The Digital Press Equation

How seven companies have successfully integrated digital presses.

Since they first came on the scene more than a decade ago, digital presses have found a spot on many a print-shop floor. It took a while, though, as print vendors and buyers both tried to figure out how best to make use of these machines. As it stands, they haven’t supplanted offset presses so much as complemented them, enabling providers to take on jobs that the more traditional units aren’t suited for.

In many cases, that means printing with variable data, so that content varies from impression to impression, and we’ll look more closely at that later this year. In other cases, it means short-run or quick-turnaround jobs. Digital presses don’t require the makeready or washup that offset presses do, so they can be economical for runs in the hundreds or even the dozens.

Some of them are like big color copiers, using toner, while others are more like offset presses, using liquid ink with cylinders and blankets. Some can be web-fed (fed from a roll of paper), while others are sheetfed. But whatever technology they’re based on, shops that own them tend to use them for similar purposes. Where they fit into your business is up to you to discover, but to help you, we talked to a handful of print providers who operate digital presses and asked what they use them for, why they chose the model they have, and what advice they’d have for anyone considering the acquisition of a similar digital press.

Capturing new business

Lubbock, Texas-based Copy Craft (www.copycraft.com) started small in 1985, as a self-service copy shop. It eventually purchased a Ryobi one-color press, and in the mid ‘90s it decided to launch a full-color operation and market itself nationally, mostly doing business card-and postcard-type items. Until last year, though, all the work was still done on traditional offset presses. Now, the company has three half-size Komori presses, one six-color and two four-color.

The decision to go digital was a response to customer demand. "We went not for digital per se, but for short-run capabilities," recounts chief financial officer Marc Hayes. To handle the demand, the company acquired a 6-color HP Indigo Press 5000. The Indigo is capable of producing 4000 four-color A4 impressions an hour, with a maximum resolution of 812 x 1624 dpi at a maximum size of 12.6 x 18.5 inches. "We added supporting equipment as well," says Hayes. "We now have a complete digital department with a UV coater, folder, cutter, scorer, and slitting machine."

The digital work is just an extension of the offset work the company was known for, but in smaller quantities. "About 500 impressions is the dividing line," says Hayes. "Less than that, we print on the Indigo; more than that, we print on offset."

Since the Indigo was installed last spring, Hayes says, it has opened a new market for Copy Craft in printing on vinyl and other synthetic materials. That market wasn’t in the plans, but Hayes and crew have been able to capture some new business in it.

"It was a smooth transition for us," Hayes says with satisfaction. "We were already set up for short-run color work. Our sales staff was already used to writing up short jobs."

Success through diversification

Founded in 1993 and located in Mississauga, Ontario, Excell Decor (www.excelldecor.com) bills itself as the largest manufacturer of digitally printed wallcoverings in the world. In addition to digital printing, it offers specialized packaging, rotary die-cutting, and digital die-cutting of borders, murals, and wallpaper.

Early on, Excell cut and packaged gravure-printed wallpaper and borders for customers. After a technology-seeking trip to Drupa, the company began outsourcing the printing of wallcovering designs to local companies with digital high-speed printers. Then, eight years ago, it took the bull by the horns and bought its first high-speed press-a 12-inch Xeikon 32D, from Punch Graphix-which was used for printing borders (the company continued to die-cut and package borders and wallpaper). At that time, most wallpaper borders were produced on a gravure printer with a minimum run of 1800 units; the Xeikon’s capabilities dropped a minimum order to 100 units. Even though the price per unit was higher, Excell’s customers saved because they didn’t have as much commitment to inventory-impacting cash flow and storage space, reports Wayne Stacey, Excel Decor’s principal. Soon thereafter Excell bought an 18-inch Xeikon 50D, which added capacity and width and allowed them to branch out into appliques, murals, and other wallcoverings.

In the past last five years, however, the popularity of wallpaper has declined and major wallpaper customers have downsized dramatically. Excell needed to diversify. Recognizing this, the company made the decision to invest in a Xeikon 5000 digital-color press with an X-800 digital front end in 2006. Excell had already been producing various digital-color applications on its existing Xeikons, but acquired the 5000 not only for higher speeds and better quality but also for its variable-data capability, says Stacey. "That feature permitted us to diversify, get into other markets, and move away from our dependency on the wallpaper market."

