For some people of a certain age, the vinegarish reek of freshly mimeographed bulletins and handbills will forever be associated with youth, early education, and maybe even lost innocence. Like innocence, mimeograph machines are long gone from the school offices, church basements, and other communal locales where people used to ink and crank them in the days before toner-based systems came to dominate copying. But, the purpose that mimeograph machines served then - providing simple, cost effective document replication in everyday quantities - is as real as it ever was. Likewise, the mimeograph’s descendant, the digital duplicator, still has a role to play in the space where electrophotographic systems tend to overkill the needs of those who don’t want anything fancy - just good, cheap copies from a machine built to keep the process as uncomplicated as possible.

Small cousins of printing presses, digital duplicators never made deep inroads into the office environments where walk-up, copy-it-yourself toner-based copiers have long held sway. But at On Demand, several vendors of digital duplicators and supplies will beg to remind showgoers that this still leaves plenty of opportunity for these devices to shine in the application zone that exists between photocopying and presswork. One such exhibitor, RISO (booth 3149), owes its success to keeping this niche filled in the same places where mimeographing took root long ago. The company doesn’t disclose sales or installation numbers, but it does claim to be the leading vendor of digital duplicating equipment in the U.S. through a sales channel that include 300 dealers and 20 direct-selling organizations.

WhatTheyThink asked RISO’s Kevin Hunter to explain the place occupied by digital duplicating in the panoply of print-on-demand technologies that will be represented at the show. As director of the company’s full color business unit, Hunter also was in a position to talk about the recent addition of a new product to the RISO portfolio: a high-output inkjet printer for documents on demand in four process colors.

WTT: Where does digital duplicating fit into the big picture of “digital print on demand”?

KH: RISO entered the U.S. market 20 years ago with the goal of bridging the production gap between copiers and offset presses. Our three-part value proposition was and still is “productivity, versatility, and cost control” for duplicator users. We initially focused on the commercial printing market, but we soon began to perceive a real need for simple, low-cost copying among end-user organizations such as schools, sports teams, church groups, hospitals, and healthcare organizations.

In many cases, groups like these continue to rely heavily on paper for communication and record-keeping. Hospitals, for example, still consume large amounts of carbonless paper for printing multi-part forms, which are an ideal application for digital duplicators. So, as far as that “paperless society” is concerned, we’re still waiting to see it happen.

WTT: RISO specializes in copying solutions for education with software as well as duplicating equipment. What needs and purchasing trends are you seeing in this market?

KH: With its digital duplicating technology, RISO has updated and revolutionized the mimeograph market by doing away with the mess and the chemistry that the old mechanical process used to involve. Because schools always were the foremost users of mimeograph machines, the education market was a natural focus for us - all the more so because RISO’s Japanese founder, Noboru Hayama, had been a high school teacher himself prior to launching the company in 1946.

We’ve gained momentum in this market as a result of federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements that increase the amount of testing that schools must administer. It’s easy to print scannable bubble-sheet test forms on RISO equipment at about one-half cent per sheet vs. the five-cents-per-sheet price that an outside supplier might charge. We’re helping our school accounts to further comply with NCLB mandates by offering software that can capture, analyze, and report data from scans of the filled-in test sheets. In this way, schools can leverage the necessary expense of copying equipment into an investment for achieving educational goals. It’s especially attractive to schools with limited budgets and a limited number of computers for testing.

WTT: Same question for the religious market, another area of specialization for RISO: what are the needs and the purchasing trends?

KH: The religious market was a natural progression for RISO after education. Today we have contracts with seven national denominations in the U.S. and Canada, which recommend our products to local congregations. For example, one of our national contracts is with LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, a leading provider of Christian products and services.

We find that in this market, where reproduction needs typically are simple, there isn’t a large demand for automated features. Interestingly, though, religious groups are turning out to be some of the best customers for our new HC5000 full-color ink-jet printers. The churches tell us that full-color printing helps them “cut through the noise” of everyday mass communications, better enabling them to reach and connect with their congregants.

WTT: For churches and schools, what would make a digital duplicator a better choice than a toner-based copier?

KH: For one thing, the acquisition cost is lower. Often, an organization like a church or a school can buy a digital duplicator that will meet all of its copying needs for less money than it would cost to install an electrophotographic printer to do the same work. There’s an advantage in operating cost as well, since the unit cost of duplication with a master - like that of offset printing - declines as the run length increases. The unit cost of electrophotographic copying, on the other hand, is fixed regardless of quantity.

WTT: Why are the unit cost economics different, and how does that influence the choice between the processes?

