Printers Describe Their Short-Run Digital Successes
Steve Johnson remembers that when he founded his digital printing business 30 years ago, “our pitch was convincing potential clients that we existed.” This is understandable. At the time, digital printing technology wasn’t much more than a rumor to many people. Offset lithography remained the industry’s undisputed king. Above all, the idea that it now could be economical to buy printing in digitally produced short runs seemed almost preposterous.
Today, Johnson’s company, Copresco in Carol Stream, Ill., has built a thriving trade around short-run digital printing, as have the seven other print service providers interviewed for this article. They all typify the maturing of short-run digital printing as a niche business, and their best practices in short-run production stand as models for success with it.
Success with short-run digital printing depends first of all on defining “short run” accurately and equipping for it accordingly - a task that’s not as straightforward as it used to be. Digital printing and short-run printing used to mean more or less the same thing, but today’s digital presses - especially the new inkjet platforms - can print cost-efficiently in volumes well beyond the “sweet spot” of early digital equipment.
The result, says Paul DeSantis, CIO and COO at ANRO Inc., based in West Chester, Pa., is that an economical run of digital printing could be anything from “one or millions.” In practice, a “short run” at ANRO is anything under 5,000 pages on the company’s HP Indigo 12000; while under 2,000 sheets qualifies as short-run work on the three HP Indigo 7800s it operates. But run length measurements, DeSantis contends, have become “so irrelevant” to digital production that they are meaningful only to press manufacturers, not printers, as a frame of reference.
Run-Length Parameters Are Blurred
Jeff Birmingham, president of Houston-based Alliance Graphics and Printing, agrees that run-length parameters for digital printing have become “really blurred” as greater demands are placed on the systems. “Economical order quantity,” he believes, is a more useful quantifier than run length for the kinds of digital printing that shops like his are doing now.
Job formats, turnaround time requirement, and variable content also complicate the short-run calculation. That said, the shops profiled here can put realistic numbers on what their short-run work consists of.
At Yorke Printe Shoppe in Lombard, Ill., owner Brad Scull counts on running 2,000 to 2,500 sheets on his Fujifilm J Press 720S sheetfed inkjet press before he’ll consider printing the job offset. Ten to 1,000 impressions is what Bill Corcoran, president of Corcoran Printing, Wilkes Barre, Pa., typically expects from his Heidelberg Versafire CV.
Postpress Steps Also Come Into Play
Book and journal printing takes place on a Ricoh InfoPrint 5000 continuous-feed inkjet press at Yurchak Printing, located in Landisville, Pa., where founder and CEO John Yurchak says up to 2,500 6x9˝ or 8.5x11˝ copies represent economical short-run production. The short-run count for the Komori Impremia IS29 sheetfed UV inkjet press at Richmond, Va.-based Worth Higgins & Associates is 50 to 5,000 sheets depending on the number of postpress steps involved, says Scott Hudson, director of corporate communications.
When operating his Canon imagePRESS 10000CV, Michael Kellogg, CEO of Century Direct in Islandia, N.Y., sets the digital-to-offset crossover point at 5,000 8.5x11˝ units. But, he notes that jobs in smaller formats, such as personalized loyalty cards printed 16-up, run economically in much greater quantities on the same device.
With today’s digital equipment, the safest term for run length capability is “elastic.” Johnson says that as a purveyor of “short-run, large-volume” book work, Copresco finds the sweet spot in quantities under 1,000 using Kodak Digimaster and Ricoh 9100 digital presses. Alliance is in short-run territory at 250 copies on its Indigo equipment, according to Birmingham.
These are recognizable low-end numbers for toner production. But the short-run floor zooms to 10,000 on Alliance’s Canon Océ ColorStream 3700 inkjet web press, and at ANRO, the inkjet volume coming off a pair of HP PageWide Web Press T370s divorces “short-run” from “digital” almost completely. Given that these devices together can produce more than 200,000 8.5x11˝, 4/4, fully personalized pages per hour, says DeSantis, “there’s no real ‘sweet spot’ any longer.”
The point is that if it chooses to, a printing company now can equip for digital success in almost any quantity its customers wish to purchase. And while success at either end of the run length range isn’t only about what the equipment can do, printers identify several press attributes as crucial to profitable production in low volumes.
Consistent machine uptime is requirement No. 1. Corcoran says that the single most important step his company has taken toward achieving short-run success was replacing a breakdown-prone digital press with a much more dependable Heidelberg Versafire CV. Whereas the old machine was out of commission 20% of the time, the Versafire CV’s uptime is close to 99%. Corcoran says this not only improves productivity, it also boosts the morale of the people operating the equipment.
Kellogg points out the beneficial relationship between uptime and operating expense: the more a machine runs, the more production cost declines. Downtime that drives cost up is a “huge impediment” to profitability, he says.
Johnson admits that Copresco has had to endure “horrifying downtime” with some of its digital equipment. Access to the right technical people is always essential, he says, noting that press failure is a rare occurrence in the conventional world. His definition of acceptable digital uptime is arriving at a point where “we don’t have to factor machine breakdown into our running estimates.”
Advantages of Inkjet Technology
As a less mechanically complicated process than toner printing, production inkjet is a reliable means to this end. Birmingham says that the Océ ColorStream 3700 inkjet equipment at Alliance Graphics and Printing is up 95% of the time; Scull, at Yorke Printe Shoppe, describes uptime as a “huge” advantage of his Fujifilm J Press 720S inkjet press. Recalling the chagrin caused by the breakdown of a toner press that lasted five straight days, Yurchak claims to have no such fears with inkjet presses like his Ricoh InfoPrint 5000. “They just like to run,” he says.
