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Going digital, Staying lithographic

Mar 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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Digital presses—computer-controlled, plateless devices using electrostatic toner to image “virtual” printing forms—began to appear in the early 1990s. By then, conventional offset lithography was almost a century old, and some said the emergence of the new process was a sign that offset’s antiquity was catching up with it. But digital had its detractors, too, and it seemed at first that nobody who favored one could ever be a friend of the other.

Time, however, has a way of erasing all assumptions about printing except one: Progressive printers will embrace any technology (or combination of technologies) that genuinely enables them to do more for their customers. Today it’s clear that the technical differences between the two processes, while real enough, are just footnotes to the capabilities they share in helping printers drive volume and make money.

Six success stories
Six printing businesses let AMERICAN PRINTER in on their experiences as successful integrators of digital output systems into what had been (with one exception) primarily offset lithographic environments. Conversations with the owners and senior managers of these businesses left many misconceptions about the “digital divide” in tatters. We learned:

  • Offset printing is not the hapless Peter who gets robbed to pay the voracious Paul represented by competing digital systems. Digital presses attract their own volumes, and they can repay—with interest—whatever work printers may decide to shift from their litho equipment to them.
  • A printing company that goes digital doesn’t necessarily leave lithography behind. Within the last 12 months, four of our six companies have either installed, ordered or made plans to order new litho presses as growth on that side of their business has kept pace with their success in digital.
  • Differences in color quality, paper options and even unit cost no longer make or break deals, if they ever did, when print buyers choose between offset and digital. One factor—turnaround time—has emerged as the most-used rule of thumb for deciding whether the sheets will take ink or toner.
With the myths dispelled, do differences remain? Certainly. Digital printers don’t deal in “overs” and “unders.” And whereas many veteran operators can diagnose and fix certain offset press problems, performance hiccups on digital presses might require a service call.

These printers offered much more insight and advice from the six companies’ experiences, which collectively represent nearly all of the leading brands of digital print equipment. The firms have been users of digital presses for periods ranging from just a few months to more than 25 years. All have one foot planted as firmly in offset as the other is grounded in digital.

‘No’ not spoken here
We began by asking the obvious: Why had they decided to install digital presses in the first place?

Jerry and Doug Crawford, the father-and-son management team at Crawford Printing Co. of Burbank, CA, added HP Indigo 3050 and S2000 digital presses three years ago. “We were looking for a way not to tell our customers, ‘No,’” says Jerry Crawford, who says the company wasn’t equipped to meet demand for birth announcements, real estate books, stock prospectuses and other short-run work.

At Graphix Products Inc. in West Chicago, IL, Jason Tews runs a commercial lithography business that installed a pair of Canon CLC 5000 production color copiers about five years ago. He says the decision to “make the jump” was brought on by a desire to stop relying on trade shops to fill orders for digital printing.

In Maitland, FL, David Abbott realized that without a digital press, Abbott Printing Co. was missing out on a good deal of small-quantity color work—and on the opportunity to be the one-stop source of printing services his customers wanted the firm to be. He is now in his third month as the owner of a Kodak NexPress 2500 digital production color press with a fifth imaging unit and a glossing station.

“It started with speed,” says Timothy Keran of Western Graphics Inc.’s decision to begin investing in what has become a septet of Xerox digital presses. “We’ve always been a speed shop. The shingle we’ve always hung out is quick turns.” Behind the shingle at the St. Paul, MN, plant is a collection of seven high-end monochrome and color platforms acquired over the last 12 years, including two production color presses, both iGen3s. “We have more digital equipment than offset presses now,” Keran says.

[The need for speed
In 1998, Erik Von Colln bought a DI press to help Midtown Printing increase its four-color productivity. But then, he says, the Nashville, TN, shop began getting a daily rush of “little bitty short runs” that soon overwhelmed the DI machine. That led to the purchase of an Indigo TurboStream in 2001, a Xeikon 5000 a year and a half ago, and, somewhat unexpectedly, a 20 x 29-inch Komori Spica litho press at Graph Expo last year.

Commercial Communications Inc. (CCI) of Hartland, WI, is alone among the six firms in having made toner printing the horse and offset lithography the cart. The company opened its doors as a document producer in 1982 with a Xerox 9500 laser printer and did not begin to add offset capability until a year later.

Today, Brent Hegwood, son of founders Barb and Bob Hegwood, presides over an array of about two dozen Xerox and Océ platforms, including what he says is the country’s only dual installation of Océ’s very high speed VarioPrint 6250. He says that CCI’s web and sheetfed litho services are bundled with digital printing in “value packages” that can help customers lower the cost of producing and managing their documents.

Printers like these can be expected to have seen all that there is to see when it comes to the technical surprises that a new process can bring. And, sure enough, they all say that they have learned their share of lessons about the quirks and quiddities of digital printing.

Goodbye to grippers
Some are related to output quality. Tews notes, for example, that after backing up a digital job and cutting it, the front-to-back registration can be “a hair off” because there’s no gripper bar to guide the sheet as there is in an offset press. He also points out, as do others, that toner-based color might not be consistent from run to run, and that letterhead printed digitally can’t be reimaged in a laser printer without bubbling or smearing the toner.

