Digitally disrupting production printing
Nowhere is the impact of digital disruption more apparent than in the production print room.
Technological innovations such as the cloud, IOT and big data are changing the way that things are done in production printing. A spokesperson for High Volume at Nashua says: “As people’s demands and expectations are changing, so too must the technology evolve to deliver on these expanding requirements. People want faster turnaround times, they want to use images from a wide variety of sources and in all manner of formats, and they don’t want to have to pay for massive print runs when they only want a couple of hundred items printed.”
While the hardware that goes into production printers has changed significantly over the years, the biggest key differentiator is the software. In fact, there are three key differentiators in this sector: service level agreements, workflow software and the ability to print additional or unusual colours.
Traditionally, offset presses have held their market share over the years, despite digital production printers having been around for many years. However, there’s a shift happening and digital is slowly starting to make inroads, although offset printing is still holding a majority share. “The reason,” says the spokesperson, “is that it’s just not practical to print fewer than 2 000 items on an offset press. It’s not financially viable for a printing house to create the plates, source inks and set the offset device for a print run of that size. This is where digital has taken some of the market share.”
Digital machines are able to achieve a really quick turnaround on anything from five to 2 000 prints. More and more offset printers are realising the value of being able to service customers wanting a shorter print run instead of turning them away or outsourcing the work.
To this end, production print shops are looking to invest in their own cut sheet machines for short print runs in-house. This represents a major change in the production printing industry over the past couple of years as printers increasingly realise the value of having an in-house cut sheet offering. This shift has been enabled by the improved near offset press print quality that digital machines are able to produce. “When digital production printers first came out, the print quality was far from offset and wasn’t a threat to offset. However, slowly but surely, with the newer technologies, different media types and improved toner/ink, the quality of digital prints is just getting better and better.”
Changing customer expectations is one of the main influences that drive the old-school print shops towards digital. “Customers increasingly want to order a print job in the morning and pick it up after work on the same day. Offset doesn’t accommodate that, it can take days to get a print job ready. Print shops that can’t accommodate a customer’s request for a quick turnaround risk losing customers.”
Another shift in production printing – and one that’s driven by customer demand for fast turnaround – is workflow software that enables a print for pay environment. He explains: “The offset printers spent a fortune over the years creating software that would allow their customers to order print jobs online. However, none of this software is truly integrated or intelligent, and it usually does not adapt well to a cut sheet environment or an offset-digital hybrid print shop.
“Today, a customer can order and pay online, submit their artwork and Web-to-print software will check the submitted material, send it to the printer and ensure that it’s finished as specified.
“Software is starting to be the key differentiator going forward,” he explains. If customers submit print jobs face to face, someone has to sort out the images, make sure that they’re on the correct page, that they’re in the right format, check the quality of the images and that the fonts are consistent throughout the document. Today, software is able to do all of that and flags or fixes any issues that it finds. Not only is the software faster and more accurate than a human being, it results in less paper wastage as the first print is pretty much spot on.”
When it comes to cost per page, offset is still cheaper than digital, but requires high print volumes to justify the saving. Digital is catching up on the quality front and is gradually reducing the running costs, so long-term will become the more viable proposition regardless of the size of the print run. The interesting shift from an operator perspective is a shift away from the veteran printer of old towards a computer operator.
Asked to comment on how the printing technology itself has changed, he says while digital machines all offer cyan, magenta, yellow and black, advances are being made in offering a fifth colour station with the use of white or clear ink as well as other colours, and this is going to be a game-changer for production printing.
“This new capability will really add value in that it means that copy shops and production printers can print items like tickets for sporting events or concerts or even wedding invitations that incorporate special effects. It also means that security features such as invisible ink that only shows up under neon lights can be incorporated. Not only will this be useful for authenticating tickets to events, it can be used to ensure that university qualifications can’t be faked.
“This is a highly competitive industry, so each printer is looking for a unique selling proposition. The fifth colour station is just that, for the moment. Customers looking for a production printing solution should consider the supplier’s ability to deliver on service level agreements, the workflow software and what it enables them to do, and whether it’s possible to add a fifth colour station to the device. These are all key differentiators that will set that print shop apart from the competition in terms of its ability to deliver outstanding customer service and high quality print jobs.”