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STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: CLUSTER PRINTING

May 1, 2000 12:00 AM


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A short-run, on-demand solution targets midrange market

For this article, we asked Paris Walker, a charter member of PrintImage International who operated his own printing business for 24 years, to conduct a panel discussion with cluster printing system users. Walker, a PrintOwners list participant (see www.printweb.org), posted a message inviting users to contact him privately. Six printers did: Derek Hong, Pro Copy (Cedar Rapids, IA); Donald Johnson, Business Word Printing and Graphics (Englewood, CO); Roy Nix, Nix On Time Printing (Columbus, GA); Carl Gerhardt, Allegra Print and Imaging (Colorado Springs, CO); Bill Huntley, Universal Copies (Columbia, SC); and Mickey Evans, TLC Printing (formerly Printing Plus) (Metairie, LA). Here's what they had to say.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR CONFIGURATION (models, print engines, etc.). *derek hong: We have a T/R Systems MicroPress with two 024 black-and-white print engines and two Minolta CF900 color engines.

*donald johnson: Business Word became the first T/R Systems user in Denver in January 1997. We started and still have four 024 engines and two 312 color engines built by Canon, plus the T/R server. We have since upgraded to the dual processor, 400-MHz server, but are operating it with only one RIP. We need to add a second.

*roy nix: T/R Systems MicroPress 200 MHz with 024 black-and-white print engine and 312 color print engine.

*carl gerhardt: MicroPress Director and Micro Scanner, and four 024 print engines.

*bill huntley: Our cluster system consists of a Hewlett-Packard (HP) computer with 128 MB RAM, 2.4 GB hard drives, Windows NT, Visoneer Paperport software and the HP Scanjet software. The scanner is 81/2 x 11 inches, black-and-white, 15 pages per minute (ppm). We have four HP print engines: one 5si, two 8000 DN and one 8100 DN. Total output is 104 copies per minute. All have the 2,000 sheet paper tray.

*mickey evans: MicroPress Controller, Xerox 620-S scanner, two HP5Si 024 print engines and one Fujitsu 040 print engine.

HOW DO CLUSTER SYSTEMS COMPARE TO STAND-ALONE DIGITAL COPIERS? *hong: It depends on the copier. There are three main volume categories of standalone copiers that a cluster system could compete with: mid-volume copiers (60-65 ppm copiers, such as the Canon iR600); high-volume copiers (110-180 ppm copiers, such as the Xerox DocuTech) and ultra-high volume copiers (400+ ppm copiers, such as the Oce Demandstream).

With cluster printing systems, you do not need to buy all of your power all at once. You could start with a couple of engines and build a nice mid-volume system. As your volume grows, you can add more engines and work your way toward a high-volume system. But you never have to pay for more system than you need.

A few years ago, your options were pretty limited: spend a small fortune and buy a high-volume copier and hope the work materializes, buy a cheap (relatively) mid-volume copier with an under-powered RIP and hope it worked (which it usually did not), or buy an inexpensive (relatively) cluster system with a powerful RIP. It was pretty much a no-brainer.

Today, the mid-volume realm is a little more confusing because there are more viable choices. Most of the copier vendors have released connected mid-volume copiers and a few of them actually have RIPs powerful enough to process graphics in a print shop environment. These stand-alone copiers (like the iR600) are considerably cheaper than a cluster system. While these systems are not as powerful as a MicroPress, they may be powerful enough for some users.

*johnson: The advantages are as claimed-when a card or engine is down, you're still in business with the other engines, and you can run one job at max speed or several different jobs at the same time. For our configuration, disadvantages include limitations on paper stock, less than pleasing color output, some limits on variable data capabilities (where and how you place the variable data, although this may be solved in Version 5.0, which we don't have yet), the cost of cards to add engines and proprietary server hardware. High consumable costs also have limited our internal use and our sales.

*nix: With our operation, it seems there are none. If we had to do it over for our mix of jobs, we would buy stand-alone.

*gerhardt: We purchased the system two years ago before the current digital copiers were on the market. It was about the only game in town if you could not afford or justify a DocuTech. Today's digital copiers may be a better solution for some printers.