While still imaging some wallcoverings and producing various packaging, label, and advertising applications, the 130-page-per-minute Xeikon 5000 is now focused on producing variable-data direct mailers for Excell’s customers. Plus, it provides added VDP capacity that Excell can wholesale to other commercial printers.

The 5000, says Jim Hingley, Excell Decor president, could produce something that other high-speed presses couldn’t: a longer and wider product (20-inch width x unlimited length). This allows the company to offer clients sizes outside the normal direct-mailing range.

With a total of four Xeikon presses, two rotary die-cutters, an i-cut digital die-cutter, and a variety of custom binding and packaging equipment, Excell Decor is outfitted for the future-for the production of both VDP direct mailers, and its first love, wallcovering. And, now, its presses can handle both.

A Web-to-print sales model

Associates Graphic Services (AGS, www.agsprint.com) in Wilmington, Delaware, was founded in 1992, beginning life as a traditional type house. The company gradually moved into color printing-first two-color and then, by 1998, four-color offset. In 2004, however, AGS found itself with a printing contract that wasn’t suitable for its offset capabilities: The client, a pharmaceutical firm, wanted products in run lengths of 750 to 1000.

"I filled that void for them," recalls Dave Zamorski, now AGS’s chief operating officer. At the time, Zamorski ran a print shop called DocuSource, which had begun in digital printing in 1997. "We had two color devices and two black-and-white devices, all from Xerox. We were doing standard short-run work-postcards, letters, custom work. We were taking a lot of that work from larger printing operations-they didn’t even know we were in their accounts."

In the time since, the digital side of AGS has gone on to acquire two Xerox iGen3 110 digital presses, one in late 2005 and one in the spring of 2006. Each iGen3 is rated to be able to crank out up to 6600 full-color letter-size impressions an hour at 600 dpi, with a maximum image size of 14 1/3 x 20 1/2 inches.

The digital operation has been a success story for AGS. "Growth has been good," says Zamorski. "We’ve almost doubled the digital side of the business."

One of the reasons for the success: AGS has fully embraced a Web-to-print sales model, in which it receives orders through online storefronts set up with the aid of Printable and Pageflex solutions. "We get a couple hundred jobs a day from just one account," says Zamorski, "and one storefront has 6000 users. Accounts give us raw files, and we turn them into templates. For instance, one client has 240 different templates they can pick from." When a client wants to order new pieces, whether business cards or brochures, they just order them through the storefront, customizing the content or changing an image here and there if desired.

"We had a storefront before," recalls Zamorski, "but it was nothing like at this level. Before, someone might just get an order pad or something like that. Now we can print anything with no hand intervention."

"If I had taken in all these jobs the traditional way," he says, "I would have needed 20 or 30 customer service reps."

Zamorski selected the iGen primarily because his was already a Xerox shop. "All the machines do a very good job, quality wise. But I look at printing as a manufacturing process, and I chose the iGens for the commonality with the other machines I had. The other systems would have required an operator for each device, but I have all three color devices set up in a U shape, and they’re all run by one operator."

Zamorski’s advice to anyone thinking of getting into digital printing: "Have a sales plan. The hardest thing is to take a conventional sales person and ask them to sell digital." It’s a different clientele, he points out-when selling traditional printing, you deal with purchasing agents, but with digital, you deal with marketing people. "We spend a lot of marketing dollars and time reaching people."

Embracing inventory’s challenges

Harlequin Enterprises (www.eharlequin.com), the well-known romance-book publisher based in Toronto, Canada, uses Oce digital presses to supplement the bulk of its printing requirements, which are handled at the Quebecor plant in Buffalo, New York. Next door to the Quebecor plant, however, is Harlequin’s short-run facility, equipped with two Oce Variostream 7650s and an Oce CPS900 color digital printer. The CPS can print 34 letter-size images a minute at 2,400 x 600 dpi, with a maximum image size of 12 x 18 inches.

Harlequin needed a digital press for two purposes, according to vice president of operations Jim Robinson. First, he says, "To avoid excess inventory, we call offset runs very tightly. If we miss the call, we need the capability to top up the run. We want to produce the identical book, but on a just-in-time basis. It’s not print-on-demand, it’s for short-run demand-100 to 2500 books.

