Serving High-End Clientele: Digital Press Output Quality
Earlier this year, Unisource commissioned a report on the state of digital printing that got a lot of people talking. The report, titled simply, "The Digital Printing Survey," details respondents' perception of digital print quality, its comparison to offset and how well their presses handle a variety of production issues.
In the results, what stood out to many was the discrepancy between the 86 percent of respondents who are "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the image quality of their presses and the much lower percentages who are satisfied with the ability of their presses to handle color matching, achieve print consistency, and handle basic production elements like spot colors, gradients and fine detail consistently and easily. In fact, "getting consistent print quality" was the second highest production challenge, with 30 percent giving this answer.
In other words, digital presses are capable of outstanding quality, but achieving that quality isn't a given for everyone.
For this issue, we decided to take a look at four digital print shops targeting the high-end market, and how they meet and exceed their customers' expectations. There are a few common threads, but it is interesting how each company tailors its approach to its own personality, its target market and even its geographic location.
Value of Offset Printing Experience
For McArdle Solutions, a G7 Master Printer-qualified printer in Upper Marlboro, MD, achieving peak quality comes down to three things: managing expectations at the outset of the job (a formal process that the company puts significant effort into); hiring operators with significant offset experience; and giving those operators control over the device maintenance.
"It helps tremendously with the quality of output if the operator understands print," says Lisa Arsenault, president of McArdle Solutions, which operates an HP Indigo 7600 six-color plus white and an Océ ColorStream 10000 Flex. "Our Océ operator was a web pressman and our vice president of operations has run everything from a proofing press to full cold and heatset web presses, including our 10-color manroland. He created our SOPs that apply to all of our devices regardless of whether they are offset or digital. These are very skilled pressmen."
With the right people at the controls, McArdle then hands the responsibility for the press maintenance to the one who knows the press best—the one running it. Issues are handled on an as-needed basis.
With the presses in competent hands, McArdle is intentional about educating its customers on how specific job elements and techniques play out in a digital world. Whether produced in-house or by third parties, McArdle uses samples to show clients the impact of different processes, techniques and substrates so they can see what their designs will actually look like and how much it would cost to produce the effects they are looking for.
"Mohawk, for example, has done an amazing job of showing the same image on [seemingly] every digital device that's out there," says Arsenault. "It's a really effective tool, and I use it all the time." She also compliments Dscoop, the HP user group, on its Wire-O sample book that shows digital output on a variety of different substrates. "It demonstrates to our clients—here is opaque white, here is clear ink. We can sit down and show them what happens when you are actually using these techniques."
In 2013, McArdle produced a calendar to showcase a specific set of techniques and substrates not available in other sample books. What would digital look like on magnet? On pearlescent? What happens when you use opaque white? "Often, techniques on digital presses are promoted without the corresponding realism about what it takes to accomplish them," Arsenault says. "We used opaque white in the calendar and had to do eight hits to get what we wanted. If this had been a client job, it would have been very expensive. Tools like this give us something to show and discuss upfront."
In the end, McArdle provides parameters before it makes promises. "We lay it out for customers, so it's crystal clear to them about what they will get. I explain that there can be variance, and what that variance means. I won't pull the trigger until they nod and say, 'Okay, I'm good with that.' "
Know What Your Audience Requires
For Naples Print Source in Naples, FL, "High quality" starts with an understanding of how the end recipient determines quality, then purchasing a machine with the specs to meet it.
"Our market is very unique," notes Blase Ciabaton, owner of Naples Print Source. "Collier County (FL) is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, but it is a quiet, understated wealth. We print for local businesses and a lot of nonprofits. Our customers tend to be the charity boards these wealthy people serve on, the financial planners that service them and the country clubs they belong to."
Many of the wealthy residents live there seasonally. When in town, they may receive 50 or 100 invitations to different charity events. Mail sent to this audience really has to stand out.
For Ciabaton, this means substrates. Any press he invested in needed to print on a wide variety of substrates, including textured paper, uncoated paper and synthetic stocks (for high-end menus). It also needed to produce output that would withstand sophisticated folding and scoring used in may of his clients' invitations. This pointed him to MGI USA and its Meteor XL digital press.
The MGI press offers several unique features that address the needs of this marketing, including:
- non-silicone-based toners, which reduce cracking issues on the fold
- vacuum technology, which presses toner down into the textured areas and creates more of an offset look
- ability to print directly on envelopes
- self-service maintenance model that allows his press operators to do their own maintenance
- 13x40˝ printing area
The digital press gives operators a lot of flexibility to do what they believe needs to be done, even changing temperature settings as necessary to adjust color or saturation. "If someone gives us the native files, we can adjust the screen ourselves," says Ciabaton. "We've had ad agencies do that before."
Now that the MGI digital press is installed, Ciabaton gives operators the freedom to do maintenance as needed. He also encourages ongoing communication with customers to strategize when design elements could introduce potential problems and suggests appropriate workarounds.
Ciabaton is also a believer in using hard-copy proofs so that clients know exactly what they will be getting before the job goes to press. "I know hard-copy proofs are old-fashioned and time-consuming, but there are customers to whom I won't deliver a job unless they've seen a hard-copy proof," he says. "We also give people options. We'll say here are three paper types, with the job printed on each one. I might do one on 80-lb. Cougar, 100-lb. Cougar, and one on Neenah Stipple. I want them to put their hands on it before I drop off 1,000 of them. The extra effort might seem like a pain on the front end, but it pays off."
Ensure That Files Are Set Up Properly
For CDS Global, which runs an iGen3 color digital press using the Xerox Process Manager workflow, optimizing digital output quality starts with file setup. It hands out Xerox-supplied materials on designing for digital print, then its in-house staff looks at individual files to ensure they are set up properly.
