Digital Finishing — Back End Boosters
By Erik Cagle
Digital printing, by all accounts, isn't what it was even two years ago. Likewise, any similarity between today's digital printing presses/output devices and short-term future technologies will be purely coincidental.
Scratch that last statement, for there's one notable exception: the quality of digital printing already has improved and is certainly on the fast track to mainstream acceptance for any type of job, not just those pigeonholed as "digital friendly" applications. More commercial applications are continuously being realized.
The masses have certainly gotten that point and are mobilizing the back end of the operation with equipment geared toward the finish line.
According to a TrendWatch Graphic Arts (TWGA) report released last October, "The Digital Bindery: Still Gathering a Full Head of Steam," 45 percent of on-demand digital printers planned bindery purchases in the next 12 months, compared to just 32 percent of commercial printers. In acquiring greater postpress capacity, notes the TWGA report, "anticipated benefits include reduction in labor expense, liability and privacy protection, reduced waste, improved turnaround, and better quality and quality control."
Prior to installing a Xerox iGen3 digital production press a year ago, White Plains, MD-based AGS—a member of the Consolidated Graphics (CGX) network—was declining at a rate of 2 percent annually. Since the iGen touched down, AGS' digital sales grew 100 percent and overall sales increased 12 percent. The company registered $30 million in total sales for 2004.
Digital Equipment Lineup
According to AGS' Adam Rutkowski, director of digital print, the company also boasts a pair of Canon imageRUNNERs and has tentative plans for another. Also pending for AGS was a C.P. Bourg BDF in-line bookletmaker for the iGen, slated to arrive in May. The real beauty of this stitcher/folder is its square-fold capability, according to Rutkowski, which allows users to square the spine for printing, then stapling.
"It's a great new feature we can offer our customers because it looks and lies like a perfect-bound book, but it really isn't," Rutkowski notes. "It also allows the option to print on the spine, which isn't possible on traditional saddlestitched books."
AGS currently has a C.P. Bourg BDF bookletmaker for in-line work on one of their imageRUNNERs. In terms of off-line capabilities, the company employs a Standard Horizon BQ270 perfect binder specifically for digital runs of 500 or less. Runs above that amount go on a Muller Martini Norm binder.
The company does a lion's share of perfect-bound titles for associations and small publishers, along with some degree of direct mail pieces. Looking ahead, AGS is hoping to leverage its variable data printing capabilities as a driver toward penetrating the healthcare and higher education markets.
Commercial Communications Inc. (CCI) traces its digital printing roots back to the early 1980s and currently counts a dozen high-speed Xerox printers and an Océ 9210 among its digital printing arsenal. CCI has served as a pilot site on the latter technology, and the company has earned a reputation as a leading print-on-demand provider.
In terms of digital bindery gear, CCI owns four bookletmakers for its cut sheet Xerox devices and a pair of in-line fusion punches, according to Steve Henck, vice president of production. "In the past, the majority of our finishing has been off-line. In order to reduce costs and turnaround times for our clients, we began adding in-line equipment," he says. "In addition, we've added continuous feed capabilities to better serve the book production needs of our clients. Now, CCI has the perfect mix of cut sheet and rollfed printing with both in-line and off-line perfect binding capabilities to effectively meet their needs."
Finishing Goes Digital
To bolster its print-on-demand capabilities, CCI acquired a Muller Martini AmigoDigital perfect binder that enables it to run variable size books from a rollfed system directly to the binder, which responds to the size and thickness of the book. As the book block goes into the binder, it automatically adjusts for the height, width and thickness of the book.
"With this technology, we can effectively produce quantities of one," Henck notes. "Next, we plan to add barcode readers to the perfect binder so that we can better accommodate individual covers at high speeds."
CCI produces a good deal of manuals for the manufacturing and publishing sectors, primarily owner's manuals, parts manuals, instruction guides and training materials.
According to Rob Hegwood, CCI executive vice president of production, the company is also testing an IBM continuous feed printer. He says the company is looking forward to the expansion of the Océ 9210's color capabilities, which plays into the needs of customized publishing. As the printing and binding capabilities branch out, so will CCI's ability to garner new markets.
"We are expanding into a variety of industries, including finance, insurance and government, giving us a well-rounded customer base," Hegwood notes. "When the markets dropped off in 2001, CCI was able to survive one of the worst recessions in print industry history because we realized early on that it's not just about ink on paper. Our investment in e-commerce solutions and equipment to drive print-on-demand and just-in-time inventory management applications allowed us to effectively bundle our services into value packages that create complete solutions, lowering our clients' total costs of ownership in their information distribution processes."
Four on the Radar
SCI Image, of Carlstadt, NJ, addresses four markets: transactional, one-to-one, print management and short-run paperback books. A pair of HP Indigo presses, a 3050 and a 5000, are complemented by a trio of Digimasters from NexPress Solutions. Two Heidelberg saddlestitchers are in-line with the Digimasters. Also on the finishing end is a Standard Horizon perfect binder with three-knife trimmer and tower, and a Horizon StitchLiner. The off-line arsenal also includes an MBO folder and a GBC laminator.
Enhancements to the Indigo 3050—ink laydown durability, vibrancy and a wider variety of substrate choices—has catapulted the digitally printed output onto a level with its commercial offset counterpart, according to SCI President Burt Scherman. "I don't have to apologize because I'm producing it digitally," he says. "I give a client what they're looking for or even better. That opens up the whole market; in the past, you couldn't do a lot of digital jobs because the quality wasn't there or the cost per piece was too high.
"In each case, we find that the cost is coming down and the quality that is achieved is commercially acceptable, if not better in some cases."
One-to-one marketing is easily the hottest, leading growth product for SCI Image, which came up with its own software solution to show end users how to get the most out of the concept. In a 90-day span, SCI sold the software to 15 of the 20 customers it was demonstrated to—no small miracle for software that normally takes six months to sell, Scherman notes.
"Everybody in marketing needs to grow their business," he says. "There are two kind of customers you're really calling on: print management—short run, transactional—and the other half is taking advantage of the technology on the marketing end. When we're calling on a marketing department, it's a lot different than calling on a print buying department.
"For marketing groups, this is all brand new and helps them manage their printing and marketing budgets in a way that they've never seen before," he adds. "It's astonishing to see the excitement in customers' faces and how quickly they respond to it. When you say one-to-one, everyone knows what it means, but everyone doesn't know what to do with it. We've made it easier for them."