"Second, we have a backlist of books for which there’s not necessarily a big demand," he continues. "We use short-run printers to keep topping up the backlist inventory, only producing 500 to 1000 at a time."

Harlequin acquired the Oce machines in the spring of 2006. One major selling point of the Oces, for Robinson, is that they produce books identical to the ones that come off the Quebecor offset presses. Harlequin web-feeds the two Variostreams the same paper as Quebecor uses, and they cut, fold, and stack the paper in one operation. It uses the CPS to produce the book covers-it’s not a mockup, it’s the actual cover that will appear on the shelves. The binder takes the book block and wraps the cover around it, and the result is a shelf-ready product impossible to tell from the "real thing."

Harlequin also chose the Oce machines, says Robinson, because "on the color side, we were looking for equipment that was simple to run and could accommodate our sizes and needs. We were putting them into an environment where the operators had no printing experience. The competitors’ operational demands were too significant for us to manage."

"The other thing that works well for us," says Robinson, "is that the same file we send to the offset printer can go to the CPS. It’s just a PDF file from InDesign-we create our own files for our books."

Meeting changing demands

Alliance (www.alliancerocktenn.com) is the merchandising and display division of Rock-Tenn, a large paper mill and folding-carton manufacturer. With locations in the US, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, and Chile, Rock-Tenn specializes in packaging products, merchandising displays, and bleached and recycled paperboard.

Alliance, which began business in 1991 and was purchased by Rock-Tenn in 1995, uses Agfa Dotrix digital presses to create its merchandising products. The company acquired a Dotrix Compact in 2004 and installed a second printer, a Dotrix Modular, just last fall. The point-of-purchase display market had begun to move toward reduced inventory and quick-turnaround printing, and the digital printers enabled Alliance to meet the changing demands, the company reports.

The Modular, an inkjet printer, can print nearly 10,000 square feet per hour, single sided, at 900 dpi and widths up to 24.8 inches. Alliance, though, generally only uses it for projects of up to 4000 square feet-more than that, and they turn to their offset or flexographic printers.

Tim Fialko, Alliance’s vice president of operations, is particularly pleased with the Dotrix’s speed. It’s web fed, so the paper just comes off a 25-inch-wide roll at one end of the machine, and "at 80 feet a minute," says Fialko, "it’s the fastest single-pass digital printer on the market. The inkjet heads are fixed, while on other machines, the substrate is fixed and the ink heads pass over it.

"It can run roll-to-roll," Fialko continues, "or we can use the sheeter option that’s built on to the machine to cut sheets 10 to 80 inches long." Alliance primarily runs roll-to-sheet, because their main product is merchandising displays, for which they litho-laminate the cut sheets to corrugated stock.

In addition, "we can run short-run folding cartons," Fialko says. "We also use it for dress-up kits-paperboard add-ons to embellish a larger display, like corner pieces on a pallet."

He also appreciates the flexibility digital printing gives them. "If we’re printing 500 displays for Wal-Mart citing one price, we have the ability to print the same graphic for Target but with a different price. You can change the content very easily."

Understanding the pricing model

Minneapolis’ Bureau of Engraving (www.thebureau.com) has been in operation as a commercial printer since 1898 and currently specializes in point-of-purchase displays. In 1914, it launched Art Instruction Schools (the one you know from the "Draw Me" ads) to train illustrators for the printing industry. It was to meet the needs of the art school that the Bureau acquired its first digital printers, according to technology marketing director Patrick Stuart.

"Our sister company needed to print textbooks-we print about 10,000 to 12,000 textbooks a month-and we had to find a solution that would allow us to proof on demand," recounts Stuart. "Once we had a digital press, we also found a healthy market for outside-sold digital printing."

So in 2003, the Bureau acquired its first digital press. But it found that the system had serious issues with quality and, even worse, uptime. "It was a struggle to keep it running," Stuart recalls. "When we were selling 24-hour turnaround times, we couldn’t afford to have the machine down for a week!"

"And then we got to a point where we needed to expand our operation," he continues. "Our previous vendor was pitching us to add a second machine to spread out the volume of work. But that meant an increase in click price [price per impression] with no real increase in quality or capabilities. So we started to look at other options."

