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The rules

May 1, 2006 12:00 AM

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Digital printing, also known as variable-data printing (VDP), means that every image is generated anew for each impression. Printing that uses fixed-image masters or plates is not digital printing; digital printing uses toner and inkjet technology and has almost zero makeready. Thus, digital printing can produce very short runs, collated sets of pages and personalized promotions cost-effectively. No other printing process can match it for these capabilities.

The three devices for replicating information on paper are the copier, the printer and the press. In 1999, the number of impressions produced on printers exceeded the number made on copiers. Since then, copiers have metamorphosed into multi-function printers with integrated scanners. Just as copier volumes migrated to printers, so press volumes will migrate to printers. As digital printers become more capable, they become digital presses. Any digital printer used for print production is theoretically a digital press.

Digital printing was born in 1978 with the introduction of the IBM 3800 and Xerox 9700. Over time, these black-only (monochrome) printers came down in price and created printers of every size, shape, speed and capability. The Xerox Docutech integrated inline binding in 1990, and within a few years, the low end of the offset duplicator market was a shadow of its former glory. In 1993 Indigo and Xeikon gave us digital color presses. Since then over 30,000 color printers printing 35-40 ppm have been installed in North America.

Over time, virtually every printing company will have a digital press to satisfy customer demands. How do you make a decision as to which of the many digital printers to acquire? Here are the nine rules for selecting a digital press.

1. Know thy market.
Who are your customers and what do they want? (By the way, if you really know the answer to the last part of that question, you should be on Forbes’ list of billionaires.) You already have some idea of the kind of work your customers are buying and what part of it might become digital. At a recent print buyers conference in San Francisco, about 60 percent of the buyers said they now were buying digital printing.

Digital presses range from 40 ppm to 136 ppm with different levels of capability. Most printing done on digital presses consists of brochures, flyers, direct mail (postcards and self-mailers) and books. There is a lot of “other.” Not all offset work lends itself to digital printing. Sheet size and speed are the major advantages of traditional presses, but over half of all printed matter is applicable to digital printing.

2. Digital print is different.
Toner and inkjet behave differently than ink and often require special papers. Powder-based toners require paper that will hold or transmit an electrical charge. Liquid-based toners might require specially coated papers for some applications. Inkjet printers also might require special papers. The good news is that designers no longer can select from 10 gazillion grades of paper—some paper manufacturers have developed grades that are similar for both digital and offset litho so that jobs can include sheets printed by both processes.

There are small adjustments to be made in files to print at the optimum level. Four-toner color printers have a better color gamut than some four-color offset presses—I suggest that you print color charts to provide to designers. One digital color press has a five-color version to extend the gamut and liquid toner presses have seven-color capability for spot colors.

3. Digital presses are not like printing presses as we know them.
There are significant differences in speed, sheet size, color capability and other factors. There are sheetfed and roll-fed versions, but the largest sheet size for the sheetfed printers is about 14 x 22 inches, and the largest image area for the roll-fed printers is 19 inches by several feet. Most handle 8.5 x 11-inch and 11 x 17-inch sheets with ease, and some can handle 12 x 18-inch sheets either through the tray (lots of sheets) or bypass area (fewer sheets).

Static electricity is how toner-based printers work, so humidity control is important; some digital presses have built-in temperature and humidity control systems. It is sometimes healthier to live inside these machines. Except for a few models, you will need a special room in order to control the environment.

Quality is no longer an issue. There are still some customers with a loupe the size of the Hubble Telescope, but for most print buyers, it is all about response rates, store traffic and sales. Digital printing gives them all that and more.

4. Cost is not the issue—value is.
Digital presses most often use a “click” charge model to cover maintenance and usage costs. Sometimes consumables are included. This charge usually is based on your monthly volume—the higher the monthly volume, the lower the click charge. But be careful: You will be charged for your monthly volume even if you do not reach that volume. Thus, you must analyze your work to arrive at a meaningful number. Most suppliers have computer tools to help do this.

The monochrome printing market is still lucrative if you find the right blend of value-added services. On-demand books, shell imprinting and specialized reports are some of the areas where monochrome printing is thriving. In the traditional monochrome printing market commoditization is occurring.

