On Demand Evolution

by: Jen Clark

Many of today’s digital printers require simple, automated solutions to produce short run, ultra-short run and personalized books, booklets or pamphlets while minimizing costs and maximizing productivity and profit. Since digital printing’s inception in the 1970s, the goal of many manufacturers has been to remove costly labor steps within the printing process, thus reducing job turnaround time. As print technology has changed, so too has the postpress element of the process, especially as the trend has moved to personalized print.

Variable data technology for print

And, while not every print job is suitable for variable data printing, an obvious fit for the technology is direct mail, said Marco Boer, vice president of I.T. Strategies, a consulting firm for digital printing vendors, printing press manufacturers, image processing software and silicon players and large user industries based in Hanover, MA. Often, the final recipient of a printed document is unknown. “With direct mail, we know who the intended recipient is.”

Boer said the first application of variable data printing took place when Mead Data, which ultimately became Kodak IJ Technologies, used continuous ink jet technology to variable print addresses and simple black text messages on direct mail with 100dpi print quality. “Today we can print variable data text, graphics and photos in full-color at resolutions upwards of 1,200dpi,” he said. “Aside from the printing hardware, the real breakthroughs have come from data mining and the controllers that process and prepare the data for printing at speeds upwards of 1,000 pages per minute on production printers.”

Often called ‘short runs,’ items printed digitally, or variably, require more preparation to make a message relevant for the reader. “The more relevant the message, the more valuable the document, and the higher the response and profit to the specifier,” Boer said, adding these short runs are no longer a specialty market.

“As professional print buyers disappear and the print budgets become part of the general marketing budgets, marketing and adverting executives are buying just the amount of print they need at the time they need it. The focus is shifting from squeezing down to the lowest cost per piece to eliminating inefficiencies and waste,” Boer said.

Until recently, digital printing has been constrained to relatively small projects because the presses capable of printing short runs have had limitations on linear print speed and print width. Now, both toner- and inkjet-based technologies have become faster and wider. “This allows the switch from imprinting variable text and messages on pre-printed offset shells to directly printing the entire piece digitally at the time of need in the quantities needed,” Boer said.

The evolution of digital printing technologies took a big leap forward recently when several manufacturers debuted new equipment at drupa, a large printing equipment exhibition in Düsseldorf, Germany, that takes place every four years.

Scodix, Ltd., a Roah Ha-ayin, Israel-based provider of digital print enhancement for the graphic arts industry with North American offices in Saddlebrook, NJ, introduced a new product line at drupa -the Scodix S Series. The Scodix S74 and S52 represent two sheet size formats, 52cm wide (20″) and 74cm wide (29″), are capable of printing on thicker substrates and provide a higher ScodixSENSE solution up to 250 microns. As a stand-alone solution compatible with offset, laminated sheets and digital print feeds, the press processes a wide range of substrates and formats. “Since Scodix’s enhancement products are modular and their new features are add-ons that can be fully integrated into customers’ existing Scodix systems, print service providers can easily and cost-effectively provide the ScodixSENSEexperience on the majority of graphic art requests,” said Kobi Bar, CEO and founder of Scodix.

Digital technology for inline/offline postpress

Heidelberg, a German-based manufacturer with North American offices in Kennesaw, GA, launched the Heidelberg Linoprint digital portfolio at drupa. Heidelberg highlighted the seamless integration of offset and digital printing with solutions for short and variable runs in the commercial and packaging printing sectors with the Heidelberg Linoprint C and Linoprint L series. “This way, our customers benefit from the close interlinking of offset and digital printing that print shops can use to boost their competitiveness further,” said Stephan Plenz, member of the management board responsible for Heidelberg equipment.

The Linoprint C series offers the Prinect digital print manager. Even without integration into a complete workflow, the solution provides users with efficient and transparent digital print workflow with a wide range of functions, such as variable data management, postpress with digital inline finishing systems and a document-oriented workflow. The Linoprint L (formerly iTS6oo from CSAT) is a drop-on-demand system for the economical production of complex short- to medium-sized label and film runs and applications with variable content. It is a solution that enables applications such as smart labels, security printing and traceable labels.

Highcon Systems Ltd., a Yavne, Israel-based manufacturer, introduced the world’s first production digital cutting and creasing machine, the Highcon Euclid. The machine uses precision laser optics and polymer technologies to transform cutting and creasing from an analog to a digital workflow, streamlining the finishing process. “Over the past two decades we have witnessed key areas of the supply chain becoming digital, but packaging finishing has remained analog,” said Aviv Ratzman, Highcon’s CEO. “Converters and their customers have been unable to benefit from the speed and flexibility that digital solutions could provide to finishing.”

The digital converting solution increases speed to market, eliminates costly production steps and reduces the carbon footprint of packaging production. The implementation of this new technology can drive new packaging opportunities for converters, packaging printers and brand owners.

