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Printing Impressions-March 2001 Column
Desktop Digital Printing
Do you remember my November column? Or is that like asking if you recall the last time you stubbed your toe? Well, just in case my golden words aren't etched in your memory, I wrote about a new print market generated by totally automated, e-commerce, short-run color printing. Let me refresh your memory by retelling the scenario that I related in the November column.

The real estate agent logs onto the Website of her favorite printer and easily fills out the quick quote form that mostly consists of check boxes. She gets an instant quote, which she accepts. The quote, along with some additional information that she supplies (billing, shipping, etc.), now becomes the job ticket.

Each quote has a unique number, which becomes the job number. She drags her files onto an icon on the printer's site. The icon automatically starts a procedure that flight checks the job. If the job passes flight check, it is automatically sent to the printer's server by FTP. The quote, which is now a job ticket, is sent to a production control computer. Of course, a copy of the job number stays with the job at all times for identification.

The job is RIPed and trapped automatically, and sent to a digital press to be printed--all almost untouched by human hands, in a fraction of today's time, at a fraction of today's cost. Furthermore, I wrote that the job would be color corrected automatically so that no proof is necessary.

If you want to know more about this, go to Printing Impressions' Website at Click article archives, type "waldman" (without the quotes) in the top box, and "11/1/00" (without the quotes) in the bottom for the complete November article. Incidentally, you should take advantage of PI's fine Website. It has a wealth of knowledge, particularly in article archives where you can find valuable information on just about any subject that you may be pondering.

Let's now suppose that the very same real estate agent only wants 50 copies of her brochure, which is 11"x17", four-color, two sides. Guess what? She doesn't need the Internet or a commercial printer. She can print it right in her own office in less than an hour for about $50 in consumables. Guess what, too? The quality can be at or near commercial print quality. If you haven't noticed, today's laser printers for the office are producing extraordinary quality. Case in point: the Xerox Phaser 790DP.

The Phaser 790DP sells for an estimated retail price of $7,199. It can print up to 13"x18" and down to 3"x5", with a maximum image area of 12.6"x17.7". According to the manufacturer, the cost of consumables at 20 percent coverage is 13.2 cents per sheet, which, of course, increases as the coverage increases. I'm a PostScript RIP fan and this machine uses a PostScript 3 RIP. So far, all this may sound great, but what about ink-jet devices selling for less than $1,000 that also produce superb quality?

There are many differences. First, the Phaser prints great on just about any paper, while most ink-jets print best on an exquisite sheet that is so expensive, you're tempted to store it in your safe. The Phaser 790DP can print both sides automatically. In many cases, that priceless ink-jet paper can only be printed single-sided and, even if you find a sheet that allows duplex printing, you would have to manually feed it through again.

Needless to say, I don't know of any office ink-jet printer that can come close to laser printer speeds for color. Plus, it has power with 128MB of RAM (more if you want) and, with a 6GB hard drive, you can put a great many jobs already RIPed in queue and manipulate them right up to print time. And, of course, the Phaser is a true network printer, which is critical to most office environments. In essence, the key differences are in productivity and per piece cost.

In my November article, I wrote about automatic color matching, as well. But I also stressed that this audience is not producing annual reports with Fabio Fanatic, graphic designer extraordinaire, so color matching isn't that finicky. Ironically, in this situation Fabio might be more impressed.

While the machine prints very well with its out-of-the-box settings, it has some very sophisticated controls. This might not be suitable for the real estate agent to tackle, but someone with color experience has access to a range of color control curves that could allow a reasonable match with a commercial press.

However, I'm at a loss to report just how close it can get because I haven't seen a demo yet where it was tuned to perfection. Thus I'm not sure if it has the capabilities to produce a useable proof. Of course that begs the question, good enough for who and what type of work? I would like to see a good shop experiment with it. Perhaps somebody out there has; if so, let me know.

What does all this mean to you, the commercial printer? First, if it doesn't produce a contract proof now, how long before a device costing even less is introduced that can satisfy most (not all) of your proofing needs? And how about remote proofing with your top customers?

The bigger question is: Will high-quality laser printers like the Xerox Phaser affect your business? Many--large-format sheetfed printers, in particular--will immediately dismiss this thought with the firm belief that the speeds are still too slow and, to produce good work, adjustment expertise and finishing are still required.

But I urge you to think again or to at least keep your eye on future developments. For 300 copies per hour today might be 3,000 per hour tomorrow. More importantly, this is a good example of how on-demand printing might be a better solution. Instead of printing 20M brochures to store in their warehouses, customers can print and modify their materials as needed, perhaps using variable imaging to customize salutations and mailing addresses on-the-fly. Plus, although the small real estate agent might not have the ability to properly manage this device, many corporations could.

One mystery is that it seems to me that variable imaging could be a big plus feature for laser printers of this type, yet this particular Xerox division was unaware of this capability. The machine has a PostScript 3 RIP (which supports forms), a large hard drive and ample RAM, so variable imaging on-the-fly could be a reality. I took it upon myself to contact the software provider that produces the variable imaging plug-in for QuarkXpress. Unofficially the individual I talked with agreed that it could be done. I can only imagine the possibilities of desktop digital printing, complete with the ability to address and personalize on-the- fly. Just print and dump it in the mail and you've targeted your message, all from your desktop. WOW!

Like all that has happened before, change will occur whether you embrace it or not. However, in change there's opportunity, or at least the need for an action plan. For example, printers could take the initiative and establish print centers in their customer's domain. The printer could supply expertise, training, maintenance, finishing and establish a solid opportunity to do the larger runs. Additionally, printers, particularly small shops, could buy these devices for their own short-run production.

Am I excited about devices like the Xerox Phaser 790DP? You bet I am. Not just because of their current potential, but even more so because of where this might lead. Is desktop digital printing coming? Stay tuned!

Harry Waldman

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