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Why DI?

Aug 1, 2003 12:00 AM

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Direct-imaging (DI) presses take advantage of two of the biggest trends in the graphic-arts market: short runs and digital workflows. Because DI presses feature on-press imaging — rather than plates being made on a CTP device and then mounted on press — they are said to boast automatic register and speedy makeready, key factors in a short-run printing environment. Current makeready times on these presses are said to be less than 15 minutes, compared to 40 minutes when they were first introduced in 1991, according to Frank Romano, Roger K. Fawcett Distinguished Professor of Digital Publishing at RIT (Rochester, NY). He adds that printers can next expect to see makereadies of less than 10 minutes.

That's good news for printers interested in this technology, because short runs are set to become prevalent in the future. By 2010, 43 percent of all pages printed will have run lengths of 2,000 or less, predicts Romano in NAPL's (Paramus, NJ) spring “TechTrends” newsletter. Vendors agree that the sweet spot for DI presses falls in the range of about 500 to a few thousand impressions per job.

Improving cost efficiency

Printers also face increasing pressure to be as cost-efficient as possible. Buying automation and going digital is reportedly one of the best ways to wring costs out of the process — hence, perhaps, the active industry participation in standards movements such as the International Cooperation for the Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press and Postpress (CIP4) and its JDF. That DI presses can take an electronic job file and automatically image plates as they're being mounted, while simultaneously setting ink keys, ties in neatly with the CIP4/JDF ideal. “The more process you can integrate into one run, the more profitable you [as a printer] will be,” observes Christian Cerfontaine, director of marketing for MAN Roland (Westmont, IL), which recently celebrated the second installation of its DICOweb DI press (see “DICOweb finds second home”).

Jörg Dähnhardt, product manager, DI, at Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA), agrees that the digital workflow of DI presses compresses throughput time, allowing for job turnaround times that he says are often less than 24 hours. He notes that with DI presses receiving digital data directly from the RIP, operators can choose which job will go on press next, rather than waiting for plates to arrive from the prepress department. And, “due to the high degree of automation in combination with a controlled platemaking environment, print results are consistent,” Dähnhardt says. “This minimizes cost per job.”

Alternative options

DI critics contend, though, that while a freestanding CTP device can produce plates for multiple existing presses, the same is not possible with a DI press. In addition, if a DI press breaks down, not only would the printing of jobs come to a halt, but so, too, would the plate imaging.

But most of all, says Mike Grego, marketing manager at Sakurai (Schaumburg, IL), the cost-justification for a DI-press purchase isn't necessarily there. Sakurai introduced the Oliver-474EPII DI halfsize press at Drupa 2000. In Sakurai's in-house tests pitting a DI press against a CTP device with a fully automated offset press, Grego says the latter workflow consistently outperformed the DI press. “We could do a makeready faster, get to color faster and have finished work coming off the [traditional offset] press faster than with a DI press,” he observes.

“There are all different ways to show that DI is [better] if you heavily burden the CTP cost,” notes Grego. “But a DI press will [also] have a pretty hefty maintenance contract — for a four- or five-color press, you're looking at $60,000 a year for maintenance on the laser heads alone.”

Sakurai has, for the time being, backed off of plans to actively market its DI press. “We'll discuss it with customers if they ask, but then we will also ask if they've looked at the alternatives to DI,” says Grego. He concedes that a DI purchase might make sense in the smaller-format range, but in the halfsize market, “that [makes for] a pretty expensive piece of equipment.”

Market players

Vendors that remain active in the small-format and halfsize DI market include Heidelberg, Ryobi and KBA (Williston, VT) (for more on other DI vendors, see “KPG enters DI arena,” p. 22, and “Fullsize DI” on Heidelberg's Quickmaster 46-4 DI (QM DI) is a two-up, four-color, waterless offset press featuring Presstek PEARL imaging and PEARLdry Plus plates. At CeBIT in December, Heidelberg announced an alternative plate offering, the Saphira Caleidoplate 46, for its QM DI Pro and Plus users. QM DI Pro users can opt for a package consisting of the new plate material and new press software that allows for format-dependent spooling of the printing plate roll. The smart spooling function is said to adjust to the size of the document being imaged, thereby minimizing plate consumption.

Heidelberg's Speedmaster 74-DI (SM DI) is a four-up offset press with Creo imaging technology. The SM DI uses fountain solution. Ninety-five percent of customers reportedly opt for five or six colors on the SM DI; Dähnhardt says 75 percent of customers choose the perfecting capability and 100 percent go with coating. Heidelberg reportedly has more than 700 QM DI presses and approximately 30 SM DIs installed in the U.S.

