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Current Considerations For Digital Printing Equipment Purchases

As the variety of print jobs increases, and the competitive nature of our business intensifies, it is even more important to consider all variables before implementing a digital printer.

By Heather Kendle, Director of Marketing, Inca Digital

The reasons for investing in a digital capability for wide-format print vary as much as the types of projects each customer brings to a shop.

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  • And the issues to consider when implementing such capabilities can be just as numerous. As the variety of print jobs increases, and the competitive nature of our business intensifies, it is even more important to consider all variables before implementing a digital printer.

    Why Am I Doing This?
    Many print shops regard the speed of the digital print process and the avoidance of much of the time-consuming, up-front analog process as important factors in delivering jobs faster.

    In justifying their purchase, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin-based Yunker Industries looked to the increase in short-run point-of-purchase (POP) jobs it was being asked to handle. "We used to get print runs in the 5,000 range. Now, as business has changed, 500 pieces is a big run, and we don't have the time to waste on prepress and press setup," Mark Huckstorf, vice president of operations at Yunker Industries, explains.

    "With the digital printer handling our short-run screen work, we can take an electronic file to RIP and be printing in a matter of minutes, relieving the load on our prepress department and screen room, and creating the extra capacity we need."

    What Are You Doing?
    A shop should first assess the work it is doing, a task that comes in many forms.

    To determine on what stock sizes you want to be printing is a natural place to start. For example, while some digital flatbed printers will print on boards as large as five feet by 10 feet, others will only print four feet by eight feet. It doesn't seem like much of a difference, but that additional 18 square feet makes the board 56 percent larger. If that additional board size is not required for most of your work, you can save some money on the price of a printer.

    The substrates to be printed upon are another obvious printing variable. Predominantly offset sheets require a different type of digital printer (roll-to-roll or roll-to-sheet) than if you print on a lot of rigid materials (flatbed printer).

    Print run length also impacts the value of digital print. If most of your print jobs exceed a couple of thousand pieces, it is unlikely that, when the calculations are done, digital printing will appear to be of a better value than using a screen or offset press. However, if your print runs are getting smaller - a very possible reality today - the cost effectiveness of digital print becomes much more evident.

    To consider if digital printing really is viable, print companies should calculate the breakeven point between screen printing and offset. This is the point where the more expensive variable costs (per unit) of digital printing catch up with the fixed costs of analog printing.

    Print Direction, Inc. (PDI) of Norcross, Georgia installed a flatbed press to increase capacity, and respond faster to customer demands for high quality point-of-purchase (POP) display graphics. "Within only a few weeks of installation, we were already moving jobs from our screen presses to our flatbed printer," said Bill Blair, vice president of sales and marketing for Print Direction, Inc. "Our digital printer allows us to turn medium-sized jobs quicker, and more efficiently. Our strategy is to grow the display graphics business by using the digital printer to fulfill orders more quickly than with screen or offset printing - nearly on demand. We've even joked internally that our printer is 'so fast' that we'll need to install a 'drive-up window' to serve even more customers."

    Reviewing historical sales data and determining the current state of work allows management to assess new technologies. Management must ask itself, "What is this telling us about the type of work we do? How much work can we anticipate in two to three years? What are the trends of the work we are doing now and how might that translate two to three years out?" From our experience, a company should want to complete a payback of any equipment in three to five years, and an effective ROI in two to three years. This all helps to determine what kind of printer a company needs, and can afford.

    Making It Personal
    Some companies are discovering an opportunity to offer more personalized work. This allows a retailer, for example, to create specific displays with pricing for individual (or groups of) stores. In addition, certain images on a display can be replaced to better fit the store's customer demographic. Other than the prepress cost to program the work, the per-unit cost on the press does not change if one or a thousand pieces are printed.

    "A project that would have taken an estimated 300 hours of total production time in the screen print process can now be completed in 30 hours with the addition of our high-speed printer," says Mark Taylor, COO of GFX International, located in Grayslake, Illinois, near Chicago. "Screen printing a quantity of 10,000 24- by 30-inch posters, containing 250 versions of varying amounts would require 63 different four-up press forms. With 63 different forms running on multiple screen presses, it is difficult to maintain consistency, a key requirement when the output will be displayed side-by-side. Since more of our work requires versioning, particularly for our retail franchise customers operating in different regions, our digital printer will offer cost, capacity and speed benefits to our customers that, frankly, no other press on the market can match."

    To optimize production, GFX uses their digital printer mainly for short to medium press runs, especially those requiring versioning or variable data, freeing up screen presses for larger print runs. In addition, by producing only what is needed, GFX anticipates the digital printer will provide a solution to help customers reduce their costs, and avoid unnecessary overruns.