Just prior to drupa, HP unveiled 10 digital printing systems, including the first 29″-format HP Indigo press. HP’s large format presses offer print service providers greater versatility, productivity and quality, as well as the ability to produce more high-value personalized or customized materials for their clients.

The new systems include three next-generation 29″-format HP Indigo presses capable of producing almost any commercial print job and a much broader range of packaging solutions; three updated models of the current HP Indigo portfolio with higher speeds in Enhanced Productivity Mode (EPM); three higher-speed HP Inkjet web press models featuring advanced ink and print-head technology; and a new HP high-speed imprinting solution for adding monochrome or full-color content to preprinted offset materials.

“We are fueling an unstoppable industry transformation from analog to digital printing,” said Christopher Morgan, senior vice president of Graphic Solutions Business for HP, while unveiling the new technologies in March.”Our new digital solutions strike at the core of the printing market and are able to meet the toughest requirements of world-class brands, publishers and print service providers.”

The HP Indigo 10000 Digital Press, for example, is a 29″ sheet-fed press that prints at speeds of 3,450 sheets per hour in full color and up to 4,600 sheets per hour in EPM. It combines HP Indigo offset-matching print quality with up to seven-color printing and duplex and substrate flexibility.

HP also announced two in- or near-line finishing options for the HP Indigo 10000. One, a signature folder from MBO, a German company with offices in Westampton, NJ, helps PSPs eliminate the finishing makeready spoilage typically required in bookbinding work and offers fully automated set-up for signature-fold work. The folder also gives PSPs a continuous productivity advantage by automatically reconfiguring to handle the different format of successive jobs printed.

The other new finishing solution, the Horizon SmartStacker, is a slit-merge-stack system that automatically produces collated, stacked book blocks ready for binding. Horizon, a Kyoto, Japan-based manufacturer, expects the SmartStacker to be commercially available in mid-2013. The Horizon system maintains tight-tolerance sheet-size accuracy at running speed while converting a 20×29″ sheet into up to 28 separate pieces of paper. Horizon and HP also are developing a new Finishing Line Controller (FLC) to control all set-up and operation of the SmartStacker. The FLC will communicate with the HP Indigo 10000 and the HP SmartStream Production Pro digital front end, and receive all set-up data via JDF so jobs can flow from pre-press to finishing with complete automation and no touch points.

“Horizon developed the entire (SmartStacker) system from white paper to working technology demonstration in about one year,” said Mark Hunt, the director of strategic alliances for Standard Finishing Systems, Andover, MA, which is the North American distributor for Horizon.

At its core, the SmartStacker allows printers to “scrub more labor (touch points) from the production process to realize true short-run digital efficiency and profits,” Hunt explained. “The Horizon SmartStacker can eliminate paper cutting and/or paper folding entirely. It also can be fitted with in-line saddlestitching or perfect binding, for example, to create a ‘white paper in, finished product out’ workflow. The SmartStacker presents a new and different way of thinking.”

This new way of thinking is changing the printing industry because short runs require companies to employ highly automated finishing systems. “It was the case not too many years ago that you’d spend 30, 45, 60 minutes changing over a folder from one job to another,” Hunt said. “I could justify that if I was running 100,000 units or 75,000 units.”

The folder would run for most of a shift and stop late in the day before the next shift came in. It would take another 45 minutes to change over to a new job, he explained. “Those days are gone. The run lengths are plummeting. Digital print is enabling the run lengths to plummet.”

Instead of doing two or three different jobs a day, where extra-long changeover can be justified, printers now might be doing 20 or 30 different jobs a day. “They can’t afford to chew up that time in changeover,” Hunt said. “They need highly automated, very accurate changeovers because in the digital world, every single copy in principal can be original. If I’m doing a personalized brochure or postcard, every single card is unique. I can’t afford to burn a bunch of them up in makeready.”

Horizon offers icon-based color touchscreens, allowing operators to select the desired finishing style, input the dimensions of the piece of paper that will be finished quickly and easily, the machine will changeover to the guide settings and stops. “Everything that has to be changed to get the finished product is done internally without operator intervention,” Hunt said.

The result is no wasted product. “I’ve got zero tolerance for waste,” he said. “And I’ve accomplished my set-up in a matter of 30 seconds instead of 30 minutes.”

Finishing, Boer noted, has long been a conundrum for printers employing digital technologies. “Do you finish inline to get ultra efficiency and automation, near line to get flexibility or offline? For certain applications like book printing, inline is the way to go because the final output is relatively consistent in size/shape,” he explained. “But with direct mail, the whole point is to standout, which means you don’t want every piece to look similar.”“

“Ultimately a lot comes down to a print shop’s personal preference, existing infrastructure and the shop’s aspirations,” Boer said.