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May Cover Story: Offset & digital convergence

May 1, 2005 12:00 AM

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Printers with offset and digital equipment can offer a diversity of services that enables them to form stronger bonds and mutually beneficial partnerships with their clients. But for commercial shops with a large offset base, becoming a streamlined, all-in-one print provider is a challenging prospect. While nearly 80 percent of respondents to an InfoTrends/CAP Ventures study titled The Changing Print for Pay Market: The Future of Commercial Printing released in December 2004 claimed, "Reducing production cost and improving efficiency is a current business strategy," many lacked plans to effectively achieve this goal.

Offering combined offset and digital print services requires the integration of two distinct and different processes. Moving print jobs between toner-based and lithographic equipment calls for cross-platform continuity. While equipment manufacturers work to address this need with JDF and open systems technology, some commercial printers aren’t waiting—they’re developing a variety of their own creative approaches to this challenge. Most report digital print is boosting an otherwise static offset print business, establishing their company as a full-service provider.

Change or die
"This is an ever-changing business, and you either evolve or die," says Doug Haefele, vice president of digital strategies for Maximum Graphics (Chaska, MN). "Whether you are integrating the workflow from start to finish or completely separating the solutions, there are going to be challenges. We have attempted to take a hybrid approach to the integration question."

A 120-employee company that has been in business since 1991, Maximum Graphics began offering digital printing in 1998 "to satisfy client demand for greater control and accountability in the production of their work," says Haefele. "Once implemented, we were able to position ourselves as a single-source supplier of direct mail solutions from data processing to mailing, all under one roof."

The company runs 28- and 40-inch offset presses in its 75,000-sq.-ft. plant. On the digital side, Maximum Graphics runs two Kodak Digimaster 9110s and a NexPress 2100 color digital press. Says Haefele, "We purchased our NexPress from Heidelberg in 2001 to take our direct mail expertise to the next level by integrating color into our personalized solutions."

Although offset makes up about 95 percent of Maximum Graphics’ work, Haefele says the larger consideration is how much less offset business the company would have without digital print. "The two types of business feed off of each other and facilitate sales growth overall," he says. "Seventy percent of our work now involves personalization vs. 15 percent in the past. We’ve also increased our sales of nonprint solutions, such as Web to print."

Haefele expects to see growth in offset and digital, but more so in digital: "It’s tough to grow the offset side of the business. We have been able to over the last few years, due in part to being able to provide these customer solutions under one roof." He says while it’s important to grow the entire business, not just digital print, the company’s future growth is expected to be based on nonprint services that "more tightly integrate our customers to our business."

O pioneers!
Japs-Olson Co. (St. Louis Park, MN) operations manager Chris Illa says, "We were one of the pioneers in having direct mail under one roof. Everybody used to outsource the components and then bring it together and mail it—you were either a mailer, a lettershop or a printer. We were one of the first companies that tied it all together and said ‘We’ll do everything so we can have complete control over your product, from start to finish.’"

The 100-year-old, 700-employee commercial and direct mail printer occupies a 570,000-sq.-ft. facility and is expanding. Japs-Olson runs several forms presses (heatset, nonheatset and UV) for the majority of its work producing direct mail for large financial institutions and other clients. The company also runs a fleet of continuous-feed, monochrome laser printers from Océ and a Xerox DocuTech 180.

Coming out of their shell
Illa says he’s finding many Japs-Olson customers have projects that don’t fit into the mold of jobs that combine an offset shell with digital variable data. "They’re asking us more about highly variable color jobs and small projects that aren’t a good fit for our traditional high-volume, roll-fed work," he explains.

To fill that void, the company bought a Xeikon digital press, adding a Xerox DocuTech 2060 and 6060 in 2002 and 2004, respectively. Although digital was a tough sell several years ago, Illa says, "Day after day, I’m finding myself inundated with questions about digital, so I think we’re going to see that grow very rapidly." Nonetheless, he doesn’t expect digital print to dominate the company’s direct mail operations.

