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Digital Finishing : Crossing the Finish Line

February 2010 By Erik Cagle
Senior Editor
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WHEN IT comes to digital printing, sometimes it's not so much about how much margin you earn, but how much you can avoid losing. And one's ability to skillfully maneuver digitally printed product through the binding and finishing process just may enable you to avoid a nasty kick in the pants as the completed job heads out the door.

It's like blowing a tire on the last lap of the Daytona 500—infuriating and oh-so costly, mainly because there are plenty of competitors nipping at your heels, ready to pass you by. But you need not be Jeff Gordon to appreciate the value of a short, compact and linear digital finishing workflow.

Larry Vaughn, president of Houston-based Ideal Printers, is one of the industry's deans of business card printing. They're a necessary evil and boast a fraction of the margin reaped from your typical church bake sale. "You don't sell business cards to maximize profit. You try to minimize your loss," Vaughn notes.

For Vaughn, it's all about bindery automation. Ideal's automated online ordering system and front-end prepress flow, which whisks PDFs through the proofer and onto press, are quick and painless, as is the actual printing. But finishing, in general, lends itself to human intervention, multiple touches, various operations...and costly errors.

"On the digital end, we've installed automated off-line perfect binders, three-knife trimmers and stitchers," he says. "More and more, companies are realizing that they need to automate their bindery functions to eliminate the touches, the steps throughout the shop. Nowadays, people don't want to spend money, but that type of investment allows you to streamline the process and save money."

Redundancy is also crucial for the times that machines go down, notes Vaughn. Jobs arrive when they arrive but, unfortunately, the delivery date is always static. With several presses, four folders, multiple diecutters and perfect binders, Ideal Printers boasts scheduling flexibility and can turn jobs around in short order.

For years there has been debate over the merits of in-line versus near-line and off-line finishing. But, as job run lengths and turn times continue to dwindle, more and more printers have opted to segregate finishing in a digital printing context. The variability of digital printing jobs makes off-line finishing the better call, contends Tom O'Brien, partner at AccuLink. A provider of sheetfed and web printing, in addition to digital output, Greenville, NC-based AccuLink has opted for the near-line finishing route.

AccuLink's finishing capabilities include collating, stitching, folding, trimming, perfect binding, plastic coil and Wire-O binding, diecutting, foil stamping, embossing and UV coating. Over the years, the shop has carved out a name for itself by producing certain products, such as index tabs, and now churns out ultra short-run, perfect bound books (with tabs) and short-run scratchoff goodies. A new, exciting application for the printer is the marriage of table tents with QR (Quick Response) codes.

Digital printing is gaining dominance. In 2010-speak, a long run tops out at a couple of thousand, notes O'Brien. "We're seeing lengths get shorter and shorter every day," he says. "And the turn times are getting shorter. Customers' expectations are increasing, but the amount they think they ought to pay is decreasing."

Another advocate for off-line binding/finishing is TecDoc Digital Solutions of Hudson, MA, a small digital shop that produces documents, manuals, booklets, case studies, collateral and direct mail. With custom short runs, off-line finishing provides the flexibility that TecDoc requires, according to CEO David Trombino. With some of its gear featuring computer controls, setup times are cut, providing more flexibility in the number of jobs and configurations that can be pumped through the shop simultaneously.

One of TecDoc's more unique applications is customized direct mail that is shaped relevant to the customer's campaign. "For example, if the client is selling cowboy boots, the mail piece could be diecut in the shape of a boot," Trombino says. "All it has to do is fit with a certain aspect ratio requirement that the USPS puts out."

Folds Caused Cracking

Technology quickly corrected many of the issues that accompany digital finishing. Trombino notes that TecDoc initially had difficulty with single- and double-folds cracking the toner on the color digital pieces—an aspect that several printers here noted. A number of printers, TecDoc included, turned to a Morgana auto creaser to solve the dilemma.

Mindful that the finishing of digital products requires equipment specific to those needs, Fresh Color Press, of Eden Prairie, MN, debuted in 2003 with the required gear. Still, diligent preparation during the ramp-up process can't fully anticipate the problems that may arise. Brian Johnson, Fresh Color's co-owner, notes the company found difficulty with lamination adhesion to heavy-coverage materials that bleed, a familiar foe to digital finishers. It was remedied either by using a heavier, thicker laminate or by using stick laminate.

Fresh Color finds that its finishing department is easily up to the task of handling output from its three Kodak NexPress and two Kodak Digimaster presses, thus the decision to go with an off-line finishing workflow. Post cards, self-mailers, booklets, point-of-sale materials, invitations and pressure-sensitive labels head a product category which Johnson calls general commercial digital printing.

It is cost-prohibitive for many small digital shops—a term inherently redundant, given the size of the typical digital specialist—to boast every piece of digital finishing gear for every need that may arise. That won't stop Johnson from striving to keep all work in-house.

"Since so much of what we do requires fast turns, there's no time to send jobs out to be finished," he says. "There's also so much cost relative to sending work out—gathering, packing, doing a PO, dropping off, waiting and picking it up. We have always, from day one, wanted to finish as much as we can. For us, it's a big point of differentiation.

"A lot of commercial litho printers typically only have one digital color press, and they're not as good at it because they're not immersed in it. They don't have the finishing equipment that we do. In digital printing, finishing capability can be a powerful point of differentiation."

Many print shops that offer digital are not dedicated ones, which is the case with Ripon Printers, the pride of Ripon, WI. According to Mike Thorson, prepress manager, Ripon currently relies on off-line finishing gear, but is looking to go near-line in order to serve both the offset and digital masters.

Ripon offers perfect binding, stitching, trimming and folding. Its most recent digital press acquisition was a Canon imagePRESS C6000VP. Among the items on Thorson's wish list are automated slitting/cutting/creasing, short-run binding and UV coating.

"The equipment we're looking at is primarily near-line, so it can be co-located with the digital presses and be used for multiple presses," he says. "Flexibility and cost are the driving factors." PI



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