By Carro Ford Your customers are themselves trying to become more competitive, so they want the manuals, the brochures, the prospectuses you print for them to not only look offset, they still want them yesterday. August 16, 2004 -- Buying a big-ticket piece of hardware has to be a scary proposition for the average commercial printer. Heck, you can pay more for a digital printer than I've paid for most of the houses I've ever bought. This kind of purchase, like a car or a house, has to last a long time. More than one document professional has wondered, "Am I really setting myself up to keep up with customers without constant change in technology and staffing?" Am I making the right investment in technology for my business that keeps me in the game?" Both commercial and CRD printers are struggling with the dynamic of rapidly changing market requirements and expectations. Your customers are themselves trying to become more competitive, so they want the manuals, the brochures, the prospectuses you print for them to not only look offset, they still want them yesterday. And that's pretty much the norm. It's some kind of law that the longer you wait to buy something, the more technology you get for your money. Now that seems to be happening with the solutions becoming available for the growing market of light production-grade digital printing -- the kinds of systems that can become the workhorse of a your commercial print or CRD operation. "As technology becomes more available, the functionality available at any given price point can rapidly improve," agrees Bruce Ganger , Executive Director, Business Development , of the Océ Digital Document Systems Division of Océ North America. Years ago, many people made the solid choice of a piece of big iron digital system carried them through many years of thick and thin. But now the choices of the past may be getting a little thin, and a new breed of core technology is emerging. The fall show season promises at least one introduction of a new level of mid-range versatility. Horizontal, Not Vertical The mid-production market is really a horizontal descriptor, rather than a specific vertical application or industry. ( Everyone needs more manuals, right?) These commercial and corporate print rooms typically have volumes from 150,000 to 1 million a month, with a sweet spot of 150,000 to 350,000. Typical applications cross a variety of industries and include short runs of complex jobs involving specialized capabilities such as tabs for manuals, covers for books, or inserts for mailings. The mid-production market also involves long runs of simple jobs requiring reliable copying, stacking and stapling. New mid-production printers not only offer the ideal monthly specs, they are also more cost-effective and loaded with features that support a wide menu of applications. More vendors are recognizing the need of commercial and corporate print rooms for a light duty production printing system that has a lot of talent. Light production because volumes have dropped or been dispersed as distributed printing becomes more common. Industries like insurance and financial services can reap big savings by printing locally through satellite operations, but their choices of printers for this volume have typically been either too big or too small. The new mid-production printers not only offer the ideal monthly specs, they are also more cost-effective and loaded with features that support a wide menu of applications. Buying one of these new devices can result in a solution that will last through a lot of business cycles. Hard Working, Multi-Talented Going-forward, systems must have seamless openness and facile communications across the workflow. Print providers are concerned about driving more volume to their shops and providing easy electronic submission for their customers to leverage the convenience advantage. Again, vendors are trying to help with advanced workflow software that makes this easier in today's world of omnipresent networks and multiplicity of data sources: client/server platforms, mainframes, mixed desktop operating systems. Going-forward, systems must have seamless openness and facile communications across the workflow. "Given the breadth of these requirements and the reliable horsepower needed to crank out jobs on time, the market is ready for systems that support higher throughput, production-grade capacity, more media flexibility and the ability to combine analog and digital documents in one workflow ," says Ganger. " Specifically for corporate and commercial print centers, the Océ VarioPrint 2110 offers a wide range of advanced functionality including tab printing and interposing from all four paper trays, oversize printing, mixed-stock processing, and the ability to combine analog and digital documents." Digital Consistency, Offset Quality Some print operations are moving work from offset presses as volumes decline and digital quality improves. Systems in the mid-production category must support this transition of work from offset to digital, and the digital print solutions emerging for this market actually have a richer digital press feel. Some systems being launched this fall not only deliver better quality than previous systems in this category; they excel in many other areas, such as support for a wide range of media and applications. Another big advantage of new light-production printers is reliable consistency. Just what your customers expect of you is now available in your printer. The Océ VarioPrint 2110, for example, uses the same Copy Press technology found on its color cousins to ensure consistent output from page to page and job to job. If finding the right solution for mid-production strategy has been a problem, a lot of help is on the way with new versatile high-quality digital workhorses. Anytime you can get so much out of one machine, the decisions become clearer -- and a lot less stressful.