Today it is becoming much more common to find printers using more than one printing technology. In most cases this is adding sheet fed digital printing to complement a predominantly offset printing operation. This allows offset printers to profitably handle very short run work and also to get into new markets where offset printing is not appropriate. This includes business to consumer operations such as photo books and also to enter into variable data printing for one to one marketing, direct mail and even adding Internet based services.

For the conventional offset printer what one finds however is the normal mode of operation is to find the offset and digital technologies are run separately using different workflows and where the printing technology to be used is chosen at the time of quoting for the job rather than at the time of production. The trend in future, as we will see at drupa 2012 from 3rd to 16th May, will be for much of the work to be done for a common workflow to be used and for the technology to be selected at the time of production. For this to happen the output from the two technologies must look the same in terms of both image quality and colour compatibility.

In the launch this year of Heidelberg’s partnership with Ricoh, the common workflow and colour compatibility at digi:media in Düsseldorf was a principal theme of the Heidelberg message under a marketing term call HEI Flexibility. This was shown by a demonstration of production of a marketing package for a golf event where the different items in the package were printed using offset and digital printing and where the look of the different outputs was near identical. The work was all driven from Heidelberg’s workflow with common colour management. The work shown also linked in Heidelberg’s digital inkjet packaging press in the same workflow plus a range of Heidelberg finishing systems. In the UK Heidelberg has also demonstrated how this workflow can be extended up the value chain by linking up with Cloud based web to print company Red Tie for online ordering and communication with the print buyer or specifier.

Where Digital Printing Should Fit

The Heidelberg example above was a demonstration of what can be done, and today we are seeing such things happening from many printers in the industry using a range of different equipment. The use of digital printing to carry out work that would previously have been printed by offset where digital printing is a more suitable process because of the short run nature of the work is only part of the way digital printing is complementing offset. It is an example of how printers have found it necessary to implement digital printing in order to provide a more complete service to their customers while staying profitable. This is offset transfer where it is not profitable to print short run work using offset technologies. Today the digital printing from all the suppliers can match four-colour offset printing for quality and colour reproduction.

While digital printing has been the technology in the limelight at the past drupa events, offset technology has continued to develop and become more efficient and more suited for short run printing. Some digital printers have also seen the need to invest in offset to handle a wider range of work. In these cases it is often seen that a digital printer will add offset printing with D.I. technology from for instance Presstek. One reason for this is digital printing companies don’t want to have offset printing skills and the Presstek D.I. presses can be run almost like digital presses with offset costs. Jeff Jacobson the Chairman, President and CEO of Presstek states the following. “We have a term called bridging the gap. Customers are having great difficulty as 80% of all printing in four-colour is under 5,000 impressions and to do that efficiently you cannot do it with electrophotography because the toner is too expensive and inkjet is not there yet. Between 500 and 20,000 impressions DI will give you the absolute highest quality at the lowest cost per piece.”

Sheet fed digital printing has developed hugely over the past decade. While major attention has focussed on the high productivity presses from HP Indigo, Kodak and Xerox we have seen key developments in the mid volume and light production areas. A recent announcement in the light production space has come with a joint development of a new next-generation printer using existing proven technologies from Canon and Océ. We are now seeing additional functionality being added to these presses. This can be with a fifth printing unit for adding the equivalent of a coating or varnish. An example of this can be shown with the Xerox 1000 Color Press where the clear dry ink allows for special effects like spot varnishing and special effects to be added to prints. The Kodak Nexpress also offers a similar functionality. We are also seeing larger sheet sizes being offered. The Xerox iGen4 EXP handles sheets up to 66 cm in length permitting a wider range of work to be handled on the press. The Kodak Nexpress SX also offers a similar sheet size capability.

This however is only part of the way that digital printing can complement offset printing and enhance the offerings that printers can provide for their customers. The key for the printers building their businesses today is to be able to offer a wide range of integrated services and products rather than just high-quality printing. The key to this is through enhancing the workflow to become accessible to a wider range of customers and to become easier to work with. This is using workflow to reach new buyers for whom buying print is a normal procedure, as well as making it easier for print buyers to work with the printer. Apart from the high street quick printer, printing has predominantly been a business to business (B2B) operation. Internet based ordering and workflow and digital printing is now making printing a business to consumer (B2C) operation.

Precision Printing – Changing the Business Model

A very good example of this can be seen from Precision Printing a UK based printer. Precision was a typical medium size offset printer and they first invested in digital in 2005 with an HP Indigo press. For a number of years their digital business was just complementing the litho business for short run printing that matched their offset printing. Following the last drupa in 2008 Precision changed their business operations by developing their own workflow for automating all their processes, and adding a very advanced web to print ordering operation through an alliance with Italian specialist Pixelartprinting. This has allowed Precision to double their turnover in five years with only a small increase in staff. Their offset printing turnover has hardly changed in that time despite an increase in capacity through a new Heidelberg 10-unit press. The increase has come through moving to a B2C operation with online ordering and automated production via its workflow allowing a huge number of small jobs to be processed via their four HP Indigo presses. At the same time the addition of variable data printing has allowed Precision to offer a much wider range of services to its B2B customers.

