The Digital Bindery
A second difference is that digital printing run lengths are starting to become "run lengths of one," i.e., each document is now unique. In this situation, setup and makeready between runs are no longer the issue—the only way to do this is with standardization of format using variable content. Also, with each document unique, the value of each document is now much higher. It is not simply a matter of printing a few "overs" to take care of waste. This creates positive pressure for the job integrity associated with in-line finishing.
Time is also an issue; digital print customers want faster turnaround. In a digital world, the time required for an off-site trade binder to finish output is likely to become unacceptable. And the off-line bindery, even if in-house, will be pressured, as well.
While these factors argue for in-line finishing, there are real barriers to widespread adoption any time soon. The market is going to have to accept standardization of output, and new products will be needed.
The promise of the "run length of one" has the primary advantage of handling everything as an electronic file all the time. In theory, there is no end to the variety that can be built into applications, if everything is digitally based. And, since change is instantaneous, invisible and virtually cost-free, we can only expect this to increase. The paradox is that, while shorter run lengths become feasible, it will still be difficult to change the format of each run. So, we will need standardization of media and finishing formats to make the resulting products feasible from a cost standpoint, and to drive print volume, so the advantages of in-line finishing can be realized.
The market for digital finishing equipment is not yet as mature as the traditional graphic arts equipment market across the broad spectrum of finishing requirements. Relatively little finishing equipment has been designed specifically to work in-line with on-demand printing equipment. As the market starts to see more products specifically designed to work with digital printers, we will see more in-line finishing. Until then, the flexibility of off-line finishing will argue in its favor.