Four Digital Printers Share Their In-line, Near-Line, Off-Line Finishing Production Strategies
The finishing department must have been an invention of Walt Disney. Sure, the press does all of the heavy lifting, sweating through various run lengths, but there’s something that happens between the time the piece is printed and later boxed or inserted.
Finishing is the time when the magic happens. Instead of Tinker Bell with a magical wand, it’s Ted with a folder and a tattoo crawling up the side of his face. But this is not about Ted, this is a conversation about finishing in a toner and inkjet digital cutsheet printing environment.
We’ve rustled up several printers from across the country to gauge their approach to finishing and perhaps share a story about a given project that truly raised the bar once the finishing touches were applied.
Fresh Color Press, Eden Prairie, Minnesota
This Twin Cities-based digital provider debuted in 2003 with a single Kodak NexPress and, in a little more than a dozen years, that fleet has grown to three. Fresh Color added large-format printing roughly four years ago, and the commercial printer primarily produces marketing collateral and direct mail for advertising agencies, design firms and corporations, according to Brian Johnson, company president.
Johnson points out that his firm handles finishing in a strictly off-line fashion. The primary reason is that the company does such a wide variety of jobs as opposed to recurring, programmatic work.
“Most of our off-line finishing equipment is fast enough that we can be running projects on all three NexPresses and keep up with it on the finishing end,” he says, alluding to his arsenal of two coaters, two saddlestitchers, two folders, two scoring/folding machines and assorted binding devices.
Some of the more out of the ordinary work done by Fresh Color includes projects that require the NexPress’ fifth color (dimensional, clear, metallic, Kodak red, Kodak gold, etc.) as well as hand-bound work, like stitched brochures with wraparound covers. Frequent work includes short-run diecut and scored pieces that are finished with Fresh Color’s Zünd digital cutter. Johnson has found the cutter to be a capable substitute for steel rule diecutting.
One of the more memorable jobs Fresh Color recently produced was a tri-fold holiday card with some really intricate diecutting. The front panel featured a fob white uncoated cover stock, with the shape of a flower carved from it, backed by vibrant colors.
“It was a simple concept that was well executed, with a good paper choice on the customer’s part,” Johnson relates.
One product that has really exploded for Fresh Color is soft touch laminate. Johnson took on some sample rolls and included them in marketing mailings, and the response has been through the roof. “People love soft touch aqueous and UV coating,” he adds.
Progressive Impressions International (pii), Bloomington, Illinois
A subsidiary of Taylor Corp., pii serves a range of customers, including financial services, insurance, health care and automotive. A full digital marketing communications shop, pii reaches clients through its Conductor web portals and provides the full gamut of services from data analytics and order entry through digital printing, mailing and fulfillment.
According to Tim Henning, general manager of pii, the company is not beholden to any one digital printing/finishing workflow, utilizing in-line, off-line and near-line, depending upon the scenario. “If it’s a very specialized production line, where we’re going to be running the same type of application day in and day out, we would favor an in-line solution if the speeds match up and downstream finishing won’t interfere with the more expensive component in the digital press,” he says.
A near-line approach is ideal for pii, enabling the press operator to simultaneously handle the diecutter or UV coater, for example. But there are instances where it just makes more sense to be off-line, as in the case of high-speed folding. “This is where it doesn’t make sense to try to cram a bunch of equipment into a work cell,” Henning says.
The company has made recent investments in diecutting, plow folding and gluing. Some of the more unique projects go through a folder/gluer, where it provides the type of folds that couldn’t be done on a traditional buckle folder. Feeding the finish line is an array of presses, led by a new Canon Océ VarioPrint i300 cutsheet inkjet press, Xerox iGen4 and 150 models, and several Konica Minolta bizhub PRESS 7000s.
Henning points out that one of the challenges encountered by the production crew is the new-school electronics of today’s digital presses as opposed to the iron-and-grease nature of legacy equipment. Pii itself is transitioning into newer, more automated finishing gear, but for now, operators still find themselves caught between two manufacturing worlds.
“We’re transitioning to digital devices, where fold plates are servo driven, and you can store programs for common folds,” he notes. “It’s a challenge to have that mix of equipment and the right work force to support it.”
Pii has enjoyed the exposure of having several folding projects profiled on Trish Witkowski’s “60-second Super-cool Fold of the Week” video series. These marketing pieces include a mailer for an umbrella insurance policy — a half-fold sheet that, when opened, reveals an accordion center fold in the shape of an umbrella.
Another job touted renter’s insurance and fire protection. It was printed, diecut and…burned. Yes, pii’s finishing department took a blow torch and slightly scorched the edges.
