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Printing Impressions-October 2001 Column
Buying a Digital Press (Now)?
AFTER ONE of those flights that was so early it feels as though you never went to bed, I somehow found myself standing at the reception desk of the Chicago Hilton at 9:30 a.m. Friday morning, September 7th. Like any experienced PRINT or Graph Expo attendee, I made my room accommodations months ago. Shock number one jolted me awake-there was no line and I was able to walk right up to the registration clerk. Shock number two-the Chicago Hilton, one of the prime hotels for PRINT, had rooms available (as did other hotels, which I discovered later). Shock number three-there wasn't the usual mob waiting for the bus that takes you to the show. Shock number four-at McCormick Place, there didn't seem to be significant lines or crowds anywhere. I don't have official attendance figures, but the decline was obvious. However, for those of us that did go, it was a far more civilized experience. You didn't have to fight crowds to get the information you needed. Also many of the exhibitors told me that the quality was high, with less tire kickers and more serious buyers. PRINT 01 was an excellent opportunity to more fully explore today's big dilemma, digital presses and/or digital imaging presses.

At my age, we've seen this many times before: Emerging technologies that will prevail, but when, who and in what form? And, as always, there are many bright, shiny innovations presented with all the hype that this is the goose that excretes the golden egg. However, all too many excrete the usual excreted product (you fill that in) and disappear from the market, unfortunately taking some printers with them. In the early '70s it was photocomposition and there were so many companies with so many innovative ideas.

Let's return to 2001 and the "digital" and "DI" press dilemma. I'm going to commit the sin of grossly oversimplifying (forgive me, Frank Romano) when I put all this into four categories-Production Digital Presses, Desktop Digital Printers, Wet Digital Imaging Presses and Dry Digital Imaging Presses. Bear with me as, hopefully, this will make the landscape a little more visible, but do keep in mind there are vast differences within my arbitrary categories. With apologies to many of the fine manufacturers and their products, I'm going to single out a few to make my points.

Production Digital Presses are mostly electrophotographic (there's also magnetography and a few other technologies) devices that use no plates and can change images on-the-fly, hence true variable imaging. There's virtually no makeready. Compared to an offset press, they are fairly simple to operate (don't need a traditional pressman) and the quality in both black-and-white and color is approaching offset. Many can print on almost any substrate and some can change papers on-the-fly. There are in-line finishing options available that can turn the digital press into a complete production center for automatically producing a finished product. With almost 80 percent of all multi-color offset jobs 5,000 pieces or less and with the industry growth of print-on-demand, this should be the goose that lays the golden egg. Unfortunately, at this point, the reality doesn't completely live up to the promise. The key reasons are the high cost of disposables and their slow production speeds (speed is rated at one-sided letter size impressions per minute), which yields a pathetically low crossover (from a cost standpoint) to small offset. Remember, cost per piece is not variable on quantity like traditional offset. Most printers tell me that the crossover or breakeven point is as low as 2,000 81Z2x11 four-color, two-sided printed sheets. Most manufacturers don't deny this, and point to variable imaging and super-quick turnaround times as a reason to forget about the cost per piece in higher (but still small) quantities. They seem to forget that in the real world nobody forgets cost and most printers haven't been able to sell variable imaging.

Fortunately, the future does promise more quality improvements and, most importantly, faster run speeds and lower per piece cost of consumables. Manufacturers also stress that a completely automated system-from file creation to shipping-is essential to short-run efficiencies and can help overcome per piece costs. Many digital presses equipped with in-line finishing can help you move in that direction.

In pursuit of the file efficiency scenario might be HP (Hewlett-Packard) with its recent purchase of Indigo. An HP executive told me that they can accomplish what other players can't, in that they have both a strong corporate presence and a sales force dedicated to the printing industry. Their concept (in a nutshell) is to work with the corporate customer in simplifying the process of creating color files that can be profiled to print smoothly and accurately on an Indigo press owned by one of their printers. On the surface it appears to be a good approach in that they can create a market and a process that, so far, printers have been unable to accomplish. This will be very interesting to watch. Remember, too, that there's another player that can play this game-Xerox, which is well represented in all market spaces. Also keep in mind that Xerox is "The Player" in on-demand printing and always deserves an intense look.

Speaking of Xerox, the promise of the future might be its new DocuColor iGen3 that was shown at PRINT 01, but won't be available until next spring. All I saw was a demonstration but, if what they say is true, this could be a step in the right direction. It is expensive; the guess is that it will sell for about $500M. But this includes in-line finishing, the ability to mix stocks of different weights, finishes and textures on-the-fly and real productivity. Most important is the promise of cheaper disposables, although no one could give me numbers.

This is not meant to be a review, so I left a lot out. However, I do want to mention a very exciting piece of equipment from Océ. I believe that one of the most important market opportunities for digital printing is short run, multi-page products, particularly bound books or manuals. Océ's printing solution for short run, on-demand, one-color books and manuals fascinated me. The webfed machine produced in-line finished, perfect bound or saddle-stitched books automatically. Plus you could change sizes and product on-the-fly. Anyone that produces books or manuals has got to explore this.

