Make Your Jobs Stand Out With Print Embellishments & Specialty Applications
Printing is, and always will be, a form of manufacturing, but the days when printers could think of themselves strictly as manufacturers are long gone. Today, print shops increasingly find themselves cast in the role of creative advisors to customers whose quest for competitive differentiation and heightened brand awareness is never-ending.
Technology is partly responsible for this new mandate. Once upon a time, commercial printers fulfilled their missions by laying down ink on sheets or rolls of paper that they then cut, folded, and bound. Anything a job might require in the way of special effects probably would have to be supplied by an outside trade shop — most printers weren’t equipped to deliver more than the basic product.
Today, thanks to the widespread availability of integrated, digitally controlled production systems and workflows, a shop that wants to have a complete range of capabilities under one roof can have them — and will be expected to provide them. Customers seeking maximum ROI for their print spends will gravitate naturally to shops that have the most to offer in terms of value-added techniques and processes.
You Printed It — Now Embellish It
Although not many people in the printing industry remember it nowadays, there was a time when the only thing needed to make a printed piece stand out was a dash of color.
Because color was hard to control and expensive to reproduce, its appearance on a brochure or in a magazine advertisement was a mark of distinction for whoever had paid a premium to see it there. In commercial and publication printing, black-and-white pages predominated. Color was the value-adding differentiator that everyone wanted, but few had the luxury of specifying.
Steady advances in print technology changed that. Today, color is everywhere in print; richly, accurately, and economically reproduced by all of the major printing processes. It’s become difficult, in fact, to buy conventional or digital printing that’s anything less than first class in terms of color reproduction quality.
This is good news for print as a medium — but a serious business challenge for shops whose profits depend on staying out of the print “commodity trap” of me-too printing.
Many printers have found that trying to maintain their profit margins just on the basis of print quality is a losing proposition. As a result, there’s been a growing appreciation of the value that the techniques of embellishment are proven to add.
Embellishments such as foil stamping, diecutting, embossing, and specialty coatings aren’t new; commercial lithographers and packaging printers have offered them for years. Now, however, they’re also available to digital printing for short-run, customized and personalized applications.
An embellishment heightens visual appeal, but it adds much more than an eye-catching surface appearance. It also delivers measurable, profit-driving results: an outcome that the industry’s packaging segment knows well.
The Foil & Specialty Effects Association (FSEA) describes a study in which researchers from the Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design and Graphics at Clemson University created an unknown brand of disposable, single-serve coffee packaging and compared it to name brand packaging on a retail shelf. They found that stamping the cartons with gold foil induced shoppers to purchase the unknown coffee brand just as often or more frequently than well-known, name brands. What works in packaging can work just as satisfyingly in other applications.
In another example, a yearbook printer using a spot UV coater was able to charge one customer double what had been spent on the previous printing. The client loved the UV special effect and was glad to pay the upcharge for the embellishment on the yearbook cover.
A ready market exists for the value that print embellishment adds. Writing in Printing Impressions, an industry analyst reported that interviews with more than 100 print customers demonstrated “an appetite and a willingness” on their part to pay premiums of 24% to 89% over CMYK-only printing for special effects. The customers also indicated that print embellishment could apply to a significant amount of their work.
Embellishment belongs to postpress, the stage of production in which flat sheets or rolls of printed substrates are turned into finished products. Postpress used to be fairly simple. Today, it is a complex combination of basic operations and high-end techniques that add the kind of value sought by customers who expect their print service providers to create both mass-produced runs and one-of-a-kind, customized pieces for individual recipients.
Value is precisely what embellishment exists to deliver, and there are many varieties of it to offer. One print shop promoting itself on Pinterest, for example, says the print finishing and embellishment options it provides include “hot foil stamping, spot gloss UV, embossing, debossing, letterpress, diecut shapes, lamination, duplex, triplex, gold foil, silver foil, copper foil, white foil, black foil, clear foil, etching, and laser cutting techniques.”
In some projects, the high-end finishing steps are so extensive that the printing may be the job’s smallest cost component. This is why it’s not unusual to see a plant that buys a digital press investing just as much money, if not more, on the finishing equipment needed to obtain the most value from digital production.
In conventional printing, embellishment processes such as varnishing, UV coating, and foiling take place either in-line (on the press itself) or off-line (on separate finishing equipment). Digital presses also can be integrated with finishing equipment for complete, one-pass production, a capability most often seen in digital presses for labeling. The finishing devices feature plug-and-play, electronic, and mechanical interfaces that enable them to connect and operate in tandem with print engines.