Keran corrects those who think there are no makereadies in digital printing with an observation about the paper-switching routine in his iGen3s. This digital press can print sheets as large as 14 x 20 inches. But, changing to and from that sheet size requires a procedure that can take 20 minutes, according to Keran—comparable to the makeready on a late-model conventional press. That time has to be factored into scheduling just as press makeready would be in offset production.

Von Colln cites a surprise of another kind: The consumables for digital presses include not just toner and paper but hefty quantities of frequently replaced items such as doctor blades, wiper rollers, polishing cloths, imaging drums and, in the case of the Indigo, blankets.

All of the printers have logged more than enough clicks to recognize both the limitations and the advantages of digital printing vs. offset.

Most agree, for example, that if exact PMS matching is a must, the job belongs on an offset press. But, according to RIT’s Frank Romano, some digital printers do a better job on Pantone colors with toner than some ink-based systems, and some CMYK builds in a toner can only approximate the spot-color accuracy that some customers insist upon. It is important to print sheets of Pantone colors, so customers can see what will be printed. Some suppliers provide printed copies or files so that users can produce their own. Toners based on older technology were prone to cracking when folded on certain papers, so customers were encouraged to design for the digital press in ways that minimize the problem—for instance, by arranging to print the sheet with the grain. Of course, Romano reminds us that printing with the grain is important with offset litho as well.

On the other hand, paper-related limitations that were seen as significant disadvantages in digital printing’s early days—small sheet sizes and restricted selection—now seem not to matter nearly as much.

Jerry Crawford says that sheet size is rarely an issue: “Let’s face it, it’s an 8.5 x 11-inch world.” This means running two-up on a digital press instead of four-up on an offset press won’t impact productivity, because the overall turnaround of short-run digital output is so quick. Crawford also says, “[The digital department] has learned how to treat stock to be able to run almost anything our customers require. We just don’t say ‘No’ to requests for exotic stocks.”

Shades of meaning
What about color? “A little more saturated” is the consensus about how digital color looks when shown side-by-side with offset. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because “more saturated” to a printer can mean “more vibrant” to a print buyer. With digital printing, there’s no ink, hence no dot gain—another plus for toner output.

Our printers seem to agree that the vendors probably have pushed the appearance of digital color as far as it needs to go. Hegwood thinks, “[Its] general acceptance in the marketplace has improved, possibly due to the widespread adoption of desktop color printing devices, which have accustomed people to the quality and look of digital color.”

There’s no eye-of-the-beholder ambiguity about what the printers see as the single biggest edge digital printing has on offset: digital’s ability to turn work around so quickly, it’s almost scary.

While the Crawfords were giving a midafternoon interview for this story, their plant was receiving, via the Internet, a file for a 12-page, self-cover booklet that had to be—and would be—ready as a 250-copy run by 5 p.m. that day. A deadline of this kind wouldn’t faze Abbott, who says that with a platform like the NexPress 2500, “You can load a file, print a proof, run the job and cut it in an hour.” Thanks to digital, agrees Von Colln, “We can go from printing to a trimmed sheet in minutes.”

Keran points out that if the input file has been prepared correctly, it’s possible to get a salable sheet on the very first impression. He says that this lets him take chances with what would be unthinkably tight turnarounds on anything but a digital press: for example, starting printing at 7 a.m. for a job that has to be delivered by 11 a.m. That’s because good-from-the-first-click digital printing delivers a clean, dry sheet that “can go right to the folder” without any of the delay that sometimes stalls wet offset sheets on their path from the pressroom to the bindery.

Here’s my money—where’s my job?
The market appeal of swift turnarounds is so strong that, in many cases, speed can trump price as the key consideration in the buyer’s mind. “Customers will pay more to get it sooner,” says Abbott, who recently informed one customer that printing 3,700 copies of an 8.5 x 11-inch flyer would cost $500 more on the NexPress 2500 than it would one of the plant’s Heidelbergs. The customer opted for the higher price because printing the job on the NexPress would mean getting the work done overnight.

Nevertheless, the higher unit cost of digital
output—higher because the cost per print does not diminish with volume the way the cost of offset impressions does—sometimes can be an obstacle. Keran says, “We’d run more on the iGens if it weren’t for the cost. It keeps work on the presses.” This not an issue in very short runs, where the static unit cost of digital printing is less than that of offset. But Keran notes that because digital’s cost per piece “flatlines” (stops being less than offset) somewhere north of 1,000 copies, it’s logical to place runs of that size on conventional equipment. But this is not where volumes above the assumed crossover point invariably go. Printers can overcome resistance to the higher unit cost of digital output by helping customers to see its economic advantages—inherent ROI factors that validate the premium price.

The Crawfords like to remind their customers that there’s “a cash flow justification” in ordering and paying only for what they need, when they need it, with digital print on demand. They also point out that digital printing opens the door to “virtual collateral management”—electronic updating on demand, eliminating the need to commit the entire run to just one version.

That digital safety net saved the day—and a lot of money—for the Crawford customer who asked for 500 digitally printed advance copies of a booklet out of a planned run of 8,000. At a trade show, the customer discovered that 12 of the pages needed to be changed. Had all 8,000 been printed ahead of time on conventional equipment, the customer would have had to discard them all.

In any case, it would be a mistake to think volume-based discounts aren’t available with digital printing. Hegwood says that even with a static cost per piece, it’s still possible to calculate discounts based on total spend for customers who buy in small batches that add up to millions of pages.

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