Web to print software and integrated workflow is the key for making print businesses more efficient and allowing them to widen their markets as Precision has done. This type of workflow will be one of the key items on show at drupa from a range of companies. Kodak will be one of the key ones showing such software with its Unified Workflow Solutions that link up the market leading Prinergy commercial workflow with the InSite portal solutions, together with Darwin variable data and Kodak web to print solutions to drive offset, flexo and digital printing systems. Most of the main industry vendors will be showing similar workflow approaches that reach up and down the value chain to allow printers to widen the scope of their businesses. I would also expect to see many small systems providers showing a range of new software products in the drupa Innovation Park for enhanced web to print working and multiple media communication.

Imposition Optimization Creates a New Business

One area of web to print that we are now seeing is specialised workflow software to optimize the loading and scheduling of work on the press. In the past few years, particularly in Germany there has been a major rise of web to print where printers are using specialised software to gang multiple jobs on the same press. In this they are mainly using large format four-colour offset presses rather than digital presses for the work. One company well known for this is Vistaprint but I feel the best example of what is happening is Flyeralarm who run multiple large-format KBA and Heidelberg offset presses, as well as digital presses, with all work being ordered online via their web sites and online stores around Europe. Currently they process an average of 10,000 orders per day of which 99% are ordered online. One of the keys to such efficiency is the very fast make-ready and low manning levels of modern large-format offset presses.

Companies like Flyeralarm have developed their own workflow and job ganging software to create this massive area of business. Today such software is available from certain software suppliers to allow other printers to enter this high-volume web to print area. Litho Technics has a solution for automatically generating complex imposition plans for ganging multiple jobs together on one sheet. One user is MPG Books, a leading UK book printer. They needed to increase the capacity from 400 to 600 book titles per month and saw gang printing as a solution. They achieved this while reducing staffing in the planning area as well. Colin Gammon, MPG Books Technical R&D Manager stated “The software has helped us to remain highly competitive by cutting our labour costs in half. The AutoLayout feature allows us put more work on a single sheet, which reduces spoilage and speeds job turnaround,” One can also see the solution integrated into some other suppliers’ workflow packages. This includes Fujifilm Europe adding it to its XMF suite of workflow solutions and EFI using it with some of its MIS systems. In the UK MIS supplier Tharstern is also developing a work ganging imposition extension to its systems

Traditional Suppliers Going Digital

One of the key trends to be seen at drupa is some of the leading offset press suppliers entering the digital market place. Heidelberg and its partnership with Ricoh have already been announced and the first systems have already been installed. manroland has announced a partnership with the Canon owned company Océ to sell high-speed inkjet presses into its markets. KBA will also enter this market through a partnership with the world’s largest printer R.R. Donnelley. R.R. Donnelley has developed its own inkjet presses and is licensing its inkjet technology for KBA to build its own presses. These manroland and KBA inkjet presses will be aimed at the traditional high-volume offset printers in books, direct mail, magazines and newspapers with the aim of changing the business models for printers in these markets.

So far the majority of high-speed inkjet presses have been sold to transactional printers and few commercial printers have invested in this technology. In the USA in particular some book printers have installed such systems, predominantly from HP and Kodak. They have used them to change the business models of publishers so run lengths of colour books up to 5,000 copies now become viable on this technology allowing print buyers to reduce their levels of inventory of offset printed books where ordered run lengths are usually longer in order to get a lower price per book. A good example of this is King Printing, a small USA book printer. They were the first book printer to invest in high-speed inkjet presses for book printing and now have two presses with a third on order. They anticipate that with the success of this technology in helping their publisher customers change their business models that they will may phase out their offset printing operations and become a total digital printing company. Aditya Chinai, the President of King Printing states the following: “We are becoming inventory managers for our customers as they look to cut their warehousing and costs. With inkjet the frequency of orders increases and the quantity of run decreases. We may see 10 orders for 50 copies of a title instead of one large run. It is now print for order rather than print for speculation.”

It is anticipated that with the entry of manroland and KBA into the digital market that book and magazine printers will be more likely to install high-speed inkjet presses to help change the business models of the customers in books, magazines and newspapers.

Where Does Offset Fit in Future?

This is perhaps the key thing that printers need to understand about the impact of new workflow approaches, web to print and digital printing is that it allows them to work with their customers to help them change the way they do business. The new business model for printers is to be a multiple media communications supplier in which print is just one way of communicating. Printers’ customers are being offered a whole new way of communicating and a range of new suppliers. The new web to print and workflow tools allow a printer to be able to make it easier for the customers to work with them, or for the printer to offer a wider range of services to become a more complete supplier. This is not saying offset will disappear, far from it. Offset will remain the major element of most printers’ businesses, but without digital printing and automated Internet based workflows, customers will move away from just offset centric suppliers.

While many analysts and the press will once again call drupa 2012 the “Inkjet drupa”, in reality it will be “Digital drupa”- that is an event built around how digital workflow and printing technologies will spearhead the change of printing to become a multiple media communications industry.