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Sprint to win

May 1, 2010 12:00 AM


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As average run lengths continue to decrease, time and cost efficiency is imperative to making print profitable. Computer-based automation — from web-to-print portals to production workflows and management information systems — provides a path to short-run print production with minimal handling.

InfoTrends' (www.infotrends.com) surveys of commercial print providers have shown a progressive decline in long runs, while responses continue to indicate steady growth in runs from one to 1,000 impressions. For ultra-short runs of fewer than 250 impressions, 50% of InfoTrends survey respondents projected growth in 2008, up from 40% in 2004.

“Part of that is directly attributable to web to print,” says Jim Hamilton, InfoTrends group director, on-demand printing and publishing, jetting technology opportunities, and wide-format printing consulting services. “You might have had digital print technology that was capable of doing those very short runs in 2004, but it wasn't really cost effective if someone had to pick up the phone, take the order and process the job manually.”

These surveys represent printers running all types of printing equipment. “I think everything's pushing toward short runs, one way or the other,” Hamilton says. “And some of these might not be that obvious as short runs. You might take a run of 10,000 and put a different sales rep's name on each 1,000 of them. That could be a black plate change, and many times it is, but it also can be done digitally.”

Show us the money

For jobs that require in-house design or rework, Hamilton says, “People have to pay for that level of hand holding and service. If you're giving away those capabilities, particularly to people who are only looking for the lowest cost output, that's a losing battle.”

With the trend toward increased customization and personalization of print products, automation is more of a necessity than ever. Hamilton recommends identifying work that can be driven through an automated workflow, while reserving more costly internal resources for premium clients. And although web-to-print solutions can enable print customers to view job progress and PDF proofs, he notes that not every job merits that level of customer involvement.

“The way to make short runs cost-effective is to make it so that these jobs are touched as little as possible, that they don't take a lot of the operator's time, so you know the per-job administrative cost is low enough to make the overall work profitable,” says Hamilton. This strategy is especially important on the smallest jobs, as companies such as Mimeo.com demonstrate. (Check out a video explaining Mimeo.com's on-demand, web-to-print operations at www.mimeo.com/aboutus.)

“It's possible to create a web-to-print storefront quite easily, these days, at a relatively low cost,” Hamilton says, “so a smaller print service provider can look like a much larger one.” Web to print also provides an automated ordering process and can be integrated into the print production workflow for “touchless” operations on short-run, quick-turn jobs.

Competing on very short runs also might require extending print services into multichannel marketing. “It's really part of the overall picture: becoming a marketing services provider, not just looking at being a manufacturer of printed output,” says Hamilton. “This entails having a web interface, driving volume through automated production, and gathering feedback and ROI data through PURLs and other means to combine print with various media.”

Next Page: The sweet spot

The sweet spot

So what is the ideal run length for each of the various print technologies, from offset to inkjet to toner? InfoTrends has plotted out the general cost per impression for color devices, indicating that while offset meets or beats digital color print at runs over 10,000 impressions, it competes only with 2000-era or earlier digital devices on runs under 1,000.

While this does not include the fully burdened cost — including factors such as equipment financing, service, production volumes and ink coverage — it shows the potential for current digital print equipment to further erode the offset market.

“Using a very simple running cost calculation, Océ's Jetstream gets down under a penny per color impression at 20% coverage, but you've got to be running 40 million impressions per month to get there,” says Hamilton. “So that's good for very high-volume applications with fairly low coverage, but it's significant — those are remarkable levels. And the ability to mix color and black-and-white on an as-needed basis is a flexibility that opens things up incredibly, I think.”

Along with the capability to run highly variable jobs, digital inkjet offers the ability to produce lower coverage applications very cost effectively. And a 30-inch web provides a significant productivity boost. “Digital color inkjet — particularly for high volumes with relatively low coverage — toner can't meet that for web width, speed or running costs,” says Hamilton. “Now, as coverage gets really high, then toner comes back into play.”

Looking at HP's T300 color inkjet web press vs. the HP Indigo, for example, photo applications that require high coverage are better suited to the latter. “Quality levels and coated paper are things that the inkjet devices aren't really very good at right now,” says Hamilton. “But [digital photo] is a very good business model for the people who can aggregate that volume, and there are plenty of other photo applications like calendars, photo books and other photo-oriented output. Those fit in very nicely where the Indigos, NexPresses and iGens are today.”

Monochrome plus

Low-cost monochrome digital might have won the short-run battle vs. offset. But high-speed inkjet webs' productivity on black-and-white jobs — with color added as needed — is a game changer.

“On the monochrome side, continuous feed devices have improved output quality, gone to a wider web that allows you to do 3-up-across 6 × 9-inch [impressions], and now offer halftone capability that looks pretty good,” says Hamilton. “In that class of products, we're seeing monochrome digital, often toner-based devices, sitting next to the color inkjet webs and not getting the volume they used to. Some of that volume is going over to that color device either as pure monochrome or as mono and some light coverage color.”

