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Going digital, staying lithographic, Part 2

Mar 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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Like jelly for peanut butter
The fact that our sources link their offset business growth to their digital success speaks for itself. They say volume shifted from offset to digital frequently is made up by new offset work the digital capability brought in. Abbott, for example, estimates that output from his NexPress may be replacing about 10 percent of the work that used to come solely from his litho presses. But most of Abbott Printing’s short-run business consists of jobs the company would have missed without adding digital printing, such as the work sold to a certain account that already an offset supplier. Having crossed this customer’s threshold to sell digital, Abbot Printing was then able to capture a piece of the conventional volume for itself.

It even can be true that the best way to promote offset is to let digital do the talking. Keran says offering both processes helps Western Graphics sell offset presswork to digital customers who appreciate the convenience of one-stop shopping. Even better, when print buyers see that the company has done a good job with digital color and variable data, “It automatically qualifies us for offset. It’s not a hard leap of faith.” Fortified with iron

Proof that going digital does not point a dagger at the offset side of the business can be measured in the number of litho cylinders four of the six printers profiled for this story recently have installed or soon will install. Tews says Graphix Products’ newly purchased six-color Heidelberg Speedmaster CD 74 with aqueous coating was “on the ship.” Abbott Printing put in a five-color Heidelberg last April. Keran says Western Graphics plans to order a six-color, half-size sheetfed press from a vendor to be determined.

But the most significant installation surely is that of the 20 x 29-inch Komori Spica Midtown Printing bought at Graph Expo last October. Von Colln explains that once the company had satisfied the demand for 18 x 24-inch posters and other jobs in that size range that the Xeikon 5000 was good at producing in short runs, orders began to come in for the same kind of work in higher volumes and larger sheet sizes. He says, in this case, the need to equip “went opposite” as the digital platform drove demand for work in offset formats and quantities—a solid justification for investing in a conventional press.

Although it’s getting harder to think of digital and offset presses as anything but two sides of the same print-producing coin, there’s still at least one big technical gulf between them. That’s the difference between what it takes maintain each type and, related to this, the contrast in how often each is likely to be offline for troubleshooting. In this respect, digital clearly is the trickier process to keep up and running.

Maintenance matters
It’s not a question of support from the vendors—all six of our printers give their service suppliers high marks for responsiveness when things go wrong. Nonetheless, Keran notes, “You get used to seeing the technicians, often,” citing issues such as belt breaks, toner buildup and other operating issues that make digital devices go down. With seven digital presses to take care of, Keran says Western Graphics frequently summons a repair technician.

Tews notes that because commercial printers are used to working with lithographic equipment that almost never breaks down, it can be extremely frustrating if digital devices go down at all. “We’re not a doctor’s office, we’re not a hospital—we’re a production facility,” says Tews, who expects his service providers to understand that asking a digital printer to wait overnight for a repair call is asking that shop to accept the unacceptable. “If it takes two hours, it is taking too long.”

CCI has taken some of the tech support responsibility into its own hands by self-servicing its monochrome DocuTechs with parts obtained from Xerox and OEM sources—a routine it has followed for the last seven years. Abbott, thinking along the same lines, says one reason he selected the NexPress 2500 was that it would permit more in-house maintenance and component replacement than other digital equipment he looked at.

Read and heed
Many more pages could be filled with our sources’ good advice. Here are some highlights:

