Commentary & Analysis
Crossing the finish line – a Cinderella story
At drupa 2016, expect post-press to emerge as a Cinderella story. Already, prepress and print have benefited from technologies that speed work through the production process, but for many companies post-press processes are still a bottleneck.
By Cary Sherburne
Published: October 19, 2015
Post-press binding and finishing in commercial print, packaging, sign & display graphics and other sectors will be a key attraction at drupa 2016. As they say, it isn’t finished until it is finished … and for many companies, there are still significant opportunities for improving throughput and productivity as well as reducing costs in their post-press departments.
All segments of the market are facing similar challenges. Shorter run lengths, faster time to market, more versioned and variable content – while each segment has slightly different challenges, they are all facing this trifecta, and as a result, are moving to an increasingly digital workflow. While significant focus has been placed on the benefits of digital printing, the analogue technologies – offset and flexo, most notably – are also moving to workflows that benefit from faster make-ready times, less waste and fewer touch points in the manufacturing process.
Alon Gershon, Manager of Workflow Solutions at HP Indigo, pointed out, “Finishing processes – both set-up and operation – are often still highly time-consuming, labour-intensive, leading to high dependency on skilled operators and prone to errors and waste of costly work in process.” The challenge for printers and packaging converters is to implement post-press operations that circumvent these barriers to production efficiency.
Already, prepress and print have benefited from technologies that speed work through the production process, but for many companies, post-press processes are still a bottleneck, perhaps the last hold-out in the analogue-to-digital transformation. Yoshihiro Oe, General Manager Export, Europe and Africa Business Alliance at Horizon commented, “Many customers are still primarily focusing on investment in the prepress and press areas and less on finishing; this is a challenge we face.”
However, we believe that is rapidly changing and that we will see many advances at drupa 2016 toward making post-press processes as efficient as the rest of the production workflow as well as a stronger interest in these developments on the part of end users.
“Historically post-press was always seen as the industry’s Cinderella technology, taken for granted, undervalued and overlooked. But as run lengths fall and turnaround times come under more pressure, advances in post-press automation and integration are becoming increasingly important as printers realise that the latest finishing technologies can not only ease production bottlenecks, but actually generate new opportunities. I’ve no doubt that the headlines at drupa 2016 will be dominated by digital technologies, but the switched-on printers will all make a beeline for the post-press halls because they know that’s where they will see new ways of unlocking digital’s potential,” Darryl Danielli, Chief Editor UK-based PrintWeek.
Begin with the end in mind
How a job will be finished must be taken into consideration from the very beginning of the design and production process. Impositions that are most efficient for the printed sheet may not be the same impositions that are efficient in post-press as each piece of finishing equipment requires a unique imposition; and these two efficiencies must be well balanced for a smooth workflow with minimal waste.
And finally, automation is key. For many companies, there is already significant automation in the prepress-to-print process, but less so in the bindery. Manual machine set-up can be time consuming and error prone, often requiring highly skilled workers and production of “overs” to allow for anticipated waste. To the extent machine setup can be automated based on job ticketing information, bar codes, marks and the like, errors are less likely to occur, the number of overs required can often be significantly reduced, and less skilled workers can be utilised in the post-press area.
“You don’t want to be a commodity printer these days, even in short run, and value-added post-press solutions are a good way to move out of the commodity zone,” Jerry Sturnick, Xerox Finishing Business Manager.
Xerox has played a leadership role in finishing automation since the launch of its ground-breaking DocuTech Production Press in 1990 and the development of its Digital Finishing Architecture (DFA) that now includes unique dual mode configurations which allows the same finishing solution to support both inline and offline workflows. Sturnick reports that Xerox has assembled a diverse portfolio of finishing partners over the last 30 years. “We are seeing that about one-third of digital page volume is finished inline with the other two-thirds offline,” he adds. “That’s why we introduced a dual mode feeder at drupa 2012 that uses the same DFA interface to direct sheets to inline or offline finishing with no change in software required.” Xerox is extending its finishing partnerships and automation initiatives beyond its traditional sheet-fed environment into production inkjet and packaging.
Another great example of workflow automation at work post-press is Georgia (U.S.) based Benson Integrated Marketing Solutions who processes 200+ jobs per day. Peter Xierten, Director of Systems and Information Technology, said, “Saving three to five minutes per job on cutting set-up adds up to two or three hours per day saved in cutting time. We now have one operator working one shift (since implementing a finishing automation solution from HP), whereas before we needed two cutters working all day, two shifts and overtime.”