Ryobi's 3404DI two-up, four-color, offset press uses Presstek ProFire imageheads and PEARLdry plates. According to Don Trytten, vice president and general manager of xpedx (Lenexa, KS), Ryobi's U.S. distributor, all 3404DI presses come equipped with an IR dryer. Printers can also opt for a printing-density-control system (PDS-E) or a printing-density-control system with color profile setter (PDS Pro-E). Ryobi does not release installation data.

KBA offers the 74 Karat press, a 20½ × 29-inch, four-color, waterless offset DI press. It features Creo imaging technology and runs Presstek PEARLdry aluminum plates. A distinguishing feature is the 74 Karat's waterless and keyless Gravuflow inking system. “Like an electrophotographic-based press, there are no adjustments,” explains vice president of marketing Eric Frank. “We can do this with the benefits of ink in larger format.” After a year of production, Frank reports that 74 Karat's U.S. installed base numbers 30. He says most customers order a four-color-plus0coater model with a dryer.

american printer asked RIT's Romano, Heidelberg's Dähnhardt, Trytten of xpedx (on behalf of Ryobi) and KBA's Frank to comment on the state of DI.

Why buy DI vs. CTP?

Trytten/xpedx/Ryobi: DI allows short-run print jobs to be completed with the lowest cost per job, less makeready time due to exact register, no plate hanging and no ink/water-balance issues.

Frank/KBA: DI and CTP are similar in technology but different in application and needs. The 74 Karat, for example, is ideal for companies looking for an encapsulated system with controlled processes including everything from prepress to ink on paper. The niche for DI is mainly short-run color printing from 500 to 5,000 sheets, with quick turnaround times.

Dähnhardt/Heidelberg: In general, a CTP device can produce plates for various presses; a DI press doesn't have that capability. When a printer installs a CTP device to feed existing older presses, [though,] it doesn't take advantage of automation on the press. The time that the job is on the press — which is the real cost driver — remains unchanged.

The DI press uses processless imaging — in our case, just a laser beam and a cleaning device for the QM DI, or just a laser beam on the SM DI. This eliminates all the variables that come along with the conventional platemaking. Moreover, there is no need for chemicals or other environmentally harmful substances.

Who is the typical DI-press customer?

Romano/RIT: Midsize commercial printers tend to be the DI customers, with some small shops. Their customers are demanding shorter runs and faster turnaround.

Dähnhardt/Heidelberg: DI customers often come from areas where no offset press existed before, such as service bureaus, digital printers or prepress houses. There are five typical customer profiles:

  1. Toner-based digital printers that want to expand their services and offer longer runs at a more economic cost

  2. Prepress houses that expand their services into short-run printing

  3. Quick or small commercial printers that have two-color presses and want to expand into four-color printing

  4. Commercial printers with larger presses that want to continue to grow and have identified short-run color as a way to do so

  5. Inplants, usually a mixture between digital and quick printers, that seek efficient production of four-color work, expansion of their service and an update from old equipment.

Trytten/xpedx/Ryobi: Our dealers have initially spent their efforts with customers that have a good knowledge of the digital workflow. This has been inplants, commercial printers, ad agencies, trade shops or service bureaus, large copier users, existing Indigo and QM DI users, greeting-card printers and educational facilities.

Do you foresee printers that already have CTP devices and offset presses considering DI presses?

Dähnhardt/Heidelberg: Most of our DI customers do have other offset equipment.

Romano/RIT: You would probably want both. DI is ideal for short runs and CTP handles everything else.

Frank/KBA: Some of our customers have CTP and set up the DI area as a separate company or cost center. They use this as a way of reinventing their organization.

What trends are pushing the market emphasis on DI technology?

Frank/KBA: Printers are looking to differentiate themselves in today's aggressive market, and using alternative technologies allows you to potentially offer something different or more competitively priced. For other printers, it allows them to enter new markets such as on-demand printing, or it gives their customers the option of doing either versioning or test marketing.

Dähnhardt/Heidelberg: Digitalization of the workflow and expectations about future developments.

What's the typical configuration of the DI presses being installed in the U.S.?

Romano/RIT: You are limited by what is for sale. Most are two-up systems with four colors. Some are four-up, and only one press is eight-up. A few have dryers.

What type of work is being done? Any hybrid work (preprinted offset shells later imprinted with variable data) being done?

Trytten/xpedx/Ryobi: Short-run quality work is the basis of the DI press. This can be anything that fits the format, but would normally be multicolor work with a fast-turnaround requirement.