Japs-Olson’s offset print runs average 100,000 to 200,000 pieces. On the digital side, the sweet spot currently is between 5,000 and 15,000 pieces and Illa expects to meet increasing demand with high-volume digital color equipment. "Our marketing customers are much more sophisticated, now," he says. "They’re dedicating a lot of time and resources to maximizing their postage dollars, and they want to get things out that are very effective. Digital print lends itself to that."

Business evolution
Palmer Printing (Chicago), a commercial printer running three 40-inch presses in its 60,000-sq.-ft. Printers Row site, has taken a different path with its digital print services. "About 14 years ago, I realized strictly printing firms weren’t going to survive," says Ed Rossini, president. He launched a separate company called ACT+ to sell document assembly, collating and tabbing services to Palmer Printing’s customers and to the trade, later adding digital printing to its offerings.

"We were doing a lot of digital work on two DocuTechs," Rossini notes, "so it was a natural progression to get into digital color reproduction." The company purchased an iGen3 in June 2003 and another in August 2004. "I knew there was going to be an expansion in the demand for digital color and short-run color, and I was sold on the multiple versions of more relevant pieces being produced in smaller quantities," he adds.

Rossini says variable print offers numerous benefits, including much higher margins. "You’re further into the process with the customer—more of a partner," he adds. "Now, that doesn’t mean it’ll be profitable. You have to set up the database right and everything has to click." Rossini has focused on hiring employees who have experience with digital and variable print. Because some of ACT+’s digital print staff didn’t come from a conventional printing background, Palmer Printing’s pressroom manager works with them to bridge the knowledge gap between offset and digital color.

Palmer Printing’s conventional work grew about 17 percent in 2004, according to Rossini, while the company’s digital work grew by about 50 percent. "Digital is growing faster than conventional," he says, "but my conventional is not backing down—it’s still by far the majority of our work." He credits the company’s longstanding relationships with its customers for the strength on the offset side, but says digital print capabilities have helped ease the "capacity crunch." "Every shop’s different and every company culture’s different," he says. "Ours has evolved, and I think it’s evolving in the right way."

The workflow connection
"Integrating offset workflow with production color digital presses is an area of significant growth in the commercial print market," says Jon Bracken, Creo’s director of product management. "We’re increasingly hearing from our customer base that they want to adopt digital print and integrate some of the capabilities of their offset workflow into their digital print workflow."

Bracken cites three key functions of integrated digital and offset shops:

  • Using short-run color more efficiently.
  • Digitally producing early runs or run-ons of offset jobs.
  • Providing a single channel for ensuring a job file is good through preflight checking, color management and creating a digital master.
"From that point on, the production systems become quite focused toward the needs of digital or offset," Bracken adds, "in terms of imposition, screening, etc."

Mix and match
When Maximum Graphics began offering digital printing, Haefele says it ran one basic workflow: "Prepress handled all the art file manipulation. They flowed the work to our data processing and forms setup personnel, who would then proof and produce jobs in our digital production arena." Today, the company’s digital and offset operations are loosely integrated, with data processing and forms setup personnel in prepress handling the digital jobs. The shop runs a Creo Brisque front end for offset printing while an Adobe RIP drives digital. "The change in approach was due to growth on the digital side of our business," says Haefele, "along with the compressed turnaround expectations our digital clientele presents."

Palmer Printing’s offset and digital companies also run two separate workflows. Rossini says he’s charged the company’s prepress managers in each area with determining whether a job is a good candidate to bridge offset and digital. "We can drop a job into our Creo front end on the iGen, or create a PDF from the iGen front end that we can drop right into the Brisque for offset," he explains. "They’re on the same network, but there’s no direct link between the two other than the server. Nothing’s really automated."

Due to Palmer Printing’s separation between the digital and offset businesses, most of the jobs that come in are predetermined for digital or offset equipment. "Most of the jobs I’m selling for digital incorporate variable data," Rossini explains. "But there are jobs that we’ll start doing conventionally, and then we’ll get a request for a small amount needed in a short time. I’ll say, ‘OK, I’m going to print them on the iGen, so they’re not going to look exactly the same as the finished offset product.’" Although the iGen output isn’t identical to the offset product, his customers don’t mind—they’re ecstatic with the fast turnaround.