"We might suggest using vector art instead of raster images, expanding the physical distance of a gradient, or decreasing the color range within the specified gradient to prevent banding," explains Joel Newcomb, operations manager, cross-media communications. "These tricks give you better output, and we help customers use them to gain the best possible result."
CDS Global also places a lot of trust in its operators, bringing in people with 10+ years of printing experience on offset presses. "They understand color, know how to utilize the tools provided at the RIP, and have a strong understanding of how substrates impact the end result," he says.
Newcomb also believes that someone who is used to running an offset press will naturally take the same care on a digital press to make sure the output is the highest level possible. That's why 80 to 85 percent of press maintenance in CDS Global's Cross-Media Communications division is done in-house. "Our operators are given a tremendous amount of control over what they do, when they do it, and how they choose to do it in relation to some kind of artifact or degradation in the image quality," Newcomb notes. "They proof the job and, if it meets quality expectations, they run it. If not, they start troubleshooting."
While many people argue that you cannot make the same level of adjustment to the output of a digital press job that you can with offset, Newcomb disagrees. "In some ways, you have a greater range of control," he contends. "When you adjust an offset ink fountain, you'll only affect a specific area—linear in the process direction. With the Xerox iGen, you can adjust tonal curves or separation curves like you do in Photoshop—any one of the process colors on the sheet anywhere in the shadows, midtones or highlights of that particular separation. You can adjust raster images and vector Pantone graphics individually on the page."
Another factor that many people miss in the digital press quality equation, Newcomb points out, is pressroom environment. At CDS Global, digital print jobs are always run in a room that is 70 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit and 35 to 40 percent humidity. "Lots of companies struggle with image quality artifacts, consistent quality and consistent color because they don't make the investment in air conditioning or a good humidification system," he says.
Another overlooked factor is digital stocks. Despite the emphasis on many presses' ability to run offset stocks, CDS Global believes in using #1 and #2 digital sheets. "You spend a little more, but you make that back multiple times over by not upsetting or losing a client and by maximizing your productivity," Newcomb believes.
The Right Digital Presses, Finishing Gear
At Fresh Color Press, just outside of Minneapolis, half of the company's business is marketing collateral and direct marketing materials, and the other half is large-format UV. All of it is digital. Clients tend to be ad agencies, design firms, and small- and medium-sized corporations with in-house creative capabilities.
Fresh Color Press was started in 2003 with a single Kodak NexPress. Since then, it has added four more NexPresses, and it still uses a PDF workflow and the NexPress front end.
Key to servicing the high-end market, says Brian Johnson, president of Fresh Color Press, is technology. This starts with the press, but also includes finishing equipment. Fresh Color's digital bindery includes a Duplo Ultra 205A UV coater, a Standard Horizon StitchLiner 5500 with plow folding and Bourg perfect binder with in-line three-knife trimmer. Its equipment is designed for the unique needs of digital output and has lots of extras, such as an automated folder with a three-head fugitive glue system, automated punching, corner-rounding and five-hole drilling.
The shop also has toner-based envelope printers that print excellent color and allow addressing at the same time.
Fresh Color Press tends to hire younger people with little actual printing experience. "They often come from a prepress background, so they understand color, print files and RIPs," according to Johnson. "Or they have really good electro-mechanical aptitude—sort of gear heads—and we train them. Of course, we also give them really good tools."
One of those tools is constantly upgraded equipment. Even the carts Fresh Color Press employees use to transport materials are state-of-the-art.
Johnson is also in the camp of those who believe that the operator has a lot of control over print quality. This is, in large measure, because Kodak has the ORC [operator replaceable components] model. "Many of the components that affect print quality are inventoried here and we change them as we see fit. We're never in a situation where we are at the mercy of a field technician," Johnson says.
Fresh Color Press maxes out the capabilities of its technology. This includes regular use of the NexPress fifth colors such as Dimensional Clear, Gold Metallic, Light Black, Kodak Red and Kodak Blue. Unless a fifth color is required for creative reasons, it uses Kodak's fifth color Light Black on all jobs. This is particularly beneficial for photographic images, neutrals, small type and line art.
Johnson also loves Kodak's new HD DryInk, which offers a smaller particle size ink of 3-4 microns.
On-press technology includes Kodak in-line scanners, which send information to the imaging cylinders to correct for possible streaking or banding. "The flat field solid was a challenge for us in the first few years, but it's consistently improved, in large part due to technology and to some extent as clients have come to understand digital printing's strengths and weaknesses," says Johnson. "Sometimes we suggest to clients that they put a subtle pattern or add noise in Photoshop, but that doesn't come up very much anymore."
Fresh Color Press nearly always delivers hard-copy proofs to its clients.
"The NexPress has a lot of technology built into it. If you linearize once a day, keep an eye on spot color matching and have great operators, you can deliver outstanding quality," concludes Johnson.
High-End Digital Success Takeaways
If you had to compile a list of takeaways for top quality digital production, what would it be?
- Know your target market and ensure that you have the right press to meet the specific needs of that market.
- Hire the best, most competent operators.
- Give those operators the flexibility and authority to truly "own" the press, and allow them to conduct maintenance on an as-needed basis.
- Ensure that the designs are optimized for the capabilities and substrates for your specific press(es).
- Be proactive about using samples to show clients what their jobs will look like on different presses, different substrates and using different techniques.
- Get clients to sign off on hard-copy proofs before the job is run.
- Charge enough for high-quality, digitally printed jobs to justify the extra time you are investing.
Producing high-end work is not rocket science, these printers say. It just takes the right equipment, the right hires, and the commitment and follow-through to let them do their jobs. PI