Commentary & Analysis
Digital Printing - Making the Right Moves
by Mike Chiricuzio Blue Moon Solutions,
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: June 16, 2003
by Mike Chiricuzio Blue Moon Solutions, Inc. June 16, 2003 -- A little over a year ago I participated in a Digital Printing Council Task Force of PIA that was charged with providing a comprehensive definition of digital printing. Industry representatives from end users to educators to manufacturers wrangled for hours over this seemingly simple task, and finally arrived at: "Digital printing is an imaging process where all graphic content is in digital form from creation to output." This is a very broad definition, to be sure. As with any committee related activity, by the time something can be decided and agreed upon, there is much discussion and compromise, and the result can seem to be somewhat generic. In this case, the definition of digital printing would likely be interpreted to include Computer to Plate (CTP) technologies, Direct Imaging (DI) technologies and all Digital Presses that print without creating any permanent printing plate. Viewed in this light, the number of printing companies that can call themselves digital printers jumps to many thousands in the United States alone. If you've got a Digital Press, or a Direct Imaging Press, or utilize Computer to Plate technology to 'feed' your conventional presses, you're a Digital Printer! I can't help but wonder if we're not getting caught up in semantics. Why the term 'Digital' at all? Is it becoming an unnecessary connotation? Should we just go back to calling it all 'Printing'? I mean, we don't call our televisions 'color' televisions anymore, do we? Basically, they're all 'color', so it's a descriptive term that's not required anymore, right? Well, perhaps not yet. The day will come when it will be superfluous to add the term 'Digital', but for now, the delineation remains. As printers and others in the industry hasten to describe and define their market, their business and their future, having some clearly understood concepts of the segments of the technology will continue to be an important part of the process. So, let's try to narrow it down to the basics. With all the ongoing development and refinement by printing equipment manufacturers, it is mind boggling to try and list, define and compare everything that's 'out there', whether in practical use or developmental testing. Rather than failing at a total, comprehensive study that will be obsolete before the ink is dry on this page, let's take some broad strokes at the different technologies, their corresponding markets, and some examples of the equipment that fits the segments. Computer To Plate - The Big Dog This, by far, is the most common segment. Naturally, a digital technology that gives you many of the advantages of more sophisticated digital printing technologies without forcing you to sell, trade in or throw away your existing printing equipment is not only appealing, but exceedingly practical. You don't have to spend as much money, you don't have to learn a whole new way of printing, you just have to research the different manufacturers' technologies, decide which is right for you, sign on the dotted line and implement a new prepress workflow. Of course, there are many issues to deal with, but it is a smaller transition. Startup obstacles aside, this should simplify the process for Prepress operators by eliminating steps, speeding up the process and allowing modifications right up to the last minute. The Prepress department is still charged with producing proofs and plates for the Pressroom, who then has a set of plates to print with that are typically more accurate than before and allows them to produce better work in less time. The suppliers involved in CTP are too numerous to mention. Literally every company that produced film output devices now produces or distributes plate output devices. This is a natural transition of their products and talents. Why wouldn't every printer convert to this workflow immediately? Obviously, it's not that simple. I recently moderated a Panel Discussion on CTP at a meeting of the Printing Industries Association of Arizona. The event attracted an overflow crowd exceeding any meeting in recent memory, to hear the stories of the four brave souls who shared their experiences of the conversion process. However, when the audience was polled regarding their own current status on CTP, less than six hands went up to indicate that their company had instituted a CTP workflow. This was less than 10% of the audience. Of course, it can be argued that anyone who had already moved to CTP would be unlikely to attend, therefore skewing the result. However, based on the number of attendees and anecdotal information from the suppliers present, it's obvious that implementation of CTP is way behind projection compared to the opportunity. Direct Imaging - A Trend Continues If you're a manufacturer of traditional printing presses, you're almost certainly selling, developing or planning some form of Direct Imaging Press. The technologies that began with Heidelberg in 1990 which allow you to create a static printing plate (or printing surface) at the press itself continue to grow and prosper. The variations are many, from the waterless systems on presses such as the Heidelberg QuickMaster