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DIGITAL PRINTING — SUCCESS BY DEVICE

October 2006 BY MARK SMITH
Technology Editor
FOR A time, it seemed as if the only point of distinction in digital printing was the simple fact of it being digital. The term became virtually synonymous with short run, quick turnaround printing, maybe with a little variable data work thrown in.

Companies looking to invest in digital printing services typically evaluated the full range of equipment options available, a trend that continues today. At first blush, all the machines seem more alike than different—in terms of format, speed, resolution, etc.—and are capable of getting the job done.

Some vendors like the connotations—solid, durable, productive—of the “digital press” designation. Other have opted to use “digital printing (or production) system” in order to shed any baggage of heavy iron or an old-line industry. Digital copier/printer denotes a lower volume device and, of course, inclusion of a scanning unit.

Earlier this year, the TrendWatch Graphic Arts (now “The Industry Measure”) industry research firm, based in New York City, released a report titled “Copiers & Printers: Serious Competitors in the Digital Print Marketplace.” Interestingly, it found that 32 percent of digital printing operations rely on color copiers for variable data output and 25 percent said that was their primary variable data printing device. Another 10 percent said they relied on desktop ink-jet/laser printers as their primary VDP output device.

For many printers, the support a vendor can offer has been at least as big a factor in the buying decision as the capabilities of the output device. Leading system sellers have made significant commitments to and investments in providing resources for digital printing market and business development.

Matching Sets

Investing in one production-level, color device has become the norm for launching a digital printing operation. When shops look to upgrade from previous generation equipment and/or add capacity, the majority of them opt for the same brand if not an identical machine.

Standardizing on a digital printing platform enables jobs to be easily moved between machines should one go down. Efficiencies can also be realized in managing consumables and spare parts.

The first major source of differentiation in the market came with the introduction of solutions for on-demand book production. This was pegged as the first “killer app” for digital printing. Ironically, what sets these systems apart are their finishing capabilities, the most conventional part of production.

Hybrid printing—using separate color and black-and-white devices to produce a finished piece—was another digital production strategy that developed early on. There are two variations of this approach—digital/digital and offset/digital.

Books, again, were a leader in the first case. Color covers and inserts can be produced on one device and then fed into a black-and-white digital production line, via the bypass unit, to produce a finished piece.

Making color systems more competitive for black-and-white work has since become a trend in the industry. Also, determining the best production method can involve more than just considering the cost per page for a given device. Productivity gains and labor savings from using a one-pass, automated production line can offset a higher cost per page.

The offset/digital hybrid production scenario entails preprinting and storing color “shells” that are produced on an offset press. Using a DI/digital offset press makes it practical to do shorter runs on-demand to reduce the volume of inventoried components. These shells then can be imprinted on a black-and-white digital system for more timely production or use of variable data.

One argument made in favor of this approach is that the total production cost is lower than printing the entire piece on a digital color press. It also potentially offers a way to get started in variable data printing with a lower capital investment. In addition, issues with the quality of digitally printed vignettes, spot colors and even full color, for the more demanding customer, provided support for this approach early on.

Growth in the installed base of digital color devices, and the increased competition that has resulted, works against this production technique today. So too does the interest in doing more sophisticated color variable data work that includes changing images and other design elements.

Color and print quality can still be production considerations even with the latest generation of digital color production systems. Some shops have sought to match their digital and offset output—through color management, press fingerprinting and using common paper stocks—so they can offer customers one standard for print quality. The more typical approach is to sell digital printing on its own merits.

“Pleasing color” used to be a derided term, but today is the standard by which much digital output is judged. The monitor is now the primary frame of reference, and both digital and offset printing fall short by comparison.

Spot/corporate colors are where digital printing shortcomings can be most obvious. Pantone licensing has become all but standard for high-end devices to partly address this concern.

Others systems capitalize on EFI’s “Spot on Color” technology in its Fiery print servers to reproduce these colors. Among these are the Konica Minolta bizhub PRO C350/C500 family, Canon imagePRESS C1 and C7000VP color systems (due to be released in the fourth quarter) and MGI’s Meteor DP40/DP30 line.

