Production Digital Print: Changing the Feeding & Finishing Market

by: Jim Hamilton, InfoTrends

There are some basic advantages of digital print that sometimes are overlooked. I’m not talking about economic short runs, quick turnaround or the ability to personalize documents. Those are well known and broadly acknowledged. No, I’m talking about capabilities such as electronic collation, automatic duplexing, the ability to mix multiple paper stocks in a document, having one operator run multiple machines and access to a range of finishing capabilities in-line. These capabilities are part of what makes digital print attractive, at least in theory anyway.

In practice, of course, customer demands and the nature of the printed piece will determine which type of print and finishing process to use, whether it’s offset, digital, some hybrid combination or another printing process entirely. Decisions about what process to use are made every day by print service providers. In regard to finishing, commercial printers have tended to use off-line finishing methods because of the wide variety of work they accept. Those who focus on a particular application such as books, catalogs, direct mail, magazines, newspapers or packaging are much more likely to have dedicated finishing capability that they depend on, and which may operate in-line. When digital print comes into the mix, it often happens that print service providers continue with off-line finishing methods because those assets are already in place and effective, even if they are not particularly well suited to the short runs and quick turnaround of digital print. Digital print processes with in-line finishing tend to be employed when users have a lot of one print application. In cut-sheet digital print environments, the most common in-line finishing is for stapled sets, booklets, folded brochures and bound documents. In-line coating and diecutting are in place in a small number of cut-sheet systems. Requirements for roll-fed systems are a bit different. Slitting, cutting, stacking and binding are common for publishing environments while folding and insertion are typical in transaction and mail environments.

Digital print’s biggest weakness to date has been that it becomes less cost effective as run lengths increase. Offset and other types of traditional printing presses, as you all know, are very effective at manufacturing large quantities of static printed matter but they lack the ability to personalize. In production environments, digital print often has been seen as not having the fire power to meet the demands of high-volume printing. A number of trends are conspiring to change this:

  • Run length requirements are dropping and so are expected turnaround times as the pace of our mobile society has accelerated.
  • Content creators are rebelling against the old mode of “warehouse and distribute” and instead are moving to virtual warehousing via electronic distribution of documents and selected printing of constantly updated materials.
  • Digital print engines are becoming faster and more robust, and also are adding capabilities beyond process color (CMYK) such as spot color, spot and flood gloss, white, MICR and UV security features.
  • In-line finishing for digital is expanding its range of capabilities and at the same time, vendors are standardizing finishing interfaces and using the same finishing devices across multiple product lines; it’s not unusual today for the same in-line finisher to be an option for black and white and color product lines.
  • In-line devices for cut-sheet production digital print are becoming more compact and productive, in part because of more flexible consumables for functions such as mechanical binding (case in point: GBC’s eBinder and Ellipse consumable).
  • All types of finishing equipment (in-line, near-line and off-line) are becoming easier to set up and adjust, often automatically.
  • Automated job ticketing and JDF workflows allow in-line and near-line finishing devices to pick up job information and set up easily for the next job.
  • Digital print processes are capable of hands-off, lights-out production that takes place with a minimum of human intervention.
  • New high-speed inkjet technologies are pushing the barriers of cost, speed and productivity.

Many of the items I mention above have been on an evolutionary path over the past two decades. These will continue to impact the market. It’s the last item – high-speed inkjet technologies – that is potentially market changing because the speed and economics of these devices are so impressive. At the same time, though, they create new requirements for next generation finishing systems.

One immediate challenge is supporting the finishing needs of wider web widths. Production digital print devices typically support a paper web width of between 18 and 21 inches. A number of new high-speed color inkjet printers (such as HP’s Inkjet Web Press T350, Kodak’s Prosper 5000XL, Océ’s JetStream 3300, Ricoh’s InfoPrint 5000VP and Screen’s TruePress Jet 520ZZ) all have expanded web widths, with some as wide as 30 inches. The speed, productivity and web width of these devices present challenges to existing in-line finishing equipment. These challenges are being overcome, but it’s also one reason why some users prefer to stick with the narrower format offerings, simply because they raise fewer issues in finishing.

You’d think that a trade show would be one of the best places to see some of the exciting new developments around roll-fed finishing products, and in fact, if you were at IPEX (last May in Birmingham, England) or have plans to attend drupa 2012 (next May in Dusseldorf, Germany), both of those events provide a great showcase. Most recent, however, was a special event that Hunkeler (a Swiss manufacturer of roll-fed oriented feeding and finishing equipment) has run at its headquarters over the past few years. A lot of people call it the Hunkeler open house, but its official name is “Hunkeler Innovation Days.” It took place from February 14th to 17th in Lucerne, Switzerland, and attendees were be able to see a range of equipment from vendors active in roll-fed print such as HP, Kern, Kodak, Océ, Pitney Bowes, Ricoh/InfoPrint, Xeikon, Xerox and – of course – Hunkeler, among many others. Closer to home, the ON DEMAND show (March 22-24 in Washington, DC) is a great place to catch up on trends in cut-sheet finishing for production digital print (in-line or otherwise).

The extent to which automation in finishing has advanced is demonstrated by what Pitney Bowes presented at Graph Expo last fall in Chicago. There, high-speed color inkjet output from an IntelliJet 30 was slit, cut and inserted into blank envelopes. An intelligent tracking system identified each envelope and, based on the number of sheets contained within, adjusted the height of the imaging platform so that the correct address, personalized information and marketing message could be added in full color to the already sealed envelope. Of course, this kind of high-volume intelligent production system represents a significant financial investment, but there are other examples that demonstrate that feeding and finishing innovation is not just taking place on the high end. For example, the Kirk-Rudy envelope feeder that RISO showed in conjunction with a 150-ppm ComColor 9050 solves a simple, but important, issue. How do you print effectively on all kinds of envelopes, including windowed ones which may have trouble passing successfully through the hot temperatures of the fuser rollers of toner-based systems? Inkjet systems such as RISO’s ComColor have a solution, but only when used in combination with an effective and productive envelope feeder. In time, we expect to see more cost effective folding and insertion technologies that bring this finishing capability within reach of smaller print service providers.

We’re also seeing how inkjet technology is being used for spot and gloss coating. MGI’s JETvarnish uses inkjet heads to apply a UV coating on sheets up to 20 by 40 inches. At IPEX, an Israeli company called Scodix showed a digital embossing product it calls the 1200. The 1200 uses inkjet heads to apply a thick UV coating on sheets as large as B2 format (19.7 by 27.8 inches). We expect this to be an active area that is driven by innovative usage of inkjet heads.

Workflows that take advantage of digital print and in-line or near-line finishing are part of a larger trend toward optimization, automation and lean manufacturing. Printing has lessened in importance as it has become one weapon in an arsenal that includes other media. We no longer live in a print centric world and yet print continues to play an important role because it’s physical, lasting and doesn’t require electricity to read. Digital print, in particular, is key, because it forces us to revisit the basic value of print in an electronic world. How we answer the following questions will in large part determine the success of print in the future.

  • How do you most effectively automate print and finishing processes?
  • How do you use digital print devices as virtual document warehouses?
  • How do you leverage digital print in conjunction with document delivery via e-mail, mobile or other electronic delivery methods?
  • How do you differentiate print and add overall value?

Finishing will certainly play an important role in how we address these questions.

In conclusion, it’s short-sighted in light of the changing marketplace to continue to view production digital print as a short-run technology. The market is expanding, and it’s only able to do so as finishing technologies provide a key component to help accomplish this revolution.

Jim Hamilton is a Group Director at InfoTrends ( You can follow him on Twitter at and read his blog at