02 April 2015 Analogue Printing Technologies

The untapped digital potential

The quality of digital printing compared to litho is rarely called into question, but few printers are exploiting the potential of their digital presses to deliver applications that their litho presses cannot offer.

The days of digital being second best to litho are fading fast. For the larger presses quality, consistency and reliability are no longer issues and these attributes are fast finding their way to the next layer of production presses.

Xerox for example does not distinguish between its iGen machines, Color 1000i and Versant presses in terms of quality but in terms of performance.

This is accompanied by significant changes in the way that the presses are being used. While Benny Landa extolled the benefits of personalisation and the print run of one at the introduction of the Indigo in 1993, the majority of presses have been used for producing shorter runs than is comfortable on litho machines.

Straightforward business cards, greetings cards and fast turnaround flyers have been meat and drink to digital presses, driving click numbers and in many instances prices, down. Printers have used digital for the jobs that are wanted immediately and which do not need the perceived quality of litho. Sometimes they have been able to charge a premium for this service.

This can be something of a commercial dead end as click charges are virtually identical, restricting the room that a printer has to compete on price. If they do, margins disappear.

The situation is now changing, at least for a stratum of forward thinking printers. These are starting to use the presses for what they are good at, printing on different substrates, variable data, and so on.

This is helped by a new generation of technology which has allowed the presses to print on longer sheets, to print clear toners, fluorescent colours, metallics and white. But it is driven by innovation and creativity, the realisation that a client’s needs are not necessarily served by print at the lowest cost per thousand sections.

HP Indigo has been the flag bearer for this way of thinking for a long time, helped by the unquestioned quality of its presses, long respected as offering the closest to litho print quality. Other suppliers, often with lower cost machines, have caught up in that respect taking away Indigo's advantage.

Instead it has stressed its ability to print on a wide range of substrates, not just smooth surfaced papers, and especially its ability to print with extra colours, in particular white as part of its seven-colour presses. The B2 format of the HP Indigo 10000 has also opened a gap between Indigo and other cut sheet presses.

The first release of a new Indigo machine tends to be a four-colour version while the previous generation starts to offer the extra colours. This happened when the 7000 series machines took over from the 5000s and now as the Indigo 10000 becomes the flagship press, and perhaps as rivals close in on the 7000 in other ways, the 7000 series can offer the extra colours to become the high performance, highly flexible press.

After a settling in period, presses are shipped to companies with multiple machines, an indication that there is a market for this format. Precision Printing has, for example, found that it can fit additional flyers on a sheet over what would be normal for B2, and that digital can be competitive against its B2 litho. That is on straight four-colour work. Falkland Press has been using its Indigo 10000 to print on metallised papers and boards to produce striking DVD covers using its ability to print white ink.

HP, however, is no longer alone in offering white ink. At the entry level of the market, Oki can print with white while Ricoh’s Pro C7100 introduces this capability to the mainstream. Perhaps it was this, perhaps the opening of the customer experience centre at Telford at the end of last year, perhaps the ending of recession and greater availability of finance which has led to a steep rise in interest in investment, says Ricoh UK product marketing manager Gareth Parker.

“People are trying to move away from digital as a litho replacement,” he says. “They are looking at creating direct mail pieces using different media, textured papers, 3D plastics. It’s about creating more impressive pieces using digital printing.

“People are also interested in the long sheet capability which is built into the C7100 and C9100 from the start, not added afterwards. This is enabling six-page work for estate agencies, a market seeing growth with the upturn in the construction industry, for retail point of sale and for the publishing sector.”

Here book on demand printing that has come to dominate the mono book market can start to be applied to colour book printing, at least where cost per unit is not price sensitive.

Digital printing of mono books has opened a new market in self publishing for would-be authors, often with local appeal. Colour brings this to cook books, photo and history books, again often with a regional flavour and outside the attention of the major publishers.

Arguably, given the long runs and Far East production that is typical of illustrated books, the opportunity for digitally printing colour books is greater than mono.

