Commentary & Analysis
Back to Basics: Matching old and new technologies
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: March 21, 2007
--- The Broadhurst Report Back to Basics Matching old and new technologies by Guy Broadhurst March 21, 2007 -- We all know it's important to understand what the latest technology means for your business and how to take advantage of recent advances in equipment and software. But some recent conversations with customers revolved less around the latest innovations and more about how to use existing (and amortized!) equipment with some of the most advanced print engines on the planet. Printers shifting from offset to digital can be faced with some very basic issues that can prove challenging Many of these conversations have been with firms who produce all manner of books: trade paperbacks, directories, manuals, digests, and so on. The owners and managers of these operations realize digital printing offers some clear advantages over their offset presses and want to make the transition for some applications. But as they do so, they are faced with some very basic issues that can prove challenging. The Paper Trail The first that comes up is paper (I told you this was back to basics). Printers who have been printing books with offset presses have been buying certain types of paper, differentiated by weight, smoothness, color, and other factors. In some cases the choice is based on the specific application, or perhaps a stock is one they know will deliver satisfactory results, while on others it may be one preferred by a customer. So the printer buys it in quantity, gets a great price and uses it up as the jobs come in. In switching jobs over to digital presses, though, he finds the papers he has come to trust don't run correctly in his new digital press. Not only that, he may have trouble finding an exact equivalent and when he does, it's usually more expensive. Crunching the numbers, the overall economic model for digital printing still works, but it is not quite what the printer expected. The printer has to understand that different papers are needed for digital presses. Two key factors are surface chemistry and moisture content. Papers for electrophotographic printing must have salt in their makeup so the paper can take an electrical charge, otherwise the toner won't adhere to the page. They must also have a much lower moisture content than offset papers. While experienced digital shops know the importance of conditioning paper before printing, typically storing it in the same room as the print engines for a few days prior to imaging, this is not as common a practice among offset printers. While experienced digital shops know the importance of conditioning paper before printing, this is not as common a practice among offset printers These issues must be addressed early on when discussing how the new equipment will fit into the existing environment and what adjustments will need to be made. Paper manufacturers have a wide range of substrates for many applications, often with direct equivalents to offset papers, but it's essential that there is a ready supply of appropriate digital papers on hand for the documents making the shift to digital. These issues are more educational than technical, but others bring new and old technology together head-on. Post-production Problems When a successful book manufacturer makes the leap to digital printing it seems reasonable to assume that the existing finishing equipment (folding, gluing, trimming, and binding) will be up to the job. And if most of this work is done offline or near-line this could well be the case. But when the goal is to have a roll of blank paper go in one end of a system and finished books come out the other, it often turns out that the old finishing equipment doesn't necessarily work well with the new print engines. For example, the speeds of the equipment must be sufficiently adjustable to so the printing and finishing devices can run at a fairly steady pace without one waiting for another to "catch up." In some cases, print engines must be configured differently or pieces of equipment added to help the technologies of the offset and digital ages coexist successfully. For example, a machine designed for use with a continuous-feed digital press may be used to collect and fold pages into book blocks before sending the pages to a binding machine. In other cases, the older machinery used to create books out of offset printed pages cannot be connected to digital print engines, so the finishing and bindery operation must be modified extensively, or new, more compatible equipment must be acquired. The point here is to make the most of what you have, but realize that the best solution may be an innovative mix of old and new. Planning ahead One place where old and new clearly part company is that offset bindery machines lack the computer interfaces of the newer devices, especially the emerging JDF and UP3i standards that connect the workflow from the print server through production. While this may not be important for a book manufacturer just making the transition to digital, it is likely to become an issue before too long, and it's one that impacts production efficiency and cost-control. Planning ahead for the investment and changes in the production workflow should be part of the transition to digital production. When offset presses were the only option, finishing and bindery equipment vendors worked with press manufacturers to ensure their respective technologies worked well together. Today, many of those same finishing and bindery vendors are working with digital press makers to develop an array of equipment designed to produce documents at optimal production speeds. While the complete systems increase the investment required in a digital operation, they are part of the overall transition of the industry to using both offset and digital technologies to deliver the most cost-effective --and profitable-- results for print providers. But to be honest, the better approach is for the new digital print vendors to understand what can be connected to and work well with the new technologies that surround us, remember the old adage, use what you have before buying more!