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April 2006 BY ERIK CAGLE
Senior Editor
THERE ARE those who believe that offset printing is well aware of its mortality, in light of advances and inroads made by its younger and better connected cousin, digital printing. But even if offset technology is on the clock (and not everyone can agree), the lead time to its possible demise is fairly substantial.

So before you convert that stacked web press into a glorified set of monkey bars, consider the major benefits that many printers have reaped by having hybrid technologies under one roof. In some cases, both offset and digital are being leveraged for the same job, as they each offer advantages that can round out a project nicely.

While the print buyer or the salesperson may feel he/she is best qualified to determine what type of job necessitates which output device, ultimately the job itself knows. Just ask it some simple questions, says Roy Grossman, president and CEO of Sandy Alexander in Clifton, NJ:

* What is the turn time? If a rush job of short length comes in, then it’s best to run it digital. If it’s needed a month from now, book the big horse.

* How long is the run? An extremely short run likely means digital; a marathon job is certainly best suited for offset.

* How vital is print quality? A high-end cosmetic company like Clinique might want that Raspberry Ice shade down cold, so to speak. Dead-on color matching, many will argue, is not a strong suit for digital printing output.

* Is there a high level of personalization involved? If the answer is yes, then the solution is variable data digital printing. Mass amounts of data manipulation plays right into the hands of the digital realm.

Not Always Competing

Not everyone views the two technologies as competing services as much as complementary spokes in the hub of the machine of complete multimedia solutions. Commercial Communications (CCI), of Hartland, WI, generates 66 percent of its revenues through the support of supply chain management needs for national manufacturers, including Rockwell, John Deere and Kohler. Print, notes Brent Hegwood, CCI president and COO, is only one aspect in an information distribution process.

“We bundle all services related to this into value packages that provide complete solutions, dramatically lowering our clients’ total cost of ownership,” Hegwood remarks. “We do this by wrapping print-on-demand, traditional offset and powerful, Web-based applications around their workflow processes.

“The method of output is driven by many factors, but the underlying goal is to help make intelligent decisions about their information distribution needs,” he continues. “This is accomplished through Web-based applications that feed back a detailed analysis of who is ordering, how much they are ordering and the preferred method of distribution—hard copy or electronic. This ensures that all stakeholders receive the most current information when, where and how they need it, and in the most cost-effective manner.”

Foxfire Printing and Packaging, Newark, DE, needs the diversity of offset and digital printing capabilities to service its roster of clients, of which 60 percent are comprised of retail businesses and 40 percent are involved in manufacturing. John Ferretti, CEO of Foxfire, notes that his company has struck a 50/50 balance between the two printing technologies, with small- and large-format capabilities for both.

Workflow is not an issue for Ferretti and Foxfire. Its digital facility, which came as a result of an acquisition, is in Maryland while offset capabilities are housed in Newark. Not that it matters; Ferretti notes the workflows are very similar at both venues.

Common Workflows

Actually, hybrid workflows are really not a problem for most printers. “We use the same workflow at our digital business as in our offset business,” says Sandy Alexander’s Grossman. “If you’re in a PDF environment, it really makes no difference, because the PDF will allow you to go across virtually any workflow relatively flawlessly.”

Feng Shui, the Chinese art of placement, is not required to gain maximum efficiency from the dual workflows. Hegwood states that CCI’s gear is aligned so that it can be utilized in a seamless production process to support both digital and offset jobs.

“It is done this way because both methods of output are routinely used to support one job,” Hegwood says. “Separation of these workflows, including finishing, delays delivery or time to market, increasing both the direct and indirect costs to customers.”

One of the more pressing questions, and one that gives offset a leg up in many high-end applications, is the issue of color reproduction quality. No one can deny that toner-based printing has made significant strides in bridging the quality gap with lithography. And, ultimately, the application drives choice anyway.

“Digital has gained substantial ground in the quality arena,” notes Jack McGrath, vice president of sales and marketing for DS Graphics in Lowell, MA. “Toner-based products still have issues with Pantone blends and matching colors. Some customers have problems with this but, for the most part, they are educated in the digital capabilities (and limitations).”

Just how much the quality gap has closed is an open question.