Automating the process
Japs-Olson has used Creo Prinergy since 2000. Illa explains the company’s traditional approach to workflow involves taking in a PDF, running it through Creo Preps, imposing and going to plate.

"The Prinergy workflow has two major sides," says Creo’s Bracken. "There’s what we call ‘Refine,’ which takes the original document file and takes it through those early stages—preflight checking, color matching and trapping—and creates a PDF digital master. Then there’s the output side, which is workflow driving proofers and CTP devices. And if the job’s going to a digital file, what we’ve done with Prinergy is allowed customers to then target that file to a digital print device."

Illa says, "In the past, we weren’t able to drive the Xerox equipment very well from Prinergy. So, we’ve always had these convoluted workflows. We can RIP a job directly from Creo’s Darwin variable-data software, which is great, but that isn’t an efficient way to run a static job." His shop’s workaround was to print a PDF to a hot folder for the digital equipment.

Japs-Olson is a beta tester for a second version of the Xerox FreeFlow Print Manager, released in March 2004, which is available as an option in Creo’s Prinergy workflow for $3,000. Mike Harvey, Xerox’s vice president of workflow marketing, production systems group, says Xerox also sells Print Manager, a component of the FreeFlow Digital Workflow Collection, as a $4,000 standalone product that can accept JDF job tickets from any workflow. FreeFlow Print Manager enables Prinergy users to integrate with Xerox’s DocuColor or DocuTech digital presses controlled by the Creo Spire color server or Xerox’s DocuSP digital front end.

Bracken explains, "When a prepress operator selects the FreeFlow Print Manager from a drop-down menu in Prinergy, it takes the PDF pages in the right order, associates the job with a job ticket which is configuring the digital print device with the imposition, collation, paper type, paper tray, etc., and then spools it out to the digital controller in front of the Xerox device."

"It’s a much different workflow," says Illa. "That’s the promise of FreeFlow and the whole Creo project—the fact that we can take in a job, and if we decide to print it digitally, it’s seamless for us. At that moment we can decide, ‘OK, this is more economical to print on the Xerox equipment,’ and bam. You go."

David Davis, director of digital printing consultancy Interquest (Charlottesville, VA), says many printers have been looking for a solution like this. "We survey a lot of printers that are doing digital and offset," he says, "and in a lot of cases they are using different workflows to run digital and offset jobs for the same customers. I think this is an important first step."

Says Harvey, "Creo sells a version of FreeFlow Print Manager that has been tightly integrated with Creo Prinergy. The bulk of the FreeFlow Print Manager installs are sold by Xerox using the standalone version. The benefit of Print Manager is that jobs can be submitted from many different workflows to any of our controllers."

"Where we see high demand for Creo and EFI controllers," Harvey continues, "is in specialized situations where the rest of the workflow might be Creo or EFI oriented," such as in largely offset operations. Xerox is currently integrating EFI’s Hagen OA management information system into the FreeFlow Process Manager component for automated production printing on Xerox digital devices.

A hybrid workflow laboratory
Founded in 1968, Mercury Print Productions is a 140-employee commercial printer occupying 77,000 sq. ft. in Rochester, NY. Plant manager Paul Robistow says, "We do everything from business cards to annual reports and casebound books."

Mercury runs six offset presses and several pieces of Xerox digital print equipment, including three iGen digital presses—two with DocuSP RIPs and one with a Spire controller. The shop runs the Prinergy 3.0x workflow with Creo’s Synapse InSite 4.0 as an online soft proofing option for its clients. "We did the first beta of the Xerox FreeFlow Print Manager, and we’re just starting the second," Robistow says.

Robistow has seen profit margins grow significantly thanks to its digital efforts. "About 35 percent of our revenue and about 70 percent of our job volume is generated with digital print," he says. Digital jobs represent shorter runs at Mercury, but there are more of them. "We’re not competing in the same markets that we did traditionally," he adds.