*huntley: The big advantage for us is being able to store jobs in one computer and then print on demand to any or all of the printers. Our specialty is course packs for students at the University of South Carolina, and the originals we get often have wide toner bands on the paper-a huge waste of toner. We can call up individual pages from a pack on the computer and quickly erase the toner lines, making the original look much better while saving toner, too.

*evans: Advantages: There are no click charges (partially offset by supply charges). You also have the flexibility to run multiple jobs at one time, job continuity if one engine jams or stalls, and ability to run some coated and carbonless stocks. Disadvantage: It lacks the "horsepower" to run continuously.

DESCRIBE THE FEATURES YOU LIKE BEST *hong: We like the MicroPress RIP. It is very fast and can process pages as fast as the engines can print them. You have a lot of post-RIP control over jobs that other systems lack. For example, with the MicroPress, you can automatically impose jobs two-up to save on paper and clicks. You can make color adjustments to RIPped files without re-RIPping them. Once files are RIPped, they can be instantly reprinted without re-RIPping. You can add, delete and replace pages or even merge several jobs together into a single job, all at the RIP.

*johnson: Variable data capabilities, high-speed labeling and printing.

*nix: Since we haven't been able to get much of the work it was designed for, it's hard to say. We have found that the imposition software is excellent for moving pages around after they are RIPped and adding and deleting pages.

*gerhardt: The software is user-friendly and relatively trouble-free. It's easy to add capacity by adding another print engine(s). When running recycled toner the cost is very close to analog copiers, but this can only be used for simple line copy jobs. If you have to use OEM toner, the cost of toner alone will run 1 cent per copy. We have problems with toning when running anything but 20-lb. bond and duplexing.

*huntley: The best feature is cost savings. Generally we will only put jobs on the digital system that have five percent toner coverage or less-for 12-point type, that's about 25 lines on an 81/2 x 11-inch sheet. At that rate, we are only paying 1/2 cent for toner per page. The paper is 1/2 cent. My cost is 1 cent. We have no service contracts and have never needed them. The fuser assembly needs to be rebuilt at 350,000 at a cost of about $250. The HPs have been a dream.

WHAT OTHER OPERATIONS WILL A CLUSTER PRINTING SYSTEM PERFORM OVER OTHER DIGITAL OR NON-DIGITAL SYSTEMS? *johnson: The big opportunity is having several kinds of machines working off one dual process server. You might have a few 024s and a 040 Minolta, a color printer/copier and a scanner online together. Whether you need eight 60-ppm machines running simultaneously depends on your customer base. After that, you'd have to consider durability, service and price competitiveness with the DocuTech and others.

*huntley: Being able to manipulate the page through the Paperport software. We use the erase function a lot but also move the text to help margins and even reverse the image if the entire page is reversed to begin with. We have our typesetting computer networked so that what we compose can go right to print. The weak link in this setup is the scanner. It works great for text and line artwork but it doesn't do 11 x 17 inches and it doesn't like gray scale. But for what we do, it's great for the money.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PRIMARY APPLICATIONS? *hong: Some-especially the cluster system vendors-might argue that a big advantage to cluster systems is the fact that they are clustered. Clustering allows for redundancy, lack of downtime (if one engine breaks, you still have others to print on), flexibility (being able to print several jobs simultaneously on several printers), etc.

This is all true, but these benefits are partially offset by the inconvenience of having several engines rather than one. You have to grab your output from several output trays instead of one. You need more power for all of the engines. You need more space. So it's not the clustered engines. What makes it great is the powerful software suite that drives those clustered engines. The MicroPress software would have just as much value-possibly more-driving one fast engine, as it does driving several slower engines.

Therefore, the primary applications for cluster printing are the exact same applications that make sense for any high-end digital printing system. Any job that requires frequent reprints make a lot of sense to be printed digitally, whether on a cluster system or not. The digital files can be archived and reprinted on demand. Jobs that require high quality but short runs also make a lot of sense. Anything with variable data also would be a good application.

*johnson: Label runs, manuals, invoices, personalized sales letters, renewal notices and some four-color book covers.

*gerhardt: Variable data and short-run booklet printing are two of the best.

*huntley: Our primary application is the course packs. If we are in a rush, all four units go on one packet, but mostly we will have four different packets going at once, letting them slowly churn.

