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Digital Finishing : Find Your (In, Off, Near) Line

Erik Cagle, Senior Editor

June 2012
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It doesn’t take Nostradamus to foresee the future of mainstream printing. While we’re a long way off from saying the offset press belongs in a museum more than it does in your shop—no need to advertise it on craigslist just yet—it is safe to say that digital production presses are capturing more mind share than ever before, a trend that certainly figures to continue.

Anyone who attended drupa last month can attest to this, as most of the buzz surrounded digital printing, particularly inkjet devices and Benny Landa’s nanographic printing process (a good deal of the offerings have an ETA of 12 to 18 months). Even the offset press manufacturers are getting in on the act by adding inkjet heads onto their iron in order to accommodate hybrid short runs and personalization, the bread and butter of digital’s value proposition.

This, of course, is the driving force behind how printers situate their finishing equipment with digital presses. The in-line, off-line or near-line debate is anything but a debate, but it is interesting to note the configurations and the rationale behind them, as they vary from printer to printer.

Take Bookmasters, a full-service provider to the publishing community based in Ashland, OH. Ray Sevin, president of manufacturing services and a 30-year veteran of the company, points out that his firm relies on offset and digital printing, with the average digital press run ranging between 200 and 500 copies. All runs under 1,000 are produced digitally, with offset handling quantities in excess.

On the offset end, the average perfect-bound run is 3,000 to 3,500. Case binding is also used on both digital and offset jobs. While Bookmasters’ total number of titles produced sees a 50/50 split between the printing methods, about 80 percent of billing is ticketed offset due to run lengths.

About a year ago, Bookmasters installed the scalable Muller Martini SigmaLine, which can produce 1,000 fully variable length, width and thickness books per hour. Bookmasters prefers to go the in-line route due to schedule and labor savings, but also relishes the flexibility provided by near-line finishing gear.

“We have other Muller Martini equipment; several years ago, we installed the Diamant casing-in line for our offset division,” Sevin explains. “We were very impressed with that installation.”

Bookmasters prides itself on true print-on-demand capabilities and the ability to effectively and efficiently produce one-off titles. With the SigmaLine, Sevin says the machine brought both variable trim and barcode reader capabilities to the table.

“The primary enhancement for us is the fact we were not using it as just a stand-alone binder. We were using it in-line with our printer,” Sevin notes. “We can produce product from blank roll paper all the way through to bound book, as well as using it as a stand-alone, near-line binder for other products.”

Bringing Order to Chaos

Sometimes, binding equipment can help bring order and efficiency to scenarios that have the potential to be chaotic. Prestone Printing, based in Long Island City, NY, found a unifying influence with its purchase of a Duplo DC-745 slitter/cutter/creaser and a Duplo DSF-3500 full-bleed bookletmaker.

Prestone Printing is an offset, digital and large-format boutique commercial shop that generates $23 million in annual revenues. It digitally produces business cards, brochures, folders, business reply cards, tickets and direct mail pieces, with saddlestitching and perfect binding capabilities. Near-line finishing is the configuration of choice for the Long Island printer.

“Until recently, we would print 200 digital jobs a day and go to the cutters, folders, stitchers,” explains Ira Wechsler, vice president of operations for Prestone Printing. “But we found that we were running short on most jobs.

“Since purchasing the Duplo slitter and stitcher, waste is down to a minimum,” he adds. “We’ve also found that it is so much quicker and there’s no chance of packaging errors. I love that we can print, slit and pack with one person.”

Sometimes, finishing equipment is just too quick to be integrated in-line with a digital press. That was the case with Mail Print, a 24-year-old Kansas City, MO-based operation that generates—you guessed it—personalized direct mail along with saddlestitched and perfect-bound books. The shop has essentially been doing variable data printing since 1992, when it first started sending out postcards for an area realtor, and President Eric Danner relates the company has become extremely adept at digital work, which touches 95 percent of the items produced by Mail Print.

“Virtually everything we print is personalized in some way,” he says. “We might print color shells offset and just put black variable printing on it, or the whole piece might be four-color variable. But, it’s very rare that we print a static piece that goes in the mail.”

Digital printing rolls off a quartet of HP Indigo presses and an HP T200 inkjet web press at Mail Print. Danner believes that the off-line finishing process has inherent advantages over in-line production. “If the press stops, then the bindery stops. So why tie the two together?” he relates. “In the case of the bindery line we installed, it runs twice as fast as the web press. So, if I was running the press all the time, I’d still be under-utilizing the bindery line.”

Long runs are an exception, not the rule, for Mail Print when it comes to direct mail production. The printer churns out between 20 and 30 jobs per day with an aggregate total of about 200,000 pieces. A long run length might touch the 50,000 range, according to Danner.

Mail Print relies heavily on Standard Finishing for its digital postpress work. A roll-to-fold line features the Standard Hunkeler UW6 unwinder, DP6-II Dynamic perforator, CS6-II cutter, Standard Horizon AF-566F/T-564 folder and the PSX-56 presser/stacker. A second line consists of the HOF sheet feeder and StitchLiner saddlesticher, which feeds digitally printed sets and produces saddlestitched booklets.

An interesting benefit Mail Print has reaped is the publication work it has gained since installing the HP T200 and bindery line, which has resulted in short-run black-and-white and short-run color booklets. “With our bindery line, we can easily fold those into signatures and print collated signatures, which is something we didn’t anticipate doing,” Danner notes. 

“The intention was to do direct mail pieces with perfs in them. The way we structured the bindery line, we can now print up to 20-page signatures, fold those and end up with collated book blocks.” PI




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