KH: Like an offset press, a digital duplicator uses a physical image carrier: not a metal plate, but a master “cut” in about 20 seconds by the duplicator’s laser imaging unit. The image can be captured from a hard-copy original by the duplicator’s built-in scanner or input in digital form from a computer workstation. The printing is done with soybean oil-based ink. Because the cost of the master - from $0.20 to $0.38, depending on the duplicator - has to be spread over the total number of copies printed, digital duplication isn’t cost competitive with toner-based copying in single-digit quantities.

But at 100 to 200 copies, unit cost drops to one-half or cent or less and declines proportionally after that. Our systems are specifically designed to bridge the gap between copier and offset systems by handling run lengths that are too long for copiers or laser printers and too short for offset presses. Some RISO models can output 35 to 40 copies economically. When the run length requirement hits about 4,000 copies, depending on what equipment the customer has available, it may be appropriate to move the job to an offset press.

WTT: Today, digital print on demand isn’t just about cost per page - it’s also about getting color onto the pages at an acceptable price point. What solution does RISO offer for duplication in full color?

KH: We saw a huge gap for an affordable, full-color printing solution, and that’s what led to the introduction of the HC5000 full-color inkjet digital printer in January of 2005. It uses a process-color piezo inkjet system developed for RISO and Olympus in Japan. Because the HC5000 eliminates the physical master, it can be extremely cost competitive in very small quantities and in larger runs as well.

The HC5000 retails for $39,995. The cost per page of output will vary with ink coverage, but at 20% coverage, the unit cost would be three cents. At that price, a school operating an HC5000 could afford to print workbooks and other instructional material in color - like adding green to a lesson on photosynthesis. The newest model in the series is the HC5500, which can print at 120 ppm and handle a broader range of stocks.

WTT: Have commercial and quick printers shown any interest digital duplicating as an alternative to color copying?

KH: We’re having some success in print-for-pay environments, especially with the HC5000 color inkjet duplicator. Print shops already understand reproduction with image carriers and ink, so our technology basically is familiar to them. These shops also find that with RISO equipment, they can turn their graphic artists into output producers by connecting their computers to the duplicator, so that whatever the artist designs, he or she can also run off.

WTT: Because a digital duplicator uses a static physical master, this means that one of the primary applications of digital printing - variable data output - isn’t possible with digital duplicating. Doesn’t this limit its market applications?

KH: It’s true that duplicators with physical masters can’t print variably, but in our primary markets, the interest in variable-data printing is small. The VDP fit for duplicators is preprinting shells for second runs on VDP-capable digital copiers and presses or for individual labeling (sometimes by hand, as many of our church customers still do). The HC5000 inkjet duplicators do have VDP compatibility for personalized output at full rated speed.

WTT: What’s the highest output resolution that can be achieved on a digital duplicator?

KH: Resolution can be up to 600 x 600 dpi on monochrome and two-color RISO duplicators. The HC5000 can print at 600 x 900 dpi. But dots per inch isn’t necessarily the best way to describe the imaging quality of devices that print with ink rather than toner. For people who understand printing, lpi (lines per inch) is a better measurement to use. Depending on the model, RISO’s output resolution range is equivalent to 70-100 lpi, approaching the low end of the standard for commercial printing.

WTT: What’s the life (in number of impressions) of a digital master?

KH: A master will last for 3,000 to 5,000 impressions, after which the reproduction quality may start to deteriorate, depending on what is being produced. We find that most of our customers usually replace masters after 2,500 copies. Some of our higher-end duplicators have an automatic master renewal feature that can replace the image carrier without operator intervention in 16 to 30 seconds.

WTT: What’s the size of the largest sheet of paper that a digital duplicator can handle? And what about printing on non-paper substrates such as plastic?

KH: RISO duplicators can print on sheets up to 12" x 18", although 11" x 17" is the norm for most customers. Stock weight can range from 14-lb. bond to 110-lb. card stock. Duplicating equipment can’t print on plastic because the soy-based ink dries by absorption and won’t set on non-porous surfaces. However, we’re testing the HC5000 inkjet duplicator on Tyvek and other compatible non-paper substrates.

WTT: How about inline and offline binding and finishing options?

KH: We offer a simple inline collating and stapling capability for our duplicators and an inline folding and bookletmaking unit for the HC5000. We’ve also partnered with MBM Corp. to market offline binding solutions.

WTT: Is there a “click charge” with digital duplicating as there is with photocopying?

KH: We can charge customers on a cost-per-copy basis, or we can sell or lease equipment with contracts for specified quantities of supplies. We have a variety of pricing strategies for the diversified customer base that we serve.

WTT: What will be the theme of your presentation at On Demand?

KH: Our message, in addition to reasserting the value proposition, will be that we’re not changing with the tide. Our mission remains providing our customer groups with all of the benefits of duplicating, now in full color as well.