by Jen Clark, PostPress
In the last 30 years, digital printing has grown at a very fast pace. Offset printers – commercial and packaging – became early adopters to digital technology and the optimization it offered. But, after an item was printed, the digital processes came to a stop, and highly skilled employees took on the task of completing time-consuming finishing techniques. From diecutting and creasing to foil stamping and UV inkjet, game-changing technology is starting to shift paradigms in the print finishing world and improve the bottom lines of its users.
“The biggest influence that digital technology has had on the printing industry is that it has turned what used to be a craft production industry into a service industry and a science,” said Vic Stalam, president of Highcon, Inc. “Today’s printers – the most successful ones at least – have realized that providing great service and responsiveness to their customers is at least as important as the quality of the printed product. Digital technology has meant they can provide the short runs that their customers require – profitably!”
Kevin Abergel, vice president of marketing and sales at MGI Digital Technology, Melbourne, Florida, agreed. “The impact on the printing industry has been tremendous over the last 10-15 years,” he said. “We believe that the time for digital finishing technology adoption has arrived. The transition to digital finishing is inevitable, simply because the nature of our society and economy is to develop and deploy new technology. For finishers, that “tipping point” of market adoption and conversion is being reached now. MGI foresees steady, long-term growth for digital solutions in the print finishing marketplace.”
The advantages of integrating a digital finishing platform give businesses the opportunity to offer new services and gain new customers. “This digital process enables flexibility of design and process,” Stalam said. Other benefits include differentiation and efficiency. This means brand owners looking for innovation and differentiation no longer have to restrain their designers’ creativity, which “has been limited by the restrictions imposed by the conventional die,” he said. “Converters and printers will be able to offer a whole new level of time-to-shelf delivery, and consumers will get the high-quality products they need far more rapidly. And, as with any digital technology, the entire process is streamlined to solve the challenges of complicated supply chains and approval cycles.”
Stalam called finishing the “last frontier of digital,” noting that prepress is all digital. “Digital printing is growing exponentially, but finishing has remained stubbornly analog,” he said. “Digital finishing is not just about taking the way we do finishing today and digitizing it. The real value is using the features that will bring value to our customers. We will help them sell more and basically grow their business. Our job is to help our customers make money.”
Aside from the different technical approaches between offset and digital equipment, there have been two main areas where digital print finishing technology is making a difference: operational cost and business communication value, Abergel noted. “The operational cost changes are enormous,” he said. “Turnaround times dramatically are accelerated, and per-job costs significantly are decreased. Additionally, since the preparation and cleanup requirements for digital finishing systems are so minimal, there is a tremendous advantage from an operational management and workshop environment perspective. Digital technologies are faster, safer, cleaner and more cost-effective solutions than traditional analog methodologies for the growing short- and medium-run market segments.”
As for business communication value, Abergel said the influence of digital finishing is just beginning to be felt. “VDF (variable data finishing) and FOD (finish on demand) express the revolutionary changes that digital is bringing to the industry,” he said.
Technology opens doors for finishers
Two relatively new pieces of equipment are moving the print finishing industry into the short- to medium-run market through the use of digital technology – the Highcon Euclid digital cutting and creasing machine and MGI’s iFOIL digital hot foil module.
Headquartered in Israel, Highcon expanded into the Americas (North America, Canada and South America) in early 2015 after a successful launch of the Highcon Euclid II series of digital cutting and creasing machines at GRAPH EXPO 14. The Euclid incorporates Highcon’s patented Digital Adhesive Rule Technology (DART) to produce creases, as well as high-speed laser optics to cut a range of substrates. This process eliminates the conventional diemaking step. It has been installed at customer sites in the US, Europe, Middle East and Africa.
“The Highcon Euclid is the first production digital cutting and creasing solution that actually brings the digital into finishing – with no need for a conventional die,” Stalam said. The machine handles carton board from 8-24pt and microflute up to 47pt. It can produce up to 1,500 B1 sheets per hour depending on the crease line length, type of substrate and job complexity. “Jobs are stored on a memory stick, not in a warehouse,” he added.
Creasing data comes from a DXF file and is sent to the special DART canister, which releases polymer onto a Highcon DART foil in the form of rules that when cured will produce hard, raised lines, Stalam explained. The cutting is done by an array of high-powered CO2 lasers, combined with scanners and advanced optics, which perform the cutting design laid out in the software. The laser can produce etching effects, variable cutouts, perforations (like zipper tears), scoring and numerous other effects. “The Euclid system opens up a lot of opportunities to brand owners, because now they can design creative packages which they could not dream of before due to the limitations of current finishing technologies,” he said.
The iFOIL module, MGI’s inline complement to the JETvarnish 3D UV spot coater, opens doors to digital embossing and hot foil stamping solutions. The iFOIL makes hot foiling easy since it requires no plates, no dies and no makeready, thus allowing users to produce hot foil stamping and embossing jobs on one to thousands of sheets on the fly, explained Abergel. The JETvarnish 3D can produce up to 5,200 12×18″ pages or 3,000 B2 pages per hour (2D effects) with an input/output capacity of about 4,000 sheets.