For digital presses that produce books, periodicals, commercial work, and other types of jobs in which formats frequently change, off-line or near-line finishing is often the better bet. That way, the print engine can proceed from one job to the next without having to wait for corresponding adjustments in attached finishing modules. In an off-line arrangement, the standalone finishing equipment can accept output from multiple presses instead of just one.
Most of the leading digital press manufacturers have partnered with postpress suppliers to offer finishing and embellishment systems that are designed for compatibility with the presses. That way, the post-print processing can be as cost efficient as the printing, in even the smallest of runs. The presses themselves can be equipped for embellishment with additional color stations that dispense specialty inks and coatings.
Also available are dedicated digital embellishment systems that apply special effects to both printed and unprinted substrates. Like digital presses, these devices have variable-output capabilities that let them customize and personalize the items they are embellishing. Among the decorative enhancements they can produce are 2D and 3D coatings, textures, foiling, glitter and metallic effects, holography, braille, and cutting and creasing.
No matter how it is brought into the picture, embellishment adds production costs that have to be factored into the price given to the customer. This leads to questions about how these high-end services should be marketed. Experience suggests, however, that the ROI on embellished items is usually sufficient to overcome any price objections that may arise.
This is because embellishment gets results. As the example from the earlier mentioned Clemson study indicates, a product presented in an attractively enhanced package is a product a shopper will want to reach out and touch — and take home. Embellishment heightens perceptions of value, status, and brand prestige in marketing collateral and customer communications of all kinds.
Print that is handsomely embellished bespeaks high quality, and not just about the printed piece itself. The perception of quality extends to the business or organization that is using the piece as a marketing tool. The look says it all about the originator’s characteristics and values — and says it with style.
Something else embellishment communicates and reinforces is the place of print in multichannel marketing strategies. Print that adds result-getting value in this way is print that won’t have to be sold on the basis of price. Nothing decommoditizes print more effectively than the techniques described in the sections that follow.
Enrich With Embellishment: Foiling
From the ancient art of gold beating to the radiant surfaces increasingly seen on substrates of all kinds today, nothing says “upscale” more convincingly than adding reflective highlights in gold, silver, holographic, and other metallic finishes to two-dimensional print. Some digital presses can deposit metallic toners as part of the print run. However, metallizing digital print more commonly takes place as an off-line process that achieves the effect by applying foil.
The technique isn’t complicated — foiling can be bonded to individual pieces of print using desktop laminators. For production in quantity, however, hot stamping and cold foiling are the established methods. Hot stamping typically takes place separately from the printing. Cold foiling is performed in-line as part of the conventional press run. It can be added to digital output along with other embellishments after printing.
In a hot stamping machine, a metal die made in the pattern of the artwork to be foiled presses the foil against the substrate under intense pressure and high heat. Then the excess foil (the portion not intended to highlight anything) is stripped away, leaving only the foil that has been bonded to the selected areas of the printed image.
The same thing happens in cold foiling, but this process uses adhesive instead of pressure and heat to transfer the foil to the substrate. Both methods lay down foil in correct register over the parts of the image to be highlighted. For double embellishment, the foiling can be overprinted with additional inks that add color to the metallic effects.
Cold foiling is not compatible with as many different types of substrates as hot foil stamping. A point in its favor is the fact that it eliminates the expense of diemaking, and the extra step of processing on a separate machine when performed in-line.
Another option for this type of embellishment is foil fusing, a process that applies foil to areas of toner images produced on laser printers or toner-based copy machines. No dies or foil stamping equipment is needed. The foil, which adheres only to toner image areas, is available in gold, silver, metallic and pigment colors, glitter, and holographic patterns for decoration and security.
Diecutting Heightens Engagement
Presswork imparts content to a printed piece. Diecutting adds shape that gives both subtle and explicit clues to the message the piece is meant to deliver. Decorative “sculpting” with cut-out windows, filigree outlines, and other fancy alterations connotes sophistication, luxury, and distinctiveness — all calculated to heighten engagement with the piece and reinforce the call to action it contains.
Unlike other forms of embellishment, diecutting is a subtractive process: its visual impact comes from what it takes away from the initial printed piece, not from anything it adds. Nevertheless, in order to achieve the desired effect, the application of diecutting must be as precise and creatively flexible as any other embellishment technique.
Three basic diecutting methods satisfy these requirements. The most “industrial” of them is flatbed diecutting, accomplished with massive machines typically found in packaging converting and commercial printing plants. Using dies consisting of strips of metal in the outline of the shape to be cut, these machines stamp out packaging forms, labels, and other items under thousands of pounds of pressure.
They may also be equipped for stripping (removing the excess substrate from the diecuts) and blanking (stacking the finished pieces).
