Perhaps you run a traditional offset print shop and you’re ready to expand into variable, on demand services. Maybe you already own a light production digital device that is B&W capable, but an incoming job helps rationalize the addition of a color unit with a greater duty cycle. You could be an enterprise group ready to bring full color, short run print work in-house. Or it’s possible you are still on the fringes and only starting to investigate the possibilities of digital production.
In our last issue, Digital Publishing Solutions (DPS) went in-depth discussing the technology behind digital color production presses—electrophotographic and inkjet. This issue, we talk with a handful of manufacturers for their stance on the current market. The November issue will offer a continuation of production press coverage, bringing in thoughts and solutions from real-life end users.
Digital color production presses have come a long way. The quality is near-offset, speed is increasing, and the equipment handles incoming work with little makeready at high capacity. Whatever your business situation, the technology is mature and the time to investigate these devices is now.
"This is an explosive market," says Jerry Murray, VP of PSG product marketing, Xerox Corporation. "If you’re not getting into digital color and this area, it will eventually be problematic."
"Part of a print provider’s challenge is to turn things around quickly," says Paula Balik, director of marketing communications, Kodak’s Graphic Communications Group. "As on demand work increases and clients are more demanding, helping them meet turnaround goals as well as unique applications is key to their success." Balik notes that the NexPress Digital Color Press portfolio offers ease of operation and maintained productivity because of the press-like design, robust front-ends, and integrated workflow. "That’s very conducive to trying to balance that issue of ‘I’ve got to deliver great quality, obviously, but now I’m being asked to deliver it even faster because they want it on demand.’"
Print is evolving due to technology enhancements and new demands from print buyers and marketing recipients. Some forces, like the dream of a paperless office, environmentalism, and increasing fuel and postage costs, may lead to the assumption that print is declining, but the numbers don’t support this thought. "When you look at the ‘green’ concept of paper usage, natural resources, trees; the cost of mailing; and the amount of information people were flooded with over the last five to ten years with the Internet; we see a dramatic increase in the amount of printing, which is counterintuitive," says George Promis, VP, color solutions and technology alliances, InfoPrint Solutions Company. "Everybody thought these things would be introduced and printing would decline. But printing has increased."
Digital color production printing opens the door for a broad range of applications. Aditya Dwivedi, senior marketing manager, Xeikon/Punch Graphix Americas, Inc., highlights several, including direct mail, transactional printing, book publishing, labels/packaging, point-of-sale/retail signage, as well as some specialty applications.
Targeted, variable print communications are the most relevant way for businesses to communicate and generate a response. "There is a revolution, or evolution in my mind, that’s taking place," says Promis, "Much more pointed information is sent. It’s more up-front data mining, looking at demographics, personalization, versioning, one-to-one—all of those types of things to say ‘let’s make sure when I send someone information in hardcopy it’s very relevant to them, it’s something that they need and use. It’s costing me much more money and I want to get the biggest bang for the buck.’ We thought it would start changing in the mid-1990’s, now I think it’s going to be the mid-2000’s when the change occurs. When we see the impact of energy costs, increased postage, and the impact on the environment. Most feedback is, ‘if I receive something, it has to be typically something I want, need, or can act on. I don’t want to receive the stuff that just goes right in the trash.’"
Murray agrees. "There are certainly a lot more personalized and customized documents and marketing campaigns created, and the expectations for image quality, registration, and increased automation are very demanding. When people said, ‘Wow digital color works pretty well,’ the demands were exponential. Now demands can change quarterly. Every six months, the market continues to merge, people discover new applications, and then they come back and say, ‘If you could only tweak this then we could do this on your press.’"
Photo books are another application growing heavily. Beyond the use of four-colors, the addition of light cyan and light magenta to the Hewlett-Packard (HP) press means better photographic quality. "Light cyan and light magenta allows us to enable a greater photographic look to all of our printing," says Francis McMahon, director of marketing, U.S. Graphic Solutions Business, HP. "Photo books are possibly the number one page producing/ink producing application of 2008. If you look at all of the printing that we do, usually marketing collateral and direct mail is the number one application in that area. Photo books have come out of nowhere. Not only are commercial printers offering them, but professional photo labs are printing them on Indigo devices. Photo labs, going back just two years, would never consider a device like an Indigo, and now it’s a staple in their organization."
Workflow solutions have also matured. "The other major change is you’re doing so many short run jobs that managing them is critical," says Murray. "If you’re getting jobs over the Web and you’re not automating these processes, the cost can be daunting. So we’re very focused on our workflow."
Murray says Xerox’s flagship process manager is all about streamlining production and reducing cost. "Our production presses, especially the iGens, led by Process Manager open architecture, help streamline the combination of accepting jobs, the prepress department, and work with both an offset and digital workflow. It’s an important element that often gets overlooked. They can further reduce cost when they’re handling a lot more jobs than they are used to." He adds, We think there are three important things—the right technology, workflow, and business processes."
"The offset market knows that they need to integrate digital printing, but they don’t want to have to reengineer their workflow. That’s disruptive to their print production and to the print client," explains Charles Hura, worldwide product manager, digital printing, Kodak’s Graphic Communications Group. "The NexPress portfolio offers an integrated workflow no matter if it’s an offset, hybrid, or all digital workflow. In addition, there is a choice of digital front ends that optimize the press’ productivity for various market segments and applications. So with a selection of digital presses based on speed, duty cycle, performance, flexible front ends, and unique capabilities, the broadness of the NexPress Platform offers choices and capabilities that meet the print provider’s challenges of today."