Modularity increases flexibility
It is also important to note that many finishing vendors, especially in the transactional, direct mail and commercial print spaces, including MBO, Mueller Martini and Horizon, offer modular finishing solutions that can be configured on the fly as production needs change. This approach results in more flexibility and better utilisation of and ROI for post-press investments.
MBO is a great example of modularity at work. The company offers a wide variety of separate but compatible modules that are mobile and interchangeable, creating a mix-and-match finishing department. The company also describes a “Parking Lot Concept,” with an unwinder and sheeter at its core. Lance Martin, MBO’s Director of Sales, North America, said, “With this core in place a printer needs only to purchase the modules necessary for a given job. It is also an ideal model for printers who expect growth since adding modules to the Parking Lot is more cost effective than purchasing entirely new solutions. With numerous modules on hand, a printer needs only to roll modules into place to create one-step finishing production systems.”
While some of the challenges and trends cross segment boundaries, each segment also has its individual characteristics.
Masters of mail
Direct mail is not going away anytime soon. And while transactional mail has been on the decline in many regions for some time, we don’t see that going away anytime soon, either.
Despite all the hype surrounding digital marketing – and the investments brands are making in digital media – even among younger consumers 92% say they prefer direct mail for making purchasing decisions, with 67% of consumers overall expressing this preference.1 And, according to a Pitney Bowes survey, 76% of small businesses say their ideal marketing strategy encompasses a combination of both print and digital communication.2
In the direct mail segment, automation is key, both from a cost perspective and to prevent errors. In addition to automated inserter setup, look for inspection and real-time reporting systems such as those from Ironsides Technology, Videk and others, to play a growing role.
Both transaction and direct mail have already seen significant automation but there is room for more. A good role model is UK-based Capita Document & Information Services, who has implemented a fully automated, as-near-lights-out-as-you-can-get mail operation. Capita chose to work with Ironsides Technology to implement automated production tracking with an umbrella solution that integrates the end-to-end workflow across the production platform as well as enabling quality control and real-time reporting. This unifying solution enabled Capita to meet its goal of complete traceability from composition through final preparation for entry into the mail stream. And operators rarely touch mail packets, even when reprints are required. Operations managers know exactly where each and every page is in the production process at a given point in time, enabling much more effective management of the overall production process.
High value finishing
Regardless of the print technology being used, there are a growing number of digital finishing solutions that add value to the final printed product along with reduced time to market, reduced waste and cost-effective finishing of short to medium runs. And their value is being recognised by buyers and industry associations alike. High value finishing is one way to decommoditise print, mitigating price-based buying decisions.
Israel-based Highcon was just named a recipient of the prestigious Printing Industries of America 2015 InterTech Award for Technology Innovation for its digital cutting, creasing and laser die cutting machine for converting paper, labels, folding carton and microflute, which was introduced at drupa 2012. Boutwell Owens was the first North American packaging converter to implement the Highcon solution. In addition to enabling cost effective production of small runs and speeding time to market, these types of digital solutions open new doors for brand owners, designers, printers and converters alike.
“When you have a structural designer that has been told for so many years that you can’t do certain things, today it is all feasible and the handcuffs are off. The world is open; we are no longer restricted by tooling and cost. People can do things they never before imagined!” Ward McLaughlin, CEO Boutwell Owens.
Other suppliers that offer digitally-enabled high value finishing solutions include the Scodix family of digital enhancement presses that offer post-print addition of variable density embossing and gloss and now digital foiling; and MGI with coating and foiling options. Others, like Kama, Therm-o-Type, Hunkeler and Standard Finishing, offer die cutting and perforating solutions optimised for short runs. Kama also offers hot foil, embossing and in-register holograms for even more added value.
Digital press manufacturers such as Canon, EFI, HP Indigo, Kodak, Ricoh, Xeikon and Xerox are partnering with these post-press suppliers to offer in-line and near-line laser die cutting, coating and other advanced post-press capabilities designed for short-run and one-off efficiencies as well as medium run length production quantities. In addition, digital presses from these companies also offer clear toners that act as a coating agent as well as adding “pop” to images.
All of these capabilities contribute to the overall value of print, adding to the look and feel of printed pieces with gloss, satin or matte finishes, digital embossing, innovative cutting, foiling and other special effects. Where print itself can often be a commodity, adding these types of specialty finishing increases the value of print, does a better job of catching the attention of recipients, and can help marketers get their messages out in a way that is difficult to do with digital communications.
