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A digital finish

Mar 1, 1995 12:00 AM

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Digital printing requires special attention to post-press issues, especially for those new to the bindery

The digital age is here! (As if you didn't know). This is the era during which the world is changing the way it communicates forever. Unbelievably advanced computerized devices have proliferated throughout all aspects of the world, and the sky seems to be the limit for all varieties of new developments.

Obviously, the printing industry not only has been engulfed in this revolution, it is leading the technology pack in some cases. Witness the advent of the new generation of digital presses. You've heard the names - Xeikon, Indigo and Chromapress - names that many forecasters claim will lead the industry down a new path.

Still, with all of these advances, the print basics remain vital to success. No matter how much time and money you have invested in these electronic technologies, a product is not complete until it has been trimmed, stitched, bound or otherwise finished.

Yet, many of the graphics firms that have purchased or plan to purchase one of the new digital presses have little or no previous bindery experience. Prepress trade shops and smaller printers may not have the necessary background to finish the job their shiny new press starts. That means they'll need to get up to speed quickly in the less glamorous, but perhaps equally important, back end of the process.

Of course, the nature of the digital printing business necessitates an on-demand production philosophy. Thus, sending out pieces to be finished may not be a profitable option for firms jumping on the digital bandwagon.

Electronic prepress firm Port-to-Print (Madison, WI) installed a Xeikon digital press from AM Multigraphics last December, planning to utilize a nearby firm to handle its finishing needs. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for the prepress company to realize that a split production arrangement would not work in this digital printing realm.

"We were fairly far along in the installation process when we visited the bindery for a quality check," offers Jim Devine, chief operations officer for Port-to-Print. "We determined immediately that outsourcing would not work for us. The bindery was accustomed to big contract jobs on two- to three-week deadlines; we need to get things finished as quickly as they are printed. To make money with digital printing, customers must be able to drop off a disk at 2:00 and get their finished job at 4:00. We realized the bindery had to be brought in-house."

However, purchasing these finishing capabilities isn't simply a matter of bopping by your local dealer, loading a machine into the trunk and plopping it down on a table in the corner of your shop. The research devoted to post-press should rival the effort you spent on your press.

"You can't look at digital printing as if it's just a big laser printer, then go out and buy a tiny cutter to meet your needs," stresses Rick Dyer, president of six-year-old prepress firm Graphics Express (Boston), which installed an Agfa Chromapress last August. "You truly need professional bindery equipment and must be ready to invest properly. When you're budgeting for a $400,000 press, you must figure in at least an additional $100,000 for the bindery. You can't get by with a bare bones finishing operation."

What equipment should your firm invest in? There are no blueprints for the exact bindery capabilities to bring on board. It's all a factor of what your customers' specific requirements are, and the markets you intend to pursue. For some, a simple folder and cutter may suffice; others need to load up on a wide variety of finishing capabilities.

Port-to-Print, for example, plans to purchase a large folder capable of perfing and scoring in both directions, a durable cutter and other items as the market develops. Another firm, Digiprint of Franklin Park, IL, services its two Indigo E-Prints with a three-hole punch, trimmer, shrink wrapper, perfect binder, saddlestitcher, collator and padder.

So, how does a company unfamiliar with bindery equipment go about getting what it needs? Of course, the manufacturer you purchase your digital press from will have solid suggestions.

"Digital printing customers have a diverse range of needs, from business cards to brochures to point-of-purchase materials," offers Bob Barberra, Agfa's senior business line manager for Chromapress. "Many people are investing in off-line vertical stackers from companies such as Standard Finishing and C.P. Bourg. These units will accept signatures from digital presses and automatically collate, fold, saddlestitch, perfect bind and trim them."

In fact, Graphics Express brought a similar system on board when it purchased its Chromapress, as well as a 28-inch cutter and a tri-fold folder.

Richard Trapilo, executive vice president of C.P. Bourg (New Bedford, MA) advises that those just entering the bindery field must request hands-on demonstrations on equipment before making a purchase.

"If people are not familiar with bindery equipment, they first should see how well the jobs they plan to produce operate on specific finishing equipment," Trapilo stresses.

"Since they will be asked to print on a wide range of stocks, these digital printing users must make sure the binding equipment can handle the challenge," adds Bob Massa of Finishing Solutions, an independent representative for Duplo USA (Santa Ana, CA). "Bring the entire range of stocks you are going to run to give each competitor a fair evaluation.

"Additionally," Massa continues, "the operator you plan to have working on the equipment needs to try it out before the purchase to see if he or she understands the process. Finally, make sure there is plenty of dealer or manufacturer support available in the form of on-site training."

But, selecting the necessary bindery equipment isn't the only consideration; you'll need to determine who's going to operate it. Although today's machines are easier to set up and run than ever before, mechanical aptitude and basic understanding of what is or isn't an acceptable finished product remain essential operator skills.

Although most graphics professionals can be brought up to speed in a relatively short time, opinion remains divided regarding workflow issues. Should press operators also handle the finishing chores, or should a dedicated bindery employee be designated?

"Management needs to address this issue from an individual organizational standpoint," offers Glen Toole, director of operations for the digital imaging group of AM Multigraphics. "A person operating the press may be bringing in $1,000 an hour in revenue versus $80 an hour in a bindery function. Thus, you might want to consider specialized help in the bindery, or delegate and train someone other than the press operator to handle it."

