by George J. Whalen September 2, 2003 -- When digital printing debuted, it brought print buyers the novelty of "print-on-demand," and gave printers a new, quick-turnaround alternative to traditional offset printing. But, digital printing started out with very few of the binding and finishing amenities offered in profusion by traditional offset printing channels. Instead, digital printing was initially focused on sheets. True, digitally printed sheets could be had in a hurry -- maybe even collated and stapled. But anything needing more finishing than that required running the job through a bindery, typically an in-house bindery department in larger offset shops, or a trade binder somewhere down the street. But, digital printers soon found that trade binderies took more time to finish jobs than they’d had to print them. According to a recent report by Trendwatch Graphic Arts, entitled: “Digital Postpress: The Convergence Has Begun,” buyers of digital printing services now want fast, one-stop, on-demand printing and finishing.1 Customers expect speedier service in delivery of finished products. But, the report points out, the up-front bottleneck that digital printing eliminated from print-production now puts back-end job pressure on finishing. Short-run digitally printed jobs now come to the bindery in rapid sequence, and that requires more finishing equipment changeovers and shorter cycle times. According to the report, providing post-press finishing services that accommodate customers' needs for fast turnaround service is becoming the new key to success for digital printers. The Trendwatch report also notes that, by 2007, the number of printing firms having digital color presses will increase by 230%, while the number of digital color press units within these firms will soar by more than 569%. Smaller printers, rather than larger, will be the primary users by 2007. From a printer-to-printer competitive standpoint, adding efficient bindery solutions in-house confers the capability to differentiate by breadth of services and to market differently from others who offer less in the way of finishing. If their service stops with sheets (which must then go through off-premises bindery to be made into finished products), the digital printer with in-house bindery can offer a faster-turnaround, lower-cost workflow with all-inclusive service: from the press, through finishing, to product delivery. The time and cost savings of such a workflow can be formidable competitive weapons. The New Digital Printing Model Digital printing, as used here, refers to two print processes. First, the toner or inkjet-based sheetfed or web presses that print with an electrostatic process, rather than from plates. Second, the direct-imaging (DI) press, which prints offset ink images with plates digitally imaged on the press. DI presses are every bit as “digital” in data-handling character as their electrostatic cousins, but they are fast-makeready, specialized offset presses, typically used for printing from several hundred to 25,000 identical products. On the other hand, high-turnover short-run jobs are the principal province of the electrostatic presses. So, too, are “variable-data” runs, since the content these print is re-imaged with every revolution of the cylinder. Thus, these presses really serve separate purposes and distinct markets. But their output still needs finishing. Regardless of press type, the new model of digital printing services is merging "press" and "post-press" into a single workflow. But getting to that model takes a strategy. The choices boil-down to three and no single solution will fit every digital printer’s situation or job-mix. They are: (1) add in-line finishing to the in-house print production line; (2) add near-line (off-line, but in-house) finishing in an adjacent area of the plant; or (3) make far-line (off-line, located elsewhere) finishing arrangements with trade binders or other printers with in-house binderies. This latter choice is probably the least desirable, because of transport delays to and from the bindery and being delayed in the bindery because of longer-run jobs. Digital printers will likely face some competition from present customers by 2007. The Trendwatch report notes that the number of corporate design departments having digital color presses will then grow by over 323%. Sources predict that office-based digital copiers will increasingly be equipped to accept some forms of finishing equipment, as businesses seeking to cut outside costs opt to produce short-run digitally printed-and-finished jobs themselves. One source observes that many corporate printing jobs only go out to commercial printing shops these days because of the finishing requirements. So, if office-based digital finishing continues to grow in capabilities and sophistication, more jobs will likely wind-up being done in-house. One way digital printers can compete for those jobs is to offer attractively priced, high-performance, fast-turnaround finishing bundled into their services, so as to make finishing equipment add-ons to office-based systems seem less attractive or too expensive. In-line or Off-line? The choice isn’t necessarily easy, nor can either be considered generally applicable to all printing situations. Finishing equipment for off-line use presently out-numbers in-line solutions. In fact, the bulk of digital printing work to date, has been finished off-line. This typically generates more waste, due to handling, and requires more time to complete a job, due to transporting. Yet, off-line finishing can prove to be the better fit in running some kinds of jobs. The press can finish one job and go right on to the next without having to be “idled,” as happens when in-line finishing is being changed-over for the next job. Many digital printers also do conventional offset work, as well. Off-line bindery is well-suited to offset job volumes. However, with rising numbers of short-run digital jobs, a shared off-line bindery in such a combined shop may wind-up trying to serve two masters, with scheduling conflicts and the chaos of interruptions the inevitable result. In-line finishing seems to be gaining an edge in popularity right now, because printers believe it automates the transfer and finishing process, and so, prevents handling damage to sheets. It also requires no transporting of sheets between print and finishing sites and allows a single operator to run the entire line. This provides for better quality management of the process. The operator can spot a printing or finishing defect in-process, stop the line and correct it before it ruins the salability of the entire run. But, in-line finishing of digitally printed material has a down-side, too. There are physical problems associated with static electricity; a tendency to scuff, mark, scratch and crack toner-printed materials; and there are differences in running speeds between digital presses and finishing equipment. Earlier in-line finishing units also had incompatible data interfacing and could not easily link to a digital press or collator. Improved in-line finishing equipment is now arriving, equipped with universal interfaces, the ability to handle papers of lighter weight, and the capability to produce complete, finished booklets of 8-to-148-pages. The interfacing compatibility problem is being addressed with the introduction of UP3i, the Universal Printer Pre-and-Post-Processing Interface, developed by a consortium of digital printing and finishing equipment manufacturers. This interface facilitates data communication between the press and finishing devices. Although still subject to formal standardization and adoption, it is presently supported by Duplo, Hunkeler, IBM, Oce and Xerox. Once formalized, UP3i will go a long ways towards facilitating operation of a variety of finishing devices. But as digital print engines increase in speed, finishing can still be a bottleneck. We’ll take a look at that next week.