging), the more memorable the customer experience of the brand message will be.
  4. Sustainability. Increasingly, people are becoming aware of the need to change their behavior to maintain the livability of the planet. Labels leave a residue on bottles that can contaminate the recycling stream. Direct-to-object commercial printing leaves an empty, clean, and ready to recycle container (no labels, no residue). In addition, the inks are food-safe. Even the shrink sleeve noted above would introduce extra plastic sheeting into the environment. Direct-to-shape digital commercial printing will not. Moreover, from a manufacturing and storage point of view, not printing on either labels or shrink sleeves reduces materials’ costs as well as materials’ storage and inventory costs. No labels to buy and store. No shrink sleeves to buy and store. More profit.

The Takeaway

Digital commercial printing, in general, is ideal for marketing work. You can print short runs economically and efficiently. (Limited editions sell; it’s the “exclusivity effect.”) You can create a customized marketing initiative based on increasingly precise marketing research, and you can effect this “differentiation” quickly, making changes on the fly as needed. You can also personalize the experience to make the brand immediately relevant to the target audience (and even specific individuals you have identified as prospective clients).

This is even before you get to the mixed media effects BACARDI exploited in their marketing initiative.

Deep inside there is a child in every adult. That’s why people are so attracted to new, immersive experiences such as Augmented Reality, Snapchat lenses, and such. Your marketing work will be more effective (“relevant,” as they say) if you can tap into this quality of human nature. And using the new direct-to-object or direct-to-shape technology, you can even do this in a sustainable way, lessening your environmental footprint.

If you’re a printer (offset or especially digital), or if you’re a graphic designer, it behooves you to read up on this technology. (Research “direct-to-shape,” “direct-to-object,” “direct-digital.” There are multiple terms describing this technology.) Even if you’re not designing for packaging (shrink sleeves, labels), websites, Augmented Reality, or any or all of these—this is the future. It will serve you well to become conversant in this developing technology.

I think BACARDI has the right idea.

Custom Printing: Laser Branding Organic Fruits and Vegetables

Thursday, February 6th, 2020

Literally branding food. Not in the sense of creating brand associations between a product and the values it reflects, but branding like cowboys did with their cattle. Now you can brand fruits and vegetables with thick skins using lasers. Way cool.

A commercial printing client of mine brought this process to my attention, so I did some research and came up with some questions.

First of all, ever since I grew up watching Star Trek and other science fiction shows in the 1960s, I knew that lasers could burn objects in a focused manner with pinpointed accuracy. Over the past several years I have also seen this technology used to die cut everything from wood to printed paper products. And I have also seen videos of lasers used in other finishing operations at commercial printing shops.

At the same time I have read about recent trends in packaging, which seems to be a hot sector for commercial printing. (In fact, this is especially true for digital printing, given the ability to personalize labeling with this technology, the current focus on shorter runs of manufactured products (not necessarily limited to food products), and the growth of smaller prepared (or almost prepared) meals.

So digital custom printing has been an ally in this arena, particularly as it pertains to the labeling and branding of food items, both in the sense of identifying the items and also in the sense of providing a tone, value, or even atmosphere of relevant attributes you can sense when you pick up a banana or avocado.

In this light I was intrigued by the concept my client brought to my attention of using lasers to brand thick-skinned fruits and vegetables. Mind you, if you look at online photos of this process, you’ll see that the branding seems to have been done without the application of food-safe inks. These brands seem to be just images burned into the fruits and vegetables.

A Description of the Process

One article I found in my research was entitled “Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics,” written by Anabela Linke and printed in the plastic packaging section of www.dw.com. It’s not a new article (5/6/18), but it gives you a good idea of some of the benefits provided by this approach, and it includes some photos that show exactly what the process provides in terms of readability, contrast with the background, etc.

To begin with, digital laser branding of fruits and vegetables fulfills the requirement that all organic produce be labeled. It also does this while reducing the amount of plastic consumed. After all, no extraneous materials need to be added, such as stickers or plastic wrapping of bulk food, if you can burn information directly into the skin of the produce.

In terms of waste, Linke’s article notes that “in Germany, for example, the amount of packaging that ends up in the bin every year has recently increased 2 percent to 18.2 million tons, according to the German Federal Environmental Agency” (“Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics”).

The article goes on to note the ever-increasing amount of plastic used to protect produce and to package smaller portions of take-out food.

