Digital Printing--On-demand Finishing Finesse
How profitable are digital press investments? Not very—if on-demand postpress support is lacking. Finish-on-demand is just as important as its glamorous partner, as any on-demand printer can well attest.
BY MARIE RANOIA ALONSO
The finishing component of on-demand digital printing is every bit as important as is the high-tech print engine that drives the most elite of digital presses. If the finishing finesse is missing, despite the best performance power of the finest digital color press, a digital print job is not only at risk of not being on-demand, but not being on time.
As more traditional offset commercial printers and short-run shops go the digital press route to facilitate faster turnarounds, on-demand finishing functionality becomes mandatory—and in-house finishing becomes an essential investment one cannot afford to overlook. While it may be economical to print limited copies digitally, these saving can easily evaporate in finishing setup time.
Consider this scenario.
A traditional, midsize commercial printer—struggling with a tight capital equipment budget—decides that investing in two high-speed, cut-sheet laser printers and a digital color press is critical to maintain a competitive edge. Allocations have been planned for the investment in the digital output devices, but what to do regarding postpress production? Although finishing support for the new purchases was examined, no decisions were made.
On the two laser printers, the commercial printer expects to do a high volume of customized physician directories for a local healthcare provider, ranging from six to 12 sheets each. On the digital color press, the commercial printer plans to output customized book covers, depending on the background of the intended recipients. The digital color press will also be marketed to bring in additional work.
What's the finishing plan?
The commercial printer considers in-line finishing for the two laser printers, but that means the purchase of two finishers, one for each printer. Off-line finishing is considered, but that equals extra labor costs. After all, how competitive can the pricing be if a new employee has to hand-feed an off-line bookletmaker?
In this scenario, the printer chooses an automated, off-line system, thinking it might be a good fit. Why? First, the capital investment is roughly half compared to in-line finishing; since this particular commercial printer is cost-conscious, this is a strong selling point. Also, independent operation means that overall up-time will be boosted; plus the system can serve as a finishing device for the operation's conventional offset press work, if it is outfitted with a collator.
Decision finalized. Naturally, not all decisions will mirror this scenario—or be arrived at in the span of a few sentences.
On-demand finishing is all about choice. However, one factor is certain: The choice had better be made quickly—and correctly—or the digital printing device may be poorly maximized and marketed.
"In the final analysis, any discussion about print-on-demand is incomplete without considerations for finish-on-demand," advises Mark Hunt, marketing manager at Standard Finishing Systems. "A conventional offset printer looking to go on-demand needs to determine which route to the finish line best suits the particular purposes at hand."
One area of great debate in digital printing concerns the merits of finishing in-line or off-line. Each route has its advantages; the best solution for any specific on-demand printing concern will depend chiefly on the print shop's unique operation, requirements and goals.
In vs. Off
The benefits of in-line finishing include very high set integrity—because the sheets never leave the system, labor costs are kept low. Also, a streamlined production path is created, making in-line finishing a logical choice for many on-demand printers, especially for job quantities below 500. On the flip side, though, if the print engine goes down, the on-line finisher is idle, and vice versa. Some finishers may even slow down a print engine.
As for off-line finishing, it allows a digital output device to print at full-rated speed, with the finishing device, too, working at full-rated speed. In addition, overall up-time is unaffected, since a printer can output digital jobs if the finisher is down, and vice versa.
"The need to have automated finishing in the on-demand environment is extreme. That is why the industry is experiencing and will continue to experience growing product portfolios of finishing devices designed to support on-demand," reports Paul Steinke, product manager for on-demand finishing systems at Duplo USA.
Logically, Steinke credits on-demand printing with the evolution of highly automated finishing systems—devices that are benefitting both conventional operations and on-demand outlets. "On-demand forced the finishing market to go to high automation and sophisticated levels of ease-of-use, tailored for the on-demand printing market, but enhancing productivity for conventional offset environments as well."