At drupa 2016, look for these suppliers and many others who will be showing advanced high value finishing optimised to meet emerging market requirements, and expect to see more innovation than ever before in this area.
Packaging converters are also benefiting from digital workflows. The digital die cutting and finishing techniques discussed above, combined with digital printing, are making it easier for converters to offer not only small lot finished packages but also faster, more cost effective mock-ups and samples often produced using the same substrates and printing processes that will used for the final product.
There are also a growing number of cutting tables from vendors such as Esko, Mimaki and Zund that are designed to quickly deliver shorter runs of finished goods for use as final product or for samples/mock-ups in the packaging, commercial print and sign/display graphics markets. These companies also offer sophisticated software, such as Esko’s i-Cut Suite, as well as tool sets that speed setup and make these devices easier and more efficient to use.
“As the continued high growth for these solutions seems to prove, the ability to produce one-offs or short run finishing fast and precise has become a standard need in the graphic arts industry for a wide range of applications,” Jef Stoffels, Director Corporate Marketing Esko.
Some packaging solutions providers such as Bobst are turning their attention to increased efficiency and reduced make-ready times for labels, flexible materials, folding carton and corrugated applications as well as the ability to integrate with other systems converters have in place. Bobst’s recent acquisition of a majority stake in Nuova GIDUE, a company that began introducing digitally-enabled solutions for the labels and packaging market in 2000, sends a signal about its future intent. Expect to see this trend continue and accelerate. Look to see these companies move upstream as well. For example, the 2014 Bobst annual report contains this statement that provides additional insight into future strategies: “On the Digital Packaging Solutions side, in 2015 we will be installing pre series machines for digital printing at corrugated board sites.”
And look for press manufacturers to move further downstream in the production process. Heidelberg, for example, engineered an outsourcing deal with Chinese manufacturer Masterwork Machinery in 2014, resulting in a new die cutter and additions to its folder-gluer line the same year.
Books and beyond
Book printing is an area where digital has made a significant impact, with respect to both printing and finishing. Many book printers have implemented production inkjet printing technology that is replacing offset volumes, especially as the quality of these systems improves and the range of functional substrates increases. Digital lines for book binding have also made huge strides. For example, earlier this year at Hunkeler Innovationdays, Hunkeler unveiled its smart book solution for short run book production. It starts with cold glue pre-gluing of the book block to prevent slippage as the block proceeds through the rest of the binding process. Book sizes are dynamically adjusted, so that each book that comes off the line can be a different size and thickness. Glued book blocks are then handed off to an inline perfect binder, which can be sourced from a variety of different manufacturers. This is just one example of the advanced binding solutions now available to book printers.
Another is Horizon’s stacking solution for B2 digital presses which converts digitally printed B2 sheets into any required sheet size down to A6, collating them in page order to form book blocks, resulting in print to book block with minimal touch points. MBO also offers a fully variable book block production solution capable of variable format, page count, signatures and more. And Horizon, Kolbus and others offer automated digital-conventional-hybrid book finishing lines that can be configured to meet each plant’s specific manufacturing needs, efficiently producing both perfect bound and case bound books.
Israeli book printing company Cordoba added the Hunkeler modular book block solution to its Kodak production inkjet press earlier this year in a nearline configuration in order to address decreasing run lengths as a result of changes in the law in Israel that prevent heavy discounting that was a standard practice in the country. The installation was timely, as the company has seen a 60% to 70% reduction in volume for black & white book printing, making it inefficient for some titles to be produced using offset printing.
And, of course, especially for perfect-bound books, lamination is important to product printed covers. Providers of laminating solutions such as Neschen and Sihl are working hard to optimise those for an ever-growing variety of digital toner and ink types to ensure high quality adhesion.
Wrapping it up
If post-press is a bottleneck in your organisation, or if you are considering the purchase of new presses, begin with the end in mind.
Be sure to engage post-press vendors throughout the evaluation process to take advantage of their expertise and to make sure that your ultimate configuration is the best possible match to your requirements. Most of these suppliers offer pre-sale consulting services that can help ensure that you make the right decisions in this important area.
Keep in mind that in post-press, it is especially important to ensure flexibility in your configuration – the ability to add and subtract modules, reconfigure on the fly and more – especially as new customer requirements emerge or new technologies come to market that can improve post-press productivity. And at drupa 2016, take the Cinderella story to heart by spending quality time looking at all of the advances in post-press that can make your operation more efficient and effective.