Open Enrollment | Subscribe to Printing Impressions HERE
Follow us on

Process Optimization — Makereadies Mean Money

March 2008 By Mark Smith
Technology Editor
PRINT RUNS are getting shorter. Everyone in the industry now takes that as a given, but what does it mean? Is a short run in the hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands? The answer varies depending on the piece and the platform used to print it.

One thing that is clear: A trend toward shorter runs at any level requires producing more jobs to achieve the same sales volume. Printers need to have highly efficient technology and processes in place to maximize their revenue and profits from this business. They must be able to get more jobs on and off a press per shift.

Makeready efficiency on conventional offset presses can now be increased by the addition of ink-key presetting, automated plate changing, color control and other technological advances. There is still a competitive break-even point for sheetfed offset, though, perhaps 5,000 sheets or even less.

Digital offset presses (DI for machines using Presstek technology) have been positioned as the ink-based solution for shorter runs of static printed pieces. These devices extend the cost-effective range of offset printing to even lower runs by imaging plate materials directly on the press and using waterless printing to cut makeready times.

All-digital devices--using toner, liquid ink or, increasingly, ink-jet imaging--are the undisputed kings of short runs, but they are, first and foremost, positioned as a solution for variable data marketing. Even though it still accounts for the majority of pages output on such devices, doing static work is almost seen as failing.

This article will focus on the shortest of the short runs because this segment has the tightest makeready requirements, and the lessons learned are broadly applicable.

Universal Lithographers, in Sheboygan, WI, was running two 40?, six-color MAN Roland 706 sheetfed presses with aqueous coating units, but was getting requests from some customers to do shorter run work. Those presses are relatively modern (the newest was installed in 2000) and equipped with makeready enhancers such as QuickStart, automatic plate loading and remote-controlled inking.

"We had maximized their makeready potential," says Jerry Keller, executive vice president. "We try to keep the minimum run to 12,000 full sheets because, on a 40? press, that's what you need to break even."

Clients Push for Digital

The company, which has 42 employees, serves a high-end customer base, so its standard output is four-plus colors with a 200 line screen, and it produces a lot of 300 line screen work. "We were being pushed by our clients for a digital offering," Keller notes, "but we did not have a demand for variable printing. We needed high-quality short-run capability."

A typical case is a customer that produces catalogs in longer runs throughout the year, but then needs just 1,000 or so additional copies for a special event. Telling the customer "no" was unacceptable, Keller says, so the company first tried covering those runs with its 40? presses, at a loss. Subsequent attempts to outsource the work for all-digital printing didn't meet Universal's quality standards.

The printer rejected the idea of installing a new half-size or even smaller sheetfed press with all the latest automation because of the cost compared to a new 40? model and the relatively large footprint. Ultimately, Universal's short-run search led it to install a Presstek 52DI digital offset press last summer, which is now producing runs from 500 to 15,000 sheets or more.

Critical to that decision is the ability to match the DI's output to the shop's 40? presses, including running a 300 line screen, PMS colors and metallics, Keller says. The company is taking that match to the point of getting G7 color control certification for both its MAN Roland 700s and the 52DI.

Nu Graphics' answer for the short-run market starts with its 28?, five-color Komori 528c press with aqueous coater, which features ink-key presetting and semi-automatic plate mounting. Nu Graphics extends the run length range over which it can be competitive even lower by running a Heidelberg DI Plus digital offset press and, for the shortest jobs, it relies on an HP Indigo all-digital platform. The 18-person shop currently is running an HP Indigo 5500 and 5000 to produce runs as small as 25 copies.

According to owner Wayne Moda, the printer handles more than 350 jobs a month. For static printing work, the break-even point between the HP Indigos and the DI is said to be around 2,000 sheets (one-sided), he notes, but Nu Graphics has pushed it to 3,000 or even 4,000 sheets, if a client needs the work on a rush basis. Otherwise, the Komori starts to be competitive in that run-length range.

Looking at the count alone isn't sufficient to determine the best platform, Moda continues. Coverage area, solid colors and other factors need to be considered.

Using color management and profiles enables Nu Graphics to get a color match in the 90 to 95 percent range between its HP Indigo and offset platforms. "Sometimes I think we get the digital sheet looking even better than the offset sheet," he adds.

All static work is sent through the shop's EFI Velocity OneFlow workflow to generate PDFs that are sent to the RIP of the target output device. For a couple of customers that do a fair amount of reprint work, Nu Graphics has set up online-ordering systems tied to files kept ready to go on the RIP.

The company has also built its own management information system to help manage the job load and is developing an electronic scheduling system. Moda says his ultimate goal is to put up a big-screen display like at an airport but, for now, the shop uses one of its large-format ink-jet printers to output a 40x60? sheet each morning with the day's production schedule.

Andrew Fuld, president and owner of 4 Color Press (4CP) in Fort Worth, TX, has taken a different approach. "We see plenty of printers that have short-run capabilities, but they still have the same old mentality and cultures. It doesn't matter if they're producing 250 or 20,000 copies of something, they still put it through all of the same tedious procedures of days gone by," he observes.

Fuld looked to optimize his company for short-run production and 24-hour turnaround from the start, having founded the company in 2004 with one Heidelberg DI press. Around that time, he sold his ownership stake in Printer Presence, so it's no surprise that Fuld is a proponent of the Web-to-print workflow. 4CP has customized the technology to be its customer- facing solution.

Major DI Transition

The shop has since grown into a 16-person operation with two DI presses, but it's now in the midst of a major transition. Those presses are being sold to two employees who are starting their own shops and being replaced by a Heidelberg Speedmaster 52 press configured with the new Anicolor inking system in a four-color plus coater configuration.

By making plates ahead of time and staging them, Fuld says his company's evaluation of the Ani-color technology found that it will be able to cut its on-press makeready process from the current 18 minutes and 100 or 200 wasted sheets to get good color, down to seven minutes and sellable color within the first 15 sheets. The new press will also give 4CP greater format flexibility, he adds.

Otherwise, Fuld doesn't expect the shop's operations to change much. It will still target runs from about 280 to 14,000 sheets, but may be able take on some longer-run, fill-in work for the Speedmaster 52.

"With the color calibration we do in our workflow, the offset process has become very easy for us to manage. Our process is so short and succinct that there's very little room for messing up," asserts the company president.

For a variety of reasons, all three printing executives agree that it's not practical to treat makereadies for short-run work as a profit opportunity by enforcing charges--for preflighting, file fixing, proofs, etc.--that might be included with other work.

"Some of our jobs can be so small, even just a couple hundred dollars. So how much more can you hit clients up for fixing a file?" Moda asks rhetorically.

"We get more money from feeding the press," concludes Fuld. PI

Companies Mentioned:












Click here to leave a comment...
Comment *
Most Recent Comments: