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Digital Finishing -- Making a Stitch in Time

February 2009 By Mark Smith
Technology Editor
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AS DIGITAL printing demand, applications and operations grow, adjustments are being made in finishing strategies. In-, near- and off-line solutions all still have their place, but determining the best approach has become a more site-specific decision.

What’s best when a shop has one digital press can be very different from when it has grown to having two, 10 or well on its way to 100 digital presses. The range of applications produced can be a more critical factor in weighing the efficiency of in-line vs. the flexibility of near-/off-line solutions. 

These issues and more can be factors in the finishing equipment buying decisions made by Jeff Ude, purchasing manager at Consolidated Graphics (CGX) in Houston. The organization is comprised of some 70 companies, the majority of which have digital and offset printing capabilities.

Most of the locations have only one or two digital presses, while some have 10 or more machines. Various Xerox iGen3 (including one iGen4), Kodak Nexpress and HP Indigo model color presses account for more than 100 of the 200+ digital devices (small to large) CGX operates across all of the facilities.

“We have a number of in-line solutions for booklet-making at certain companies, but we have a lot of near-line solutions, as well,” Ude reports. “We base the decision on the particular need set of the customer group served by a location.”

Having multiple presses feed work to one near-line finishing solution might be the better option in some cases, while in-line can offer advantages for other work, he says. CGX installed Xerox iGen3 presses with in-line bookletmakers, for instance, because the volume of one particular project demanded that capability.

Going in-line can also be a requirement for sensitive work that deals with people’s finances, medical records or other private information to ensure the right pages make it only to the intended recipient. “Some clients will actually write it in the contract that finishing has to be done in-line for security reasons,” Ude says.

Doing More With Less

Going in-line vs. near-line is an issue CGX sometimes goes round and round on, both internally and with clients. The economic and business climate is now adding extra weight to the decision, he adds. 

“We’re being very cautious just like everyone else, and trying to limit our spend. I’ve been having that very discussion (about a near-line solution requiring a smaller capital outlay) with one of our companies, as we look at what we are going to invest in this year. It traditionally has gone in-line, but I think near-line might be a better solution,” Ude explains.

Given Mimeo.com’s focus on “super efficiency” and the fact that it’s an all-digital operation, it may come as somewhat of a surprise that the company has almost exclusively taken the off-line approach to meet its finishing needs. From its headquarters in New York City, John Delbridge, COO, overseas the operations of the company’s original production facility in Memphis (140,000 square feet) and a newly completed, second plant in Newark, NJ (80,000 square feet).

“We build facilities that are more like a manufacturing operation. The bulk of the print engines are separated out from the finishing machines, and we use conveyors and other means to get materials to the right finishing stations,” Delbridge explains. “We’ve built a proprietary routing system that extends from the order being submitted, all the way through to the shipping department.”

The system uses job tickets and barcodes that feed information to proprietary software for tracking where a job is in the plant and where it needs to go. Algorithms prioritize what job gets worked on next at each station to meet delivery times. 

“Since an order will get routed to the appropriate finishing station automatically, distance is not really a relevant measure for us,” says the COO. “We don’t put the bindery equipment right next to the (digital) press because we have specific binding areas.”

Mimeo.com has set up different finishing cells that are configured for producing a specific type of product. It has a photo cell, for example, with all of the cutting, binding, gluing and other equipment required to produce its photo products clustered together in a self-contained work area. Punching and binding equipment for twin-loop, spiral and three-ring binding are also tied together in similar cells.

The company has standardized on Kodak Nexpress print engines for its color work, and has about a dozen machines across the two facilities. There’s also a degree of standardization in the types of pieces being produced because its primary focus is bound business documents—presentations, RFPs, training books and the like.

The specifics of a job can vary greatly, though. Orders can range from a quantity of one to thousands, specify different types of bindings, and include a variety of components, such as color or black-and-white pages, tabs, slip sheets, etc.