    What Do You Want?
    Once you have determined that the amount of work you are doing warrants a digital printer, the next step is to decide which printer might fit best for you. The type of work - for example, flexible, textured, or rigid - will help to determine what type of ink and what type of printer works best.

    There are different types of machines - roll-to-roll, flatbed and a combination, or hybrid - that support different ink types, including solvent, eco-solvent, UV and latex inks. Roll-to-roll printers are useful for companies that print on paper or vinyl all day. If a company is printing mainly rigid boards, a flatbed printer is best. For those committed to running a wide variety of work on one printer, a hybrid machine printing roll-to-roll and flatbed may be best. However, many customers who have purchased hybrid printers have commented that, in their experience, it is preferable to have a dedicated flatbed and a dedicated roll-to-roll printer, rather than a hybrid.

    Once the type of machine has been selected, a company has to think long and hard about its attitude toward risk. How much should be invested? How many machines should ultimately be purchased? For example, does a company invest in 10 small machines for flexibility, three medium-range machines, or one very fast one? Do they, as a company, usually consider equipment redundancy, in case one of its machines has a short-term problem? How well can the equipment on the plant floor cope with the required capacity during peaks and troughs?

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    What's being printed, and what ink would best serve printing on that substrate arise as additional determining issues. Ink can have a significant impact on ROI.

    Machines that use solvent inks are typically less expensive than others. However, the solvents - and their so-called 'eco-solvent' equivalents - can run a bit more ink due to additional maintenance cycles that require purging. Solvent inks are very flexible, and can produce vibrant and glossy prints, making them an excellent choice if working with vinyl, such as wraps. However, these inks require air extraction or filters to be operated safely - even the eco-solvents need some air extraction. They also often need facilities for recovery or disposal of the solvent residues. Because of this, a print shop should research local regulations that may restrict the amount of emissions. Ask the ink manufacturer for a material safety data sheet for the product.

    UV ink requires less heat for drying, although it still needs a UV light source for curing. While a bit more expensive per liter than solvent ink, UV can print on a much wider variety of substrates. Some companies have implemented LED light as an alternative to mercury-arc UV systems. The only challenge with these LED printers: They generally print at a slower speed. While printers utilizing a traditional UV light source have been known to print as much as 7,500 square feet per hour, machines with LED light sources for curing are currently limited to printing 250 square feet of material per hour.

    Much attention has been given to aqueous latex inks. These water-based inks appear to be less expensive than solvent inks, and do not require the constant purging of printheads. Heat is required to dry the inks and they still contain some VOCs, but they offer impressive print results.

    All of these inks have pros and cons when used on different substrates. The best suggestion for a print company is to test materials that often pass through their shop, and see if the ink will hold.

    In addition to testing, look for ways to help with, or reassure, your decision. Sometimes social media outlets (LinkedIn and user forums, for example) may offer insights into others' experiences. Talk with people who already own the equipment you are considering; these can be contacts your supplier offers, or can be other professionals you just happen to know. Perhaps SGIA can help.

    We can't emphasize it enough. Talk with people. Find out the reputation of the company to see if they are a suitable business partner.

    Am I Finished?
    Many print companies realize that finishing a job, cutting or folding, is an important concern that should not be ignored. From our experience, many companies have learned that outsourcing the cutting process eliminates much of the speed advantage of the digital process, and have therefore decided to bring cutting in-house. This can take the form of a simple, straight guillotine cutter or a more automated, flexible digital finishing table. There are certain factors that must be considered when bringing these capabilities in-house. For example, stacking, manual or automated, must be done very neatly for the guillotine and the automated feeds of the finishing tables to work efficiently and accurately.

    A digital finishing table, replacing the process of die cutting in much the same way that digital print is replacing analog print, often goes hand-in-hand with the purchase of a digital printer. The workflow of each can complement the other well, as PDF files with certain cutting registration marks are printed outside of the image area, and cutting instructions are concurrently delivered to the cutter.

    Who's Going to Run the Machine?
    When you decide to invest in a machine, it is important to consider what skills your staff has, and to determine who can operate these machines. Knowledge of Raster Image Processors (RIPs), and some prepress tools, is universal no matter what process you utilize, however, other skills may be new.

    Digital printers often require greater color management skills, particularly in the transition from screen printing. The requirements go much beyond setting pressure on the screen, or changing spot colors in the screen press units. A print shop needs a good RIP and color expert, who is able to understand the International Color Consortium (ICC), and other profiling and print standards. This includes using a RIP that can drive multiple devices, and knowing how to match colors, no matter which printer is used.

    Digital printers also have PC-focused control systems, so operators need to have a good understanding of these, too.