The specifications of the Ricoh Pro C7100 include a 1200x4800dpi VCSEL laser, lower fusing temperatures, material range to 450gsm, including textured materials, and throughput to 70ppm. Then it has the fifth toner station. Currently a clear toner and a white are available. Metallic toners must surely follow, but Ricoh is not saying if nor when.

The C9100 can print up to 130ppm, duplexing and on papers to 400gsm without loss of speed. Twin fusing units are used to cover the range of papers and to ensure the speed is maintained. Like the similar specifications on the Konica Minolta C1100, this is a press providing the output performance that previously the top of the range production machines only were capable of.

Parker attributes the growth in interest first to the introduction of the C5100, its entry level machine, two years ago which set a new level of quality at that point in the market, and second to the opening of the customer centre in Telford. This has a strong focus on the different applications that are possible with a gallery of jobs to provoke inspiration and encourage printers to think of ways to use the technology.

He explains: “Litho printers were interested in the C5100 but many wanted to wait for more productive machines. They want now to see what is possible with the presses rather than just litho replacement work.”

Printers are interested in new types of work that were not practical before: printing on synthetic materials, on textured papers, white on colour papers or, more prosaically, on to envelopes. Along with the long sheet feed system, the C7100 offers an envelope feeder. “That helps printers to create more engagement with their customers,” says Parker, “and to do so at shorter runs.”

The long sheet feature on the Kodak Nexpress, allowing print to 1 metre in length, has been a key ‘extra benefit’ to users of the digital press. Kodak was the first to break the four-colours-only mould in toner printing, offering white, clear, fluorescent. gold, infrared and light black additions as well as Dimensional Printing, the jewel in its crown.

Dimensional begins to offer the textured effects that raise a printed sheet beyond the mundane and into consumers interacting with the surface and effects that can be achieved.

It is not the same as a Scodix digital embossing, but the impact can be much greater than a spot varnish effect. “A lot of printers start talking to us about using Nexpress as a replacement for litho work, but that is not getting the best from it,” says David McGuiness, Kodak UK marketing manager. “We always try to sell the additional benefits, even if the printer has not considered these.”

The property sector, he explains, likes the long sheet where pages can be folded out into double gatefold effects to much greater impact than a standard stitched brochure. Others are using the range of effects to enhance the impact of marketing collateral beyond what is easily possible with litho.

“It’s about engaging with the audience using a genuinely differentiated product,” he says. “This sort of work shows a 14% margin for printers compared to say a margin of 2-3% on a litho job.”

Digital can drive print innovation beyond the marketing sector. In higher education, digital printing is being used at Loughborough University by the central print department to deliver the notes of a lecture prepared by the teacher to students within 30 minutes of the lecture. It is simply impossible to do this using litho, says Canon Europe’s Anthony White. “Digital printing enables process innovation,” he points out. “This has changed the way that Loughborough’s students and lecturers prepare their notes.”

Design, web to print and automated workflows are required to link as seamlessly as possible to the printers. It works too at a university in London where this system allows the inplant to compete against the commercial print shops on the same road.

The ace here is that the inplant, can control the style of presentation used in a student’s final dissertation. If the work is not presented correctly, marks are docked immediately. “And that has kept the work in house,” says White. “It ensures that the students stick to the brand.”

Digital print can enable a revenue stream that simply could not exist otherwise. One Canon customer is working with its local theatre to permit access to the archive of posters, programmes and other collateral that theatre goers, fans of a particular actor, or those who want a stylish wall decoration can order online.

“It’s a way of monetising assets that the customer has which could not be touched before. The printer is handling the printing and fulfilment through a website that is styled to the theatre’s, and is sharing the revenue with the customer. It’s proving to be an extremely good venture for both, even if only a tiny fraction of the site’s visitors are persuaded to make a purchase,” says White.

The printer has had to work collaboratively with the customer, persuading him to trust the supplier and testing the system before enabling it to go live. “And it’s nice because the printer is operating in a non price sensitive market,” says White. Canon consultants were able to assist in designing and implementing the technology.