“Given the variability of our work and the quantities, it makes less sense for us to have a lot of in-line capabilities,” he explains. “It’s not like we are doing program print jobs with large volumes of the same piece. You need the volume to keep an in-line solution working 24 hours a day.” Mimeo.com does utilize some of the more standard finishing options that come with a digital press, including stapling and tape binding, Delbridge adds.

No Digital-Offset Divide

Capitol City Press, in Tumwater, WA, has a production scenario that’s more akin to the average industry shop. Its digital department has a Xerox iGen3 color press and a DocuTech 6180 black-and-white machine. The workhorses of its sheetfed offset arsenal are two six-color (40? and 28?) Komori Lithrone presses. All press work is fed to a common bindery department.

The shop’s digital work tends to be one-off and smaller jobs that mostly need just cutting and folding, reports Mel Caldwell, bindery manager. Postcards, brochures, posters and raffle/dance tickets are typical applications. A fair share of the work includes variable data, particularly jobs for the casinos in the area. Unlike the previously mentioned companies, Capitol uses simple, manual checking to ensure that those pieces are kept in the right order through cutting and on out to the post office.

Offset and digital sheets flow into a common bindery area, which makes it a completely off-line operation. Caldwell says the company selects equipment with an eye toward supporting the needs of both sides and “getting the most bang for the buck, rather than just helping with one area.”

Its latest acquisition, a TR Die-Score system from Rollem International, may end up having a bigger payoff for digital work. Cracking and static are still the biggest challenges his department faces with finishing digital sheets. Small scoring and perfing jobs that had been tying up its MBO folders can now be offloaded to the dedicated scoring unit, he reports, and Capitol City can keep more work in-house.

Scheduling digital and offset jobs through one bindery isn’t a problem because all of the shop’s work is completed with a one- or two-day turnaround. “It’s not uncommon for us to proof an offset job in the morning and deliver the finished pieces that afternoon,” Caldwell says. “There’s not a whole lot of competing scheduling issues because (digital and offset) jobs just fall into the same workflow.”

Offset and digital finishing capabilities are also shared for the most part at CGX facilities, but some equipment is dedicated to specific work, reports Ude. With an initial digital press install, it makes sense to leverage as much existing finishing as possible. Then, as volumes grow and more presses are added, making digital-specific equipment purchases becomes a viable option, he advises.

Even though Mimeo.com is an all-digital operation, Delbridge says he looks for more heavy-duty finishing equipment that is suitable for offset work in order to get the productivity and durability needed for the volume of work produced at its facilities. “Since our jobs can vary greatly in run length, we try to find equipment that is very quick to change over,” notes the COO. Some of the work has sufficient volume to justify going a step further by installing multiple machines, such as saddlestitchers, and designating a format size for each.

Checking Your Coat

So far, none of the three executives has seen any significant trend toward customers expanding the range of their finishing services requests, even as they buy more digital printing and as the market matures. Coating may qualify as “what’s hot,” nonetheless, with vendors introducing new solutions for UV spot and flood coating.

Delbridge reports that Mimeo.com has looked at UV options, but has found its customers are happy with the coating capabilities provided by the intelligent coating solution in the fifth imaging unit of its Kodak Nexpress machines and the near-line Nexpress glossing unit. Its work generally doesn’t end up being mailed, though. 

CGX is already using near-line solutions for UV coating with some of its HP Indigo presses and is now working with the manufacturer on implementing its in-line option, as well, according to Ude. It has also looked at the in-line UV option for the Xerox iGen3, but hasn’t moved forward because both the coater and the organization’s existing in-line bookletmakers can’t be installed at the same time, he notes.

Which is yet one more wrinkle that can figure into the in-, near- or off-line buying decision. Printing companies like to say they are unique in their marketing materials but, when it comes to determining the best approach to digital finishing, there’s a good deal more truth in that statement. PI


 

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