"When we looked at the Kodak," Stuart says, "our initial reaction was, ‘Oh, it’s just like what we have.’ But we found in testing that they really were able to run at their rated speed. It was faster and better quality." So in 2007, the company purchased a Kodak NexPress 2500, a dry-ink printer that’s rated to be able to produce 5000 letter-size single-sided sheets per hour at 600 dpi, with a maximum paper size of 14 x 20.5 inches.

But aside from speed, Stuart points to other advantages of the NexPress: "The other system was very specific with its prepress needs. We spent lots of time dealing with font, transparency, rich blacks-issues like that. But the Kodak, maybe because of its Heidelberg roots [Kodak acquired NexPress from Heidelberg in 2004], is similar in gamut and color accuracy to offset. We can match the offset and digital gamut, so the color can be consistent between the machines. We’ve done a handful of different jobs that mix the two technologies. We can get the first 20 of something out quick, then follow up with another 20,000 from our offset press."

Stuart also appreciates the greater control over maintenance costs and downtime. "The operator can replace 90 percent of the normal wear-and-tear items-blankets, cylinders, things like that. We don’t have to wait for a service technician to come out. Also, we can buy as many parts as we want and store them on site-with our previous system, the company owned the parts. Buying the parts in advance drives down our cost. Plus we get a rebate if a part’s performance doesn’t match the standard-if the part’s supposed to last 10,000 impressions and we only get 8000 out of it, we get rebated some of the cost."

Stuart advises anyone considering a digital press to research it thoroughly and get a firm grasp of the cost model. "Every time I see someone getting into digital printing, they end up selling at a price below their cost. They don’t understand the pricing."

Steered by clients’ needs

Henry Tews Sr. founded West Chicago, Illinois-based Graphix Products (www.graphixproducts.com) in 1971 with his wife Diane. Speaking for himself and his siblings, vice president Jason Tews recalls, "We grew up in the business." Today, Tews and two of his brothers continue to run the company, which has now grown into a $12 million, 80-employee operation.

"We encompass everything for marketing communication," Tews says, listing its DVD and CD duplication, assembly, mailing, and fulfillment services along with full-color printing for everything from brochures to catalogs to business cards. Clients include major corporations such as Motorola, Allstate Insurance, and Kraft Foods.

Until this decade, the company was a traditional offset shop. Its first foray into digital came with the purchase of color laser copiers: "We began running Canon CLCs probably four to five years ago," recalls Tews. The motivating factor at the time was digital’s variable-data capabilities and customer demand for some "really small-run" (less than 250 copies) jobs. But the firm quickly found other uses for the copiers: "Once we had the tech, our clients’ needs dictated other uses for the equipment," says Tews. They found a market for partial runs of brochures and other collateral pieces-if a client had a 10,000-piece order for brochures but needed 250 of them right away for an upcoming trade show, the CLCs enabled Graphix to meet that demand.

Considered a production tool, however, the CLCs had issues with consistency and speed, so the company decided to graduate to a true digital press. They started out leaning toward one of Canon’s competitors, but in testing they found the Canon suited their needs better. "We put both machines though the wringer," Tews recounts. "We fed them the same files and the same paper, compared the sheets, and found that they were extremely similar in terms of quality. The fact that we were already a Canon shop definitely helped us choose the Canon."

The ImagePress C7000VP they installed last summer prints letter-size sheets at 70 ppm, with a maximum sheet size of 13 x 19.2 inches. And, Tews emphasizes, "We can now consider the new digital press as a press-it’s lost the copier connotation." He cites Canon’s Gloss Optimization technology, which manipulates the amount of time the toner is exposed to the fuser to make the glossiness of the imaged area match that of the substrate. "With the CLCs, you can tell it’s digital-the image has a waxy appearance to it. With Gloss Optimization, it makes the toner look like a printed sheet." As a promotion for their new capabilities, Tews says, Graphix printed an invitation with the same image printed twice side by side, once on their offset press and once on the ImagePress. "People couldn’t tell which was which," he says.

Tews’s advice for prospective digital-press purchasers: "Definitely do your homework. Take the most troublesome job you’ve had in the last six months and run it on the machines. Then take it back a week later and run it again. Is the color the same? "Also, find out how the machine will be serviced-by the distributor or by the operator? says Tews. If it’s the latter, talk to other operators, because that’s where your money might disappear really quickly."

Jake Widman is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

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