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HYBRID PRINTING: the BEST of both worlds

May 1, 2001 12:00 AM


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Digital printing and offset lithography are spoken of in either/or terms. This is natural, since the industry has experienced overlaps between printing processes before. Lithography and letterpress printing coexisted for a while, and there are still scattered enclaves of hot metal equipment.

Offset was, however, a true displacement technology for letterpress. The situation with digital and photomechanical processes is a little different. Although an increasing number of jobs will be printed on digital equipment, barring an unforeseen technological breakthrough, there will always be applications more suitable for a traditional press.

Products are naturally forced out of a market when they come up against new products that do the same for less cost, or are able to do more for the same cost. Black-and-white television and monochrome inkjet printers are two examples. In recent years, there has been some debate over whether or not the cost to print digital color will ever decline to a point where black-and-white digital equipment will no longer be needed. In fact, the question is often posed in terms of when — not if — it will happen. Although the cost to print color on fully variable digital presses and color copiers has been steadily declining in recent years, these technologies are still a long way from achieving this level of economy.

VARIABLE-DATA STUMBLING BLOCK

Full-color variable-data printing has been promoted for a number of years — primarily by digital press vendors — as a way for printers to increase their profit margins by adding more value to printed products. Consumer bills, for instance, could serve not only as invoices, but also as marketing tools.

After all, everyone opens a bill. The theory is that if relevant customer data could be captured, stored in databases and then used to add fully customized marketing material to the bill, the response rate would be much higher than mass-produced direct mail and the bill would, in effect, subsidize itself. If a company were sure to increase its response rate for a mailing, it would be happy to pay more for printing.

In many instances, this is probably true. The main stumbling block, however, has been that this form of variable-data printing is difficult to do. Many companies simply do not have these data. Others have them, but they're locked away in proprietary computer systems. The skills required to execute this sort of marketing campaign are formidable, and few printers are equipped to help their customers tackle it.

But there is, as they say, more than one way to skin a cat. Hybrid processes, combining traditional full-color printing and monochrome digital systems, are often an economical and manageable means to the same end.

Heidelberg Digital (Rochester, NY) introduced the Digimaster 9110 in 1999. The 9110 is a 110-ppm, black-and-white, cut-sheet system. Although it was designed to compete in the short-run, print-on-demand market, Heidelberg sees opportunities to further extend the benefits of on-demand and variable-data techniques to commercial printing. One prominent example is overprinting offset shells.

Traditionally, a high-quality process color catalog might have been dropped onto a warehouse floor until the inventory was depleted or quietly discarded, or, worse yet, forgotten altogether. Machines such as the 9110 and Xerox's (Rochester, NY) DocuTech can handle a wider variety of paper stocks, and offer an excellent opportunity to extend the value and life of the offset printed piece by overprinting customized content. This simple application is more likely to fall within the technical sophistication of both the printer and the customer.

COEXISTENCE

The machines that print bills, statements and invoices have traditionally used preprinted roll-fed stock. Your telephone bill, for instance, was most likely printed in two stages, offset and toner. Transactional printing systems are often driven from mainframe computers, where one of the more common print languages is IBM (Boulder, CO) AFP. IBM has recently added color capability to AFP. IBM also realizes that toner and ink will continue to coexist, and often be used together.

The latest addition to the monochrome Infoprint 4000 family was announced in October. The ID5/ID6 models print up to 1,002 ipm in two-up duplex mode. Print resolutions can be switched between 480 dpi or 600 dpi.

More importantly, these machines support black-and-white grayscale emulation of AFP color objects. Because of this, customers can choose to overprint their documents on the ID5/ID6, or produce the entire document on an IBM color digital press without having to modify their print stream. These kinds of capabilities will be increasingly important as the industry is faced with more process choices.

DI FOR BATCH VERSIONING

Direct-imaging (DI) presses add yet another variable to the equation. At Drupa 2000, Xerox featured a DI press — it was then called the PAX DI, but it's now called the DocuColor 400 DI. Xerox has an exclusive distribution arrangement on this press. The DocuColor 233 is Xerox's version of Ryobi's 3404 DI.

The DocuColor 400 is a five-color DI press, which enables users to add a perfecting unit as well as a coating tower. But the fifth printing unit can also be used for other applications, such as versioning. The first four units can produce process color, and the fifth can be maintained as a versioning unit.

At Drupa and Graph Expo, Xerox featured hybrid offset shell applications that were produced on the DocuColor DI and then personalized on DocuTechs. The DI press produced batch versioning (different variations based on geography, language and demographics), and the toner-based equipment produced fully personalized documents by overprinting.

At Drupa, Heidelberg gave a technology demonstration of the Printmaster QM 46 DI press in line with an inkjet post-processing system to add variable data. The inkjet unit used Spectra printhead technology featuring 7,680 nozzles yielding high speed at a resolution of 600 dpi. If brought to market, it would marry the benefits of traditional and digital printing.

There are numerous other examples of hybrid processes in the industry. Inkjet, for instance, is particularly suitable because it can easily be integrated with other processes and machines. In the packaging industry, we expect to see some hybrid inkjet and flexographic devices.

It is doubtful a single printing process will ever be able to economically address a wide array of requirements. Each process has its strengths and limitations. In the future, traditional printing will coexist with toner-based systems, inkjet and other digital processes. There will simply be more choices — a continuum of tools. One source of challenge (and opportunity) will be in discovering how to best use these tools to best match customer requirements. Digital printing will accompany significant changes in the industry. The digital printing piece of the pie, however, will not always be at the expense of existing processes.

Digital printing update

Want more information on digital presses? “Pressing for progress,” February 2001, p. 32, covers the latest from NexPress, IBM, Indigo, Scitex Digital Printing, Xeikon, Xerox, OcĂ© and T/R Systems as well as inkjet technologies from Aprion, Barco, Xaar, Scitex Digital and Markem/Spectra.