3D Printing – Beam me up Scotty

6 12 2011

I had a few comments that my last blog was a wee bit on the heavy side. So I thought I would lighten things up a bit before Christmas.

On hearing that the latest Mars rover “curiosity” had started its 8 month journey to the red planet, I got to thinking that we haven’t really come a long way, in space exploration, since I was a kid. I remember sitting, glued to the TV in total fascination as Neil Armstrong did his famous moon-walk.

Not long before the moon landing, my family bought a colour TV. The salesman proudly told us that it was the 9th colour TV in Aberdeen (my great grand-mother moved in with us – she bought the TV to keep herself occupied). It was such a novelty that we would have the whole neighbourhood crammed into our lounge on a Thursday night to watch High Chapparal and Star Trek. Since then I have often thought how great it would be to have a replicator machine (as seen in the canteen on board Star Trek) to dish up any meal (or drink) on demand. I never really thought that we would see anything like it in my day………but maybe we will.

The visual communications industries, including print, have definitely not slouched in progress. Certainly TV’s have come a long way from the majestic 25″ model that graced my family lounge in the late 1960’s.  That TV was valve driven and housed in a cabinet bigger than the desk I’m sitting at writing this blog. It was installed by piano movers. Today a 50″ LED screen can be moved by one person (if they had arms long enough). I seem to remember the crew on the bridge of Star Trek all staring at a large flat screen………probably around 100″ – no longer science fiction.

Other devices on Star Trek seem to have entered into our daily lives too.

Scotty "I'm not sure what happened last night - but get me out of here"

Jim’s “communicator” is suspiciously similar to a flip top mobile phone. In fact the communicator seems positively clunky and crude compared to the latest phones……………….and no one can deny that all the captains, Jim, Jean Luc, Janeway – all read their favourite novels and reports on i-pads (or was it an android device).

Other things like automatic sliding doors seemed to have crept into daily life very quietly. I wondered in fascination , as a child, at how the doors on the Enterprise seemed to know Spock and the crew were coming………..now, if a glass door doesn’t open on its own accord for me, it takes me a few seconds to figure out how to open the bloody thing…………..either that or I walk into it.

Well the print industry has definitely kept up with the space age. We can now, through digital print, print every copy with unique elements of images and text. We can print one-off books and posters in full colour. The famous Star Trek replicator may, in reality, be a new 3D printing press.

3D printing or “rapid prototyping” came out a few years ago and, at that time, I saw a device that used a type of melted plastic, extruded into rough shapes and cleaned up with lasers. I thought then that it could be the beginning of a “replicator” and my comment was “It will be at least a decade before it can produce  something intricate and another decade before they can do it with some sort of solid material.” In other words I thought it was just a neat tool used for creating plastic prototypes.

Take a look at this article

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQHnMj6dxj4&feature=youtu.be

It depicts 3D printing in action. There are a now a few manufacturers of 3D printing or fabrication machines. Trek bicycles (I want one) use a 3D press to manufacture new parts for research and development. They can “print” all the parts a new bike and put it together for fit and feel in a matter of weeks – where they took months, or even years, to completely revise designs in the past.

The health sector has really taken hold of this technology using it to produce precise orthotics for shoe inserts, dental implant and prosthetics. Mindblowingly, they are starting to explore the possibility of printing human organs, layering cells upon cells to build up (or grow) a completely compatible organ for transplants http://www.theatlanticwire.com/technology/2011/09/3d-printing-blood-vessels/42608/

"McCoy - I want one of those i-Pad 6's for Xmas"

Short term, 3D printing will prove to be very beneficial for designers (of just about everything) and may kick off a mini revolution in small industry. This is because 3D printing uses “additive manufacturing”.

Traditionally we have employed a wasteful method of subtractive manufacturing. Say we want to build a car –  we basically manufacture each part out of a block of steel and shave off bits (or subtract) until we have the correct shape. The 3D method builds up (or adds) each part, layer on layer without wasting the raw material. Obviously as resources grow more scarce in the future – additive manufacture methods will be more favourable.

This could lead to the ultimate in print on demand……….my Star Trek replicator. Heading up to Xmas it would be really handy to print up a turkey, ham and maybe a bottle of Speyside single malt.

Feel free to make comments or contact me if you want to discuss any topic or visit any of our plants.

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DAM – What does it mean and do I need it?

29 11 2011

Digital PeasDigital Asset Management (DAM) never really took off in NZ. Part of the problem is that it’s one of those terms that seems to mean different things to different people. It seemed to segment itself before it really got started .

To most, DAM simply means, an on-line website or library to store all of your digital assets (images, document files etc). However, my mates in print production would refer to DAM as a  process (including software) that manages the ” digital asset” from creation to proof to press and then into storage. Our designers and agencies have even more definitions to share with us.

