IN-LINE vs. OFF-LINE -- Cross the Finish LineJune 2002
BY CAROLINE MILLER
Over the past few years, the demand for print projects produced "just-in-time" has grown by leaps and bounds. This trend has touched every aspect of the print production process including, and perhaps most importantly, the finishing department. As a result, finishing systems have stepped to the forefront of the discussion. And one important aspect of the entire debate is which finishing solution—in-line or off-line—is the best choice for a particular operation.
Each solution offers its own set of benefits and challenges. So which solution is the right one? Or is a combination of both systems the best way to go?
There are three reasons to finish in-line, according to Clint Humphrey, executive vice president of operations for Quebecor World Commercial/Direct. Quebecor World Commercial/Direct has 18 finishing facilities in its group, of which five facilities are equipped with in-line finishing and three of those are primarily, but not exclusively, dedicated to in-line finishing.
"One reason to finish in-line is that you can produce more pieces in a given time period than you can with the off-line process. In-line really lends itself to direct mail, and there are some formats that you can only produce effectively in-line," reveals Humphrey. "For example, only with in-line finishing can an envelope be formed around the product, then go direct to mail or off-line for additional, value-added features.
"There is some specialty finishing that has to be done off-line, but that is becoming few and far between; in-line is becoming much better at those formats," he adds. "And, finally, with the right para-meters you can produce the piece for less money then you could off-line."
Still, despite its benefits, in-line finishing does have some drawbacks.
"Certainly, off-line offers more flexibility," Humphrey admits. "In-line is somewhat restrictive in what you can produce. By in large, you can only make folds in the direction of the web travel. So you have to make all folds parallel to each other. But, with the ability to handle lots of different ribbons, gluing, diecutting, perforating and multiple gluing, you can really create some unusual formats that you couldn't create in an off-line operation," he says.
This ability to produce unusual formats is becoming more and more important as clients look for unique pieces to catch their customers' attention. "The goal is to get the consumer to pick up your piece of mail and open it. If you can make it memorable, interactive and exciting, then they are more likely to pick it up," Humphrey adds.
In-line finishing lends itself to higher levels of imaging, as well, suggests Humphrey. However, he says that in-line is still costly to set up compared to off-line finishing. "However, while costly to set up and run, printers tend to make their money back because off the high speeds at which in-line is able to run."
You really end up breaking even, he notes. "And, at some point, it does become more economical to run it in-line versus off-line. That isn't for a 20,000-piece job; it's got to be near one million pieces. But, then again, certain formats can only be run in-line."
Also at issue with in-line finishing are labor issues, according to the Quebecor World executive. "In-line is an acquired skill. The level of competency required is probably higher than with an off-line system. "With in-line there is a predictability issue on how much you may produce on a daily basis. And because of the complexity and speeds that we are running, there is an opportunity for higher waste," he states.While in-line finishing is geared toward more higher runs, off-line can offer more flexibility and versatility. "There is definitely a versatility that you get when you are running off-line," says Pat Allen, bindery manager at Progress Printing in Lynchburg, VA. This $50 million printing operation has opted to remain off-line, although they have at times considered adding an in-line finishing system to their bindery mix.
"I've seen in-line systems that have sat idle for weeks. With off-line, you have much more options," he feels. "You can change size formats from 120-page to eight-page books."
Also, off-line is less expensive to equip than in-line, and it is less expensive to makeready.
But what is important to remember is not to pit off-line against in-line, users say. "Each has their own niche. You have to look at who your customers are and what their needs are, and then gear your equipment effectively," adds Humphrey.
What is important to consider when purchasing an in-line system is whether or not it has the ability to grow and handle the increasing demand for products finished in-line.
"We see it as a growing market for us. When we look at purchasing an in-line finishing system, we seek systems that are modular and can be moved around. We also want equipment that is uniform and reliable. Ease-of-operation is also a factor in our decision," says Humphrey. "We are also looking for servo-driven components rather than shaft-driven components because they offer us more flexibility and reliability."
Humphrey notes that he tends to buy equipment off-the-shelf and then integrates those components in a proprietary fashion in order to meet Quebecor's needs.
Finally, realize that the best answer for your business may be a combination of both both in-line and off-line finishing systems.
Near-line Makes an Entrance
One area of the bindery that is growing is near-line finishing. It is being fueled by the digital printing market and the ever-growing demand by customers to get their work faster, cheaper and better.
Dennis James, manager of press planning and management for A.B.Dick Co., which owns the exclusive rights to market Watkiss Vario finishing and collating equipment in the United States, explains what near-line finishing is, as well as its benefits, challenges and future growth.
PI: What is a near-line finishing system?
James: A near-line system accepts printed sheets from the digital printer; adds additional sheets such as coated cover stocks, if required; and then passes the set through a bookletmaker and trimmer to produce a high-quality, finished booklet. It is unique because it can accept sequentially printed sets that are electronically collated, or it can function as a normal collator and bookletmaker for conventional, batch printed sets.
PI: Who benefits from using near-line finishing?
James: Since many printers will have both digital and litho printing capabilities, this offers clear benefits in terms of flexibility and cost-effective utilization of the equipment. The production rate for this type of near-line finisher means it will easily accept the output of several printing devices, including that from offset presses.
Often, printers are pleasantly surprised to discover that the cost of a near-line system is lower than an in-line alternative. It also requires less floor space and can be positioned wherever it is most convenient in the print room.
PI: What are the production benefits?
James: A near-line finisher offers the flexibility to add litho printed covers, on glossy or even laminated stocks, and digitally printed sets. It also allows the print production rate of the digital printer to be optimized according to the run length and pagination of the document.
Also, in order to finish a booklet in-line, 81⁄2x11˝ sheets must be printed portrait (short edge leading) so they are in the correct orientation to go into the finisher. However, most printers run faster if those same sheets are printed landscape (long edge leading). Near-line finishing allows the production rate to be optimized according to the printing parameters, without affecting the finishing process.
PI: What are near-line's challenges?
James: Customer perception is probably the most challenging; they assume that in-line is always the faster and cheaper finishing solution.
PI: How do you see this market segment growing?
James: Right now, quick, small- and mid-size commercial printers, as well as in-plant operations, are the ones using near-line finishing. But, the near-line segment will continue to grow.
The production rate of near-line finishers means it will easily accept the output of several printing devices, including from offset presses. Since many printers have both digital and litho print capability, this offers clear benefits in terms of flexibility and cost effective use of the equipment. In contrast, linking a finisher to a single digital printer appears to be very poor use of capital resources.
PI: What are the considerations to take into account when building a near-line system?
James: 1. Review production rates and determine how to optimize according to run length and pagination.
2. Discover what is the total capital outlay (in-line vs. near-line), and how many products does one unit serve.
3. Determine the floor space requirements.
4. Maximize capital outlay while meeting the finishing requirements of the entire print room: digital and offset litho, and sequentially and batch printed.