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Best of Both Worlds: Specialty Graphics Shops Complement Screen with Digital - and Vice Versa

Wide-format printers are increasingly "hybrid" shops, operating a mélange of analog and digital equipment.

By Richard Romano

"Years ago, we said we'd never buy another analog press," said Ron Gizzo, Chief Operating Officer of Visual Marking Systems. "That was it, we're done. And now, we're in the process of reviewing a new ATMA Four Post analog press."

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  • Visual Marking Systems, based in Twinsburg, Ohio and founded more than 50 years ago, serves four basic markets: original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), point-of-sale/point-of-purchase (POS/POP), fleet graphics, and consumables and transportation. To produce materials for those markets requires a mix of analog and digital equipment - often in tandem, if not directly inline with each other.

    Today's specialty graphics and wide-format print providers have a mix of analog and digital equipment, the former being legacy equipment that - typically, but not always - has carried over from companies with roots in a pre-digital era, or was purchased to handle volumes and other production requirements not suitable for digital. Either way, SGIA research has found that wide-format printers are increasingly "hybrid" shops, operating a mélange of analog and digital equipment.

    The conventional wisdom has it that analog equipment - and here, we are predominantly talking about screen process equipment - is best suited for long, static production runs while digital equipment is best suited for short runs, one-offs, prototypes, personalization and customization. While many shops do operate these two equipment technologies to handle specific jobs based on volume, there are other reasons, as well. In fact, it is not uncommon to use screen printing to decorate digitally printed materials or vice versa; however, there are certain applications that require inks that can only be printed on an analog press, and yet still need some kind of digital overprinting.

    Run for the Money
    First of all, what exactly do we mean by "short run"? In the commercial printing world, it can mean anything from under 100 copies to under 10,000 copies. For large publication printers, short run could be anything under a million copies, so the idea of short-run printing is relative.

    At the same time, advances and improvements in digital printing equipment have also made short run a moving target, to the extent that it may not even be relevant to talk about long and short runs in the context of any given printing technology.

    "In the mid-90s, we got our first digital press," said Dean DeMarco, Director of Graphic Services for IDL Worldwide. Based in Pittsburgh as well as Portland, Oregon, IDL Worldwide was founded in 1943 and began as a traditional sign shop. The company has grown over the years to become one of the largest POP display houses, with an emphasis on merchandising displays including fixtures such as shelves and display systems, wallpaper inside a retail environment, 3D work and traditional POP.

    At that time, he said, "That printing process was extremely slow. It wasn't even that good looking. The image quality was okay, but for a high line-count printer like we were, the quality was better with screen printing. The advantage was that it was cost effective for jobs that were 25 sheets or less." IDL had been a very efficient and productive screen printer so they determined that, based on screen prep time, up-to-color time and run time, the cutoff point was 25 sheets. Below that cutoff was what the company called "sub-screen printing jobs," and anything longer would go to analog.

    As digital wide-format presses got faster, IDL's cutoff point began to move. In 2004, it jumped up to 100 sheets and, in 2010, 500 sheets became the analog-to-digital borderline, which is where it remains for the time being.

    While the maximum run lengths for digital presses have been increasing, run lengths themselves have been declining, primarily because, at least in the POP/POS space, retailers have been eschewing big national campaigns in favor of targeted regional and even demographic marketing and selling. "They still do national campaigns and those are still 100-percent analog," said DeMarco. "But over the years, companies have decided to utilize target marketing, and what that does is reduce the run lengths on the jobs that would have traditionally been done by analog."

    So from a production standpoint, digital has quickly become the go-to technology for handling these shorter runs more cost effectively. However, there are still some hurdles that only analog can help clear.

    The Full Gamut
    One of the earliest limitations of digital printing has been the ability to reproduce certain colors. Many PMS colors, brand/logo colors and other hues that traditional CMYK has had problems with could simply not be reproduced to customers' satisfaction on digital presses. Then there are specialty inks like metallics that are at present very difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce on most digital systems. For applications that used any of these types of colors, analog remained very much the way to go. But then digital had certain advantages in terms of consistent output, cost effectiveness for lower runs and of course personalization and customization. What was a shop to do?

    "We started blending the two technologies," said DeMarco. "Analog certainly gives you the best quality from a pure PMS color-matching standpoint, special-effects printing standpoint, metallics, special clear coats or even glitters. We started looking at the market, and we realized we could start decorating digital with some of these special effects."

    Hybrid printing processes are nothing new; packaging printers and converters have been using combinations of flexo, screen, offset and even gravure for years. And in small-format commercial printing, like transactional, offset-printed "shells" are very often re-run through a digital press to add variable data, be it simple imprinting or full-blown text and image personalization. Mixing and matching printing technologies for the same job is not unheard of, and it can allow shops to get the best of both worlds.

    "Say we have a short-run job that will fit digital, but they also want to put a metallic gold or silver, a matte or gloss clear, or do it selectively," said DeMarco. "That's perfect for screen printing."

    It's not just special-effects printing either. It can even boost certain aspects of productivity. For example, printing white ink.

    "Somebody wouldn't look at white ink as special-effects printing, but if you print white in digital, it really slows that print process down tremendously," said DeMarco. "You might have a printer that can print 40 boards an hour, but if you throw white in there, it takes it down to 10 boards an hour."

    Since white is not a CMYK color, it needs to be laid down as a separate layer, and then the CMYK is printed on top of it. When you add white ink to an image, you are essentially printing the image twice - which slows the output and cuts down productivity. What IDL will do is print the white on a screen press, then run it through the digital press to add the CMYK.

