Digital Finishing — Where to Draw the Line?
HAVING A print engine isn’t an absolute prerequisite for offering digital printing services, but it definitely helps. Shops that install a press do, however, find that having some level of in-house digital finishing capabilities—in-, near- or off-line—is required to be competitive in meeting the short run, quick-turnaround demands of this market.
As a result, digital printing operations are faced with figuring out where to draw the line between the efficiency of in-line finishing options versus the flexibility of off-line systems.
Trends in digital finishing was one part of a comprehensive market study—titled “Digital Printing Outlook in a Production Environment”—released by PRIMIR late last year. According to the report, the vast majority of “production” digital press owners are primarily using off-line finishing today. While 50 percent of the installed black-and-white production digital presses have been configured with at least one type of in-line finishing, that figure drops to 18 percent for process color models.
A significantly greater number (43 percent) of survey respondents indicate they do intend to add in-line finishing options to their planned color press purchases in the 2006-2011 time frame. Saddlestitching tops the list of currently installed in-line finishing capabilities and is projected to remain the most popular hardware option, growing from inclusion on 12 percent of digital color presses to 28 percent. Coating/varnishing unit installs are projected to show the biggest jump, from 3 percent up to 17 percent of color press purchases.
The installed base of off-line finishing equipment shows almost the exact opposite trend in that two-thirds or more of the surveyed companies already have off-line cutting, folding/scoring, saddle-stitching, trimming and perfect binding capabilities. Only 39 percent currently have standalone coating/varnishing equipment, but that capability came in second only to folding/scoring systems in the breakdown of planned off-line finishing equipment investments.
The 300+ page “Digital Printing Outlook” study currently is only available to PRIMIR and NPES members. For more information, visit www.primir.org.
Views from Front Lines
Trends can, of course, be very different at the individual shop level than they are for the industry as a whole. Differences in customer bases, applications and capabilities can make one approach better suited to a particular business environment.
As president of LaVigne Inc. in Worcester, MA, Chris Wells’ perspective is that of a chief executive of a multi-press digital printing operation that also continues to be a strong player in the commercial offset segment. According to Wells, LaVigne has found that its finishing capabilities must be “quite flexible” to meet the demands in digital printing work, despite the limited format range of most presses (especially cut sheet models like the ones it has).
“In the on-demand environment, ultra-short runs are the norm. Quantities of less than five for items as complex as 36-page books are becoming more commonplace,” he explains. “Variable data projects typically involve mailing, which introduces a whole other set of issues.”
What the shop’s variable data clients are looking for most are turnaround speed, low cost and product protection, Wells says. When it comes to the latter, they want to prevent pieces getting damaged in the mail stream.
UV and aqueous coatings provide acceptable protection, but those approaches limit the ability to finish a piece in a “hybrid” production environment that includes ink-jet addressing/messaging, notes the digital printing executive. “Therefore, only a printer consistently doing full variable data applications will get maximum utilization out of these solutions. Cutting a blanket for a 500-piece mailing run that needs to go through ink-jet addressing is not fast, or cost-effective.”
Even then, LaVigne has found that UV and aqueous coatings only improve the protection factor incrementally, and clients continue to have issues. Film lamination—which is slow and costly, along with requiring that the job be 100 percent variable data printing—is the only fool proof method the shop has found for protecting digitally printed pieces (from its HP Indigo presses).
LaVigne so far hasn’t been a big proponent of in-line finishing capabilities, the company’s president says. This is more a function of the variety of pieces produced.
“If we had a single big client or multiple clients with similar, repetitive finishing needs, then in-line (capabilities) would be more attractive. In a multiple press environment, we also don’t want to be in the position of having a press go down and lose a finishing line along with it,” he explains.
Close, But Not Too Close
Wells believes near-line capabilities are the best fit for LaVigne’s current digital work for a couple of reasons.
• Flexibility, compared to having in-line finishing capabilities tied to specific press production; and
• Implementation of the Lean Six Sigma Initiative, since transportation time from a digital pressroom to a separate finishing department on a run of 10 12-page brochures can mean the difference between making money and losing money.
