Digital Printing: Order placed ……..Nek Minute…….Delivered

22 11 2011

Unlike 10 years ago, nowadays,  there is hardly a print shop that doesn’t have a digital printing device and offer “digital printing”. You probably have one or two digital printing devices at home – even the humble inkjet the kids use (that costs next to nothing to buy but a fortune to fill up) is a digital printing device.

I guess, as the digital print industry has now blossomed, the term “digital printing” is so broad that it is difficult for us to define precisely. By simplistic definition – digital print is any device that prints directly from the file without the need of any analogue transfer materials such film or plates. So this covers lasers, inkjets, liquid toner, die sublimation etc.

I thought the best way to handle digital print would be to answer a few common questions I have had recently

“In plain English – What is the real advantages and disadvantages of Digital”

The advantage = Low cost of set up, fast set up, fast turnaround, variable copy = Inexpensive short runs when compared to traditional offset printing.

Disadvantage = Slow machine speeds, higher per-piece rates = Expensive larger runs when compared to traditional offset printing.

In a nutshell if you want a short run, a fast turnaround or a variable copy (different text or images on every copy)  digital is the way to go. If you want pallet loads of same copy pieces – Offset is the way to go.

“Someone told me that digital printing is really just glorified colour copying”

Most light manufacturing digital machines are exactly that – and to be honest, they will do a great job on pieces that don’t need a high quality finish. Such as flyers and other jobs that have a short lifespan.

If you need a high quality finish (for company profiles, annual reports or images with skin tones etc.) you will need a provider with a Digital Press. These are around the same physical size as a traditional offset press and can produce results that are difficult to tell apart from a job produced on a high quality offset press. A good method of checking the quality of your printer’s digital machine is to ask for 4x test sheets. Each test sheet printed on  SRA3, 300gsm paper stock with one of the CMYK colours (as a solid colour) over the entire sheet. This will really test the press to the extreme. Lesser machines will produce distinct banding across the sheet. High quality digital presses will provide perfect solid colours or minimal banding.

“What is the cut off point between digital and offset – I seem to hear different stories from different printers”

That’s not really surprising – this is a moving target totally dependent on which digital and offset presses are being compared. It is also dependent on the specs of each job. However, as a rough guide, I would usually say to customers ask for a digital quote (as well as an offset quote)  for anything up to around 3000 pieces. To give you an idea of the pace of change – the crossover threshold I quoted around 8 years ago was a “few hundred” pieces.

The offset printing press manufacturers are busy making their “economic minimum run” smaller every year. They are focusing on technology innovations aimed at making their machines faster and cheaper to make ready. Meanwhile the digital  press manufacturers are focusing on making faster running machines so that they can compete on the larger print jobs. New models of digital presses are usually released by the major brands  every 12-24 months. Our state of the art fleet of Xerox C1000 presses, purchased only 12 months ago – will probably be superseded with more advanced models within the next 12 months.

“What do you reckon is the next big thing in digital print” 

Without a doubt inkjet.

Inkjet is already making huge advances in black and white. Most of our paperbacks and novels will be black and white printed on reelfed inkjets within a few years. When the colour inkjet speed, quality and running cost can be matched to offset we will see digital taking on the large run market. Already there has been amazing advances in the large format machines (poster, banner printing etc. )

The other big shift will likely be into value added features such as flexible toners and effects (such as Xerox’s “clear dry ink” clear overgloss effect). There has been talk for a while now about he ultimate in “hybrid” presses. These will , theoretically, have digital and offset components and be able to handle, small, variable and large runs. It hasn’t worked perfectly yet, but who knows what technology will bring us in the next few years.

“What should I look for when choosing a digital print provider?”

Flexibility is the key here.

If you can find a supplier that has a variety of machines – you will most likely get the best deal. There is no point printing a small quantity of low complexity flyers on a large digital press or attempting to print an annual report on a smaller , less capable machine. It can also be a good idea if you have  a supplier that can offer an offset option. This way you know that they aren’t pushing a solution as it’s the only capability they have.

Backing up is also important. I love digital print, but I have to admit that digital presses are ( like most electronic, computerized, devices ) more susceptible to service requirements than mechanical offset presses. How many times has your infrequently used photocopier, jammed when you need an urgent copy?? We get around this by preventative servicing and fitting out each of our branches with the same models (we have 4 x C1000 presses around the country). This gives us a high level of redundancy. We can flick files up to Christchurch or Wellington if our machine has a backlog of work or breaks down.

So digital print has brought us affordable colour, economic small runs and  much faster lead times. It is hard to believe that when I started out in print (in the 1980’s) standard commercial print lead times were around 2-3 weeks and forms and publication were around two months or more.

Drop me a line if you would like to visit our digital division in Dunedin or some more info about our digital capabilities.

Why not get your next project quoted to run digitally with variable text?  You could be surprised at how inexpensive your next marketing campaign could turn out to be.

C1000 Digital Press at Wickliffe Dunedin