“Digital quality is fast approaching offset quality, even in color,” Hegwood contends. “In most cases, not all, it is sufficient to meet the needs of our clients.”

To underscore digital’s advancement in quality, consider that Foxfire uses both technologies to produce signage kits for a large retailer. Three actually; certain aspects are produced offset, digitally and via silk screen.

“We put it together in one kit, and the colors are all very close,” Ferretti says. “It’s three different printing technologies, on three different substrates, and we can get the color pretty close on all three.”

Grossman believes digital has reached an “acceptable” quality level for about 50 percent of commercial work. The more sophisticated shops that are truly employing color management processes, he adds, can bridge that gap even more.

“However, if you want a truly magnificent reproduction that’s going to jump off the page and be high impact, you’re not going to get that digitally,” Grossman says. “For that 20 percent of the high-end commercial sector, digital is still a long way off.”

To be fair, it isn’t stunning quality color that has everyone clamoring for digital output. The era of one-to-one marketing and data manipulation have catapulted personalization into the foreground of variable data digital printing.

It is personalization, Grossman notes, that separates the printing entrepreneur from the commodity segment. “If you’re not going to differentiate yourself in a meaningful way, through personalization or Web-to-print capabilities, you’re wasting your time,” he says. “There are a ton of digital engines out there, and the number continues to grow rapidly. If you’re just in the ‘click’ business, there’s no advantage, no differentiation.”

Having a database of information to manipulate opens countless doors for the digital print provider. How else could a printer justify charging clients a higher per-piece price than offset prices?

“If you look at the response rate and the total dollars being spent versus the number of responses you’re getting back, I would tend to argue the better return on investment lies with digital,” Ferretti explains.

Possessing both offset and digital technologies also ensures printers of never needing to position one production resource over another based simply upon which one is in-house, regardless of cost effectiveness. And while many printers regard their output offerings as single-source solutions, the “competing” technologies act as catalysts for one another, often driving printers deeper into existing accounts.

But will there ever come a day when digital becomes more viable on long runs, when color matching and quality graduate to a level accepted universally? Perhaps some day, but not all that soon.

“Overall, I feel offset is losing ground to digital, but it’s going to take quite a few years before one gives way to the other,” Ferretti says. “You’ve got to look pretty deep into the future to say that litho will go away 100 percent.”

The Art of the Sale

When it comes to who and how to sell offset printing versus digital printing, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on the “church and state” viewpoint. Some printers feel the need for dedicated salespeople, given the nature and complexity of the digital beast. They argue that a different mind-set is involved.

“You need a dedicated sales force,” contends Roy Grossman, president and CEO of Sandy Alexander in Clifton, NJ. “First of all, you don’t want to divert your offset reps from selling your offset cylinders. Secondly, (offset salespeople) are used to thinking in terms of $10,000 to $1 million jobs, not $300 to $500 jobs. The digital salesperson is more technically (and database) oriented. We have found, in the end, that you really need a dedicated sales force to develop the account properly.”

The caveat here is that as $136 million annual printer, the division of sales labor is a likely necessity at Sandy Alexander, whereas a smaller printer could not justify dedicated sales personnel.

The single-source-solution mantra leads DS Graphics, of Lowell, MA, to invest in sales training on how various markets can be supported by variable data digital imaging, according to Jack McGrath, vice president of sales and marketing. “We do not support a separate sales group, since customers frequently require other printing services and the prospect of one-stop shopping is very attractive to buyer entities.”

With some jobs incorporating offset and digitally printed pieces, Newark, DE-based Foxfire Printing and Packaging CEO John Ferretti feels it is important for the sales staff to be well versed on both technologies.

There are numerous variables that help determine which sales arrangement works best for a given printer, such as size of the printing company, markets and regions served, etc. But most would agree that support from a shop’s IT and Internet services departments is critical, points out Brent Hegwood, president and COO of CCI in Hartland, WI.

“Our sales staff has grown up with the emergence of digital technology and is very knowledgeable, but we still provide them with a great deal of support through large internal IT and e-services departments,” he says. “These departments also work in concert with prepress to make sure that our workflow process remains automated and seamless.”


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