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Stephen A Beals

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Printing Today - Thoughts On Digital Advancements
by Stephen A Beals   

Last edited: Tuesday, October 15, 2002
Posted: Tuesday, October 15, 2002

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Thoughts on Digital Advancements in the world of Print Production

Printing Today - Thoughts On Digital Advancements
For decades, printing meant offset. It might be web and it might be sheetfed. It might be large format or small format, but the basic technology was largely the same. There is, of course a gravure market and a flexo market and a silkscreen market, but by and large commercial printing meant offset printing. Digital printing, however can be offset, toner, hybrid, dye sub, or ink jet, all of which use quite different technologies, and all of which represent technologies that are still developing, There are subgroups of all of these categories. We are seeing the use of metallic inks in dye sublimation printers and hexachrome printing in ink jet printers. There are many different toner delivery systems. And all of these technologies are receiving large research and development funding aimed at faster delivery, higher resolution and better color control and durability. The advances in these areas in the last couple of years have been significant.

By Stephen Beals

You have probably noticed that the fine line between digital workflow and conventional workflow is getting more and more blurred daily. After all, it is difficult to point to anyone who is actually using what could be called a “conventional” workflow. Strippers are disappearing, analog scanners are being used as boat anchors, and horizontal cameras are museum pieces. Ask a new hire what the perm “paste-up” means and they probably won’t have a clue.

It has all moved on rapidly in the past couple of years from pre-press to computer to plate. We are not so much printers as movers of data. And the last vestige of “conventional” printing, the printing press itself, will be the next to go. Because printing presses are made up of steel and rubber and cost millions of dollars, the demise will be slow, to be sure, but the handwriting is already on the wall. For long press runs, the shift to total digital might take decades, but for short runs, the trend is clear.

What is not so clear is where printers should position themselves to retain profitability in the midst of this transition. It should be fairly clear that if you are running a lot of short run work and are in a position to replace an aging 4-color small format printing press, buying a “conventional” unit might not be the best investment. While there's still a good market for this kind of work on offset presses, that market is being steadily eroded by digital printing devices. 

True, some of these digital presses, like the DI series from Presstek/Xerox/Ryobi/Adast and the Heidelberg DI’s are essentially conventional offset presses with a built-in platesetter. But there are also hybrids like the Indigo, the toner based systems like DocuColor and a panoply of alteratives. For decades, printing meant offset. It might be web and it might be sheetfed. It might be large format or small format, but the basic technology was largely the same. There is, of course a gravure market and a flexo market and a silkscreen market, but by and large commercial printing meant offset printing.

Digital printing, however can be offset, toner, hybrid, dye sub, or ink jet, all of which use quite different technologies, and all of which represent technologies that are still developing, There are subgroups of all of these categories. We are seeing the use of metallic inks in dye sublimation printers and hexachrome printing in ink jet printers. There are many different toner delivery systems. And all of these technologies are receiving large research and development funding aimed at faster delivery, higher resolution and better color control and durability. The advances in these areas in the last couple of years have been significant.

It is quite probably that digital print will undergo the same type of transformation that color image scanning went through over the past decade. Indeed, barely a decade ago there were companies shooting “conventional” film separations and using analog input devices. It was thought that digital scanning could never achieve the quality of traditional film separations. Today those $300,000 scanners of the 90’s have been replaced by $50,000 and below desktop scanners that are every bit as good. But here is a good example of what is happening throughout our industry. This week the shop I work for was handed 10 transparencies late Monday afternoon. They wanted 30 posters of each printed as 18x24 posters. The logos on the products were not correct, so they needed for us to put in the new logos on each poster. And they wanted them delivered by Thursday.

That would have been physically impossible a decade ago, and not very likely two years ago. But today we have Macs with a gig of RAM that can retouch a 200mb file in a matter of minutes. Total retouching time was a couple of hours, and that included replacing a bruised hand. It’s standard operating procedure today. But you can readily see that putting 10 posters on an offset press and running 30 copies of each is hugely and unnecessarily expensive. More paper is wasted than printed. Simply producing 20 2-up plates and 20 pieces of film (we are not yet CtP) is a huge amount of money per poster.