5. Your supplier is your partner.
Unlike printing presses, only your supplier can provide toner/inkjet ink and other machine components, as well as service. Seek references and call them. The best deal might not be the best deal if you do not get the proper support. This is not a major issue and might be confined to a few locations, but it would be wise to talk to other users and get feedback on everything from repair response time to billing practices.

It is critical that you run sample files. Most suppliers will let you bring typical files so you can test a real job on the system you are considering. This will allow you to check processing and throughput speed, problem files, and quality.

Some suppliers allow you to have your monthly bill charged to a credit card. One printer I met racks up frequent flyer miles this way and gives them to employees as perks.

6. Engines and DFEs.
The printing engine is the part that actually puts marks on paper. The DFE, or digital front end, accepts files and processes them for the engine. Sometimes they are called RIPs, but ripping is only a part of what they do. Some digital press suppliers provide a bundled package and some let you select from a range of DFEs. Pick your DFE carefully. It could be a bottleneck if there are large numbers of complex files. The DFE is a part of your workflow, and, as always, a workflow is only as good as its weakest link.

7. Think backup.
Multiple machines make sense once your volume fills one and a half shifts or more. You should have a dedicated operator who runs one or more printers and is trained to handle most operational procedures.

Commercial printers with critical deadline jobs should consider a backup machine. It might not have to be exactly the same as the primary machine, but it should share similar DFE functionality and print engine quality.

Some suppliers who have multiple models in their product line will let you upgrade from time to time to newer and faster models. Be careful about replacing two printers with one that equates to the same speed: You now have one printer and no backup.

8. Master VDP.
To become an expert in variable-data printing you must learn databases, mailing and a host of related technologies. VDP is complex, but complexity means value-added, and that means more profit. One printer told me they printed a job that consisted of less than 1,000 sheets and billed $13,000 for it.

9. Use the Web and hybrid printing.
Use the Web to deal with customers and files, and even to sell certain products. For some work, print offset and then imprint with digital. Digital printing allows you to expand your horizons. You can partner with other print companies in other geographic areas to offer distributed printing. You can do short runs for testing and then use offset litho for the longer runs. Digital printing is synergistic with other forms of printing.

The bottom line
To summarize: Select the right machine or machines for your customers’ needs; select the right DFE; select the most advantageous billing plan; check with other users; plan for backup; master VDP; and think outside the (press) box.

The presses
What you'll see at On Demand this month

Xeikon (Itasca, IL) | The Xeikon 5000 can print media from 27-lb. text to 122-lb. cover. Web-fed, it can print multi-page documents at 7,800 full-color sph at 600 dpi with variable dot density, which translates into 130 A4 ppm in fully collated order, making it a productive solution for monthly volumes of 400,000 pages or more. It boasts a range of operator-replaceable units, reduced noise levels, low maintenance and ease of use. Toner can be added on the fly, and the press can be equipped with a fifth color station without impacting its printing speed.
Circle 170 or visit

Océ (Chicago) | The Océ VarioPrint 6250 cutsheet printer for high-end commercial and corporate applications features new duplexing technology. The VarioPrint 6250 produces 250 duplex A4/letter or 132 duplex A3/ledger prints per minute. Océ Gemini Instant Duplex technology presses toner images into both sides of the paper instantaneously.

Key components include the Oc— Smart Imager Controller, which brings high performance, multi-tasking capabilities, high RIP speed and open architecture to a company’s IT infrastructure. Inline finishing options include bookmakers, set finishers and a high-capacity stacker. The integrated DFA interface of the Oc— VarioPrint 6250 enables direct connection to many third-party finishing systems for perfect binding, cover binding, folding and punching. Oc—’s PRISMA software suite fully supports the 6250.
Circle 171 or visit

Xerox (Rochester, NY) | The 50-ppm DocuColor 5000 is designed for quick and commercial printers and in-plant operations. The press features 2,400 x 2,400 dpi and is able to print on a variety of media from 60 to 300 gsm, including coated. Customers choose from three color servers: Xerox FreeFlow DocuSP, EFI Fiery and Creo Spire.
Circle 172 or visit

