Commentary & Analysis
FREE SPECIAL: Why Digital Print-on-Demand Gives New Prominence to Postpress Technology
In conventional printing,
By Patrick Henry
Published: April 3, 2003
In conventional printing, "postpress" is the back-end work that gets done on noisy machines in the paper-littered room upstairs or in the equally roughshod environment of the trade bindery down the street. In digital print-on-demand, however, there is no "press" to be posterior to, and this is what has enabled binding and finishing to step forward for the recognition they deserve as primary aspects of the production sequence. Although there is no trade show specifically for postpress, On Demand has always been a "postpress show" in light of the prominence that it gives to solutions for binding and finishing. This year’s event will offer plenty of evidence why, without companion advances in postpress technology, print-on-demand could not have become the growth category that it represents.
None are more qualified to discuss the evolution, present state, and future outlook of postpress than the three executives who agreed to discuss the topics with WhatTheyThink.com on the eve of the show: Mark Hunt, director of marketing, Standard Finishing Systems (booth 3345); David Spiel, co-owner of Spiel Associates Inc. (booth 4127); and Donald Schroeder, vice president-sales, C.P. Bourg Inc. (booth 3803). Their comments amply explain the strong emergence of binding and finishing in the context of digital print-on-demand.
WTT: How does bindery "add value" to material that is printed on demand? What really makes bindery a part of the "value proposition" of print on demand?
Mark Hunt: Bindery is built into the "value proposition" of print on demand because it’s impossible to fulfill the quick-turn requirements of "on demand" printing without quick-turn finishing. There’s no benefit to printing at the speed of light and then sending the sheets down the street to turn them into finished documents. The other point is that as "dots on paper" become more of a commodity, the finishing element can become what truly distinguishes a print provider’s service to the customer. Bindery services are becoming a much more important area of differentiation.
David Spiel: Books which are not finished are not paid for. What is the use of an on demand printer when a customer has to go to a second shop to finish his book? It ends up the printer’s job to send the work out to be bound, and this defeats the purpose of "on demand."
Donald Schroeder: A document is never truly finished until it is finished, and today 75 to 80 percent of all digitally printed documents require some form of additional finishing. A digital copier/printer might be able to make collated, corner- or side-stapled sets up to 64 pages or so. But after that, because of the effects of grain direction, substrate properties, and other factors, the laws of physics take over, and additional processes such as glue strips, side taping, or saddle-stitched booklets may have to be used.
Traditional finishing is of limited help in on-demand situations because a lot of trade binderies serving the offset segment have gone out of business. In any case, trade binderies don’t like to deal with pre-collated documents because collation always was a profit center for them, and today, most digital documents are pre-collated.
WTT: In digital print-on-demand, the unit cost of a finished document (e.g., a book or a manual) often is higher than it would be with conventional printing because the run is smaller. Is the same thing true of binding on demand? Does it cost more per unit to bind and finish short runs, or can today’s bindery systems perform economically in short runs?
Mark Hunt: Unit costs may be incrementally higher, depending on the process and the amount of set-up time a piece of equipment requires, but a new class of highly automated finishing gear with absolutely minimum make-ready has brought it way down. In-line digital finishing may even cost less than the conventional approach, because time and labor associated with materials handling disappears.
David Spiel: The answer is both. Any bindery will charge you more per book for a short run as opposed to a long run. The ratio between long and short run could be great with perfect bound books and smaller with mechanically bound books. This all depends on the setup time of the machine(s) being used.
Donald Schroeder: In short runs, in-line binding on demand is a more economical solution than offline or trade binding—just a few pennies per sheet, staple, or booklet. For example, it might cost 12¢ to 25¢ to finish a digital document if it’s being produced in line with a digital printer served by one operator. That’s the equivalent value being added per piece. On the other hand, finishing might cost you 25¢ to 50¢ per perfect-bound book at a trade bindery, not including the machine setup charge or the printer’s markup.
WTT: What is your company doing to make its bindery systems compatible with digital production workflows?
Mark Hunt: Horizon is breaking new ground in the area of digitally-enabled set-ups with its new CIP4-style i2i program that enables finishing set-up instructions to flow with the job to a perfect binder, cutter, folder, or booklet maker. Hunkeler is also at the vanguard of the UP3I consortium, bringing the highest levels of automation to the pre/post arena. This area is still somewhat in its infancy, but Horizon and Hunkeler are strongly positioned to catch the wave with early adopters.
David Spiel: Our company has developed the Sterling Punchline in-line punch. This punches holes in-line with folders, booklet makers, and saddle binders. It takes the place of an off-line drill and saves you one extra operation.
Donald Schroeder: We’re achieving digital integration with production workflows already. At On Demand, for example, we’ll be showing a "large format, manual-plus book factory" solution running in-line with a Xerox DocuTech 6180. It will turn oversized (12 1/2" x 18 1/2") 8-page signatures into gathered, collated, and three-knife trimmed 6" x 9" books. The entire process is controlled by Xerox’s DigiPath and DigiFinish front-end software.
WTT: Do end-users of products printed on demand care what kinds of binding and finishing are used? Do they leave the decision up to their printers, or do they "spec" bindery the way they would paper, color, etc?