Romano/RIT: Mostly short-run advertising materials; perhaps a small amount of hybrid work.

Frank/KBA: Typical work is four-color plus coating. Since the 74 Karat has an inline coater, it really helps with product appeal and job-turnaround times.

Dähnhardt/Heidelberg: Four-color-process work is primarily done on the QM DI: small catalogs (probably up to 12 pages), marketing material, business cards and sticker/labels. There are also some printers who do second passes to add a spot color or spot varnish. The SM DI can do four- to six-color printing with coating, so any type of commercial work is done, just in shorter run lengths.

Do DI presses face competition from high-speed digital printers?

Romano/RIT: Yes. There is now an overlap at about 500 to 1,000 impressions where digital color with toner and DI markets meet. But the toner-based machines are not as cost-effective in the 1,000 to 5,000 range. Also, DI presses handle the full range of papers and weights; digital color machines do not.

Dähnhardt/Heidelberg: Yes — but in a perfect world, the two technologies would not compete. DI presses are strong in producing cost-effective runs of 500 to 5,000, while high-speed digital presses are great for runs of one to 500 and variable-data information. Both technologies are adding value in a different market segment — and using a high-speed digital printer to produce static images doesn't take advantage of the variable-imaging capacities, which is part of what you pay for.

The technologies are competing mainly because of limited budget — not every enterprise can afford to buy a DI and a high-speed toner press.

Where do you see the greatest growth for DI?

Dähnhardt/Heidelberg: We will see a continued interest in DI from the small commercial/quick printers and digital-print shops. The two-up market will remain the key area for the DI presses.

Trytten/xpedx/Ryobi: [In addition to short-run printing,] DI presses have a great opportunity to produce the longer-run work that is not economical for the click-charge machines, while adding the availability of a higher-quality product. If there is a sufficient demand for a larger-format DI press, I would think that Ryobi would be interested in providing the machine to the market. I don't believe this is the current situation, however.

Frank/KBA Since the 74 Karat is a 20 × 29-inch press, we do not sell it much in the quick-print market, but rather to midsize and larger firms. The most growth is in commercial printers and digital trade shops.

What's next for this technology/market?

Romano/RIT: Look to Drupa for much less expensive two-up presses, economical four-up presses and other performance improvements.

Frank/KBA: A focus will be additional colors, more inline features and faster drying systems.

Trytten/xpedx/Ryobi: We are not the manufacturer, but I would expect that imaging speed, resolution, format sizes and possible media changes could be in the mix. Market demands will have much to do with what comes to market, and the cost of the developments will determine what and how fast it arrives. We will probably see cooperation between companies that may not currently be involved in our industry.

KPG enters DI arena

While the most active direct-imaging (DI) press vendors can be counted on one hand, DI activities elsewhere are by no means stagnant. Czech Republic-based Adast, which had a number of DI-press involvements with Presstek (Hudson, NH) and Xerox (Rochester, NY), declared bankruptcy in spring 2002. Xerox also recently exited the DI-press market when it ceased sales of the DocuColor 233 DI-4, 400 DI-4 and 400 DI-5.

Consumables vendor Kodak Polychrome Graphics (KPG) (Norwalk, CT), meanwhile, announced it would begin selling a two-page, four-color Ryobi-platform DI press outfitted with Presstek ProFire imaging technology. John Schloff, staff vice president, digital printing and color, says the DI press is a natural extension of KPG's core products. “Our customers are all in some stage of transition from analog to digital workflows. The three primary paths they have to digital are CTP, digital printing and direct offset printing. Having the KPG DirectPress 5034 DI in our product line enables us to provide solutions to customers along each of these paths,” he says.

“A critical part of meeting industry needs of quick-turnaround, short-run, high-quality work lies in elements that must occur before the ink hits the paper,” Schloff adds. “KPG has a rich history in helping customers manage these digital aspects of printing. Our [knowledge of] color management and workflow [will] make DI even more productive and effective in a customer's environment.”

Frank Romano, Roger K. Fawcett Distinguished Professor of Digital Publishing at RIT (Rochester, NY), notes that there's a market for DI presses and KPG reaches that market. “If the company focuses on the market, it can be successful,” he says.

The KPG DirectPress 5034 DI is currently available.

Guide to DI

“The GATF Guide to Direct-Image Presses” provides information on direct imaging (DI) as well as the prepress infrastructure necessary for a DI operation. The book costs $75 ($50 for GATF/PIA members). To order, visit or call (800) 662-3916.