Around 10 years ago many DAM solutions sprang up due to the need for customers to manage their ever-growing digital assets. Many of these software solutions allowed the customers to manage files on their own servers. This started a shift from all assets being stored and owned by agencies to in-house file management and hosted storage. This was a (potentially huge) revenue loss for agencies who responded by developing even more sophisticated DAM systems. Tools that could provide collaborative on-line file editing and proofing, video and audio file storage and file format conversion. At the same time Google, Microsoft, Xerox and other giants have been developing document storage solutions that act as a DAM tool.

There is no doubt that ” digital asset” storage and administration has fast become a must for most businesses. Almost everything seems to a have a visual component now. With the rapid growth of social media through smart-phones and tablets (% of mobile phones in use that are smart-phones hit 20% last year. Australia is now at 37%) it seems that everything points to a website, You Tube video or just an image. This has led to a whole new need and term – re-purposing.

No longer are images required just for A4 printed pages and websites they are needed for smart-phone compatible websites, wide-screen displays, low resolution, high-definition displays, wide format banners and thumbnails. Images may need to be reformatted to suit the device they are being displayed on (or the purpose of the message). Some DAM software systems include conversion tools so that you can sent a provider the image in whatever format they require (Native, PDF, EPS, TIF, Gif etc). The alternative is to store different format versions on file – exponentially increasing the size of your asset list and the time required to admin.

DAM systems have generally proven to be difficult to use (if you don’t use them regularly), they are also fairly expensive. Many have a license fee for users and a monthly storage-space fee per Gig of data storage.

If this all sounds complicated – you can see why many customers still prefer their designers and agencies to manage their assets for them. So whats the point of DAM software if we can just leave it to the designers and agencies as we did in the past?

Well speed for a start – if you can handle the assets yourself you can save a lot of time and effort. From a printers perspective, we often get less time to print the job than it takes to get the finished file signed off (and into our eager hands). A customer may give us a heads-up on Tuesday that they are hoping to get us a file on Thursday and would like to take  delivery, of the finished product, on the following Monday. Most often, final sign off, proofs and delivery of the file to the printer  takes longer than expected and we get the file on Friday afternoon. So any tool that speeds up file delivery to us could, potentially, double our lead time.

Cost is also important in the current economic climate. Most designers and agencies need to charge fees of between $30-200 per file download depending on format, and amount of re-purposing required. This can add up to a lot of money over 12 months.

There is some good news though. There has been some development of open source DAM software recently. It will take a while to become really robust and bug free, but it will come; and will be particularly useful for smaller businesses when it does arrive. These open source software systems will also help drive down the cost of existing DAM solutions. The increasing acceptance of software and storage in the “cloud”  will also mean reduced bulk storage costs are just around the corner.

There is also a global move towards a standard file format. Adobe has always led the way with their PDF and JDF formats and I think it is logical to assume that we all move to complete file standardisation eventually.

Wickliffe has had fun over the past few years  developing a Digital Asset Management tool. Its called Digital Peas. We started off with a vision of developing a modular system that could be sold to customers in modules as best fitted their needs (including on-line proofing, advanced editing and complete agency style file converting )………then we ran out of money.

In a way, that was a good thing. Technology, the market and our customer’s needs have radically changed over the past two years. The Digital Peas that we have recently released is now a PDF based asset library. Best of all, it is free to customers who have awarded Wickliffe Solutions (or any other member of the Kalamazoo Group) preferred supplier status.

The main features of Digital Peas are

  • Simple hosted storage of assets in a library – keeping all your assets at your fingertips
  • Super easy Version Control and archiving administration
  • Category, attributes and tagging controls to easily find, track and group assets
  • Versatile user and asset permission controls to ensure strict control of asset sharing
  • Automatic Publication of images to our ECOS ordering site to link with print on demand ordering
  • A platform designed to easily adapt to the future

Who would benefit from using Digital Peas? Well the answer to that is easy; anyone who is asked to supply files to staff, suppliers or partners on a regular basis. Even small businesses would benefit from using Digital Peas for storing assets. You would be surprised how much time is wasted hunting for mis-filed files or arranging for someone to forward a particular file on.

If you want to have a look at our at our DEMO site (http://www.digitalpeas.co.nz/sign_up) – just send me your email address in the comments box and I will return the demo user id/email address & password.

Give me a call if you would like me to pop in and take you through Digital Peas in more detail. You are more than welcome to come into our office in Kaikorai Valley if you would like to see it on the big screen……….I’ll even make you a coffee and let you in on the secret of how we came up with the name.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to follow my blog to auto receive new posts.





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