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Hybrid printing: the best of both worlds

Oct 1, 2002 12:00 AM

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We've always been leading edge,” says Ron Ward, CEO of commercial printer Miller Johnson Inc. (Meriden, CT). Since its founding in 1936, the 70-employee company has moved from letterpress to offset to digital printing. Its entry into the digital market about eight years ago was precipitated by the desire to satisfy client needs. “With the turnarounds being so tight, it's difficult to accomplish all of our customers' goals with traditional offset,” explains Ward.

The printer started out with an Indigo digital press, but was limited to short-run, quick-delivery jobs by the technology's then-modest print quality. “When we first got into digital printing, there were only certain things we could do because the quality wasn't there,” the exec notes. “Now, the quality is equivalent to offset.”

The printer's pressroom now houses three 40-inch MAN Roland (Westmont, IL) 700 sheetfed presses: a six-color perfector with aqueous coater and computerized control interface (CCI) console; a four-color press with two-over-two perfecting capability; and a six-color machine, also with a CCI console.

On the digital side, Miller Johnson has a Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) Quickmaster DI direct-imaging press with a maximum sheet size of 13⅜ × 18⅜ inches; and a Xerox (Rochester, NY) DocuTech 6135 monochrome, custom-document publisher, which handles sheets up to 14 × 17 inches and weights up to 110-lb. index, and can print at speeds up to 135 A4-size sheets per minute. The printer also has a full prepress department, as well as bindery and shipping services. Until recently, the printer also operated Miller Johnson Digital, a division devoted to on-demand printing. Ward notes that the group has since been folded into the parent company's operations.


Last year, Miller Johnson won five PIA (Alexandria, VA) Premier Print Awards, including two for best of category in hybrid and variable-data digital print. Best-of-category award criteria stipulate that the job be flawless. Miller Johnson's winning hybrid job involved an offset-printed pocket folder that held about 12 digitally printed brochures. The printer submitted the project for the hybrid category even though neither the folder nor brochures needed to be run through both the offset and digital press.

“It was a short run, and the customer wanted to keep the price down,” Ward explains. “If we ran the whole thing conventionally, it wouldn't have been in their budget.” Miller Johnson thus printed 300 folders on its fullsize, six-color MAN Roland press and produced the brochures on its DocuTech 6135.

The printer does produce several jobs on both the digital and offset presses, however — Ward notes that about five percent of the company's work is hybrid. One example he cites was a long-run job for an insurance company. The printer produced Christmas-card shells on its six-color MAN Roland, and then digitally imprinted them with information specific to the insurance company's different divisions.

Other applications include a gatefold employee-compensation brochure for car manufacturer Subaru. A full-color shell is printed on the six-color MAN Roland, while the DocuTech adds specific information on the employee's payroll contributions, health and dental insurance coverage, as well as paid time off and 401(k) contributions.

With innovation comes challenges, however. The combination of offset and digital printing is practically a marriage of opposites. While the former centers on ink/water balance, the latter unleashes heat to fuse toner to paper. As such, ink and stock that is run through a sheetfed press needs to be compatible with and able to withstand the environment of a digital press.


“Often when we're running conventional shells through the DocuTech,” says Ward, “we need to be careful to not print on top of other ink.” He notes that in some applications, digital imprinting over heavy offset-ink coverage works, but it's often a case of trial and error. And, it's important not to varnish.

“Hybrid printing works best on uncoated stock,” the exec continues, especially when running a job with no-wax inks. Because dull-coated stock tends to mark more during the digital-imprinting process, the printer avoids using it on hybrid jobs. Miller Johnson's DocuTech has handled media up to 12 pt. thick, and quantities from 25 to 10,000 in 12 × 18-inch format.

From its first experiments with digital printing, the printer has opted to place prepress employees, rather than its sheetfed-press operators, at the helm of its digital press. “It was important to have somebody with technical expertise with computers,” Ward explains. “We actually put in prepress people with a good color eye to run the digital press, and this has been very successful. It's also important that they be mechanically inclined.”


To ensure that hybrid printing is a success, a disciplined approach is key. “You have to stay organized,” says Ward. When Miller Johnson first ventured into hybrid printing, a couple of offset-shell jobs slated for the Indigo were inadvertently sent to the bindery instead. Now, once a hybrid job is printed conventionally, its job ticket is marked for digital imprinting and the job is sent to the digital-press area of the facility.

Such snafus may cause some printers to view hybrid printing with trepidation, but Miller Johnson's Ward has no complaints. “It's actually very helpful,” the exec claims. “It makes jobs more cost-effective for the client and less costly for us to produce. And, we're able to offer services a conventional shop can't.”