    By installing more complex printers and RIPs, it also means preparing for more complex production issues in the workflow. No matter what machine you acquire, breakdowns occur. It is important a printer understands who the manufacturer is, where the support team is located, and what level of service is provided under contract. Do they offer 24/7 service and repair, and how critical must the situation be before they will come visit the site?

    Give the Printer a Good Home
    Where and how to place the printer is not a simple matter, and we find that many print companies expend a good deal of energy - and rightly so - on the room where a machine is to be installed.

    Most printers are designed to run their inks at a specific temperature to operate as efficiently as possible and get the best results out of the printheads. Some amount of air conditioning is required to keep your printer operating at prime condition.

    Aside from maintaining the correct room temperature, it is also vital that your digital printer is not in a dirty or dusty facility. While digital printers certainly do not have to be operated in 'clean room' environments, there are certain cleanliness and humidity requirements. Dust and small particulate matter are particularly problematic when combined with highly static substrates. If it is comfortable for the staff, it is probably good for the machine. We like to think of it as 'office clean.'

    Many companies consider the amount of space an after thought. Be careful in thinking about the room or area. Not only are electrical, plumbing and ventilation resources important, but so is the size. Print companies should judge the physical workflow space within a room. Substrates and digital print jobs can be very large; putting a machine in a corner may not allow for easy feeding or take-up, and could make transporting pallets to and from the printer difficult - or even make it impossible. Some companies consider moving existing equipment to other areas of the facility to make room. Additionally, print shops should consider ease of access, not only for moving jobs in and out, but also for installing the machine!

    Cleaning Up
    Holland & Crosby, located in Mississauga, Canada, has moved away from screen printing completely, and their business is cleaner as a result. "The whole plant is neater, cleaner and tidier, more like a high-tech environment. You could put our production facility in an office building," notes Scott Crosby, Holland & Crosby equity partner. "Screen printing is a very messy, heavily chemical-based business - pouring ink, returning it to the canisters, reclaiming screens, and so on. You need rags, mops and solvents to clean up. VOCs and chemical use have been significantly reduced by going digital. Being out of it feels squeaky-clean."

    "There's also the advantage of less waste," adds Richard Labiuk, Holland & Crosby equity partner. "With screen printing, we had to print around 50 overs on a 200 sheet run to assure a good job. With digital printing, it's one sheet. In addition, our printer's maintenance technology requires very little purging of ink. This means very little loss of ink, which, of course, translates to very little waste. We couldn't be more pleased."

    If I Buy It, Will They Come?
    For most print companies, purchasing and installing the printer is far from the last step. Execution of the shift from screen to digital requires an effort to publicize your new capabilities to existing customers, and to prospects.

    Print companies can create many diverse marketing activities:

      Open houses: Invite customers to see the printer firsthand. Send formal invitations, and make sure the sales reps follow up. If an important customer visits from afar, consider covering travel costs. Explain your new investment with a short presentation providing an overview of the product and your new capabilities. Show impressive samples, and create something interesting for them to take home. Make sure to serve a meal or refreshments.

      Public relations/advertising: Publicize your investment with printing books and magazines for the local and business trade that serve your customers' buyers. Consider advertising a PR campaign in the same media, or perhaps on social media sites, such as LinkedIn, YouTube or Facebook.

      Sample books: Provide your sales force with traveling pieces showing the substrates on which you can print, and the type of work you can do.

    In Conclusion, Do Your Homework
    People are investing (and reinvesting) in digital printing because the speed and quality have taken significant steps over the past few years. Meanwhile, as the commercial print market continues to shrink, print companies are looking to be the one-stop shop for all of their customers' print projects, from brochures to POP. There is so much pressure in the market; if you give someone a chance to look elsewhere, for anything, you risk losing their business.

    "We have some retail customers who were using our resources, combined with some from another printer," explains George Mazzaferro, president of RP Graphics, also located in Mississauga, Canada. "We knew that, by adding a flatbed digital printer, we could be a one-stop shop, printing and distributing all of our customers' materials. We could print sheets and mount them separately, but the ability to print finished products using our digital flatbed printer seemed like an excellent idea." With very little time to finish projects, a few days typically, speed is extremely important, along with exceptional quality and the flexibility to print on virtually any substrate.

    Most print companies' experiences demonstrate that digital print, in its many forms, can be a wise decision for many reasons, as long as you make sure you consider all the steps to plan out the implementation as well as possible.

    Heather Kendle is director of marketing for Inca Digital, and is responsible for creating the Inca brand value and working with distributors and customers to ensure that its values are maintained. She also works with engineers to help define product development, ensuring that customer needs are represented. She is focused on seeing the need for digital print and working to meet these needs through industrial inkjet.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, May/June 2012 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2012 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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