Even though LaVigne has embraced outsourcing as a business philosophy—to the point of having a full-time employee devoted to print management and strategic sourcing—it has found that outsourcing in a digital production environment presents many challenges, reports Wells. “The transit costs and time constraints typically make it prohibitive to outsource.”
So does that mean the perspective of a trade binder is irrelevant? Not necessarily.
Since the PRIMIR findings are based on a sampling of the market as a whole, the above trends in digital finishing are not as representative of what’s happening in specialty segments such as digital, on-demand books. In-line finishing has been a much bigger focus of this market segment, with a number of vendors developing specialty finishing lines.
Fred Daubert is president of Book1One in Rochester, NY, which caters to printers and publishers that need digitally produced books. As a division of traditional trade binder The Riverside Group, it produces hard and soft cover books in short runs—without having its own digital press.
“About three years ago, we (as The Riverside Group) were turning digital book work away left and right,” Daubert recounts. “People would come in and want us to bind 100 books. I’d tell them, ‘You’ve got to send me 50 extra sets.’ They would respond, ‘We can’t give you that kind of spoilage on this work.’ In the digital book market, if you ask for an extra completed book block you’re talking $30 to $40 of added cost.
“We bought new zero-makeready equipment because our existing equipment, as a trade binder, was set up to do runs of 1,000 books or more with significant allowances for spoilage. It takes a whole different mindset to do digital work than it does longer runs,” the bindery exec asserts.
Book1One was set up as a specialized binding operation within the larger organization. Among the equipment brought in were a Standard Horizon BQ-270 perfect binder and Sticker casing-in equipment from On Demand Machinery. One surprise, Daubert says, was that the digital bindery was able to make use of old, manual equipment that was no longer competitive for other parts of the organization.
“With that equipment, each book is handled individually so there is no makeready. No automation means you don’t have to set up a bunch of different sections where you can lose product in makeready,” he explains.
The digital bindery has local printers (within 100 miles) with digital presses sending it already printed, collated sets to be converted into books. It also does book work for more remote printers, but in that case the printer typically sends a file that Book1One has output locally—even in cases where the customer has installed its own digital press.
“If longer distance transport is required, the generally smaller runs cannot absorb the freight to ship printed sheets. There is no freight in shipping digital data,” Daubert explains. “Being in Rochester, I bet there are 12 digital machines installed within a 15-mile radius of our plant. Output is close to a commodity now.”
Buy the Book
The digital printers sending Book1One bindery work don’t have the volumes to justify bringing the capability in-house. “It’s hard to justify spending $80,000 on a piece of equipment that you are going to use once a week or once every two weeks,” he points out. “For perfect binding, a tabletop unit might make sense, but with a lot of that equipment the binding quality isn’t the same.”
Working the justification equation from the other end, Daubert says Book1One is moving toward getting its own digital press. “When we hit our trigger point in terms of the volume of digital work being outsourced, we’ll put an engine on the floor. After 18 months, we kind of hit a glass ceiling with Book1One in serving the local market. We need our own press to go outside that (geographic) market in a bigger way.”
The shop will be careful not to step outside its market from a service standpoint, however. “As a trade binder, it could be very detrimental to be perceived as a digital printer putting flat sheets out the door. We will not be producing flat sheets, sell sheets, brochures or variable data-type mailers. We do book work.”
Some digital work does also come into The Riverside Group side of the business, Daubert says. “We do quite a bit of film laminating of digitally produced sheets, and also diecutting. We’ve done some foil stamping, too, and experimented with processes such as UV coating. The toner-based product sucks up the UV so the printing looks all mottled.”
Just another example of why the requirements of digital finishing are unique, whether it be done in-, near- or off-line. PI
Planned Off-Line Finishing Equipment Investments: 2006-2011
Coating and Varnishing 34%
Perfect Binding 25%
Source: State Street Consultants as published in PRIMIR’s “Digital Printing Outlook in a Production Environment” study.