In response to this challenge, a Netherlands laser tech firm called Eosta developed a packaging technology called “natural branding” (“Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics”). This is exactly what the name implies, and it does not adversely affect the appearance, taste, longevity, or durability of the fruits and vegetables it adorns. These particular products, however, need to have a “hard shell” (“Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics”). This would include everything from avocados to kiwis to cucumbers to potatoes to ginger roots (as reflected in the photos accompanying the article). It would not include such produce as grapes (too small) or citrus fruit (the oils in the fruit will bring back the fruit’s original color even after the laser has burned the brand into the orange peel, for instance).

Who Is Interested?

There’s definite interest, since shoppers for the most part want to reduce the waste added to the planet. However, as noted in Linke’s article, many consumers want assurance of the following:

  1. The produce won’t cost more.
  2. The branding mark won’t be a health hazard.

It seems that both of these are true, the first because the cost of the labels initially used (stickers and/or plastic packaging) would be replaced by the cost of the laser branding process, and the second, because the thick skins of appropriate produce will protect the inner fruit from the superficial laser mark (and the skins of the fruits and vegetables can just be peeled away).

Another benefit of this technology that interests potential consumers is that it allows for smaller portions, which is relevant to smaller family units and singles. You don’t have to buy a bag of avocados and worry that some will become too ripe when you can buy one avocado, or two, at a time. This means less food will go in the trash.

My Questions

These are the questions that come up for me as I consider the article and the accompanying photos:

  1. Will the laser mark without accompanying food-grade inks be prominent enough to capture the consumer’s interest? After all, in a grocery store, the product packaging from one company competes with that of all the others. Sometimes there’s so much to see that you miss things. Standing out is a necessity for brand labeling of any kind.
  2. Can the laser branding be accompanied by food-grade inkjetting to bring more color into the overall look of the product, if needed? It seems to me that this would be easy enough, since both the laser branding and the inkjetting are processes driven by digital data.
  3. Are these questions I’ve asked even relevant, given that current labels on avocados, for instance, are often much smaller than the laser branding shown in “Finally, An Alternative to Plastic for Labeling Organics”? Think about the little white labels that say “organic,” or consider the quarter-sized stick-on labels affixed to bananas. If the laser branding image is large enough, even without extra color (they do have some color, presumably from the burning process), the mark may actually catch the eye more immediately than even a printed label.
  4. Will the novelty of the process entice consumers to buy, particularly since it is obviously a more earth-friendly process than plastic wrapping or stick-on labeling? And will this “wow” factor wear off as people become accustomed to seeing laser-branded fruits and vegetables?

More than anything, this shows that OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are constantly looking to the customer to see what she or he wants and to figure out ways to use new technologies to fill these consumer needs. It also bodes well for digital (as opposed to analog) manufacturing and custom printing processes, and it leaves open a lot of possibilities for personalization, short runs, freshness dating, and so forth.

Custom Printing: Printing Large Fashion Color Cards

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

A client of mine regularly prints decks of small fashion color cards that are bound with a screw and post assembly. They are very much like a PMS swatch book. My client’s clients use these small books to help them choose clothing and make-up that match their complexion. My client reprints this job maybe four times a year, and I have brokered this commercial printing job for almost five years.

So this is a nice little job for my client, the printer, and me (as the custom printing broker).

Just recently my client decided to expand her offerings based on her proprietary color system. She now wants to print color chin cards with little curved notches die cut for the chin. This will essentially place the 8.5” x 11” color swatch sheet (huge in comparison to the original, approximately 1.5” x 3.5” color swatches) up against the subject’s face, where it will be easy to determine whether the color does or does not “work” for make up or clothing.

In each set, there will be 66 colors. On the front of the card, the digital press will print the full-bleed color swatch, and on the back of each card there will be a description and any other information my client wants to add. Unlike my client’s small color swatch book, these 66 sheets will not be bound. They will be loose but collated in a specific order.

Following, here are some of the issues that are arising as the job progresses. I thought they may be object lessons for you if you ever do similar design and custom printing work.

