In vs. off (line) — A "Fight" to the Finish
BY CHERYL A. ADAMS
There are two sides to every story. And, likewise, the pros and cons, the pluses and minuses, the advantages and drawbacks. Whatever you call them, where there is one, there is the other. Good and bad have coexisted since the beginning of time.
And so it is with the story of in-line and off-line finishing: There are advantages and drawbacks to using each technology and trade offs—speed vs. specialty finishing, high-volume price break vs. value-added extras—that ultimately go with the business...the business of web press finishing, either in- or off-line.
But the finishing business is good these days—booming, in some markets, namely direct mail—and disadvantages inherent in each technology are simply absorbed into the operation and accepted as part of the nature of the business itself.
Speed vs. Value-added
For example, web offset printers that want to run at full press speeds and whose products do not require complicated finishing, such as binding, diecutting or labeling, are likely to use in-line systems. Those more complicated applications are best left to off-line systems, where the process can be performed at the speed intended, without tying up press time.
Thus, in-line has the advantage of running at full press speed, while off-line finishing is a slower, more labor-intensive process.
But that same analysis can also be looked at another way: Off-line offers the advantage of performing the "tricks," the value-added (imaging, labeling, kiss-cutting, onserting), while in-line has the distinct disadvantage of being a costly capital investment that must run at full speed to be cost-effective and, therefore, does not provide the flexibility of an off-line system.
Traditionally, in-line finishing systems have afforded the advantages of speed, volume, automation, consistency and reduced labor costs. But, with the boom in direct mail marketing, flexibility is an important key.
Print customers are demanding more value-added products, which require off-line assembly. Also, direct mail marketers, who routinely update vertical data and name lists for timely mail drop campaigns, require the types of customization and personalization that can be provided only through off-line finishing.
"The key is that direct mail clients always want the best names, that is, the latest and up-to-date name list, where they've keyed in on demographics and they're getting the better return on their mail projects. The ability to update regularly is done off-line," says Bob Barthen, vice president of non-imaged products at the Quebecor World Direct Division.
"The ability to cut, fold, glue and personalize in-line [Quebecor World Direct also runs more than 25 in-line systems] has proved to be very profitable for us," Barthen adds. "But, it's the flexibility of off-line that represents the major boom in our business. The ability to get to the end customer at the last minute through personalization is one of the major advantages of off-line—its enormous flexibility."
Quebecor World Direct runs three off-line systems, which provide the entire gamut of finishing capabilities. "Everything you can imagine...folding, cutting, stacking, perfing, diecutting, gluing, imaging, personalization," says Dwaine Kin- derknecht, vice president and division manager, noting that Quebecor World Direct has "the most high-tech off-line systems in the world: double-web off-lines, with up to 76˝ between two webs, and multiple, dual-cutoff capabilities."
Kinderknecht says in-line finishing gives Quebecor World Direct the ability to finish, personalize and go direct to mail—all in one, in-line process and at full press speed.
The major difference between running an in-line and off-line system, notes Kinderknecht, is the cost savings. "In-line is fairly costly to set up. It may take eight to 10 hours on the full blown in-line process, but there is a shorter makeready on the incremental runs using off-line." Thus, the cost of the initial makeready of the press run is offset by the shorter and less expensive makereadies off-line, says Barthen.
"Off-line provides the advantage of quicker makereadies, because there is no downtime waiting for the press line and its makereadies, which are more time-consuming and costly," adds Kinderknecht. "With off-line, you have the advantage of not having to worry about the printing or the expensive downtime of the press. And considering that the press is the major capital expenditure, it's also the one that is most costly when sitting idle."
However, Kinderknecht warns that one of the drawbacks of off-line finishing is trying to determine the right amount of press impressions for off-line makereadies and not having too much waste or too little product.
"You'll print the total quantity on-press, and each time the job goes off-line, you experience makeready waste. If you go off-line several times, and you haven't calculated enough overproduct, you'll be short on product due to makeready waste," says Barthen. "You don't want to find out that you're short and then have to go back on-press."
"With in-line, you don't have to run additional product; there's no off-line setup, so there's no additional waste factor," explains John Trentman, engineering manager at RRD Direct—another major user of both in-line and off-line finishing systems. "Whereas with off-line, you're generating more waste because you have to produce overruns to make sure you have enough product in the end, after the off-line makereadies.
"You always need overruns, and there's not the overrun issue with in-line," Trentman continues. "But there is also higher waste in makeready when running in-line."
Another attribute of running in-line, according to Trentman, "Once you're up and running, you come up with a product that goes directly into the mail or into a lettershop to be inserted into an envelope. There are no delays with in-line."