“We consulted with the local fire department and made sure all of our OSHA boxes were checked,” he says.
Gilson Graphics, Grand Rapids, Michigan
This $26 million commercial printer is no stranger to the industry. It services the retail, higher education, book publishing and agency verticals, among others, delivering products that include retail signage, marketing collateral pieces and direct mail. Gilson Graphics is also known for being the first U.S. installation of the Fujifilm J Press 720 cutsheet inkjet press, while its president and CEO — Dave Gilson — is a popular speaker on technology panels.
The company uses a decidedly off-line approach to its print-and-finish workflow. Gilson notes that because the J Press has a delivery, he could easily set up finishing gear in near-line fashion. But since the company performs a vast number of different operations/functions, Gilson treats the J Press like an ordinary offset press, which means transporting by skid to the finishing department.
Life with the J Press has been pretty rewarding for Gilson Graphics. Initially, there were challenges with UV coating the sheets, but a wavelength tweak did the job. Gilson likes the larger sheet size, color consistency, increased color gamut and improved registration.
One aspect that has improved the quality of Gilson Graphics’ workflow is having a dedicated bindery for its digital work. Previously, the digital output was being finished in the “offset” bindery, but that created a wonkish backup.
“There was always a conflict, because the regular bindery was always geared for larger quantities, always set up to run something for several hours, even a day for a job,” Gilson notes. “Breaking into the schedule for a 500-piece run, for example, wouldn’t work. Having a separate bindery and staff for the digital work that we’re producing has worked out to our advantage.”
The dedicated bindery fields between 40 and 50 jobs per day; Gilson jokingly mentioned the need for a drive-through window. He’s pondering adding Auto Count devices to several machines to automate the process more.
One of Gilson’s recent finishing projects is not nearly as hip or flashy as the others, but it is a success story. A new customer needed a print-and-collate job that entailed 80,000 press sheets — a job that was somewhat challenging due to its collation sequencing. Gilson wanted to run the job conventionally and then collate off-line, but his production manager wanted to run it on the J Press and collate it directly off the press, which has a barcode reader for two-sided variable work. This was done in order to avoid the same issues the customer’s previous print provider had encountered.
“If you judge it by the print cost numbers, it was a fixed cost. It would’ve been less expensive for us to print that job offset and manually collate it,” Gilson points out. “But taking a step out of the process sped it up and got it done ahead of time, which the client loved. Most importantly, the collation sequence was perfect.”
Essence Printing, San Francisco
This family-owned business has graced the Bay Area for 38 years, offering digital, offset and wide-format printing to go with ancillary services, such as warehousing, kitting and assembly. Conveniently located 15 minutes from San Francisco International Airport, Essence Printing produces marketing and advertising collateral, annual reports, direct mail, catalogs, packaging and Web-based services.
In-line finishing production is the default preference for Essence Printing, notes General Manager Michael Iburg, but that is tempered by the notion that an issue with the folder (for example) can shut down the entire line. That leaves near-line as the perfect hedge bet; Essence has its Mohr cutter integrated with both of its HP Indigo presses. By using the SmartStream Direct2Finish module, job data is automatically transferred from the press to the cutter for every job, eliminating cutter setup, errors and associated reprints.
“With HP SmartStream Direct2Finish, that means a single operator can RIP a job, print it, finish, pack it up and get it out the door. We can do that all with one person,” Iburg states. “That makes near-line finishing a lot easier for us.”
Essence Printing has the benefit of redundancy to aid in its finishing. Should one machine go down, the job can be quickly rerouted to maintain the promised turn time, even if it’s at the expense of the printer. Practically speaking, HP SmartStream Direct2Finish enables the company to increase the speed in which a job can be turned, especially when many of the jobs are tagged “ships today.”
“Jobs move really fast through our shop and that’s one of our biggest challenges,” notes Frank Plughoff, prepress and Indigo manager. “Deadlines are our biggest obstacle.”
Future investments at Essence Printing, from a finishing standpoint, will be aimed at adding as much automation as possible. Cost efficiency is delved from creating workflows that involve as little operator intervention as possible. A job sans fingerprints is a happy job.
With so many custom projects coming in the front door and going out the back door in the same day, knowing the specs frontwards and backwards is more than a figure of speech at this plant, according to Iburg.
“Quite often, we get together in teams and start with a finished product, then backtrack through it to see exactly what will need to be done throughout the entire process,” he reveals. “We establish a workflow by tracking backwards. It means every department in the shop has to be 100 percent on its A game.” PI