Mercury produces a lot of hybrid work, involving high-volume runs of offset shells for color, which are then run through the shop’s black-and-white devices for variable data. "The need to turn jobs is critical," says Robistow. "We can take in a variable job, get it proofed and out to the iGen for variable data within 24 hours."

Mercury also uses its iGens for proofing offset jobs. "We have them set up so they’ll match press densities as closely as possible," Robistow explains. "It’s close enough to satisfy many of our customers, and it enables us to give them a representation of the final piece, including finishing."

As in most cases, cost determines whether the company will run a job on offset or digital printing equipment. Robistow says, "The problem in the offset world is the up-front part of the project, along with the platesetter, determines the cost effectiveness. So we’re really looking at those numbers to make sure we’re doing things in such a way that they’re the most profitable to our customers and to ourselves."

Robistow cites one key benefit the FreeFlow Print Manager brings to his operations: "It’s safe to back a job out from the DocuSP RIP, saving it into Prinergy. In the future, when I want to resend it, I can duplicate all of my settings."

Coming up to speed
Achieving continuity between the offset and digital print sides of a business requires a commitment from the entire organization, as well as supporting technology. Robistow says, "Operators have to be willing to accept all the challenges of digital printing. It’s not the old environment where you’d have days and days to solve problems. You have to resolve process challenges quickly."

It takes more than savvy operators to run an successful hybrid shop. Says Haefele, "Management needs to recognize the differences in workflow and adapt to the changing needs as their business evolves." From a sales perspective, Haefele’s key is: "Patience. Most digital jobs are smaller, so you need more of them. It also is important to sell higher in the organization, speaking with director-level marketing executives. These are the people who get the value of personalization and the difference between cost-per-page and cost-per-sale." Davis notes, "Eventually, a printer’s going to want to have it set up so the process is irrelevant—so they have an arsenal of tools to easily route jobs to any type of printing equipment."

"It all has to do with data," says Rossini. "If your data is good, then you’re going to be effective." He expects hybrid jobs to constitute a large portion of the print market for some time. "As people know more about their data, they’re going to make these projects smaller and smaller—they’re eventually going to make an entirely digital piece. It will be more expensive to print, per piece, but they’re going to print less and their hit ratio is going to go higher. So their response per dollar is going to go up." Rossini notes offering digital print is a major transition for sales as well as operations. He says, "Our guys do have to practice every once in awhile not to say, ‘Well, I sell offset. I’m not a part of this.’" He urges his staff to focus on the customer and involve experts from both the digital and offset sides of the business in their conversations about print jobs.

Digital vs. conventional workflow
PIA/GATFPress’ study titled "Digital Workflow Survey—An EPS Member Survey" was designed to determine workflow’s present status and to measure the pervasiveness of digital vs. conventional workflows. E-mailed to people in the PIA/GATF database having prepress job titles, 78.6 percent of respondents were general commercial printers.

The survey asked prepress operators and managers which workflow systems they used in 2004 vs. 2001. Highlights from the 70 usable questionnaires received include:

  • 7.7 percent of respondents report they used PS in 2004 vs. 15 percent in 2001. Creo Prinergy and Brisque represented the greatest number of users in 2004, at 16.7 percent and 13.6 percent, respectively—a jump from their 9.1 percent and 16.4 percent respective usage in 2001.
  • Rampage (Fujifilm) users increased to 10.1 percent in 2004 from 6.9 percent in 2001.
  • PDF users made up 9.5 percent of the 2004 users, up from 8.3 percent in 2001.
  • Agfa Apogee users increased to 9.4 percent in 2004 from 7.2 percent in 2001.
  • Several other systems held from 1.5 to 3.3 percent of the overall usage in 2004, and "other" systems represented 16.9 percent.
Associated technologies. Of the respondents, 85.5 percent produce plates, 84.7 percent of those using computer-to-plate equipment. Three quarters of the survey respondents reported they currently use color management, skewing toward slightly greater usage among general commercial printers. 90 percent of respondents preflight files they receive from their customers, either with the aid of software tools or manually.

For a copy of the study, visit and click on "Bookstore."

Denise Kapel is managing editor of AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at