In the 200+ ppm range of cutsheet devices, Hamilton notes Océ's VarioPrint 6000 Ultra series, the Kodak Digimaster EX300, and Xerox's digital duplex Nuvera 200/288, saying, “Between those three, particularly for book-oriented work, there are some very interesting things going on in black-and-white [output].”

Next Page: Quick finishing

Quick finishing

Inline bookletmaking is the most popular short-run finishing capability InfoTrends sees in its survey results, from simple bookletmaking to more advanced runs using three-side trimmers. Hamilton notes that finishing multipage documents inline doesn't slow the process. “I've seen some very innovative things recently around mechanical punch, for mechanically bound documents — particularly what GBC is doing with Xerox. There isn't necessarily a whole lot of that in the marketplace, but if your application is suited to mechanical binding, it's a good one.” Perfect binding, coating and lamination still tend to happen offline, for digital equipment.

“Some exciting recent developments include inline capabilities that you wouldn't necessarily describe as finishing, such as dimensional capability on the Kodak NexPress, the Canon imagePRESS C1+ ability to do gloss, and what HP Indigo has been doing with its 5th, 6th and 7th color stations for a long time,” says Hamilton. “Those are key differentiators for those kinds of products. Indigo and Xeikon have been able to do it for quite some time, and I'm sure we'll see more of it.”

Where offset wins

Offset still competes on short runs of 1,000 and even fewer. “I don't think we'll say, at any time, ‘There isn't a place for manufactured documents in quantities from 1,000 to 20,000 or so.’ And there will be dedicated applications that require higher run lengths than that,” says Hamilton. “But, you know, the arrow is moving in the other direction.”

As print customers increasingly seek some level of customization or personalization, Hamilton notes that some offset presses continue to hold steady on shorter run and higher volume variable or customized output: “Between digital and large-format offset presses, you've got Presstek DI products, which fill a nice gap with very automated production and quick setup.” Automated CTP workflows also significantly enhance offset's ability to tackle short runs. “I think some of the larger format presses are almost working against time, because those higher volume types of jobs are decreasing,” Hamilton adds.

Looking ahead

As web-fed inkjet devices approach the ability to compete with offset press speeds, Hamilton predicts they will change the short-run picture: “Five hundred feet per minute is awfully fast, on the high end of these devices, and if you widen the web width to 25 or 30 inches as HP, Kodak and Océ have, you've got a very productive device. So that is more than what we've seen happening with the cutsheet toner products.”

The key to driving down cost per impression is volume. “I'm hoping that as the [inkjet web] substrate capabilities expand to inexpensive coated stocks and get pretty good looking output, you'll see volume move from offset to those inkjet devices in categories that really haven't been hit before,” says Hamilton. “These include custom catalogs, publications or books — applications that bring color at relatively low cost to quality levels on coated or calendered stocks that are suitable for those markets.”

Chris Bondy, InfoTrends' group director, cross-media workflow solutions, adds, “The main thing I see happening is the need for and the involvement of service providers in data processing. No longer is it acceptable for the printer to be at arm's length from the client with regards to data. They've got to understand how to mine it, use it and warehouse it. Print service providers can help their customers segment data in meaningful ways and develop campaign deployment strategies from rich data analytics.” In addition to extending the reach of print applications, data expertise can open up entirely new opportunities for the print service provider.

Printing short runs profitably lies in leveraging not only the appropriate print technology for your core applications, but computer-based automation to maximize efficiency and build volume. Web-to-print workflows can help cultivate repeat business on “touchless” short runs as well as deeper client marketing and communications partnerships.


Denise Kapel is managing editor, AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at denise.kapel@penton.com.

The digital difference

PrintCom's Bill Lamparter (printcom@aol.com) observes that any assessment of short-run trends must consider both the process and the market. Equipment size is another factor: “Short runs on a duplicator vs. a 40-inch press are not the same animal,” he says.

In Lamparter's experience, 5,000 to 8,000 copies would be a typical short run. “During audits, we go into job jackets,” he explains. “For the midsize commercial printer, [short runs] still range from 5,000 to 10,000 copies. If they are doing anything shorter than that, they are using a digital press. Digital has made it practical to do runs that never used to be done. It's made all the difference.”

It's all about the pipeline

“Costing and pricing have a lot to do with what's a realistic short run,” says Julie Shaffer, vice president of digital technologies for Printing Industries of America (www.printing.org). “To successfully do runs of one, as the vanity press printers do, you have to keep the pipeline full. No way a job of one is ever going to be profitable if you have to fire up a press — which can take 10 to 20 minutes depending on the press — print it, then shut it down. That's extreme, but you get the idea. You'd have to charge hundreds of dollars per book to make money doing it like that. So it's not like you're doing one job. If you automate the jobs so you're running constantly with no lag in between projects, what's the difference to the press if that's 100 individual projects or one? None. It's very different from offset, when you actually have to stop and hang new plates job-to-job.”