A simpler and less expensive alternative is rotary diecutting, which can be adapted for in-line operation with digital presses. It uses “male” (raised) and “female” (intaglio) die plates, sometimes magnetically mounted, to impress cuts into the substrate at high speeds. The plates cost less to prepare than standard dies, making the process economical for shorter runs.
The newest type of diecutting substitutes a laser beam for a physical cutting edge, eliminating all costs of diemaking. Laser diecutting is precise and fast, although the heat of the process rules out its use with certain substrates.
A diecutting system can be a standalone unit, or it can be a part of an integrated finishing line that also includes lamination, coating, foiling, embossing, and other functions. The options now available put precision diecutting within the reach of almost every printing business.
Embossing for a Multisensory Experience
Marketers increasingly recognize haptics — the branch of neuroscience concerned with the sense of touch — as a key to consumer engagement. Research indicates that someone who picks up and reads a printed piece probably will recall its contents better than someone who gets the same information from a screen. Retailers know that a shopper who grasps an item on a store shelf is more than likely to buy it, because to touch something is to mentally take ownership of it.
Surface texture is what arouses the sense of touch in printed matter. Specialty substrates represent one way to leverage its power, but for most digital printers, a more practical and cost-effective approach is embossing. This simple, but potent, embellishment technique creates raised and recessed surfaces that can be felt as well as seen for true multisensory experiences in print.
Embossing is similar to diecutting in that it uses dies or rotary plates to achieve the desired effect. The difference is that instead of cutting entirely through the substrate as a diecutting edge does, the embossing tool presses into it only far enough to raise the surface by a few thousandths of an inch. Debossing, the opposite technique, depresses the image into the surface for an intaglio look.
Business cards and wedding invitations are traditional favorites for embossing, but almost any printed piece can be given an extra dimension of sensory appeal in this way. Many different paper and board stocks can be embossed, and the technique can be combined with foiling and other kinds of embellishment for a broad range of special effects. Digital presses can be equipped for in-line embossing, or off-line embossing systems may be used.
Specialty Fluid Overprinting Adds Pizzazz
Ink or toner on paper supplies the image. Specialty fluids laid down over the colorant add the pizzazz. They also protect printed surfaces, enabling printed products to stand up better to handling and (if they are postal pieces) to their journey through the mailstream.
Printers use a variety of specialty fluids to make finished pieces scratchproof and rub resistant. The fluids also create surface effects that enhance appearance with gloss, matte, and dull finishes. Gloss reflects light; matte scatters it; dull subtly tones down color and contrast. The finishes can be used in combination to make the effects even more visually interesting.
In digital presswork, coating and varnishing is done off-line on machines that apply fluid to the prints either by confining it to selected areas (spot mode) or by flooding the entire sheet. Water-based (aqueous) coatings are popular for their quick drying, pleasing surface appearance, and environmental friendliness.
But for the ultimate in protection and special effects, overprinting with UV-curable fluids is the method of choice. Duplo, a manufacturer of off-line UV coating systems and other finishing equipment, puts it this way: “Digital spot UV coating adds an element of touch and feel to the printed product. It adds a layer of texture and depth to the images printed on the flat sheet. It’s the creation of a gritty sand beach, the grip of a football, and the dimpled water drops on a beer bottle. It’s the textures and patterns that bring images to life and elicit a reaction from the target audience that sells.”
The technique, sometimes referred to as dimensional printing or chemical embossing, creates textural surfaces that give the print an eye-catching layer of protection against wear and tear. Spot UV coating can be applied like ink to create letterforms and other designs that stand out in high, clear relief above the surface of the substrate. Because exposure to UV (ultraviolet) radiation in a spot coating unit hardens the fluid instantly, there is no waiting time for drying.
UV embellishment does more than make print ruggedly handsome. It makes print more profitable to sell. The visual and tactile interest it adds represents unique value that customers are willing to pay extra for. As Duplo says, “The intangible impact is in the printing company’s overall increase in sales revenue that occurs when offering customers something new and exciting to drive print demand and improve brand equity.” UV embellishment accomplishes all of this par excellence.
A fact for print service providers to keep in mind is that they aren’t necessarily the only customers for embellishment solutions. The design studio, branding agency, or marketing communications firm that installs a digital press will want to enhance the output with the help of embellishment solutions that fit their environments and are easy and affordable to operate.
The message to printers who don’t want to see clients like these turn into do-it-yourselfers — or who don’t want to lose them to the competition — is clear: be equipped to offer them both digital printing and the added value of embellishment. Be prepared to educate them about how embellishing their print can bring them closer to achieving their marketing objectives. Show them samples of applications that make the point and, as a result, help you make the sale.
(Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a white paper produced for Canon Solutions America, Enterprise Services & Solutions.)