But, even a press that runs 100% of the time wouldn’t be worth the investment if its performance weren’t on par with its availability. What Worth Higgins values most about the performance of its Komori Impremia IS29, says Hudson, is its “substrate freedom:” its ability to print without pretreating on any stock that the press department customarily uses. Plastics and synthetics may need a precoat for ink adhesion but, otherwise, the inkjet press can run the same substrates as the litho machines in the company’s all-Komori conventional pressroom.
Even though high-end color reproduction quality can be taken for granted in late-model digital presses, printers are anything but casual about what it contributes to their short-run success. Digital color, says Birmingham, “has got to be sellable,” meaning up to the offset litho standard that many print buyers still use as a touchstone. Kellogg finds reassurance in the fact that the color stability of the digital equipment he now operates is “way, way better” than that of the devices he was running 10 years ago.
Holy Grail of Fully Integrated Workflow
A plant with a digital press for short runs is a plant with a digital infrastructure that the press is either fully or partially integrated with. Full integration links the production workflow to prepress, estimating, Web-to-print (W2P) based e-commerce and other non-printing functions. With partial integration, data may be shared across processes, but tasks aren’t centrally controlled.
When it comes to digital architecture, there’s no single template for success with short-run production - nor does there need to be as long as automation is the keynote and error minimization is the goal. As Yurchak says of his touchless order entry and job processing system, “If I couldn’t have automated it, I couldn’t have done it at all.”
Of the companies profiled here, ANRO is the closest to full integration. Jeff Stoltzfus, director of operations, says that short-run orders originating at customer Web portals flow to an MIS that creates job tickets and sends production files directly to the plant’s digital equipment.
Other models work with the same kind of efficiency. Century Direct maintains tight integration with its customers via secure FTP connections that let them direct order input up to, and including, generating a proof. Kellogg says this minimizes intervention and reduces the likelihood of “goofs” by internal personnel.
He has also spent more than 30 years refining a job management system that lets each customer securely access and monitor its work in progress at any time. Kellogg believes this kind of openness is essential to Century Direct’s success because “connectivity drives customer relationships as much as anything else.”
Connectivity in the form of a W2P interface with customers can be another element of short-run success. W2P capability has been in place at Alliance Graphics since 2001, and Birmingham credits it with doing more than anything else to position the company as a preferred source of short-run service.
Digital Orders Via Web-to-Print Portals
When jobs are flowing in from Web portals, he says, “you’re so locked in with the customer then.” Half of the company’s orders originate this way, and up to 90% of its short-run business is attributable to W2P. Worth Higgins, according to Hudson, hosts 80 W2P client portals through which it receives short-run work; DeSantis says about 95% of the work ANRO produces from its portals consists of short-run production.
But even with W2P and other kinds of automated job input, “feeding the beast” - keeping a digital press producing short-run work at or close to capacity - is always an open-ended obligation. It’s made no easier by the fact that many customers still don’t fully appreciate the most fundamental advantage that digital printing gives them: the ability to buy small quantities of print economically (see sidebar below).
Sell Ongoing Programs, Not One-Offs
As Birmingham says, “never stop selling” has to be a mantra for short-run success. But he adds that because it’s “hard to feed the beast on a quote-and-hope basis,” printers must learn to sell ongoing programs that generate regular streams of work as opposed to intermittent projects. Johnson notes that short-run jobs won’t keep a pressroom occupied for nearly as long as conventional production will. That’s why Copresco tries to balance the overnight work in which it specializes with jobs it can produce at longer intervals.
Getting the word out to customers about what the equipment can do is always a must, according to Hudson, who says once they hear that the Komori Impremia IS29 at Worth Higgins offers them high-quality, variable print in formats as large as 20x28˝, the presswork “starts selling itself.”
But, for that to happen, word must be spread to the right people, and reaching them with the right message about digital printing, Kellogg says, is never an easy sell. It’s vital to work with those who understand that the value proposition can’t be cherry-picked and that what the print service provider has to offer is return on investment, not the lowest price. DeSantis agrees that it can be “a very challenging and expensive process” to align with clients that have marketing personnel and leaders with processes sophisticated enough to provide the data and/or IT resources needed to reach the full potential of what digital printing can do for them.
Price pressure, unfortunately, is a threat to which success with short-run digital printing isn’t immune. The way to resist it, printers say, is to promote what makes the process special.
At Yorke Print Shoppe, Scull says, this means informing customers that if they want personalized, “super-high-end” posters in batches of 20, the plant’s Fujifilm J Press 720S can deliver them. With blogging and online advertising, Corcoran details how the fifth station on Corcoran Printing’s Heidelberg Versafire CV can make pocket folders, jewelry boxes and other items “pop” with clear or white toner. Yurchak emphasizes how customized covers and dust jackets printed on his company’s Ricoh 9110 color press add to the appeal of law school textbooks and similar publications.
As is true in every niche, success with short-run digital printing, when it comes, is usually hard-won. Johnson observes that some products that used to be staples for digital printing - think user manuals for boxed software - don’t exist any more. Meanwhile, “the bottom is always being scraped away” by less capable competitors using price as their calling card.
He isn’t discouraged. To keep clients and their business, he says, “we have to consistently raise their expectations” about short-run digital printing and the envelope of service it comes wrapped in - and then exceed those expectations. “You can’t lose by serving the customer,” Johnson declares.