Xanté Corp. (Mobile, AL) | Xanté’s Ilumina digital color press is designed for on-demand printing of jobs from lightweight flyers to heavyweight postcards at speeds up to 2,000 sph. It handles papers ranging in weights from 64 g/sq.-m to 427 g/sq.-m. The straight paper path ensures all heavy sheets are flat and easily finished. The first sheet off the Ilumina is sellable with zero makeready. Print out only the amount needed to control job costs.
Circle 173 or visit

Canon (Lake Success, NY) | Canon is launching two new digital color presses. Previously dubbed imagePRESS ‘X’ and ‘Y,’ the two new devices are imagePRESS C7000VP and imagePRESS C1 respectively. Highlights include an oilless fusing system, new toner, development system and high-precision registration systems. A DFE/controller co-developed with EFI will drive the engines.
Circle 174 or visit

Kodak (Rochester, NY) | The Kodak NexPress 2100 and 2500 presses satisfy needs from entry-level to high volume environments. Customers can upgrade with options to select desired paper capacity, increase processing capability and add a fifth imaging unit for delivery of spot color, watermarking or protective coating. The fifth imaging unit enables high-impact glossing in conjunction with the Kodak NexGlosser unit.

The Kodak Digimaster E125 and E150 digital production systems, with a resolution of 600 x 600 dpi, employ a small particle developer to print sharp text, crisp halftones and rich graphics. Featuring rapid image processing and print speeds of 125 and 150 ppm, respectively, the E series will support a duty cycle of three to five million impressions per month.
Circle 175 or visit

HP (Palo Alto, CA) | Designed for high-volume direct marketing and publishing applications, the web-fed HP Indigo press w3250 has a unique inline priming feature that enables the use of nearly any house- or publisher-supplied offset stock. It prints up to 136 four-color ppm and up to 272 two-color ppm.
Circle 176 or visit

MGI Digital Graphic Technologies (Melbourne, FL) | The Meteor DP 40 series four-color digital printing systems boast unique software, system hardware and ink media innovations. The systems allow for quick variation between substrates for variable-data printing of leaflets, news sheets and brochures (up to the A3+ format), as well as plastic credit, membership, identification and customer loyalty cards.
Circle 177 or visit

Not variable, but still viable. . .
DI presses can’t do variable printing, but they are a logical extension of the digital workflow. 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 competitive with toner. Heidelberg recently announced it is exiting the DI business but will continue to support existing presses; Presstek and Screen have launched new models.

Presstek recently announced the first Presstek-branded DI press, the Presstek 52DI. The landscape-oriented press (20.47 x 14.76 inches) targets print runs of 250 to 10,000. The 52DI prints at speeds up to 10,000 sheets per hour on a wide range of substrates. All four colors are laid down onto the sheet without any sheet transfer between colors. See

Screen USA’s new four-color TruePress 344 has a maximum sheet size of 13.4 x 18.5 inches and a maximum imaging area of 13 x 18.1 inches, with a top printing speed of 7,000 sheets per hour. It utilizes high-speed 830 nm multi-array laser diode (MALD) imaging technology to expose processless plates. Plates can be imaged at 2,400 dpi resolution using screen rulings up to 175 lpi. In addition, the Spekta screening method enables printers to enjoy the benefits of AM/FM hybrid screening. In just over five minutes, the press is ready to start the next job. To activate a job changeover, the operator simply selects the new job at the central control console. See

Ryobi/xpedx 3404 DI series features four-color, 13.375 x 18.125-inch portrait presses. The RYOBI 3404 DI series is equipped with two imaging heads, both containing up to six laser modules, each of which emits four laser beams. A total of up to 24 laser beams burn the image onto two plate surfaces (two colors) on each plate cylinder. The 3404 DI is available with full UV capabilities. See

The Kodak DirectPress 5634 DI system provides detail and solid coverage while supporting 16-micron dot diameters for 300-line AM, stochastic and hybrid screening. See

The need for speed Tablerock Printing (Boise, ID) ( installed a KBA 74 Karat DI press in the summer of 2004. The company, which previously relied on a 14 x 20-inch conventional offset press with polyester plates, sought faster turnarounds for its short-run jobs. See

Frank J. Romano is professor emeritus at RIT. Contact him at