Whereas with off-line, the operation is roll-to-roll, then to the finishing line, "so there is a delay," Trentman says, "but even with the delay, off-line is still more economical. With in-line, your press is waiting while the finishing line is being set up, or vice versa, the finishing line is waiting while the press is being set up.
"With off-line, you set the press up and as the product comes off, you put it on the finishing line, which isn't waiting for the press. It's both a makeready and cost savings," Trentman explains. "With in-line, there's a large amount of capital waiting for the other line to get set up. The finishing equipment is either waiting while the press is being set up, or the press is waiting for the finishing line. Both take time to get ready, often an average of two to five hours for either process—and that's a lot of capital being tied up."
At RRD Direct, that capital expenditure is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, invested across 17 finishing lines—11 in-line systems (several of which are dual-webs) and six off-line finishing lines. Trentman says both types of finishing lines have been customized with equipment from most major manufacturers.
"We're an equal opportunity buyer," quips Trentman. "Using various different setups, we can do just about anything. We can personalize with ink-jet, apply remoist and integrated labels, scratch-off coatings, diecuts, overprint varnishes. You name it. We have equipment that does it all. We can even bring another web in to do a wraparound product and also full bleeds."
The finishing lines at RRD Direct are designed to produce the various value-added products needed for direct mail, Trentman notes. "We do a lot of development work to stay current in this area. Much of our equipment is proprietary and one of a kind, customized equipment. On most lines, we can run either single or dual ink-jet personalization."
All the off-lines are variable size, which according to Trentman, can be rapidly reconfigured to run a different comp size—another obvious plus to using the technology.
In the great debate between in-line and off-line, "it all evolves around the issue of time and dollars. With shorter to medium runs, it's cheaper to go off-line; it's more cost efficient to do longer runs in-line, when running in the millions," says Trentman.
As the direct mail market grows—and it's growing dramatically—Trentman says, customers will ask for additional features to be finished into their products. "At RRD Direct, we're sold on finishing lines and will continue buying both in- and off-line equipment," says Trentman. "We'll develop more in-lines for wraparound products [where the envelope is formed around the product, then it goes direct to mail] and more off-lines for additional value-added features."
Quebecor World Direct, RRD Direct and Banta have been highly successful in their in-line and off-line finishing operations. However, much of that success is not the result of providing the print customer with an either-or choice. It's not a question of in-line "vs." off-line, but rather a combination of the two.
As in any relationship, where there are two "sides," there is also the possibility of a union—an agreement or arrangement that is acceptable to both. Such "complementary arrangements" have been the basis of recent finishing success stories for printers like Quebecor World Direct, RRD Direct and Banta, which have discovered the secret of a happy "marriage" between the two technologies.
By offering in-line and off-line capabilities, Barthen says Quebecor Direct has been able to price itself strategically. "Finishing is extremely customer-driven, with multiple changes and larger amounts of product, our ability to meet those needs in-line or off-line has been a big part of our success."
Here's how the combination in-line/off-line finishing process works:
Large quantities of a product are run on-press at full press speeds, and the product is then personalized off-line, later, at subsequent mailing dates. According to Barthen, this not only allows the customer to print the best (latest) names, but the customer also gets a break on price. Because in-line jobs are based on quantity, later mail drops (where the preprinted rolls are simply updated) do not cost as much in makeready and take less time.
This happy marriage of in-line and off-line finishing systems is attracting the attention of other major web offset printers who are currently running only in-line systems. Such is the case with Livonia, MI-based Valassis Communications, where Division Plant Manager Aaron Trager says his company has been looking into the in-line/off-line finishing process.
"With in-line/off-line finishing, you rewind the product on a roll and, then, on a separate finishing line, you can finish at the speeds you need, which are slower than full press speed," Trager explains. "Such a system would allow you to do extended makeready off-line vs. tying the press up for an extended period of time," he notes.
So, in doing its background research, Valassis Communications is investigating the potential marriage of its in-line capabilities with new off-line possibilities. Trager says the firm is currently speaking with several European printers who are using in-line/off-line systems.
Likewise, Quebecor World Direct and RRD Direct claim they are creating value for their customers by investing millions of dollars in in-line and off-line finishing systems.
As a "master finisher," one that boasts some of the most high-tech in-line and off-line equipment in the world, Kinderknecht says Quebecor World Direct has an even grander plan for the future.
"We're creating a mega-facility that will offer one-stop in-line/off-line finishing—from electronic imaging, outputting of plates, to printing, to finishing, to personalization, to lettershop to inserting components and mailing it—all under one roof," he says. The new facility (already operational at the Effingham, IL, division) is adding more equipment and should be "fully operational" as a one-stop shop this summer.