“MGI digital finishing systems have the ability to serve as full-scale production systems for the largest enterprise printing organizations – and to serve as a bridge between the analog past and digital future,” he said. Producing visual elegance and tactile excitement, the JETvarnish 3D and iFOIL module can enhance everything from magazine covers, books, brochures and labels to invitations and packaging. It also takes personalization to the next level because the iFOIL allows for the personalization of embossed hot foil, a never-before-seen finish.
A benefit of both products is the speed in which a proof can become a finished product. The Euclid produces proofs with the same process as the real production, Stalam said. “Also, the digital technology means that last-minute changes, whether due to errors or design changes, instantly can be implemented in the software. As one of our customers said, ‘Once we get approval, we can be in production within minutes.'”
Similarly, digital finishing with the iFOIL opens up innovation on the creative side by giving finishers the ability to rapidly offer customers a wide variety of prototype options, a multitude of choices for customizing product brand identity and complete individuality in personalizing output for each unique client. This is what will create new demand and growth for the industry, Abergel said. “The tools of digital finishing – and the ability to generate multiple prototypes immediately before launching production – are giving graphic designers options, ideas, effects and alternatives that they’ve never had access to before,” he said. “Digital finishing is expanding the boundaries of what can be created, produced, customized and personalized. It is opening up the imagination of graphic artists across the industry.”
As run lengths continue to decrease, printers and converters face challenges with customer demands for rapid turnaround and highly customized designs. “Every customer has told us run lengths are decreasing every year,” Stalam said. And, while there can be reluctance from those who are wary of the change in process – “they need to rethink the whole supply chain with an emphasis on rapid turnaround and design flexibility and get the most out of the efficiencies.”
“Our current customers have been the kind of visionary leaders that one would expect to adopt such a new technology,” Stalam said. “They saw the business advantages immediately and have been making huge strides in introducing it to their existing customers, as well as selling the benefits to new prospects. For digital printers, it is an easy concept to grasp as they are already in that on-demand, quick response frame of mind.”
MGI believes that digital print finishing is the key driver to help generate a renaissance of printing in the 21st century. “We sell digital finishing technology with the concept that enhancing printed output also enhances printing customer relationships and, therefore, profitability,” Abergel said. “Unlike commodity work with low margins, unique print finishing can command high premiums. Furthermore, specialty print effects make print more special to the customer. Printed output becomes more personable, memorable and significant with enhancement. This leads to more repeat sales orders, more referrals and more new job opportunities.”
While digital finishing can provide reduced operational costs and increased per-job and per-sheet profitability, MGI and Highcon agreed most print finishing companies utilize a balance between analog finishing and digital finishing. “Most craft print finishers will balance the distribution between digital and analog systems based on job requirements, Abergel said.
Added Stalam: “We definitely see the Euclid working alongside traditional finishing techniques, which are better suited for very long runs with lots of repeats. But, we see a lot of short- and medium-run jobs moving rapidly to the digital finishing arena as the constant demand for market segmentation drives the requirement for frequent changes in design, in customization, seasonal products, etc.”
The producers of GRAPH EXPO recently named both companies to its coveted “Must See ‘Ems” list. GRAPH EXPO 15 will take place Sept. 13-16 at McCormick Place South in Chicago, Illinois. The Highcon Euclid II+ and the MGI iFOIL T were chosen in the PostPress and Inline Finishing category. MGI also was recognized for its Meteor DP1000 and DF Pro Integrated Inline Product Suite in the Pressroom: Digital Presses category.
iFOIL T builds on the technology of the iFOIL module, Abergel said. It is a full-scale production toner foiling system integrated inline with the Meteor DP presses. “This is an entirely new design strategy for enhancing output with foil because the potential variations of the color and reflection are infinite,” he explained. “So, now instead of simply having CMYK production color printing plus one additional color, you have CMYK production with virtually unlimited color and reflection possibilities based on the vast array of color foils available in the marketplace.”
Of the honor, Stalam said: “The selection of Euclid technology as a Must See ‘Em at GRAPH EXPO reinforces our belief that our technology is ready and will fundamentally change the finishing business.”
Additionally, the Printing Industries of America (PIA) honored Highcon (Euclid) and MGI (iFOIL) with 2015 InterTech Technology Awards. Since 1978, PIA has recognized ground-breaking technologies that are predicted to have a major impact on the graphic arts and related industries. The judging criteria are based on technological innovation and business value toward advancing the future growth of the entire print industry.
In announcing Highcon’s award, Mark Bohan, PIA’s vice president of technology and research, noted: “Finishing often is seen as the bottleneck in production. This changes the balance with reduced turnaround time and no money spent on dies. The DART technology was an innovative approach to create crease lines – all in all, it makes short-run conversion of paper, labels, folding cartons and microflute more economical than ever.”
Bohan said MGI’s iFOIL digital hot foiling system brings foil finishing into the digital era. “The application of variable data finishing (VDF) opens up whole new business opportunities for printers,” he said, noting the judges were particularly impressed with the range of metallic colors and tones, as well as the effects that can be created with the technology.