The creativity comes from thinking in a different way. When that occurs even a seemingly over supplied and commoditised market like photo products can be revived, through identifying niches and working closely with partners. It is not something that has come naturally to printers, White acknowledges. The company’s Business Builder programme includes best practice ways to expanding business in this way.

And it draws on successful examples from across Canon’s European operations, though White admits that not all ideas will work in all countries. “The Dutch are good at doing innovative and interesting things, including cross media and multi channel communications. We can transfer these into the UK.

“Our most successful sales people are going to people with ideas and thinking about the business model for that print company, to understand what the printer is trying to achieve within its customer base. It’s helping them get the most from what they have invested in.”

Quality is no longer an issue compared to litho, though colour management skills are still required, often to match what is seen on screen to what is printed on paper. The software tools are becoming more intuitive. “It means we have more time to talk about the proposition and innovation rather than how the technology works,” says White.

Konica Minolta is the relative newcomer, but taking the largest space at Ipex was an indicator of its commitment to the print industry. Earlier machines might be as easily sold by Océ as under a Konica Minolta badge, before Océ’s acquisition by Canon ended that arrangement.

It has a line up of modern machines from the C6000 to the C1100 introduced last year, and a sheetfed inkjet press to launch this year. It is in the process of setting up Prokom as a European-wide user support network that is intended to be an independent community of Konica Minolta users to support each other, to share ideas and perhaps work across borders.

This type of user network is a step removed from the aggression of previous user groups from the early days of electronic prepress. Indigo’s DScoop is the model that others wish to emulate, with the Xerox’s Premier Partners network also highly regarded.

Xerox also places great store by its software tools collected under the FreeFlow banner and getting the business model in place before ordering the press. Understand the product and organise the workflow and then the decision on the press becomes simple, says Kevin O’Donnell of Xerox UK. There is little quality difference between Versant, Color and iGen machines other than monthly productivity, he explains.

Adding a digital press, however, is an established investment for litho printers. “The core proposition has always been for digital to provide fast turnaround short run printing, and many companies make a good business from this approach,” says O’Donnell. “But the big differentiator is when people look for a higher level of automation, which could include acquiring work through web to print, automation of the process to enable a company to cope with faster delivery of shorter runs. Workflow technology is core to understanding what the client wants to achieve and delivering to these requirements.”

For a litho printer investing in digital this might include additional services, perhaps offering a digital version of a magazine or catalogue using Xerox Digital Publisher in the workflow to automate this. It is a pay as you use SaaS application rather than a tool that customers have to buy outright before discovering whether a market exists.

“Our message is that this is what your customers are doing, but they are not doing it with you,” says O’Donnell. “It’s about thinking outside the norms that exist in print. And that means understanding the value that innovation brings to a client. For example many printers have given away the creation of a digital version of a printed publication as the bait to hook the print work because they do not understand the value that the customer puts on the digital edition.”

Unfettered thinking also brings in new product types that a customer requires but which are fresh territory for many printers. Photo products are the obvious product area that simply did not exist before digital photography and digital printing. Equally books on demand and personalised greetings cards and now packaging are areas that are worth exploring, he explains.

Conventional photobook production has become a replacement market but, says O’Donnell, there are niches that are underdeveloped. “It’s about taking a personal experience and creating a product, the book of the experience mixing supplied and personal photos from the event. There are large suppliers of photo products which are like the Heinekens and Interbrews in the beer industry, but there is also space for micro breweries to flourish. Offering something that is very targeted to a community or sector allows you as a printer to differentiate yourself.

“We are now starting to see this phenomenon taking off in packaging.”

It also leading to printers working across the divide between books, photo products and packaging. Xerox customer Irongate produces personalised chocolate boxes with a customer’s image on the lid: photo product or packaging? Is a photobook with extended captions still a photobook or an illustrated colour book?