    Credit Where It's Due
    Visual Marking Systems (VMS) also uses a hybrid process, but in a slightly different way. One of their major industrial printing applications is ATMs, ticket vending kiosks and other such machines. If you have been to an ATM recently, you know that ATM graphics include images of the credit cards and banking networks that the ATM supports, images that usually consist of six to eight colors. "We'll print those on a digital press, just the credit cards," said Gizzo. "Then we'll go to an analog press and do a flood of the blue and a flood of the white for the background and other solid areas." Doing floods on a screen press is more efficient than doing images, as you don't need to shoot screens.

    "For us," he added, "the combination of digital and analog is not necessarily for efficiency, but more for durability and capability reasons." A lot of the machines that VMS prints are outdoor machines - again, think of ATMs - and digital ink may not have the longevity required.

    VMS also uses specialty inks, that need to be laid down by a screen press, much like the metallic and other inks that IDL uses. One of VMS's primary markets is transportation, for which the company produces wayfinding and egress signage. "How to kick a window out, how to escape, maps that go on trains," said Gizzo. "A lot of colors, a lot of fine detail and all that gets printed digitally." Where VMS needs analog is to print glow-in-the-dark inks, which is increasingly being required of wayfinding and emergency signage. "If you're in transportation signage of any sort, the ability to print digital graphics and analog glow-in-the-dark is huge." Although there are photoluminescent inks for digital, they are not yet suitable for the often stringent requirements such signage has. "We have to meet an ASTM (a standard for illumination)," said Gizzo, "and it's a millicandela measurement. The government regulates it and makes it more and more stringent." Companies producing glow-in-the-dark decals have a bit more leeway in the types of glow-in-the-dark inks they can use, "but when we're measured in millicandelas," said Gizzo, "it's a little more difficult."

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    The Challenge in Prepress
    One of the primary challenges of a hybrid workflow is getting the technologies to play nice with each other. "We decided we were going to start developing a process of how you fit and hold register in those two different processes," said DeMarco. Holding register can be difficult enough in a single analog process, let alone when you're trying to register analog images to digital.

    The Solution
    "The first thing we needed to understand were the distortion values associated with the different print processes," said DeMarco. "We do see a difference in distortion between screen and digital." This is similar in concept to the situation in flexo where there is a certain degree of distortion or stretch introduced during platemaking, and the prepress and press operators know how to compensate for that. So IDL conducted a fair amount of research and benchmarked the respective distortion factors. "If we have a job that is going to go screen first, we know exactly what that distortion is, we apply it, and then we extrapolate that information to what the digital is going to be," he said. Likewise, if the job is first being printed on digital and then going on analog, a different set of distortion factors need to be used. It involved no small amount if trial and error, but within a couple of weeks they got it down. Of course, it isn't just "set it and forget it."

    "It's almost like color management," said DeMarco. "It's living document. You're constantly updating your profiles, and we're constantly updating our profiles as far as distortion goes. Once a month we run a profile check for color management and do distortion validation as well."

    The Future of Digital
    Digital printing has evolved greatly over the past 20 years. Both IDL's and VMS's trajectories through digital adoption is proof of the continual improvement of digital presses. Speed, image quality, resolution, color reproduction and consistency - virtually every aspect of digital specialty printing has gotten better. Is it likely that at some point these types of hybrid workflows will be obsolete, that digital will overcome many of these limitations?

    "If you asked me this question five years ago, I would say the analog was going to go away," said Gizzo. "I really felt that was the way things were going. I think the way things are going now, there's definitely a space for both. Our analog department is running the same three shifts as our digital department is. There's a lot of crossover, and then a lot of completely separate business."

    IDL's DeMarco sees the evolution taking place slowly.
    "You can see it happening already," said DeMarco. "White was added to digital, you're seeing expanded gamuts in digital. I don't think it's happened sooner because the manufacturers are not getting much demand for it from the marketplace."

    Metallics may be a bit trickier. Even though solvent-based, rollfed devices do have metallic inks, solvent inks offer a better luster than do UV inks, but the industry is moving away from solvent inks for environmental and workplace safety reasons. (IDL had transitioned from solvent to UV-screen inks in the 1980s largely because of strict regulation of VOCs in its home state of Pennsylvania.)

    But the areas of concern will largely be a function of the kinds of materials you produce and the inks you are required to use. "The whites aren't necessarily a priority when it comes to the combination of analog and digital," said Gizzo. "As the inks have gotten better it's more of the specialty things: the spot colors, the reflectives, the glow-in-the-darks." VMS is still looking to purchase analog equipment, much to even its own surprise.

    For Gizzo, it's all about efficiency. "We completely annihilate and destroy every spreadsheet we have," he said. "We focused our whole year on not buying equipment, and instead focusing on efficiencies."

    High-Value Products
    The million-dollar question - and it may literally be one - is, what does this type of hybrid workflow do to the cost of a project, and to what extent can those costs be passed along to the customer?

    "When you get into super-short runs, it's cost additive," said DeMarco. But, he added, "the client is fully aware of the options available." Many of the POP/POS programs that IDL works on are worth several million dollars, so there is a fairly extensive prototyping process involved, and the client understands what the cost ramifications are to adding or avoiding certain types of special effects. "They're making decisions based on the look and feel of the actual display when it's finished, saying, yes, we think that's a great value and we're willing to pay it," said DeMarco. "They like it to the point where they're going to pay more for that because they think it's value-added. It's a point of differentiation in the marketplace and they want to be part of that."

    Richard Romano has been writing about the graphic communications industry for almost 20 years, and covering wide-format printing since 1998. He is a senior analyst for the news and information portal, covering wide-format, production inkjet and environmental sustainability. He is the author or co-author of more than half a dozen books, including Disrupting the Future: Uncommon Wisdom for Navigating Print's Challenging Marketplace.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, May / June 2015 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2015 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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