Freedom from the press

Reading the print industry press, you’d think the whole market was going digital. And so it is. But while big print companies are spending millions investigating computer-to-plate systems to work with their long-run offset litho presses, it’s the emergence of short-run all digital presses which promises to turn the print design industry upside down.

For designers at large, a digital press gives the same kind of service that any print-on-demand system offers. If you have ever taken a Zip disk into a bureau and walked out with 15 wide-format posters, you already understand. However, a digital press is not an inkjet device, and, typically, uses toners instead of inks, and images each printout on the fly instead of using a plate. It’s an almighty digital colour photocopier, if you like.

So this is the first benefit of digital printing: print runs can be seriously short or reasonably long without worrying about huge press make-ready overheads or paper wastage. Digital print runs are financially viable whether you want ten or 3000 copies, which can be very attractive for certain kinds of work. “My initial print run was for 5000 of each design,” remembers greetings card designer and publisher James Ellis Stevens from the days of printing everything using offset litho. “I’d be stuck with 40 per cent left over, which then had to be sold at a discount.”

Supplying greetings card shops requires frequent changes of product line. Ellis Stevens found a happy medium in only printing the base card with offset litho, while the colour work is produced on an Indigo ePrint digital press at colour house FE Burman, and is then mounted on the card. A typical print run would be 500 SRA3 sheets, each holding 12 mountable pictures which may all be different. “Out of a dozen designs, you can be sure that two or three won’t sell,” says James Ellis Stevens. “But this way I’m not left with such large quantities of them.”

This is the second benefit of digital printing: flexibility. FE Burman managing director Michael Burman admits that some clients will occasionally ask for a single-copy print run, simply to test paper stocks or try out a visual idea. In effect, the digital press becomes its own digital “wet” proofer. Similarly, a product line which sold well for a client can be reprinted quickly. Or a job which doesn’t look right on the press can be stopped and fixed after the first couple of prints, instead of waiting for the first 10 000 to shoot by.

Most interesting, is that many digital presses are being operated by repro houses and output bureaux, not by traditional print shops. In other words, they are being run by companies with a hard-earned expertise in PostScript. FE Burman itself is spending £2.5m on developing its premises to accommodate a second digital press, this time a Scitex 74 Karat, a 2540dpi machine capable of halftone line screens of over 200lpi, based on the KBA-Planeta print engine.

For designers looking at digital print for the first time, the repro-house-turned-printer can make life a lot easier, as they can submit files for output in the same way as they have always done for filmsetting. Just put your Photoshop, QuarkXPress, FreeHand and font files on a disk, or send them off from your ISDN, Vio or Wam!Net line – nothing has changed. “The digital press is just another Chooser device on our Macs,” says Burman.

It’s not all roses, of course. Digital print is not a totally seamless replacement for short-run offset litho for a number of reasons to do with quality. Because the printable image is being created over and over again on the drum for each copy, speed and reliability issues arise from the way toner is fed into the system. To date, digital presses find large spot colour coverage too great a challenge to reproduce faithfully over multiple copies. Quite literally, they can’t feed the required quantity of toner to the drum fast enough.

The result is a slightly mottled effect which often arises after the initial copies. Bristol digital printer Pace Setters managing director Nigel Davis admits that things have improved with some of the more recent models – such as his IBM InfoColor 70, which is based on a Xeikon web-press engine – but warns designers that large expanses of saturated colour may not always come out as expected. This warning is backed up by IBM’s Brian James, who is candid about the capabilities of existing digital press technology, generally based on electrophotography. As soon as you demand more than 50 per cent coverage with a flat colour, you risk giving rise to lines and artefacts. When asked how this affects designers, Davis, simply says: “People do like solids.”

Davis’ solution, other than avoiding saturated colours altogether, is to apply a slight noise effect which takes the edge off the mottling. It’s a workaround which you can spot under a magnifying glass, but which won’t generally be noticed. Pace Setters produces a large quantity of posters and point-of-sale material to prove the point. One of its key customers is the huge west country chain of travel agents, Bakers Dolphin.

Another problem to be wary of is “bearding”, a blurring which can occur when a design uses fine white-out text on large saturated backgrounds. When the text drops below a certain point size, the edges of font outlines can look soft and even start to fill in at the serifs. There’s no obvious workaround here, other than to think carefully about your page design and run some trials on the press itself.

Contrast this with the vast quality improvements seen in the past couple of years. In-line calendering has pretty much put an end to the distinctive matt look of the toners, and the sheer variety of stocks supported by the latest presses is impressive. Much of Pace Setters’ work uses glossy stock, for example, and there are options for banner output, polyester materials, recycled grades (some having been approved by The Body Shop), tamper-proof security paper and thermal transfer sheets. Digital toners generally offer a greater process gamut than litho inks, and presses such as Indigo’s UltraStream support up to three additional special colours.

The ability to run trials at the virtual drop of a hat leads to another benefit of digital printing: variable output. Because each print is etched on to the drum individually, every instance can effectively be made different. And it’s this variable printing opportunity which may have the greatest impact on the way designers work, certainly in marketing departments. Customising a brochure or mailer need no longer be restricted to a welcome message over a blank area of a preprinted sheet, but concern the actual layout and content of the whole job.

A good example comes from print and design house Shere Arts, which has an unusual contract with the Air Miles operation. An Air Miles sales rep talks to a potential customer and enters various personal details into a database as they talk. This database is downloaded to Shere Arts every day at lunchtime, processed into personalised response brochures for immediate printing on two IBM InfoColor 70s, and mailed out to arrive the next day. Not only is the text content relevant to the profile and wishes of the customer, but even the images and colours used on the brochure are varied automatically to suit. And the customer profile is different for every single brochure printed.

OK, so it’s a marketing miracle, but it can mean some heavy rethinking on the part of the designer. Instead of producing one brochure, you need to come up with a whole host of alternative layouts which may be generated randomly on the digital press, but must be guaranteed to work in every iteration. Shere Arts managing director Martin Warner admits that this radical new approach to direct mail design leaves a lot of designers cold: “There’s not even a final proof, nothing to sign off as such.” You have to think in terms of scenarios, he adds, in which every printed sheet is a context-sensitive product.

It’s increasingly likely that marketing directors will be sold the variable digital print idea whether designers like it or not, and you need to get your head around it soon. Digital presses and variable output also open up the potential for kiosk applications, where you may be commissioned to produce designs for anything, from blank business cards to database-linked in-store catalogues, for immediate printing.

One issue the jury is still out on is colour management. In theory, you should be able to profile a digital press along with your in-house proofers, scanners and monitors. Back in the real world, you won’t want to throw away your hard-copy proofs just yet: even if they are digital proofs, the digital press operator will still need something to work by. At the end of the day, digital presses are just big PostScript output devices – and we all know how reliable they can be.

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