Who is achieving greatness in this developing print space? "The commercial print side, and we’ll include retail quick print in that as well, has seen major changes. You’re still seeing many of those companies not lasting for the long haul. I think there were about 30,000 of those and we’re seeing that number decline," states Forrest Leighton, senior marketing manager, production systems division, Canon U.S.A., Inc. "The ones surviving are those that are really figuring out something that the others haven’t. That is how to drive more value with what they’re printing. You’re seeing many losing to the commodity space where they are competing on price. For some it works very well. You have organizations like VistaPrint; they’ve figured this out and they’ve put extra teams together to drive efficiencies. If you’re the small mom-and-pop printer down the street it’s going to be difficult for you to compete with the VistaPrint type of organization. And they shouldn’t be trying to."
"The smaller print shops need to find a way to differentiate themselves on something other then price. They need to be able change the type of conversation they are having with their customers and focus on how they can help them to solve a business problem, not how much printing they should buy. What we’re seeing is a lot of the traditional offset type of shops move into digital printing and do it in a way that brings in new applications and new revenue streams," says Leighton. "It opens them up to new applications—such as variable data—they weren’t able to do before, and really helps to transform their business from being just a print service provider to a marketing provider."
The evolving production print space is lucrative, and successful printers are adapting their business model. "Almost every month there’s something new. We see competitors emerge, we see new technology emerge," says McMahon. "But I think we’re finally at a point where technology has driven this market to where people realize that it’s not about printing anymore. It’s about what printers’ customers’ business agendas are—what they are trying to achieve. These printers evolved their businesses to not only talk about printing, but to figure out how they can help their customers manage the campaign in order to drive their business."
"From a user standpoint, print converters are evaluating their current business model and production expertise to see which digital color applications will bring them the maximum value," notes Dwivedi. "Successful Xeikon users focus on selected applications that help them fulfill these objectives and gain a sustainable competitive advantage."
Xeikon tries to educate its users, says Dwivedi. "Digital color applications enable print converters to differentiate their offerings in many ways and provide an added value to their end users."
What is a Production Press?
What exactly constitutes a digital color production press? The first instinct is to base the determination on speed alone, but manufacturers offer insights into the importance of duty cycle, resolution, and other features.
"I think it’s a broad category," says Murray. "In a lot of ways a production press is really relative to the particular print shop." He names format size, production capacity, image quality, duty cycle, registration, flexibility of stocks, the different rates, and the ability to run them at rated speed, as some of the elements that help differentiate production presses.
InfoPrint Solutions Company’s Promis first designates that the production press produces variable elements over static, offset work. Then, they look at speed and volume. "Probably what’s more important is volume capabilities," he states. "Speed is somewhat misleading in a sense of its maximum speed/burst speed. It’s like talking about cars—you have a car that can go at 150 miles per hour (mph), but nobody drives it at 150 mph. The same is true with the press. You can tell its burst speed or top speed, but you have to go in and clearly look at how it’s going to be used, and determine if it really run at those speeds. It can be a misnomer because everybody wants to run their presses at full speed."
More important than whether a press prints 100, 110, or 120 pages per minute (ppm) is how many prints can the press do in a day, week, or month," explains Hura. "Time equals money so when the press isn’t printing, it isn’t generating revenue."
HP primarily looks at duty cycle. "We say over a million impressions per month would really constitute a digital production press," says McMahon. HP offers devices fitting this category—running at speeds of 68 ppm up to the new 120-ppm HP Indigo 7000.
Dwivedi says print converters using the Xeikon technology produce high monthly digital color page volumes. The Xeikon product family consists of the 8000, 6000, 5000plus, and 4000 for duplex applications; and the 3300 for simplex label and packaging applications.
"Our technology platform enables production printers to maximize their productivity without compromising on image quality," concludes Dwivedi.
He adds, "It’s a factor of many different things. Speed is a part of it; as is monthly duty cycles; and, very importantly, reliability and uptime. And at our end, for Xeikon, the more you run our machines, the better they become. So, they are made for production speeds."
From entry level to super high volume installations, from B&W to spot color, to full color, a range of presses are available from a variety of vendors. When in the market for a production press, it is important to understand the significance of the investment. For instance, the list price for the base configuration of a Xerox iGen4 is $640,000.
The bulk of vendors in this space use a form of click charge that includes supplies, maintenance, and other resources and features.
Kodak offers its customers a choice with its click plan or Operator Replaceable Components (ORC) plan, which places a guaranteed cap on what the customer will spend on consumables.
On an ORC plan, if customers beat the cap, they keep those savings. The ORC plan also helps the press operator manage image quality and control uptime to keep operations moving. The price of hardware generally fluctuates based on a sum of factors, including the number of stations, upgrades, finishing options, software, service contracts, marketing support, and more. For this reason, manufacturers are sometimes wary of sharing the list price of their equipment.
For the most part, players in the market compete on quality and service, not price. "In this space if you look at what I consider the big three—HP, Kodak, and Xerox—there is no one that has any major pricing advantage," says Murray. "It’s all about productivity, capability of the product, workflow, and who can make the most money and offer the most pages. We all have our story about how we offer better service to the customer, and there are some differentiators there."
Today, print is produced with more potential, ROI, and variability at a rapid pace, and with quicker turnarounds. Quantity is not low as anticipated, and the press technology evolves with the changing printing and marketing space. "We are starting to see that evolutionary change ramping up with significant developments in how printing is done and I think that that’s going to continue for a while," suggests Promis.
Digital production presses are changing the landscape, and working to create a hybrid situation in the traditional shop. "It isn’t about digital replacing offset, in my mind," says Murray. "It’s really, how can they complement each other? What are the jobs? What are the right things to do digitally versus offset? And, many times, it can be the same job."
Look to the next issue of DPS for a comprehensive chart of vendor solutions and a bevy of unique application stories from in-plant users, service bureaus, commercial printers, and other markets.