“A lot of printers restrict themselves by hoping that the market will come to them and describing what they do as book printing, so they find they do not get any demand for packaging when the customer for books is also buying cartons. Printers should be aware of the opportunities they can stretch into rather than be stuck with producing 8pp brochures.

“When you open your client’s mind, you create the products that can be beneficial to both,” says O’Donnell.

That will require the sort of workflow optimisation and integration that is meat and drink to Xerox, whether to work with its own presses, to use Digital Publisher to take content into digital areas or with XMPie for cross media applications.

“A workflow like FreeFlow provides the glue whether using data, variable print or print on demand, whether including third party applications like Preps for imposition, and to delivering JDF for finishing,” says O’Donnell. “We always urge people to get the workflow right.”

Increasingly that workflow requires an element of direct connectivity to a customer, either B2B, B2C or increasingly B2B2C where the printer provides the online ordering system for an organisation that handles the marketing and has an audience ready to buy cards and calendars, for example.

Mike Hiscox, sales director of RedTie, points out that in relative terms web to print applications have never been cheaper and, after more than decade of development, that applications are feature rich. There will be a something that already exists for some customers, or that can be easily tailored to meet specific requirements. “Web to print is also becoming easier and easier to use, so the barriers to entry for a printer thinking about offering web to print have never been lower,” he says.

But as with digital print, the danger is that once everyone has the same technology, the result is a price war. This is immediately obvious looking at online search results for A4 flyers, business cards and the like.

The reasons for first investing, such as elimination of duplication and efficiency in handling standard jobs, apply, but may no longer be sufficient. It means that software developers have to adapt their tools to meet evolving conditions.

For RedTie this is the RTT+ version introduced last year. “This allows a wider range of print products to be priced and ordered that do not fit into the typical template product and our newly released customer data tools are designed to help with marketing, backed up by integrated customer support,” says Hiscox, who adds that upgrades are free of charge, including the addition this year of a design editor to increase the flexibility of the system still further.

It is this that will drive new types of print product to feed the digital print engines lying beyond the capabilities of litho. Hiscox sums up: “It is about offering more to customers and higher margins because it solves problems in some way rather than simply higher speed and lower price. It’s why we concentrate on education and support, not just on how to use the software, but also in all aspects of conducting business online in the smartest way possible.”

That is the nub of the matter. Digital print technology and the workflows that encase it open the way to printers to become smarter and better at serving their customer base. The suppliers have the consultants and programmes to support their users and help break the negative spiral of cost-led competition. Digital printing has opened doors to new ways of working. Printers should walk through them.

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Case studies

Case studies

What sort of companies are driving forward with digital? This article appeared in the March/April Digital Issue of Print Business and below are links to the case studies that accompanied it.

Explore more...

X1 abandoned litho with arrival of second Nexpress

Technique goes with Konica Minolta

Arc UK sets up store with Canon

Esmark Finch breaks into packaging with Xerox

Story 1 of 3

HP Indigo 10000

HP Indigo 10000

HP Indigo has been the flag bearer for this way of thinking for a long time, helped by the unquestioned quality of its presses, long respected as offering the closest to litho print quality. Other suppliers, often with lower cost machines, have caught up in that respect taking away Indigo's advantage.

Explore more...

Park Communications into action with Indigo

ProCo takes strategic stake to find innovation

Commercial waits for inkjet take off

Story 2 of 3

Kodak Added value

Kodak Added value

The long sheet feature on the Kodak Nexpress, allowing print to 1 metre in length, has been a key ‘extra benefit’ to users of the digital press. Kodak was the first to break the four-colours-only mould in toner printing, offering white, clear, fluorescent. gold, infrared and light black additions as well as Dimensional Printing, the jewel in its crown.

Dimensional begins to offer the textured effects that raise a printed sheet beyond the mundane and into consumers interacting with the surface and effects that can be achieved.

Explore more...

Fuller Davies selects Nexpress to meet move to short runs

Kodak Nexpress overview

Story 3 of 3