So, there you have it. In the great debate over in-line vs. off-line finishing, printers like Quebecor World Direct and RRD Direct have found the secret of a successful union of the two. By marrying the two technologies, the "vs." has been taken out of the equation. By employing combined in-line/off-line finishing systems, these printers are on their way to enjoying the "happily ever after" of graphic arts success.
A Dual Perspective . . .
Objectively speaking—as a manufacturer of both in-line and off-line finishing systems—Kim Markovich, vice president of North American sales and marketing at Western Printing Machinery (WPM), says there are pros and cons inherent to using each type of system.
However, the debate over in-line vs. off-line is not simply a matter of advantages and disadvantages, Markovich cautions. It's more a matter of what a web printer is trying to accomplish, what market he's trying to capture.
"Whether a printer uses off-line or in-line finishing depends on the type of 'tricks' it wants to perform," Markovich reports, explaining that tricks include "extensive, equipment-intensive finishing applications such as diecutting pressure-sensitive labels, kiss-cuts, labeling and onserting, as well as digital or direct imaging products."
"Printing personalized names and messages takes time," he says. "Those systems don't run very fast compared to the press, so you want to do personalization off-line. Imaging speeds might be at a maximum of 1,000 fpm vs. in-line press speeds as high as 2,000 fpm or better. So why install a costly imaging system in-line? It will only hold up your press."
Since various finishing functions can slow press speeds, Markovich says the more finishing a printer does, the more he's apt to consider an off-line system.
"Simple products—those that require only simple folding, simple perfs, simple cutting, etc.—are done in-line for speed. More complex products are done off-line. When you want speed: in-line. When you want complexity, creativity, the tricks: off-line," Markovich says.
High, value-added finishing vs. speed and volume: That's the major difference between using in-line or off-line systems, he emphasizes. But describing the differences in the two technologies is not the same as pointing out the pluses and minuses.
Below, Markovich gives a thumbs-up (advantages) and thumbs-down (disadvantages) critique of the processes.
In-line: Can finish at full press speeds for high-volume products that require only simple finishing.
Off-line: More complicated finishing is done at slower speeds. However . . .
Off-line: At slower speeds, complicated finishing can be done at the appropriate speed for each finishing application.
Off-line: Personalization and other value-added products, which are used for direct mail (a booming market!), are the most complicated—but also the most profitable finishing applications.
In-line: For every press, there has to be an in-line finishing system. If you have four presses, you need to have four in-line systems.
Off-line: You can have multiple presses printing roll-to-roll to supply one off-line system, so capital expense is much lower. Four in-lines vs. one off-line.
Off-line: Off-lines can be made with variable-size cutoffs, so if you have two presses and both have different cutoffs, you can finish in those cutoff sizes.
In-line: You can't do variable cutoffs unless you have a variable-size press. You have to have the line sized to match the press cutoff. However, shaftless, variable size, in-line systems are now being manufactured to match variable-size presses.
In-line: Operators are running both the presses and in-lines. One crew for each complete printing/finishing line.
Off-line: A crew is required for the press and for the off-line system. Employee base is higher than in-line.
In-line: Takes up more space; an in-line system doubles the footprint of the press.
Off-line: The system can be put in another part of the room or building, or in another building entirely.
Off-line: "If you have off-line, you can support it from other facilities," Markovich says. "Donnelley, Quebecor and Banta all have a central facility with off-line systems, and they feed those systems from various parts of the country. This allows them to manufacture their jobs regionally and finish their production centrally in one facility."
Traditionally, Markovich says, web offset printers run in-line finishing systems for speed, volume, automation, consistency and reduced labor costs. However, noting a recent interest in off-line finishing systems, he reports that many of the larger web printers (currently using in-line systems) are now looking at off-line possibilities.
As an example, he cites such heavy hitters as Quebecor World Direct, which runs three high-tech off-line systems, including a double web that is one of the most advanced units in the world. He says the company also recently installed a single web, off-line system. It's a variable-sized, modular system that allows for five cutoff sizes, ranging from 17˝ to 28˝.
He also makes special note of RRD Direct, which runs six off-line systems. The equipment is one of a kind and has been customized for RRD Direct's use.
Both RRD Direct and Quebecor Direct are getting the best of both worlds by combining their off-line and in-line capabilities to create in-line/off-line systems that are designed for manufacturing direct mail products. This innovative process allows large volumes of product to be run upfront in-line and, later, finished off-line with updated names and personalized information to meet targeted mail drop dates.
As the in-line/off-line trend continues to attract the attention of major printers, Markovich says he has no doubt that even more advantages will be discovered and, thus, greater advancements will be made in the finishing process overall.