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It's a "DI"fferent world, part 2

Nov 1, 2004 12:00 AM

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Take another look at on-press imaging
by John Zarwan

Why hasn't direct-to-press caught on with more printers? Timing was no doubt a part of it: Heidelberg couldn't deliver the presses for nearly two years [following the Quickmaster's 1995 debut], and, in the interim, off-press imaging (CTP) took off. Direct imaging (DI) imposes the same challenges as CTP, such as capital cost, an all-digital workflow (including proofing) as well as certain limitations, because users are tied to a specific press and size. Most DI presses are two-page portrait format, which limits the kind of work that can be manufactured. (KBA's 74 Karat and Heidelberg's Speedmaster 74-DI are 28-inch presses, but there are only about 50 of these installed in North America.)

Highly automated offset printing
Nonetheless, the original rationale for on-press imaging remains. It's a logical extension of the digital workflow and, compared to CTP, it eliminates a number of steps. Because plates are imaged on-press, you have fully automated, in-register printing. As with CTP, this leads to shorter makeready, and the press comes up to color faster, too.

Today's DI presses have 30- to 50-sheet makereadies, so even with cleaning and imaging, salable sheets take about 10 to 12 minutes from job to job. And, because it is offset, this technology is appropriate for a wide variety of applications and run lengths using an equally wide variety of substrates and paper stock; pigment-based, UV, and specialty inks; and colors, metallics, etc.

Improved quality, cost and ease of use
The new systems represent substantial improvements over the earlier generations in print quality, cost and ease of use. Some of the new presses are available for as little as $250,000. (Remember, this is an automated four-color press with imaging technology and a RIP.)

With the new imaging technology, quality has improved dramatically with smaller dots enabling higher resolution and screening (up to 300 lpi) and a very high quality of print. Some of these presses now also support stochastic and hybrid screening technologies.

These presses are much easier to operate than a conventional four-color offset press. With automatic registration, ink settings and waterless printing, less training is required. The lower skill level needed means we're getting very close to push-button offset.

Because of their short makeready, DI presses are particularly suited for short-run and quick-turn work. While they can run jobs as long as 15,000 impressions, they are most appropriate in runs from as low as 250 or 500 up to 2,500 or 5,000 impressions, which makes them very competitive with toner. Study after study shows a high level of owner satisfaction and consistently high profitability.

Take a new look
Direct-to-press is certainly not for everyone. However, the improvements in existing presses, the continued development of the technology, and the introduction of new presses warrant a fresh look, particularly if you are adding your first four-color press or are running a 100-percent digital shop and want to add capacity while lowering your cost per page.

John Zarwan, president of consultancy J Zarwan Partners (Prince Edward Island, Canada) is a regular contributor to Print Action as well as,where portions of this article originally appeared. Contact him at

Digital Ink moves on up
Presentation folders and six-page brochures are no problem at Digital Ink (Richmond, Va.), now that it has a Heidelberg Speedmaster SM 74 DI. The shop, which got started with Heidelberg's QM 46 DI, added the larger press to expand capacity and improve productivity. Digital Ink clients include real estate and packaging companies, national political campaigns, advertising agencies and Fortune 500 companies.

David McGinnis, Digital Ink's president and founder, says the QMDI never broke down, despite producing 36 million impressions in two years on a two-shifts-a-day, seven-days-a-week schedule.

“The new equipment has enabled us to keep all of our business in-house,” submits McGinnis. “We can compete on bigger jobs because costs on our hybrid press costs are significantly lower than the prices of our competitors. Plus, our turnover time has improved dramatically. We can do three jobs to most people's one.”

Four years ago, the Digital Ink was a small service bureau/print broker. Today it's a commercial printer capable of jobs ranging from 250,000 direct mail self-mailers to 500 brochures or postcards. As a result, McGinnis expects annual revenue to more than double this year to $6 million from $2.7 million in 2003. See

"Awesome" press makes short runs easy
In operation for only about two months, the DirectPress 5034 DI system from Kodak Polychrome Graphics (KPG) (Norwalk, CT) already is proving itself a welcome addition at Print Communications Inc./PCI (Indianapolis).

Founded in 1991, the printer has 200 employees, 140,000 sq. ft. and annual sales of $33 million. While primarily a web-based operation, PCI had been looking for new technology to complement its sheetfed side (a five-color Heidelberg and a two-color Ryobi) and present itself as cutting-edge to customers, explains CEO/owner Randy Steenbergen.

He looked at some digital presses, but says, “We do a lot of real estate printing, and our clients already have some of that toner-based stuff. They're able to do runs of 50 to 300. They want high quality from us, which the toner-based [equipment] doesn't give you, and they want runs of 300 and up.”

Steenbergen says the KPG DirectPress 5034 “is just an awesome machine. We use a Rampage RIP, so we got Rampage and our MIS people here involved, and it went well.”

PCI chose an option for the press that, according to Steenbergen, only one in 10 buyers is selecting. “We got the scanning densitometer,” he says. “Once we image the plate, it presets the press based on that image technology. When you're up and running, you scan an OK'd press sheet's color bars. The press will change as your ink flow changes, so every sheet looks the same.”

Steenbergen says the 5034 already has taken some work away from a M110 half-size web press. “Because we just have a five-color Heidelberg, we've run jobs as low as 5,000 impressions on an M110. But you can't just start it up cold, run 5,000 and make a major press change. The DI press is fast, easy and cost-effective. It's value-added. Remember, I'm a web printer, so I'm used to dealing with 60-percent paper, and this thing is 80-percent revenue.” See

Business is "Zoooming
That's not a typo in Zooom Printing's name. The founders of the six-employee, Richmond, VA, general commercial printer deliberately used three “o”s to suggest the cylinders on a printing press. Zooom initially entered the DI market in 2001 with a Ryobi 3404, but ultimately determined it needed a larger press. Currently a KBA 74 Karat is the only press at the company's 3,000 sq.-ft. facility. Jo Ann Rossi, president, and Ben Rossi, vice president of operations, explain say the two-up format allowed them to offer shorter run lengths without compromising quality. But as Zooom's client list grew, so did the need for a larger sheet.

In late 2003, Zooom sold the Ryobi 3404 and switched to the four-up 74 Karat. The larger press is helping the printer meet customers' expectations for high quality, fast-turnaround jobs. Occasionally, the printer will get art, proof, print, cut and folded a job in the course of one business day.

The Rossis report that run lengths range from 250 to 2,000 impressions, although they've produced as few as 30 impressions and as many as 50,000 impressions. Some of the company's short-run jobs are posters or other large-format work that wouldn't fit on a smaller digital press. In these cases, quality (rather than quantity) is the customers' top priority — they're willing to pay a premium for offset quality.

Although Zooom produces brochures, annual reports and posters, you'll also find some unusual jobs in its portfolio, including custom wrappers for candy bars and peanut tins; invitations and envelopes for a Key West wedding (the invite folded like a treasure map, and the envelopes were printed and converted); and specially designed paper used to wrap gift boxes presented to guests at the White House's 2004 Easter Egg Roll. See

Part 1 | Part 2