  • Hegwood notes, “[A conventional printing company] can’t just decide to become a digital printer—it can’t be done overnight.” The infrastructure is expensive and time-consuming to develop, and he thinks that for many small and midsize printers lacking digital capability, it might be too late to begin competing with veteran providers that began building their digital assets years ago. Thus, he thinks the best way for newcomers to get into the game might be to acquire an established digital printing business.
  • The vital piece of advice from Tews is, “Get an all-inclusive click rate”—one that reflects the true and total costs of service, parts, labor and supplies. Both of the CLC 5000s at Graphix Products have been completely rebuilt over time, but at no additional cost because that work was anticipated and included in the click charge the company originally negotiated with Canon. Tews advises against using the “traditional printer’s mentality” to win the lowest rate one can get away with. It’s better to factor in everything that will make the click charge realistic for the efficient operation of the digital side of the business.
  • Crawford says lithographers should be prepared to spend at least six months learning how to routinely produce and sell digital output. They must also realize that going digital brings new file management issues and material handling procedures. Variable-data printed sheets need to be kept in properly collated order. Every sheet in a short run counts. For those coming to the process for the first time, he says, “It’s a whole new way of thinking.”
  • Something else to realize, says Keran: “Short-run printing is best served locally.” This means printing short-run digital jobs for distant customers might not be cost effective when freight charges and time lost in transit are taken into account. Keran says printers used to serving national accounts with conventional offset will learn short-run digital “doesn’t travel well.”
Keran’s advice for helping the workforce get used to the idea of going digital makes a fitting final word on the subject. At an employee meeting last year, he was asked if Western Graphics was abandoning offset. He says, “My answer was, ‘They’re independent—one grows the other. One does not preclude the other from happening. Digital does not cannibalize offset—it’s a good partner.’”

Bridging the offset & digital gap
Neil and Frances Courtright founded NeFra Communication Center 10 years ago in York, PA. The 24-employee shop’s assortment of conventional and digital and machines includes two- and four-color offset presses, a Xerox DocuColor 6060, DocuColor 12 and Xerox 4110 monochrome printers, as well as two large-format inkjet printers.

An upsurge in four-color, short-run work prompted the company to replace an existing conventional four-color press with a Presstek 5334 DI press in May 2006.

“The DI allows us to increase service in terms of shorter turnaround times, and at the same time increase the quality of output,” says Neil Courtright. “It was a natural fit for our objectives—to buy the best quality product as quickly as it is reasonable to do so.”

Adds Frances Courtright: “Now there is truly very little we can’t do. Whether our clients need one copy or 50,000, we have the equipment mix that can handle their needs.”

The Courtrights particularly like the Presstek 5334 DI’s waterless printing technology, which significantly reduces drying time for two-sided printing. Print jobs can be up and running as quickly as 15 minutes, vs. an hour to an hour and a half on the company’s conventional four-color press.

“We have virtually no registration issues, and our color issues are minimized,” says Neil Courtright. “Our production capacity for four-color work has gone up dramatically since we installed the DI press, and our waste has decreased just as dramatically.”

New short-run color opportunities
The DI press typically is used for jobs ranging from 300 to 20,000 copies. Runs shorter than 300 copies are produced on Nefra’s toner-based presses. “We’ve found that toner-based digital presses and the DI are compatible rather than competitive technologies,” says Neil Courtright. “Both serve specific niches.”

NeFra’s new press had led to new opportunities, including producing short-run color jobs for neighboring conventional printers. “Sales people from large local print houses like selling a product and knowing they are going to get a quality that is acceptable to their customers,” says Brian Courtright, Neil and Frances’ son and COO. “Some say the quality is better than their 40-inch press can produce. Our direct-to-trade business now represents about 15 to 20 percent of our revenues [as a] direct result of the DI press.”

NeFra’s retail customers also have given the press positive marks for quality and service. Consider what happened on one recent Wednesday morning. At 10:00 a.m., a design agency submitted a rush job: 3,000 4/4 rack cards to be produced on 12-pt. stock. The client was willing to pay extra for NeFra to produce 500 the same day on the Xerox 6060 digital toner-based press, with the balance of the order to be delivered on the following Monday. “Instead, we had it proofed and printed on the DI press by 12:30 p.m.” recounts Brian Courtright. “Previously, with conventional offset’s drying time, plating and getting up to color, the fastest turnaround we probably could have delivered was two days, and the customer would have incurred the extra cost of the small toner-based run. Needless to say, the customer was delighted with the quality from the DI press and amazed at the speed with which we could deliver the job.”