Xerox and Pantone teamed up to go a step further and develop special Digital Chips color books to show how the Pantone Color System can be matched on the family of Xerox digital printing systems.

Toppan Printing Co. America, in Somerset, NJ, had a role in the development of those reference guides. It was part of the company’s efforts to match output from its Xerox iGen3 presses with its sheetfed offset machines. The printer instituted tight production controls in both departments with an eye toward having run lengths alone dictate which process is used.

More than Four

HP Indigo presses have long offered two options for matching specialty colors with the IndiChrome technology for six and seven color models. HP IndiChrome OnPress adds orange and violet inks to the standard CMYK to support a wider color gamut. HP IndiChrome OffPress service provides specially mixed inks for precise matching of spot colors.

Part of what led Denver-based Lange Graphics to standardize on HP Indigo presses was a particular customer’s demand to match the Pantone color in its logo, which the printer does by using IndiChrome Offpress inks. Lange also had established a niche in printing on plastics with a UV sheetfed offset press before getting into digital printing. The inherent character of HP ElectroInk technology makes it suitable for printing on a wider range of substrates, including plastics.

Eastman Kodak more recently began offering a fifth color station as an option for its Nexpress 2100 and 2500 presses. Users can choose to add red, green or blue Nexpress Dry Ink to the standard four colors to achieve a richer color gamut. The company also offers the Kodak Versamark Custom Spot Colors service for color matching Pantone colors on its high volume ink-jet printing systems.

The ability to match special color was also a key factor in Rocky Mountain Printing’s digital press buying decision, says Teague Bengtzen, president. It opted for the five-color version of the Kodak Nexpress 2100 to print an extended color gamut. Bengtzen says the company also sought to standardize on a platform from the beginning, and currently has two 2100s installed and a third on order.

Xeikon, a Punch Graphix brand, introduced a fifth station with its Xeikon 5000 series webfed press and has carried it over to the new Xeikon 6000. This latest model retains the 20˝ wide format and ups the maximum speed to 160 ppm. It is Pantone-licensed and can print red, blue, green, orange, white and clear spot toners in addition to CMYK.

Océ has approached this problem from the opposite direction with its VarioStream 9000 series. It currently offers up to a three-color version and plans to introduce models that support four and five spot colors before introducing a process-color version. Users can order CustomTone color toners in the shades they need.

While it uses a different technology than H-P, MGI is the other digital vendor that stresses the ability of its devices to print on plastics (up to 14 mil) in addition to paper. It supplements this printing capability with add-ons such as the PressCard lamination unit and PunchCard Pro diecutter for plastic cards.

Inter-State Studio, in Sedalia, MO, has found advantages in using specialty substrates of a different sort. Capitalizing on the web-fed format of its Xeikon press, it developed the ability to produce a self-mailer with integrated return envelope from a pre-converted (with perforations and adhesives) roll stock. The company went on to start a separate business, called Convertible Brands, to sell the stock. (See “Personal Bests” on page 92 for more on this company.)

For color page printing, ink-jet is a final technological distinction worth mentioning. Kodak Versamark VX5000/VX5000e established the market for high-volume (up to 2,000 ppm) digital color, primarily for direct mail and trans/promo applications. The technology now is being also adapted for newspaper printing applications.

Screen (USA) was due to enter the market this month with its Truepress Jet 520 color press, a rollfed ink-jet system that prints at 420 ppm. It was expected to be introduced at a price point in the seven-figure range like the Kodak Versamark.

At the other end of the spectrum, RISO offers the HC5500 Com-Color ink-jet printer that outputs 120 ppm. The company is positioning the device to serve what it sees as an emerging market for “communications color,” which is four-color printing with an emphasis on function at a lower cost. PI



For more information
on digital color printing systems, visit www.piworld.com and enter the numbers below.

Canon 395
Eastman Kodak 396
HP Indigo 397
Konica Minolta 398
MGI 399
Océ 400
RISO 401
Screen (USA) 402
Xeikon 403
 

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