DI, the Ryobi DI and more 'conventional' ink/water systems on Heidelberg, Sakurai and Komori, you can now purchase a Direct Imaging 4, 5 or even 6 color press in sizes from 12" x 18" to 28" x 40". Most of the typical options such as automation, coaters, extended deliveries, etc. can be part of the offering. Many of the same companies involved in Computer to Plate technologies such as Presstek and Creo are also the suppliers of the on-board imaging systems used by the press manufacturers, and the quality and consistency of the plates created is largely on a par with offline systems. This, then, would seem a very logical way to proceed, gradually replacing conventional presses with those that can create their own plates, right on the press, basically already in register and 'dialed-in' for color from the information contained within the print file, right? But, implementation of DI presses accounts for less than 10% of new press installations in recent times. There must be more to the story. Digital Printing - The Edge The promise of true digital presses, where a dynamic plate or surface is created just prior to every print impression, has continued to fall short of industry pundit's predictions and expectations. Manufacturers such as Heidelberg NexPress, HP Indigo, Xeikon and Xerox have been offerings in the marketplace that can print in ways which we could not imagine not that long ago. The oldest players in this segment have had working versions of their presses on the market for almost ten years, and thousands have been installed, but the sophistication of these devices and the speed with which the technology has developed has left this segment to a small percentage of print providers, hardy souls with a strong sense of perseverance towards a vision of things to come. Although some suppliers of these technologies have faltered, more have grown towards success, and some new players have entered the game. The improvements in the process, and more importantly in the end product itself, have been dramatic. Speeds have doubled, resolution has increased and the cost to own and operate has fallen significantly. Why has this not led to more widespread usage? According to a recent survey by Trend Watch Graphic Arts, Digital Printing is still treated as a second-class citizen in the graphic communications industry. While 10% of printers and service bureaus cited "variable data printing" as a top sales opportunity, more saw this being done with color copiers than digital presses. Only 8% of all respondents plan to purchase a digital press (i.e. Indigo, Xeikon) in the next 12 months. No magazine printers (0%) and only a handful of book printers showed interest in digital printing as a sales opportunity. Almost twice as many printers and service bureaus saw digital color printing as a sales opportunity as direct imaging (9% compared to 5%). The Right Move - For You How in the world can you wade through this muddy swamp of technologies and find a direction that's right for you and your company? If making a decision seems a daunting and formidable task, that's because it is. Speaking as someone who is in the business of helping business owners create their plans and make these choices every day, I can tell you that there is no simple answer. And speaking as someone who has experienced the highs and lows of the industry, I can also tell you that making the wrong decision or having a seriously flawed plan of action can be disastrous, while the Right Move can be a wonderful experience. So what's the secret? It's you. You're the businessman, the entrepreneur, and the creator of commerce. Ok, so you got into this business by mistake, or followed a family path into printing, or fell into it by some unintended turn. But you stayed in it, and found something that was useful and worthwhile. Whether by good reasoning, dead reckoning or simple luck, you got to this point. The same savvy and personal resources will help you now. Consider the market or niche that you would most like to serve, and then begin to search for the technology or product that will most likely allow you to do it better than your competitors. Keep in mind that creating a way to stand out above the crowd and differentiate yourself from the ordinary is key to getting out of the rat race of commodity printing. Learn all that you can. Read the publications. Talk to the manufacturers. Listen to others who have selected their path and benefit from their experiences, good and bad. Attend the appropriate trade shows such as VUEpoint, On Demand and GraphExpo, and not just to walk the exhibit floors and see the demonstrations, but to attend the seminars and educational sessions. You need to understand the markets, the technologies and the future of both to arm yourself with the knowledge you will need before committing your company, your resources and your money to a specific direction. The reason for the lack of embrace for the previously discussed technologies is, more often than not, a matter of indecision borne of fear, and the fear is borne of lack of knowledge. It's too easy to become so busy and tied up in keeping the fires out and the customers satisfied that there's no time to learn what's needed, and no opportunity to find our way. But in fact, you must find the time, as the time is now, and make that Right Move. The one that's right for You.