A different path to ‘digital’ printing
The Mallard Press (Lombard, IL) installed a KBA Genius 52UV press in December 2005. The new press joins a Xerox DocuColor as well as multiple Xerox and Canon monochrome high-speed printers, and two non-UV halfsize presses. Bob Gay, president of the 28-year-old shop, initially considered adding a digital press, which would have provided variable-data printing (VDP) capabilities as well as a short-run, quick-turn solution.

“Frank Romano’s ‘2005 State of the Printing Industry’ made a strong case for digital print, which I agreed with,” recalls Gay. “But when considering the cost of operation vs. sale price, I found the digital equipment became inefficient after 2000 impressions, leaving plenty of short-run jobs (up to 5000) better suited to an offset printing press.”

In addition to meeting his short-run, quick-turn requirements, the waterless Genius press offered the quality he wanted: 300-line screens on any substrate. Hybrid printing provides an excellent VDP option. “The Genius 52UV [provides] instant curing and unlimited run lengths,” explains Gay. “[We can print] a job in full color, take those sheets to a monochrome digital device and immediately image variable data.”

See also
Traditional iron vendors aren’t ready to concede quick-turn jobs to toner-based rivals. Speedy automatic plate changing on Komori’s half-size Lithrone LS29 (four plates in 150 seconds) lets users produce short-run jobs efficiently. Heidelberg’s new Anicolor anilox inking and dampening technology for its Speedmaster SM 52 reportedly can come up to color in 20 sheets after only seven minutes of makeready. In January, we highlighted small-format offset and DI presses (“Old Faithful”).

Xitron shipping new digital press
At Graph Expo, Xitron (Ann Arbor, MI) previewed Prism, a digital press for on-demand commercial printing. The company describes itself as the largest independent RIP provider, with more than 14,000 shipped. Bill Owens, Xitron’s director of marketing, says the vendor identified a strong niche for a short-run digital press with a production quality RIP.

Fast last-minute jobs
“We have traditionally served small and midsize printers,” says Owens. “We found that while a number of users had added digital presses, a much larger number hadn’t. Current solutions were too expensive and many also wanted a device that could be integrated with their current workflow.”

Applications for the new press include short-run brochures, flyers, direct mail pieces and even quick-turn business cards. “You can produce a few hundred business cards in a matter of minutes,” says Owens. “Very few shops provide that service. Prism offers a convenient way to produce last-minute jobs.”

36 color pages per minute
The compact, floor-model press can produce color-managed output at 36 ppm or black-and-white output up to 40 ppm. Jobs up to Tabloid Extra (12 x 18 inches) and banners up to 12.9 x 47 inches can be printed on the Xitron Prism using paper weights from 17 lb. to 72 lb. Multiple paper trays provide additional flexibility along with a standard duplexing feature. The press is offered with Xitron’s Navigator GPS Select RIP which includes a Prism specific version of Xitron’s RIP Manager. Users can upgrade to the full Navigator GPS. The system currently ships with the imposition option at no additional charge for orders received by June 29.

Let ‘er RIP
A key advantage for the Prism Digital Press, says Owens, is that it can be added onto an existing Navigator RIP. “You’re assured of data integrity,” says Owens. “One RIP can drive Prism, an inkjet proofer, a CTP device, a direct imaging offset press or any combination of more than 250 devices that Xitron supports.”

Unlike other digital presses, the Prism doesn’t have a click charge. “Users pay for the machine and the consumables,” says Owens. “They’re not locked into a contract, which is an important consideration if they’re uncertain about achieving a specific monthly volume.”

Xitron’s Prism digital press is priced under $10,000 and will start shipping this month. See

Patrick Henry is the director of Liberty or Death Communications. Contact him via

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