ComCom, a division of R.R. Donnelley, is reaping the benefits of on-demand finishing. With two Xerox DocuTech 135 units and two IBM InfoPrint 4000 devices supported by two flat-knife trimmers, one three-knife trimmer and three off-line Standard Horizon perfect binders, ComCom does on-demand finishing totally in-house.
Currently, the company is in the process of reviewing its options for in-line finishing systems. "My hesitations are the speed of the binding systems and whether or not they can really keep up with my printer—also, what to do if the in-line binder goes down," reports Kathleen Jacobsohn, manufacturing facilitator at ComCom.
To date, a two-shift bindery operation for a three-shift printing effort seems to be working, so far. "We do expand the bindery shifts and work weekends when necessary to maintain efficient workflow from the printing to the binding stages," Jacobsohn says.
At TechniGraphix in Sterling, VA, the on-demand bindery is running equal with the pressroom—24/7.
Jack Tiner, president at the print-on-demand book publisher, which also houses a series of offset presses, employs finishing equipment that includes an off-line Duplo Quadrimax four-pocket perfect binder for on-demand work and Rosback systems for traditional jobs. Devices at TechniGraphix include systems from Océ and Xerox, with a Heidelberg Quickmaster DI rounding out the team.
"Right now, I don't do any finishing in-line. I just feel that off-line quality is better, especially for on-demand work. But that's not to say that I can't change my mind—in fact, there are some good systems out there," Tiner states. "Right now, my customers don't require in-line finishing, so I'm in no rush to bring it into my operation."
On any given day, TechniGraphix's on-demand printing operation can get an order for 500 books, needed in less than 48 hours.
"On-demand printing and finishing aren't for the faint of heart," Tiner states, in all seriousness. "We run the finishing operation as we do the digital printing operation—constantly, nonstop, total production."
Quite a juggling act, indeed.
Facilitating Digital Printing's Finishing Touch
In all of the excitement surrounding print-on-demand, special finishing requirements are often overlooked. In part, this is because printers have for some time been producing very short runs with conventional offset presses, with very quick turnarounds.
But what happens when traditional printers make the leap into short-run digital imaging—either black-and-white, high-speed laser or digital color—and the printing of customized, variable information?
Substantial adjustments must be made to finishing facilities serving on-demand printing operations.
- In-house finishing is essential because the average printer cannot afford to send the work to a trade bindery and then wait for the job to return. If the work involves variable data, every set is an original and there is no overage. Printers are reluctant to entrust this work to an outside bindery because there is no tolerance for setup waste.
- Quick setup and changeover are mandatory because short-run economics don't permit excessive breakdown or setup times. While it may be economical to print just one copy digitally, these saving can easily evaporate in finishing setup time.
- Accuracy of setups is critical. Every book, from the first one off the press, must be of salable quality. There's no room for makeready spoilage, especially on personalized, customized work. For setups to be dead-right the first time, finishing equipment must be engineered to tight manufacturing tolerances.
- Ease-of-use is another factor. Instead of this work flowing through a traditional bindery, a printer may want to cross-train its digital print operators rather than use dedicated bindery staff.
- Single operator systems help keep labor costs down as a percentage of total job cost. Labor is the most important cost variable print-on-demand printers must control to ensure profitable operations.
- Decide where to finish. On-line or off-line. The benefits of on-line finishing are obvious: very high set integrity, as the sheets never leave the system; labor costs are kept low; and a streamlined production path is established.
Off-line finishing also has distinct advantages, including allowing the printer to print at full-rated speeds. In addition, overall up-time is unaffected, since the user can print if the finisher is down, and vice versa. Off-line finishing can also serve multiple print sources within a shop—digital printing devices as well as conventional offset output. Capital investment is lower and the print shop can enjoy greater utilization from the equipment. On the downside, labor costs can be higher, and the printing house may require more manual setup.
Mark Hunt is marketing manager at Standard Finishing Systems. Based in Andover, MA, Standard is a supplier of print finishing systems and reprographic equipment. To visit Standard Finishing on the Internet, go to www.sdmc.com.