Process Integration — Executing the Triple Play
THERE HAS been a tradition in the printing industry of categorizing work based on the process used to produce it—i.e., sheetfed vs. web offset, and now digital printing. Run length, of course, is the most important distinguishing factor, but process-based characterizations have also been made about color and print quality.
As adoption of digital printing continues to grow, more printers are integrating all three levels of output capabilities to meet the long and short of their clients’ needs. Advances in technology, adoption of standards and evolving customer expectations are making it more realistic for such shops to just generically offer printing (high quality, of course) and then produce the work using the most cost- effective production methods.
Regardless of process, “the heart and soul of color reproduction is printing to gray balance; being neutral,” asserts Daniel Remaley, senior technical consultant at PIA/GATF. “If you print a gray patch—50 cyan, 40 magenta and 40 yellow—it should look neutral on any printing device. The same printing characteristics apply to a digital press (toner- or ink-based) in terms of producing a neutral gray.”
Printing on a web or sheetfed offset press should be essentially the same, since color separations are made to standard numbers, the process control expert explains. “The problem is that printers typically don’t understand color separations. The color has already been defined, so all you have to do is print to SWOP—meaning the same density, dot gain and gray balance characteristics.”
Digital printing is a different scenario to the extent that the toners or inks don’t have the same color characteristics as offset inks, Remaley notes. Vendors like to point out that their digital machines can print a wider color gamut, he adds.
At some point, though, most digital printing operations will be asked to match the printing off an offset press. The common approach is to establish two workflows, one that capitalizes on the wider color gamut capabilities of the digital device and a second that matches sheetfed work, Remaley says. This is done by creating an ICC profile for the digital press to match SWOP or the fingerprint of a specific offset machine.
The PIA/GATF expert sees 2007 as a time of transition for printing to the numbers, with the G7 methodology being promoted as an evolution of the SWOP and GRACoL specifications. G7 measures the entire gray scale, uses 50C/40M/40Y as its neutral and changes some of the target densities.
Remaley notes that a key aspect of his role as a process control expert is helping printers develop plate curves, so the printing off all of their presses will match. “You need four distinct plate curves to make gray balance on-press, but most shops only have one for their platesetter,” he points out.
“There’s no way you can globally change color on-press and make it better. The best sheet you can print is the one that’s in gray balance based on a three-color gray bar.”
Unfortunately, the most common process control practice used in printing plants today is to measure solid ink density color bars, laments the expert. “We don’t print solids; we print dots. Without a midtone dot-gain target and gray- balance patches, printers can’t measure color. They need to measure density, dot gain and gray balance,” he concludes.
As the level of printing quality becomes more universal, process convergence is happening at a number of levels. Noted industry observer Frank Romano offered an assessment of “Offset Printing in the Modern World” in the January issue of PRINTING IMPRESSIONS’ sister publication, In-Plant Graphics (www.ipgonline.com). According to Romano:
• Run lengths more than 50,000 impressions are still the domain of web presses, but wider width and long perfector sheetfed presses are challenging the low end of these runs. Narrower and full-web machines are competing for the same work in some cases.
• Sheetfed presses have the advantage in producing runs of 10,000 impressions and up, but competition is heating up as shops with 40˝ models are going after more of the same work as those with 26˝ and 29˝ machines.
• Runs of 250 to 500 impressions are up for grabs by three types of printing systems—digital, DI (Direct Imaging) and automated sheetfed presses. Both DI and newer sheetfed presses can be competitive for runs of 500 to 1,000 impressions.
Padgett Printing, in Dallas, makes a nice real-world case study for many of the trends reshaping the market. It has been offering sheetfed and half-web offset printing for decades and digital color printing for more than five years.
The capabilities of a half-web press fit the company’s position as a chiefly regional printer, notes Chip Chebuhar, vice president and sales manager. Its customers tend to be small- to medium-size companies that don’t have a lot of print work intended to support national coverage, which would put it in the full-web run length range, he explains.
One of the more recent additions to Padgett’s arsenal is an eight-color sheetfed press with perfecting. “It has enabled us to offer a seamless transition from the one-side sheetfed world to the half-web quantities,” Chebuhar reports.
In the past, there were times when the company approached customers with a specific identity, such as a sheetfed printer, he says. Capabilities-based targeting had the effect of pigeon holing the shop to certain products and opportunities. “We’ve missed out on other opportunities just because we weren’t looking for them or we had conditioned our customer to only think of us for certain types of work,” relates the sales manager.
Since joining the company, Chebuhar has helped Padgett adopt a more strategic approach with customers that focuses on the flexibility afforded by its broad production platform—digital, sheetfed and half-web. If the shop does its job right, the customer doesn’t need to be concerned about whether one process or another is used.
“Today, we’re approaching our customers with the question: ‘What is your need?’ and trying to better understand their business rather than spewing to them about the various pieces of printing equipment we have,” he notes. “We’re trying to understand the customers’ needs, wants and desires, then looking to align them with service offerings from Padgett. They are looking for us to come back to them and say, ‘Here is your optimal manufacturing plan.’ ”
If the parameters of a job make it a close call between sheetfed and web, the printer will price it both ways and present two options to the client, including any trade-offs from an equipment standpoint. Web printing delivers a quality product, but sheetfed still has an edge in terms of substrate options, tighter register and, potentially, color flexibility, according to Chebuhar.
Padgett currently has two toner-based digital color presses, which support its focus on variable data applications. “We don’t concentrate on selling short run, static work off of our digital presses. That market is highly competitive,” he explains. “We do also have a four-unit Heidelberg GTO in our sheetfed pressroom, and since we are in a computer-to-plate world, we can print short run, static jobs on that piece of equipment.”
As for the other end of the run length spectrum, Chebuhar previously worked for a printer that had extensive full-web capabilities. “That business has gotten more competitive because companies have capacity that they’re looking to fill. Strategically, they are being forced into trying to figure out how to do shorter runs on full-web equipment just to keep their presses full,” he says.
Part of what Chebuhar found attractive about moving into the sales manager role at Padgett was the fact that the company had stayed out of the cut-throat, full-web market. The half-web segment has since gotten more challenging, too, he notes.
Sheetfed perfectors are running faster, being installed in longer configurations and now have roll-to-sheet capabilities, all of which extends their competitive run length range. At the same time, full-web printers continue to get more comfortable running smaller counts. That puts half-webs getting squeezed from both ends.
It’s no surprise then, as a closing thought, Chebuhar says, “Our three- to five-year plan, from a capital standpoint in the pressroom, will be concentrated around additional sheetfed capabilities.” PI