*evans: Short runs of books such as computer manuals, numbered forms and tickets, photo- intense books and flyers.

WHAT RUN LENGTHS DO YOU USE IT FOR? *hong: For black-and-white jobs, typical run length is one to 200 copies of 50 to 500 originals. We have done runs as long as 2,500, but that is pretty rare. At those lengths, offset starts to make a lot of sense from a price standpoint, but digital still has the advantage of time. A typical color job might be one to 20 copies of a 10- to 50- page PowerPoint presentation, or 200 copies of a sell sheet for a trade show.

*johnson: 500 to 31,000.

*gerhardt: Any range similar to what we do with high-speed copying-generally fewer than 1,000 of one original.

*huntley: Most of our packets are 30 sets of about 250 pages. We have some that are 70 pages and 400 sets. With this pricing structure of a penny a copy, run length makes no difference. Being able to queue jobs is great-the printers never stop running.

*evans: Usually three to 500.

HOW HAS CLUSTER PRINTING BENEFITED YOUR COMPANY? *johnson: In 1999, the machine generated about $40,000 in revenue, which was profitable. It brings in work that requires pre-printed shells that we print as well as work that includes our mailing services. The mailing services also bring in work for the T/R.

*nix: It brought us into the new century with a high-tech digital image that is helping us secure new customers. It got us moving in the right direction and made us aware that our industry is changing and if we wanted to be here in five years, we had better change, too.

*gerhardt: It allowed us to offer digital black-and-white without investing in a high-volume copier.

*huntley: The cluster printing unit, during our peak times at the beginning of semesters, does the work of three people. It runs 104 copies a minute, truly unattended, which leaves an operator free to scan in packets to the computer, clean them up and number the pages on the computer. It has increased production.

*evans: We had much less capital investment, making very short runs more profitable.

"Cluster systems were originally developed to compete with high-volume boxes such as the DocuTech," notes Derek Hong of Pro Copy (Cedar Rapids, IA). "The biggest advantage cluster systems have over mainframe copiers is price. Clustering several inexpensive slow printers together is significantly less expensive than buying one fast printer. A cluster system of comparable speed can cost less than one-third of a mainframe system."

T/R Systems introduced its cluster system concept in 1995 to provide an on-demand option for mid-volume digital printing applications. "The uncommon aspect of the MicroPress is that it uses traditional laser copy machine engines (i.e., Canon P320 and P550) but with an untraditional distribution of one RIP with several writing engines," explain Frank Romano and Howard Fenton in "On-Demand Printing," (GATF Press). "In contrast, typical copiers and printers use one RIP with one writing engine."

T/R Systems currently dominates the cluster system market-it recently shipped its 1000th MicroPress and has a marketing relationship to provide print-on-demand applications for Cunningham Graphics' worldwide print operations. Other players include AHT (see "Know your RIP," p. 53) and EFI, which recently announced its Velocity Suite with clustering capabilities.

Also, according to Pro Copy's Hong, new options are emerging in the mid-volume copier market. "Now you can cluster several mid-volume copiers together to produce an ultra-high volume system that competes with ultra-high volume machines such as the Oce Demand Stream," relates Hong. "By clustering several 60-70 ppm machines, you can achieve speeds up to 840 ppm, faster than most non-clustered systems. These type of clusters are pretty expensive, but they are still considerably cheaper than some high-volume machines."

Most of our panel participants got acquainted online at PrintWeb.org. Created and managed by Bob Bergey, owner of Design & Print, Inc., (Telford, PA), the list is extremely active. If you would like to join, go to the PrintWeb site (www.printweb.org). Or, send any e-mail message to printlists@printweb.org. An autoresponder will instantly return a message about the lists and how to join. The PrintOwners list is specifically for owners of printing businesses (non-owners will be unsubscribed). A second list, PrintShare, is open to anyone in printing.

Interquest (Charlottesville, VA) offers "The Guide to Affordable Print-on-Demand Solutions: Midrange and Clustered Printing Systems." Updated in January 2000, this 125-page guide reviews midrange systems from AHT, Canon, Entire/AHT, Hitachi Koki, IBM, Konica, Minolta, Oce, Ricoh, T/R Systems, Xerox and others. Cost is $39.95; to order, call (804) 979-9945 or see www.inter-quest.com.