How to Spec Loose Pages

My client’s color swatch book is bound with a screw and post assembly. In contrast, the color chin cards are not bound at all. When I listed specifications for the swatch book, I noted that it comprised 118 pages, with 4-color process ink on the front and black-ink-only on the back. In contrast, for the chin cards, this is how I specified the job: 66 leaves (front and back, printed with 4-color process ink on the front and black on the back). The word “leaves” implies one piece of paper, front and back. If you are printing anything like a book that will not be bound, use this language in your spec sheet. You may also want to add the words “loose sheets” and “unbound.” In short, the more precise you are, the more accurate your printer’s estimate will be. In contrast, if you’re specifying the page count for a bound print book, each side of each “leaf” is one page (a right-hand page is called a “recto” and a left-hand page is called a “verso”).

Laminating Both Sides of My Client’s Chin Cards

The chin cards will be much larger than the 1.5” x 3.5” swatch cards. In addition, they may be used in damp environments such as bathrooms. If the back of the tiny color swatch book pages were to get a little damp, it is unlikely that they would curl, even though they are laminated on only one side. After all, when the book is not fanned open, all of the pages press on each other due to the tension of the screw and post binding. In contrast, the 8.5” x 11” chin cards are all loose, large, and potentially not laminated on one side. In spite of my client’s requested specification (to laminate one side), I suggested that she still ask for an additional price to laminate the back of each card. This extra lamination would seal up each individual color card. No moisture would be able to get in to the paper, so even if the collection of 66 pages is used in the bathroom to choose make-up and clothes, there will be no chance of curling. I expect this will cost an additional $250-$300, depending on the overall press run (how many sets of 66 cards she orders).

Producing a Prototype (Sidestepping Potential Problems)

This job will be printed on an HP Indigo. I already have preliminary estimates from three printers. One of them will print one set for $100. Another will print one set for $400. You would think this choice would be a no-brainer.

Nevertheless, I have reminded my client that the printer with the higher price has successfully produced the smaller color swatch books for a number of years (for a reasonable price). This printer’s color accuracy and color consistency from reprint to reprint have been excellent. In contrast, the printer offering the $100 price has had color problems in the past. In addition, there have been bubbles under the lamination (gassing off of the HP liquid toners trapped under the lamination).

You might argue that my client should buy the prototype from the lower-prised vendor and then the final press run from the higher priced vendor (to ensure the quality of the final press run). I would disagree. After all, what good would it be to have an inexpensive prototype that might not match the color of the final copies?

So there are three object lessons here:

  1. Not all color digital presses at all printers produce exactly the same colors. This is even true when you compare output from the same brand of digital press located at different printers.
  2. Therefore, printing a prototype at one printer and then printing final copies of the chin cards at another printer might lead to inconsistent color.
  3. Always start with a hard-copy proof of a job. Screen proofs do not reflect accurate color. There are too many variables, including the commercial printing technology you’re using (digital vs. offset), the ambient light around the monitor on which you are reviewing the screen proofs, etc. Once your printer has produced a color-accurate proof, you can use screen proofs (virtual proofs, PDF proofs) for all subsequent reprints of the job.

Making a Mock Up for the Printer

Finally, my client’s job has a die cut space for her client’s chin. In a case like this, a printer will ask, “Where should the die cut be positioned?” and “How large should it be?”

I suggested that my client use any program she preferred (Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator) and draw a mock-up showing exactly where to start the die cut (2.5” from the top of one long side), and how wide (6” in diameter) and how deep (2.5”) it should be. This will be invaluable to the printer. It will leave nothing to the imagination.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. It always helps to have a physical mock up. It leaves nothing to the imagination. Also, when you’re making the mock up, sometimes issues will arise that you hadn’t thought of before. For instance, if my client makes a physical mock-up of a chin card and it feels flimsy at that particular size, then she can adjust the paper specification (avoiding being disappointed with the final print job). (In my client’s case, we increased the paper weight from 12pt–which was the thickness of the swatch book cards–to 14pt. In addition, laminating both sides of each sheet will make her printed pages feel thicker.)
  2. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. The cheapest printer may not do the best work. Also, shifting from one printer to another for different components of a job might result in inconsistent color (particularly if some components of the job are printed digitally and others are printed via offset lithography). Usually you get what you pay for.
  3. Consider the ambient conditions in which your printed product will be used. My client’s chin cards are not unlike a menu. Both are used in damp conditions (the first with water, the second with food). Moisture can cause single-sided laminates to curl (think about print book covers you’ve seen). Paper is like a sponge, so consider sealing it up entirely by laminating both sides of certain print projects.

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 online.

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, Malhotra identifies five trends in digital custom printing online 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 online 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 online. 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.
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