Desktop Digital Printers are a hot topic with me as I have written about this in the past. In the corner of the Xerox booth was a Phaser 7700, which was about $8,000. I had a PDF on a disk that was a four-color, two-sided, 81Z2x11 piece. I gave the disk to the sales rep and the first copy emerged 53 seconds later. I had requested 30 copies and I had all 30 printed both sides just two minutes and 52 seconds.

We figured the cost of the consumables (not including the paper, which was a standard 80# gloss text) to be about 9 cents per side. The quality was more than acceptable and I also had a PMS built from four-color, which was almost dead on. In fact, I was very impressed with the overall quality of the printed piece. It can print a full tabloid size sheet two-sided, four-color bleed. Also, since it has a PostScript RIP it can do variable imaging. I know this sounds crazy, but unless you already have a market that needs real productivity this isn't a bad way to get your feet wet.

Wet Digital Imaging Presses are regular offset presses where the plates are imaged on-press as opposed to in the plate room. In fact, some of these presses give you the option of going either way. The advantage of imaging on the press is that it eliminates an operation or a step and gives you faster register. Plus, the press operators can be doing something else while the plates are imaging. Like any offset press, these presses require an experienced pressman. With today's fast makeready procedures, imaging on the press is not an overwhelming advantage. Still, it has its points and should be considered carefully, particularly since it is less of a parameter change for the typical offset printer.

Dry or Waterless Digital Imaging Presses are very different from the wet variety and are a bigger parameter change for the traditional printer. You could say that waterless printing is more like gravure in concept than offset because the plate is etched. There is no ink/water balance so the first sellable sheet comes up very fast, usually in 10 sheets or less. There is almost no ghosting, solids can be quite intense and the presses can really hold a sharp dot.

These presses are also totally automatic in that they discard and load plates from commands issued on a computer console. In fact, plates and ink are loaded like supplies and the press runs with the simplicity of a digital press (almost). Most important, consumable costs such as ink are almost the same as a traditional offset press.

Waterless presses are rated to produce 30,000 impressions on a set of plates, but can go much higher and they do run at offset press speeds. Remember, though, that we're talking short runs, so that isn't as important as fast setup, which is usually around 15 minutes from the last sheet of the prior job to the first good sheet of the new job. Since so much is automatic, the operator can do other chores like load new paper, change supplies, or prepare new files.

Because there are far less parameters to worry about these presses don't require all the skills of a regular offset pressman. But don't hire a former hamburger flipper, because knowledge of color and ink on paper is more than just useful. The 74 Karat from KBA doesn't even have keys to adjust ink channels. This may shock many printers, but I think it is the correct approach as it fits the don't play at the press, just run, concept of short-run printing. An efficient short run is totally dependent on an accurate file either generated by the customer or prepress. Fortunately, today we have the technology that we need to implement and, for top efficiency, help our customers achieve better files with greater ease-HP is right on this one.

Yes, I like these presses for short runs, particularly the Karat, which is bigger than the others with a 201Z2x29 sheet size. It's so automatic, even I could be taught to run it.

Okay, so where am I heading with all this? First off, your needs and your market are unique to you and no article that I or anybody could write is going to give you the appropriate strategy. You may need help and, of course, that's how many consultants make a living-myself included. But I'll go out on a limb and say that if I were still a general commercial printer with no particular specialty looking to get into short-run printing, I would have to think long and hard about digital presses at this moment in time. Make no mistake-there are many success stories, but this requires a great deal of thought, skilled marketing or specific market opportunities.

I might consider buying a waterless digital imaging press like the Karat and a desktop printer such as the Phaser 7700. I know this may sound crazy, but the Phaser could print the very short runs with the Karat handling longer short runs (make sense?). This scenario also lets you dabble in variable imaging on the Phaser jobs. As the demand for those very shot runs grew I might put in one or two more Phasers until such time that I built a market and had to go to a more productive solution. The Karat would give you a dual advantage. It can take your company into a new, growing market. But it is still a 201Z2x29 press that can handle some of the work you're currently doing with far more efficiency and solid quality.

The world will continue to change as the technology of digital presses evolves and prices drop. The same could be said about the technology of desktop printers. Also some printing will be lost as your customers buy desktop digital printers like the Phaser and start using them for short runs and distributed print. But you haven't broke the bank with your Phaser investment. Plus, even in this rapidly changing world, I think the Karat fills a niche for a commercial printer that will enable it to hang around long enough for you to more than get your money's worth.

I would not drop all this into my pressroom; it requires different thinking. Perhaps it belongs in prepress or a completely new department. In addition to a manufacturing plan, I would have a marketing plan with a sales strategy. Plus, and this is very important, I would have a complete solution for automatic processing of files and job specs-which starts with the customer and ends in shipping. The file and the job info have to be right and flow through with minimum intervention; otherwise the cost efficiencies of short runs are lost. There's no time for running around trying to achieve perfection on each job. Your system must have automated standards.

(Postscript: This was written the day prior to the attack on America. I know it is important to get back to business because that helps to maintain the strength of this great nation. However, my heart goes out to the people who were innocent victims of this atrocious deed. Like the skyline of New York, we will all be changed forever. I for one have given more thought to how much I love my country and how fortunate I am to live here. I do hope this is a wakeup call for the civilized world and that all nations pull together to make no corner safe for terrorists and murderers.)

Harry Waldman

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