Dyer of Graphics Express subscribes to this philosophy and is in the process of hiring a full-time employee to concentrate strictly on the bindery. "Although bindery equipment is relatively easy to learn, there certainly are nuances involved," Dyer stresses. "The more one person works with it, the faster the job is going to get done."

However, digital press manufacturers are working with some bindery suppliers to develop more extensive in-line binding capabilities. Indeed, these integrated features would make total press and bindery operations simpler for a single, less experienced operator.

Chicago-based McCain is one of the suppliers developing an in-line finishing system designed to interface directly to digital presses. Available within the next few months, DigiBind reportedly will be able to produce saddlestiched, adhesive-bound and/or sewn and adhesive-bound bookblocks. Plus, products also can be bound in any sequence, without production stops.

"Our in-line unit will not require a special operator," notes Vic Krzyzanski, executive vice president/marketing for McCain. "It will not distract the operator from his or her printing duties since it will be extremely easy to learn and use effectively."

Although this and other in-line binding capabilities undoubtedly are on the way, the question remains whether customers really want them. Due to the time constraints of the digital on-demand world, many believe that in-line finishing will be more of a hindrance than aid to the process.

"The cycle speed of these presses runs at a snail's pace compared to off-line finishing equipment," notes Mark Hunt, product manager for Standard Finishing Systems (Andover, MA). "Also, there are a lot of bugs that must be worked out before you can substitute for the mind and eyes of a talented operator. It's the nature of the printing beast that whatever comes off the end of the on-line systems isn't going to precisely match what the computer presets said it should. Customer expectations for finished products are going nowhere but up, and there is zero tolerance for any diminishment of accuracy and quality."

Digiprint, a division of Tukaiz (Franklin Park, IL), also has determined that in-line finishing currently does not meet its stringent production requirements. "The Indigo press does have an in-line attachment, but we don't plan to purchase it," relates production supervisor Mike Norton. "We aren't convinced it can do the range of work we need, so we still have to buy off-line equipment. Additionally, we didn't want to tie up our Indigos doing bindery work; it simply would slow us down too much. If a problem arises in-line, you have to shut down the whole press."

However, John Hansen, national product marketing manager for the Indigo E-Print, believes that customer demand for in-line finishing will increase significantly with the introduction of enhanced personalization capabilities on digital presses.

"With the addition of versioning applications on the E-Print, we are seeing a lot of personalized products such as real estate collateral and course catalogs being produced," asserts Hansen. "In these cases, if you print 50 of one version, 100 of another, 50 of another, etc., it's much easier to integrate the electronic collation and personalization features in-line. Trying to manage all the varied collateral that must be kept separated can be difficult and confusing in an off-line environment. It's much nicer to have the finished product roll right off the press, shrink wrapped and sent out error free."

Even if your firm has had some previous experience in the post-press area, digital presses present some special challenges. Static often can be problematic, creating a variety of feeding and collating problems on the back end.

"Similar to a photocopier, product coming off the press could have some static, especially in dry weather," offers Toole of AM. "Thus, digital press users should consider collators with air-fed systems."

According to Hunt of Standard Finishing, his firm's collators feature air that can be moderated at different places within the unit. "As the sheets exit the collator, air can be blasted to float the sheets up and get them to settle together better," he relates. "If you don't have that capability, you are going to have a tougher time jogging the set together and producing a clean-looking book."

C.P. Bourg's collator also utilizes adjustable air suction and blow at each station, separating statically charged sheets.

When time allows, however, Lisa Saul of Digiprint suggests letting product sit overnight before binding to eliminate potential problems. "Digitally printed sheets, although essentially dry, are not sufficiently dry to run through some bindery equipment. Letting sheets dry overnight eliminates the potential for scratching and sticking that can occur when you try to bind them immediately off the press."

Another factor to consider is the relative thickness of the toner used in digital printing, necessitating careful consideration of your choice of cutters.

"You really will need to look at a fairly heavy duty cutter," stresses Devine of Port-to-Print. "For example, if you need to trim 500 sheets with bleed and heavy coverage, the toner will seem like plastic."

Printing's future is filled with promise for new and exciting techniques, technologies and, of course, accompanying challenges. Obviously, these new beginnings also necessitate that the old endings of the bindery be taken into full account.

Printers who take the time to study the workhorse end of the line as closely as the dazzle of the front end can effect a marriage that will endure far into the digital future.

Researching the possibilities of purchasing a digital press? Great. However, are you putting as much thought into the binding capabilities you'll need to complete this sexy digital work? Furthermore, does your firm have any previous experience in the post-press arena?

Hopefully, the following short list of simple tips will get you started thinking about what machinery you'll need to finish the job right.

* Carefully consider whether or not to outsource bindery needs. Generally, an in-house bindery is the best way to meet on-demand production requirements, especially turnaround.

* Determine the exact applications your customers require. Will these applications change and is the equipment you're considering flexible enough to answer these new demands?

* Decide if you want a dedicated bindery operator or if it is feasible to have your press operator handle both jobs.

* Allow intended bindery operators to work with machine prior to purchase. Inquire about manufacturer support and in-house training.

* Run all your printed material through prospective bindery equipment before making a purchase. Be sure the equipment handles a wide range of stocks, even though your firm may not be using them at present.

* Ask how prospective bindery machinery handles static often present in digital printing. Consider air-fed units.

* Make sure bindery units provide fast and easy set-up and changeover.

* Ensure cutters are durable enough for thick digital printing toners.

* Try to visit or talk to a firm that has had digital printing capabilities for some time, and learn about their first-hand problems and solutions.