Mark Hunt: Unless it’s an in-house application (such as internal financial reports) customers care just as much about finish as when they send a job to a commercial printer. We are constantly told, "Our end customer should be unable to distinguish this document from something that came off conventional offset and was finished in a conventional bindery." That’s the holy grail for the digital print and finishing vendors. And that’s what we use as our quality measure.
David Spiel: Customers are becoming more binding savvy. Many will not only choose wire or coil binding but the color of the elements themselves.
Donald Schroeder: Customers are definitely controlling what they want. They’re looking for the same quality they are used to getting in the offset environment: the same finished look, quality, and feel.
WTT: In what area(s) will your company concentrate its product development efforts over the next few years?
Mark Hunt: Standard is fortunate to work with two of the most forward-looking suppliers in the industry, Horizon and Hunkeler. Horizon will continues to dedicate research and development to their heartland market—conventional offset—but they have also been quite nimble entering the emerging print-on-demand space with well-targeted niche products such as the ColorWorks booklet maker, designed to operate in-line with Xerox DocuColor printers.
You can expect to see a range of new product entries in both areas that are well-matched to market needs and dynamics. Hunkeler is a leader in developing systems for paper handling, serving the cut sheet and continuous-feed print market. Horizon and Hunkeler recognize that customers today want extra assurance that a solution offers performance, reliability, and value, and these are the guiding principles of their product development.
David Spiel: We will engage in further refining of our punching and mechanical binding equipment, such as our Coilmaster II automatic plastic coil binding system.
Donald Schroeder: We’ll focus on developing more near-line solutions with more automation for quicker changeover between jobs. These will be systems that can read a bar code or an electronic job ticket and automatically set themselves up to handle the finishing for a particular kind of document.
WTT: What are the advantages of in-line binding on demand over off-line binding on demand? ("In-line binding" means that the binding unit is attached to and is fed directly from the printing unit.)
Mark Hunt: There is still no one right answer, and there never will be. The trick is to ask the right questions and prioritize your needs. Is your objective to scrub labor cost from the job, regardless of capital investment? If there is variable information, what level of document integrity is required? Might I need to intermix digital and conventionally offset printed sheets? Do I need the flexibility to finish output from multiple sources, or can I dedicate one piece of equipment to one printer? Depending how these questions are answered, in-line, off-line, or "automated off-line" may be the best choice.
David Spiel: Some types of binding are possible to do in-line, such as stitching, which offers a product comparable to one finished off-line; and perfect binding, which tends to be of a lesser quality than off-line binding. Other types of binding, such as double-loop wire and plastic coil binding, are impossible to do in-line. Also, the more in-line processes that are put together, the more down time you will ultimately face.
Donald Schroeder: The main advantages are job control, integration of production, and labor savings. One operator controlling multiple printers with integrated binding equipment can box, ship, and deliver in-line. Job recovery is another major benefit. This means that if something should go wrong during the printing, it can be caught and corrected in mid-production while it is still under the operator’s control. In an offline situation, the entire printed run containing the error would be sent to the bindery.
WTT: In what circumstances might it be better to bind off-line?
Mark Hunt: The biggest gains with off-line finishing are the flexibility to serve multiple print sources (digital or conventional); typically higher cycles per hour; and—sometimes— lower equipment cost. For example, we have one very large continuous-feed digital print customer that just invested in three new Standard Horizon BQ-270 automated binders to support short run book production. This approach won out over one faster binder and several in-line binders, because the customer felt that it offered him the best of all worlds: parallel processing for binding with the ability to let the printers run full-tilt, and no worry that the binders would impede print production.
David Spiel: Any type of binding other than stitching should be done off-line.
Donald Schroeder: If you have a room full of digital printers, you might not be able to afford dedicated, in-line binding equipment for each one. But you could serve them cost-effectively with a near-line approach in which the shared finishing equipment is in the same room or area as the printers.
Finishing equipment manufacturers are being asked to develop more automated, more user-friendly bindery solutions, but it’s costly to develop products that meet these requirements. The "Rubik’s Cube" question is, "Can we make machines for in-line finishing that are as inexpensive as machines for near-line or off-line finishing? The answer is "No, not yet."
WTT: How are printers and document producers buying equipment for binding on demand? In "bundles" with digital presses and copiers? As complements to existing print-on-demand systems? Do you see any trends in printers’ buying patterns when it comes to equipment for binding on demand?
Mark Hunt: Some customers shop a la carte, while others rely heavily on their printer vendors to provide a "total solution." Printers who already have bindery knowledge will ordinarily navigate finishing requirements for themselves. Pure digital shops, or service bureaus making the transition into printing, tend to ask the printer vendors to help them through what is often new terrain. In either case, we support the customer or the printer vendor to identify the optimal mix of in-line or off-line equipment that will best serve their application requirements. We have strong partnerships with each of the leading printer vendors—HP, IBM, Nipson, Océ, Xerox, and others—so we can and do offer solutions through them as needed.
David Spiel: Ordinary "must have" machines like cutters and folders are generally bundled with presses. Perfect binders, drills, and punches tend to be bought depending on the customer’s particular needs and generally are bought from a finishing equipment company.
Donald Schroeder: Most customers like bundles. They want solutions that are recommended by their print equipment vendors. They want the vendor’s recommendation for compatibility, and they want to be assured of support. We frequently sell our products through partnerships with vendors like Xerox, which lease our equipment to their customers. We then engage a local dealer to provide the support.