A Guide to Buying Digital Finishing Systems (Part Two)
1.) In-Line Versus Off-Line
Ah, the eternal question. I face this dilemma on almost a daily basis when attempting to recommend a system configuration. Not long ago, the answer would have been simple. Near-line or off-line. Why? Because the digital continuous printer folks were hesitant to incorporate any third-party device that might stop their printer. And for good reason. Lots of printer "re-starts" during a shift would not only consume time, but a fair amount of paper in the process.
But there is a shift occurring. When I speak with digital print vendors now, their prospects and customers are "all-in" on in-line. Why? Several factors. Labor is the big one. Digital print has a higher cost factor than offset, so printers want to keep the labor needed at a minimum. The ideal system is one where white paper goes in, and finished product comes out with one operator overseeing production. Moving a print roll (stacks or paper) around to the finisher increases the amount of "touches," and thus the labor cost. Finally, managing re-prints of damaged work becomes more difficult in a near-line or off-line system.
The second factor is quality control. Printers of "critical" material (such as transactional houses) feel that the risk of an incomplete statement set or a mis-collation is lower with an in-line system.
But in-line finishing systems are not for every application. If your workflow demands frequent format changes, some finishing systems may not be capable of the fast changeovers that you need. And the finishing end may simply not be able to keep up with the press. This is why many firms still prefer to run their digital press flat-out, and go near-line with finishing. Which leads us to our second topic.
2.) How Much Automation Do You Need?
This will depend (to some degree) on whether your system is in-line, or off-line. Machine automation is at a level that was unheard of back in the 90’s. Manufacturers are well aware of the demand for more from the industry and have answered the call. Most digital web finishing modules are configured via a touchscreen interface, so a job changeover for an in-line system may take a few minutes (or less). Some systems can receive makeready instructions from an input file.
Automation accomplishes three goals. First, it can accomplish setups much faster than manual makeready. Secondly, the set-ups are exactly the same each time, eliminating any inconsistencies caused by a human operator. This feature alone is highly valued by digital printers, since it’s one of the key selling points for buying a digital press in the first place. And last, you don’t need a highly trained operator for the machine.
But you pay a premium for all of this software and servo motors. So if you’re operating a near, or off-line finisher and your formats do not vary greatly during a shift, you would do better by choosing a less-automated (and cheaper) system where a reasonably trained operator can do the work.
I hope that by passing on my experience, you will be able to make the best finishing decision for your operation.
Related story: A Guide to Buying Digital Finishing Systems (Part One)