by Heidi Tolliver-Nigro April 17, 2006 -- Over recent weeks, I've been caught up in the furor over whether or not RIP-driven copiers are really being used to produce sophisticated VDP jobs. In part, the problem is really a semantic one. Today's RIP-driven "copiers" aren't really copiers, in the sense that copying is very little of what they actually do, if they do any copying at all. They are really small-footprint digital printers with front-end RIPs and color management, just with slower print engines than the big toner-based presses. But they have much smaller price tags, too. It's not difficult to find a $40,000 – $50,000 box to do the applications that a toner-based press will do, just in a smaller environment. Of course, this sends toner-based press manufacturers all aflutter, but the reality is, shops in smaller markets cannot always afford a bigger press. Although some toner-based press owners have also purchased these devices to run their ultra short-run jobs (which, understandably, press manufacturers would rather they didn't), in some cases, smaller shops are purchasing them as their only output option because, for their customer bases, these machines offer the right capabilities for the capital investment cost. Smaller shops are purchasing these machines as their only output option because they offer the right capabilities at an attractive cost. Take the example of RDW Imaging in Wheaton, MD (about five miles from Washington, DC). For years, the shop, whose customer base is primarily local nonprofits like synagogues and private schools, used to run a Heidelberg QMDI. But its run lengths continued to shrink, even beyond what was cost-effective on the direct imaging press. So it traded in the DI for 2400-dpi, 50-ppm Xerox 250s, which Xerox positions as bridging the gap between the high-end office and print production environments. The machines come with bookletmakers and are compatible with a variety of front-end RIPs. David Sacks, co-owner of RDW Imaging, purchased two of these machines, one with the Fiery RIP and another with a Creo RIP for doing variable data. Let's take some of the "copier myths" that have been flying around the industry lately and respond to them in the context of RDW Imaging, its customer base, and its customers' needs. Myth #1: The quality on these devices isn't good enough for anything but the most rudimentary work. RDW's market is a pleasing color market, its true, but as anyone whose seen its print samples knows, its work is anything but rudimentary. Both of its Xerox 250s have RIPs with densitometry options that allow them to keep the machines calibrated for consistency, and each $40,000 printer comes with a booketmaker with saddlestitcher and two- and three-hole punch for added flexibility. The 250 uses an oil-less toner system, so according to Sacks, the output does not have the traditional "copier quality" look. And when combined with the scoring from RDW's tabletop scoring machine, there is no flaking or cracking. The machine does have some design limitations, such as the inability to do large areas of solid color, but that's no different than most toner-based machines. Myth #2: They don't offer enough variety in paper stocks. Certainly, in an ideal world, customers would like to be able to run any stock they want through any digital printer, but that's not the world we live in. Not for small-format digital printers/copiers and not for toner-based presses. To help educate its customer base about the new range of stocks on which they can print (a range that differs from what they were used to on the QMDI), RDW recently sent out a sample piece that showcases the variety of Xerox-branded stocks, including bright whites, colored papers, vellum Bristol, index, gloss, and coated sheets. The response has been very positive. Nobody likes change, but in this marketplace, the range is sufficient for the vast majority -- if not all -- of the jobs. RDW Imaging can also run special stock, like parchment paper. The biggest drawback is that the machine can't duplex card stock on the fly, but few of RDW's jobs require this anyway. When Sacks needs to print on the back side of the sheet, he runs the job through again. Potentially, the only real limitation is double-sided VDP jobs on card stock, but the key word is "potentially." To this point, none of his customers have required this capability, and considering RDW's marketplace, which is largely newsletters and fundraisers for a specialized clientele, this is unlikely to change in the near future Myth #3: They can't do sophisticated VDP jobs. One doesn't have to have a large run to have sophisticated VDP. Nor does one have to run sophisticated VDP jobs to bring clients the benefits of variable data. RDW Imaging runs about one dozen newsletters per month, all of which used to be run monochrome or on pre-printed shells. Now, Sacks is addressing them on the fly in color. RDW Imaging also uses VDP on many of its fundraising jobs, including a recent, highly successful job for a school that swapped out text and images based on the ages of the children. Jobs don't have to be large or sophisticated to bring clients the benefits of variable data. According to Sacks, in a typical fundraising job, there are a dozen or so images, two of which will be swapped at any given time. But RDW Imaging has done detailed charts, as well. One job utilized a chart, created on the fly, that compared the children's test scores against a state and local scoring system. The job RIPed without slowing down and was far better received than the previous form letter. Although RDW Imaging has been doing work for several of the larger real estate brokers, it concentrates on the nonprofit sector because the word of mouth has been excellent and the shop is developing a reputation and expertise in these areas. "Schools and synagogues are fundraising all the time," says Sacks. "Plus, they have the best databases." Myth #4: Most copier owners are only using simple VDP software like Photoshop Mail or MS Access. RDW Imaging uses Creo Darwin Pro. Myth #5:Run lengths are too short to do any serious production. Typical run lengths at RDW Imaging range from 100 to 5,000 sheets. The shop already has 800,000 clicks on both machines. Ninety percent of those are 11x17". Myth #6: Copier owners only use these machines because they have to. It's a second-best to the larger machines. You be the judge: "We looked at production printers carefully," says Sacks. "The only thing we're missing is duplex card stock, and that's not an issue yet. We can line up seven or eight of these machines before we get to the price of the big machine. It's great for our productivity and up-time. Even if one machine goes down, we still have the other machine running. We'll probably be adding a third and fourth machine shortly." Myth #7: Copiers can't compete against the big machines. RDW Imaging doesn't want to compete with the larger machines. Locally, his digital press competition is a handful of Xerox iGens, but his customer base is producing the smaller jobs that his competition doesn't want. But because of the sophistication of his clients' jobs, he's not worried about competition from chain stories like Kinko's, which don't have the expertise to handle them. His combination of database expertise, design skills, and quality short-run and VDP capabilities put him in a unique niche.