Why not run these off on an Epson 10000 or something of that ilk? Why not indeed! The quality is there. The turn around time for running this job offset was a killer, but would have been simple with digital ink jet. We got this job this year because the client knows we could turn it around and give them the top quality they needed. But in a year or two, if we don’t offer them a digital solution, one of our competitors will.

While ink-jet used to be considered only “good enough” for office memos and emails, today’s brood of devices can virtually replicate the overall quality and appearance of conventional offset. And they can do it faster than ever before. Not faster than an offset press, certainly, but if you eliminate film and plates, you have gained a lot of time, especially on an extremely short run job. What seems clear is that the line between run length and profitability will continue to grow with digital print technologies. While I won’t predict that ink jet printers will one day equal the speed of a web press and print with better quality and greater control, it certainly can’t be ruled out.

What we can look forward to with relative certainty is that digital print devices of all flavors will take a larger and larger bite out of the commercial print buying budget. The technological improvements we are likely to see will allow these devices to be economically practical not just for fast turn-around premium and personalized printing, but also for every day medium length runs that today we consider offset printing’s turf.

The toner based and hybrid machines have made great advances recently, but it seems likely that ink-jet based systems are a bit of a sleeping giant. We all know and love our little desktop printers and are amazed at how fast they have become and how good the quality has become. Well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Take a look at what is coming of the latest Scitex Digital Presses: both in terms of speed and of quality. It’s just the beginning. If we can’t make them fast enough, we’ll just add enough print heads to give us the speed we need. The amount of commercial printing that will be done on ink-jet printing devices in a couple of years is likely to astonish the industry. It will make a significant impact in a relatively short time.

If you think you have a secure market for the printing your customers are doing, try to imagine what they will want you to do next year and the year after that. They will demand even faster turn-around and even shorter run lengths: even for jobs that you would consider unlikely candidates for digital presses in today’s market. The fact that they will also demand more fulfilment services, better internet support and digital asset management also bodes well for digital solutions.

We have a brand new (for us) 6 color offset press arriving next month. 

But we are also looking at our first real digital press. 

It is definitely time to think digital on the pressroom floor...

WANT MORE BEALS? Stephen Beals stares bravely into the face of the...monitor! "We have come to another of those points of no return. I’m not talking about PDF  or DI or OSX. I’m talking about LCDs.There has been an ongoing debate about the relative quality of Liquid Crystal Displays. There are honest differences of opinion about whether CRTs or LCDs are easier to calibrate, provide better image quality or color reproduction. I have had the good fortune of looking at some of the latest and greatest LCD monitors available for the Digital Output Test Bench, and my own opinion is that LCDs are clearly superior on all counts.But that opinion isn’t really going to make any difference, because that is not why your next monitor should be an LCD. Within a year or so, you won’t really have a choice in the matter. And it has nothing to do with whether LCDs are “better” than CRTs." 

BEALS ON MAC OS X: See Stephen Beals thoughts on Mac OS X. "Steve, we’re not impressed. The fact is, Apple has done a lousy job of bringing the folks into the game that we would like to have involved. The Adobe’s, the Quark’s, heck even the Epson’s of the world. Not only are there no products for OSX from the major suppliers of graphic arts software, we can’t even get a simple few lines of code out of Epson to create drivers for most of the printers we use. Maybe only part of it is poor management of the OSX migration, something which by all rights Adobe, Quark, Macromedia and the like ought to be very excited about. The problem is, the bugs in the first release of OSX were major and it was difficult to write a driver that would actually work. The changes in font management and screen rendering appear to have presented major obstacles for developers. Even with 10.1.2, it’s not all there yet. Some have joked that Apple will run out of numbers before they get a release that satisfies everyone."


Stephen Beals, PrinTips Publishing, PrinTips.email.com. Visit http://home.rochester.rr.com/chapelstreet/printips.html - Publisher of "A Practical Primer for Painless Print Production"

Web Site: PrintWriter



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